Where is the reggae music?
Let's Talk ReggaeSunday, February 28, 2021
Jamaican music has travelled a long way since Prince Buster, Millie Small, The Skatalites, and Desmond Dekker first entered the British Hit Parade in the early 1960s. Looking in the rear view mirror is cool but if we spend too long looking then we'll crash the bus. So, if the journey is to continue we must look to the future, to the road ahead, and much of that responsibility lies in the hands of today's new, up-and-coming artistes who are in the driving seat.
With the advent of 'rub-a-dub' music and then 'dancehall' in the 80s and 90s we saw significant changes in what the rest of the world called reggae — there was a shift in the paradigm. The culture was evolving, and it was a new expression of what youths were feeling. It was no longer a reggae beat, it had a new rhythmic energy and tempo.
Throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s reggae appealed to a worldwide audience who heard a rooted and grounded feel-good sound that had also emerged in various elements of pop music culture, protest songs and rock music. They also turned out in their thousands to see the Jamaican artistes that made this great music; as Bob Marley said it was “Roots Rock Reggae'” and audiences in every major city from America to the UK and across central Europe caught the fever.
What has happened to that passion for reggae music that burned so bright around the globe?
Ask any concert promoter and they'll tell you that it simply isn't what it used to be mainly because much of the music that's now being made in Jamaica is not really reggae, certainly not rhythmically, and the headlining stars that could single-handedly sell out major concert venues hardly exist anymore, apart from a few notable exceptions.
If you attend a dance in Jamaica nowadays you'll be lucky to hear any reggae playing at all, apart from a few songs in the early warm up, then it's strictly dancehall and it's latest offspring, dancehall trap. Much of what is now being enjoyed by young people in Jamaica is not what the rest of the world recognises as reggae. It may well be very popular with the youths in Jamaica but does it export past Norman Manley Airport ? Does Jamaica have a cultural deficit in terms of the reggae music it was making compared to what it is making now? By that I mean in terms of singers and groups. Certainly there is no shortage of toasters and chanters and rappers, but their appeal lies with an already established fan base.
What made reggae such an incredible musical export was its universal mass appeal.
It was loved because of its central messages of hope, and freedom, and righteous indignation against a Babylonian system that holds people down and exploits the poorer classes. The messages were in the songs and the world was listening. Roots-rock reggae offered empowerment, it was a beacon of hope that people could identify with, and it wasn't just the songs of social injustice that struck a chord, it was also the love songs. The sweet aching vocals and soulful harmonies of those incredible voices, and let us not forget the quality of those songs — the song makes the singer, the singer doesn't make the song is an adage that still holds true. Then there was the power of the reggae beat itself — heavy bass lines, the one drop, the rolling cadence of those organ and guitar riffs and the head-tripping joy of dub music — created by engineers such as King Tubby, Sylvan Morris and Errol Thompson.
The other issue that today's reggae has to contend with is the insatiable craving that the world now has for social content — that non-stop carousel of photos and video clips on Instagram, Facebook, and Tik Tok. It has become more and more about being seen, rather than what you are actually saying. The more ludicrous the look the more attention it seems to generate, and we only have to see what has happened on social media as a result of Fantan Mojah's video for Fire King to see how visual content can inflame media interest.
We are definitely seeing more videos of an explicit sexual nature, especially in terms of how women are portrayed, as well as more of the glorification of violence and gang culture, and the ghoulish use of firearms. This begs the question: What happened to reggae and its message of peace and love? That's not to say that some Jamaican artistes are not making uplifting music videos anymore because they are, but the proliferation of these other videos brings a sense of despair.
It is only right and proper that we should reflect on the work of the Jamaican superstars who made reggae music renowned the world over. Why are we not seeing any new young stars emerge who are capable of blazing a similar trail as those revered stars burned bright across the globe in those halcyon days ?
What about radio airplay, why is that that I hardly hear any reggae music playing on the numerous radio stations that now exist in Jamaica, why does radio play seem to belong to the dancehall-trap genre? Surely we must ask the question, why has Afrobeats, which is essentially rooted in Jamaican dancehall music, become so phenomenally popular and why has it left Jamaican music in its wake in terms of its worldwide popularity?
I suggest that part of the problem lies in the fact that hardly any of what we hear today is actually collectable. By that I mean physically collectable, in the way records were. They were tangible and collecting them was addictive because if you loved a song you had to buy the record because that was the only way you could hear it repeatedly. Remember reggae wasn't getting mainstream daytime radio anywhere so it was dependent on loyal fans to support it by purchasing singles and albums on vinyl. Now you can stream reggae anywhere, but you don't own it anymore.
The advent in 2013 of what was somewhat controversially referred to as 'The Reggae Revival Movement' saw a consciousness returning to the music heralded by a wave of young musicians, artistes and bands, from Chronixx and Raging Fyah to Protoje and Jesse Royal and as we approach International Women's Day on the March 8th let us not forget all the work that has already been done by the trailblazing women of reggae, namely Phyllis Dillon, the I-Three — Marcia Griffiths, Judy Mowatt and Rita Marley; Janet Kay & Carol Thompson, Lady Saw, Tanya Stephens and more recently Jah9, Etana and Spice and the new wave of women such as Jada Kingdom, Kelissa, Koffee, Lila Ike, and Sevana.
It should be noted that to millions of people outside of Jamaica, reggae music is still perceived as being rooted in the works of Bob Marley, he is still selling more music than any living reggae artiste and much can be learned from what he said and the way in which he said it. Let us hope that the cultural messages of reggae, especially as manifested through Rastafari, which has played such a pivotal role in the music's development, will continue to inspire people. The future belongs to the young (and the young at heart). May the seeds sown all those years ago by the legendary icons of the music continue to grow and blossom. For it is a rich heritage that we have inherited and all those who love it have a duty to feed it and nurture it with new music that gives hope and solace to this troubled world.
David Rodigan is a British radio personality who also performs as a disc jockey. Known for his selections of reggae and dancehall music, he has played on stations including Radio London, Capital 95.8, Kiss 100, BBC Radio 1Xtra, BBC Radio 2 and BFBS Radio.
He has stated that his passion for Jamaican music was initiated by watching Millie Small perform her 1964 hit My Boy Lollipop at the Ready Steady Go! TV show as a schoolboy. By the age of 15, Rodigan was DJing at school dances and youth clubs. Leaving school in 1970, he spent a year studying economics before leaving to study drama. Despite pursuing an acting career, Rodigan kept his passion for music alive, selling records in Oxford then Putney, before obtaining a job on Radio London in 1978 on the Reggae Rockers programme. A year later he was offered a permanent slot at Capital Radio to present Roots Rockers, which ran for 11 years. In 1990 a change in management and music policy at the station led to Rodigan leaving to start a new show for Kiss FM when it relaunched that September as London's first legal 24-hour dance music station. He hosted the Sunday-night slot from 11pm till midnight until November 2012, when the slot was moved to midnight and he resigned in protest over what he called the “continued marginalisation” of the reggae genre.
Rodigan is renowned for his musical clashes with established sound systems and personalities like Killamanjaro, Stone Love, Barry G and Bass Odyssey.
Rodigan is the recipient of the Order of Distinction in the rank of officer and has been recognised by the Jamaica Reggae Industry Association for his contribution for to the growth and development of reggae music. He appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 2012 for services to broadcasting.
Now you can read the Jamaica Observer ePaper anytime, anywhere. The Jamaica Observer ePaper is available to you at home or at work, and is the same edition as the printed copy available at https://bit.ly/epaper-login