Backlash against SOJA's Reggae Grammy win unjustified, says musicologist
Members of reggae band SOJA pose with their Grammy trophies on Sunday. (Inset: Dennis Howard)

Most Jamaicans reacted with anger and disdain at news that SOJA, a predominantly all-white reggae band, had won this year's Reggae Grammy with their album, 'Beauty in the Silence'. However, one industry expert, Dr Dennis Howard, an ethno-musicologist, believes that the anger of Jamaicans is unjustified.

According to Howard, the backlash is a knee-jerk reaction and has little bearing on the harsh realities that dictate the economics of world music: Jamaica no longer has a monopoly on reggae. 

"It is no surprise that SOJA won the Best Grammy album. While the other artistes in the category had some relatively good projects, SOJA's album is more in keeping with the US reggae scene, labelled modern reggae. It was their third nomination, and the album was a critical success. They also pay tribute to Jamaican culture in the song Press Rewind," Howard noted.  

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READ: 10 facts about Grammy-winning reggae band SOJA

Howard said that the Virginia-based band SOJA , though relatively unknown in Jamaica, is a big deal in the international music space. 

"SOJA is no minor deal on Spotify alone; in 2021, they had 106.5 million streams and 7.7 million listeners in 178 countries. Their live shows are usually sold out, where they do well with merchandising and selling their music. The Grammys is about the American music scene, which includes the various bands based in the US, including Rebelution, Common King, Collie Buddz, Konkarah, J Boogs and the Elovaters," Howard added.

Among the many Jamaicans expressing outrage at SOJA's Grammy win was dancehall superstar Bounty Killer, who labelled the selection by the Recording Academy as a "sell-out".

“What a big piece a sell out gwaan ya so white folks winning best reggae album over Jamaicans wtf," the Warlord posted on Instagram.

Producer Cordel 'Skatta' Burrell posted a sobering message immediately after SOJA's surprising win.

"Jamaicans upset that an American white group juss won Best Reggae album when we ourselves don't even cherish reggae music enough to ensure it remains relevant amongst the youths of this nation. We are doomed as a nation because we don't value the very things that make US great," Skatta, known for the hit Coolie Dance rhythm, said. 

Burrell also added a Marcus Garvey quote that mirrored his current frame of mind: " A people without the knowledge of their past, history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots."

Not everyone met the SOJA victory with doom and gloom. Well-known A & R executive Cristy Barber, embraced SOJA's win on Instagram with a post that noted: “It was such an HONOR to work this record with my @sojagram Boyz. It's been a minute since we've been chipping away at this and now, FINALLY the win! #superproud.”

Meanwhile, regular Jamaicans are not exactly convinced at the authenticity of SOJA's brand of reggae music. 

No shrinking violets, they did not see the beauty in remaining silent. Some were almost apoplectic with rage in their rants on social media, making wild claims of cultural appropriation and race-based favouritism. 

One Twitter user, Gerald Lindo said: "I'd encourage everyone to listen to that SOJA album before rushing to negative judgement. I cued it up on Tidal just now and I can honestly say I didn't make it past track two, because it was hot garbage. But now at least I *know* I'm right.”

Another user, ms.ann_cella was slightly more magnanimous, posting on Instagram, while making a not-too-subtle stab at 'trap dancehall' :

“I do hope artists start to take their craft more seriously! Gun lyrics and trap music cannot pass the airport …… Congratulations to the winner.” 

Famed reggae producer Gussie Clarke congratulated SOJA on their win, calling it a victory for the popularity of the craft internationally.

"Reggae is not owned and unique to Jamaica or Jamaicans, reggae is world music, congratulations to the winners," Clarke told OBSERVER ONLINE.

Clarke called on reggae's standard-bearers to get back to the 'spirit of collaboration' that had made reggae and dancehall such a force in the international marketplace in the 1980s and 1990s.  

"Look, reggae is the most successful cultural item that this country has ever innovated, we must go back to a place where we respect and appreciate music so we can encourage the next generation of innovators.  The greatest era of music was made through collaborations we've innovated. Now, we have artistes who endorse the me factor: me write it, me produce, me sing it, me ah the manager, me do everything. We have to get back to the point where people recognise that there are competent persons who can add value to the craft through their own skills and innovations."

BY CLAUDE MILLS Observer Online writer

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