Time to mine reggae's gold
Let's Talk ReggaeSunday, June 20, 2021
Steve “Urchin” Wilson
AS a child of the 70s I spent my childhood brewing the strong tea that was the heyday of reggae music. The voices of that era remain some of my favourites as they form part of a matted dreadlock of sonic memory that is impossible to untangle or trim from my life. My late teens and early 20s saw me sipping countless bottles of Red Stripe beer while witnessing the pulsating growth of dancehall and being fascinated by the turns of phrase of Peter Metro, Professor Nuts, and Super Cat, just to name a few. I still recall the first time I went to what I came to call the church of dancehall — House Of Leo. I was greeted by huge walls of speakers and crates of beer lining the dance floor, the skimpy home-made fashions and an infinite stream of new dances like the Bogle captivated me as much as the music did.
I was hooked on reggae and wanted more. Through a series of divine intervention steps I ended up landing my dream scenario as a part Sean Paul's management, thanks to Jeremy Harding.
My extensive travels as part of Sean Paul's team have taken me to over 120 countries and hundreds of cities globally. Simultaneously, it has come to me that the good and bad news is that almost all of these countries seem to value our music and culture more than we do here at home. Sure, we are proud of our culture and music but we don't put a high enough value on it. There is a huge difference between having pride in an asset and investing in it. Every one of us wears the colours but please raise your hand if you have actually ever invested money in reggae or dancehall music as a business.
I am consistently in awe that after the initial explosion of the 70s and then the digital innovation of the 80s and 90s there was still no gold rush on reggae music locally. When most people discover gold they go crazy trying to own, refine and sell it, but not in Jamaica — at least when it comes to our music. I believe this is partially due to the fact that the birth and growth of many of our music forms tend to be so organic that people wonder how they even happened, some kind of natural mystic.
That doesn't make it OK. After all these years we haven't invested wholesale in this gold. It is perhaps the colonial heritage, as we are accustomed to others shaking our trees, processing our fruit and reaping the benefits. Well, it's high time we mine the gold of our own naturally occurring talent.
For me there needs to be four areas of focus: live music, music education, digital marketing, and heritage preservation.
Firstly, where has live music gone?
When I went to Havana, Cuba, last year I was shocked to see how much the communist regime there has spent on preserving and promoting its musical culture. There is music on every corner, and even the smallest bars have live bands playing a mix of traditional Cuban music fused with modern genres. They even have Casa de la musica, a government-sponsored venue where tourists and locals swarm three live shows daily to drink local rum and dance while classically trained musicians play salsa and Latin jazz. In Barbados the live music scene is vibrant. I recall walking along St Lawrence Gap many years ago and seeing a soca band, a rock band and two reggae bands all in one night. My brother who lives in Bridgetown asked me where is the best place to see live music in Kingston now, he was gobsmacked when I struggled to think of even one venue, much less the best one.
I have tried many times to ignite the live music scene in Kingston myself and always found the support from venues, sponsors, Government and even the entertainment fraternity itself to be sadly lacking. Everyone wants there to be a thriving live music scene but no one actually wants to invest time or money to see it happen.
Next up, we need to develop and install comprehensive local music programmes at the primary and secondary levels. Not the typical music class where children are taught to read music and play a single instrument. I'm talking about an all-encompassing 'Introduction to Entertainment' course where they can be made aware of the wide scope of jobs available in the industry – from video director to choreographer, or engineer, tour manager, publicist, DJ, and actual artiste. I applaud the programmes now offered at our tertiary institutions UWI, UTech and Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, but this needs to start way earlier to inspire and edify our children.
I have to make special mention of Alpha Institute which is offering a wider scope of classes to our disenfranchised young men but is being largely undersubscribed.
Digital marketing is the next area that we need to look at. It is great that we now have legitimate access to platforms like our home-grown D'Music by Digicel as well as international entities such as Deezer, Audiomack and finally Spotify and Apple Music have arrived. We now have to learn to wield the power those tools can afford us and use them to push our own agendas.
Every Jamaican selector, DJ and tastemaker should have playlists on these platforms pushing our genres, and every music fan locally and in the Diaspora should follow and support these playlists, giving them cache and power. We have always been the barometer of cool and this is a perfect way to retain that marketing 'juice' and help to grow our digital audience.
Finally, we need to take care of our musical history and iconify our reggae heroes. If we don't celebrate them, then who will?
I've had friends visit from far-flung places who have all been surprised that we don't have a massive reggae museum here in Jamaica. One promoter from Romania commented that if Bob Marley had been from his country, you would land between the legs of a massive statue of him when you fly into Romania. Jamaica needs to take a page out of European books and have streets, statues and museums built to document and celebrate our rich musical history and the veritable cornucopia of talent we have birthed here in our small nation that has such a massive cultural footprint.
In the USA, the Grammy Awards has an organisation called Music Cares through which successful entertainers donate to take care of heritage artistes who have fallen on hard times or simply didn't make enough money from their career because of bad deals or poor choices. We need a similar programme here to help our less fortunate music icons.
The sustainability of this national treasure is dependent on investment of financial and human resources in infrastructure and skills that can ensure our competitive advantage as creative innovators can be maximised. Let's come together and treat reggae like the jewel that it is.
Steve “ Urchin” Wilson credits his start in the music industry to Bob Marley's legendary Tuff Gong record label where he worked as a marketing executive. He spent 10 years cross training in the entertainment industry, including a stint as studio manager for the GeeJam Studios where he oversaw studio sessions for The Roots, Common, The Gorillaz, No Doubt, and The Jungle Brothers amongst others. In 2001 this Jamaican trailblazer signed on to help pilot the dizzying career of multi-platinum Grammy winner, Sean Paul.
He spent the past two decades travelling to over 100 countries and presiding over logistics, booking, touring, promotion, and recording for the dancehall superstar. While honing his role as a reggae ambassador, Wilson simultaneously plotted to bring EDM and house music to his home base of Kingston via his Brand New Machine (BNM) party series, which saw super DJs like Diplo, Bob Sinclar, Congo Rock and Toddla T spin in Jamaica for the first time. He has gone on to export the BNM party concept to Montego Bay, Cayman Islands, London, and New York .
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