Reggae Is Weirder Than You Think, Part II: Why Reggae Isn’t ‘World Music’

After I posted Part I of Reggae Is Weirder Than You Think, I had a few people say to me that it seemed really strange to them to think of reggae as ‘world music’, because it was just music that was part of their upbringing and as ‘normal’ as rock’n’roll. Well, that was kind of my point – reggae is ‘world music’, if by that we mean a genre of music that doesn’t have its roots in the Euro-American rock/pop or classical traditions, but we tend not to think of it this way and it might seem strange to do so. In Part I I argued for why I think we could think of reggae as ‘world music’ (whether we should think of it this way is for another time) – in Part II I’m going to suggest some of the reasons why we don’t think of it this way.

The main reason reggae doesn’t seem like ‘world music’ is, I think, a single person – Bob Marley. It annoys me when people talk about the man when they mean the band – even after Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer left, the band were called ‘Bob Marley and the Wailers’, not just ‘Bob Marley’ – but in the case of what helped reggae spread around the world, I definitely mean Bob Marley himself. The Wailers are, it goes without saying, the world’s most successful reggae band, and in terms of sales they’re more comparable to rock bands than to any of their reggae contemporaries. The story of how exactly The Wailers, or Bob Marley and the Wailers, became quite so successful in Euro-America, is a long one that more knowledgeable people than me have written about, but essentially, a combination of factors, such as the fact that they played their own instruments and so fitted into the Euro-American rock press’ idea of what a ‘band’ should be, along with the serious financial push that Island Records were able to give them, meant that the Wailers were able to succeed as a mainstream reggae band – or rather, a mainstream band who happened to play a ‘third world’ genre of music called ‘reggae’. Their success, catchy songs and Bob’s star charisma mean that the Wailers have pretty much become synonymous with reggae in many people’s minds. One of the reasons reggae has stuck around in the mainstream consciousness, unlike some other genres, is the enduring star power and fame of Bob, coupled, it must be admitted, with the fact that he wrote some great pop songs. You can, in the UK at least, still hear Wailers songs played during the daytime on middle-of-the-road radio stations like Radio 2 or Smooth FM; you don’t hear other ‘foreign’ singers like Miriam Makeba or Serge Gainsbourg, despite the fact that they had songs which were big hits in the Anglosphere too. This is kind of amazing considering that many of the Wailers’ songs include explicit references to Rasta theology – think of ‘Get Up, Stand Up’s “We know and understand/Almighty God is a living man” –  or that even the titles are in patois that is difficult for middle-class British people to understand. (I know several people who thought ‘No Woman No Cry’ meant something like ‘if you don’t have a woman you won’t be upset’.) Bob Marley has remained an icon in Euro-America in a way that very few other non-Euro-American singers have. This cements reggae as ‘pop music’ in many people’s minds: Bob is familiar, therefore reggae is familiar, therefore reggae must be part of ‘normal’ rock/pop music. How could one of the world’s biggest pop stars play ‘world music’?

From the Wailers’ very early days as a ska band. Look how young they all look!

It’s worth realising as well that Bob Marley genuinely is one of the world’s biggest pop stars. He’s one of the most famous musicians of the twentieth century, famous in the same way as Elvis, the Beatles, Oum Kalsoum and… well, that’s probably about it. Think how many different products you can buy with Bob’s face on them. He is, still, known all over the world, and remains an absolute hero to many people. The Wailers’ songs about fighting for freedom have ensured that the band have been taken to the hearts of many groups of people who see themselves as suffering from oppression, and their performance to celebrate Zimbabwean independence in 1980 cemented the band’s, especially charismatic central figure Bob’s, image as revolutionaries. Rather than just a musician, Bob Marley is seen as a revolutionary hero, “a poet and a prophet” to quote a (gulp) Red Hot Chili Peppers song. The popularity of reggae in West Africa, and amongst Australian Aborigines and First Nations people in North America is linked to Marley’s image as a ‘sufferer’, a rebel and a freedom fighter. I recently heard a lesbian Maori/Samoan woman who works for a women’s refuge give a talk (long story), and she claimed that Bob Marley was a personal hero of hers, and seen as a figurehead to Maori women in “the struggle”, i.e. the feminist movement in Aotearoa (notwithstanding Bob’s own relationships with women, presumably). It’s difficult to overestimate how well-known and how loved Bob Marley is all over the world, meaning that reggae continues to be known worldwide too.

No sane person ever needs to hear any of the songs on ‘Legend’ ever again, but come on – they couldn’t half write songs

This is a bit of a reductive argument, but I think Marley is the main reason reggae has remained in the mainstream consciousness. This is reflected in the fact that pretty much everyone knows what reggae is, despite the fact that the genre nowadays is as far away from the mainstream, international pop charts as any other genre of world music. How many contemporary reggae singers or deejays could the person on the street name, except maybe Sean Paul, whose career began back in the late nineties? The version of ‘reggae’ that exists as ‘not world music’ in most people’s minds is late ‘70s roots reggae – maybe extending to the tail-end of ska and the early style of reggae featured on the ‘The Harder They Come’ soundtrack. Reggae being produced in Jamaica was actually only internationally successful for a relatively brief period, and it’s an ossified version of this that remains most people’s definition of the term. Even many latter-day international reggae stars, like Côte d’Ivoire’s Alpha Blondy or Tiken Jah Fakoly, or the many Aboriginal bands that play reggae, play in an essentially anachronistic style that doesn’t even account for the digital reggae revolution of the early ‘80s, let alone anything more recent. In the UK in particular, I think late-‘70s reggae remains in the mainstream consciousness largely due to punk nostalgia.

People of a certain age love to wax lyrical about how amazing it was to be around in the late ‘70s when punk was a big deal, although very few of these people, in my experience at least, seem to have taken the supposed anti-establishment ideals of punk to heart. In any case, punk nostalgia is big business, and so the supposed connection between punk and reggae is often brought up in discussions of how you just had to be there at the time, man. It’s always seemed to me like the punk-reggae connection has been slightly overstated in retrospect; yes, bands from the two genres toured together, and yes there was some mutual admiration (John Lydon was well into his reggae, while the Wailers sung ‘Punky Reggae Party’), but the only band I can think of from the time who really musically synthesised the two was The Clash. And let’s be honest, some of The Clash’s attempts at reggae were pretty ropey. ‘White Man In Hammersmith Palais’ and ‘The Guns of Brixton’ are bloody brilliant, but ‘Revolution Rock’ really isn’t.

Anyway, I mean that punk/reggae bands who were around in the late ‘70s didn’t really musically mix styles, because since then the idea that punk and reggae are linked has become a kind of article of faith, and so they have become linked – on the punk side at least; not many dancehall deejays toasted over versions of Exploited singles. This lead to unlikely combinations, such as the uniquely British subgenre of Two Tone, and the amazing Bad Brains from Washington DC, a Rasta funk-turned-punk band who occasionally stopped playing light-speed hardcore punk to play regressive and fairly unimaginative reggae.  Such fusions are nearly always slightly retrograde, if not nostalgic: Two Tone was, to begin with, largely based around appropriation of decade-old Jamaican records, although at least Two Tone bands knew there was more to Jamaican music than roots reggae and slightly expanded the mainstream awareness of ska. Bad Brains meanwhile were playing songs with titles like ‘I Love I Jah’ just as roots reggae was on its way out. The ‘punks should like reggae’ orthodoxy perhaps reaches its apogee in the US punk band Rancid, who take The Clash as their model for everything and so, on an album released in 1994, sang about how much they loved reggae and proved it by namechecking Desmond Dekker, who’d had his biggest hits more than 20 years earlier. No Shabba Ranks, Buju Banton or Bounty Killer for them!

To try to stem a flood of hate-filled comments from tr00 punx, I should say I do have a fondness for Rancid, despite all their flaws; I like The Specials, although most Two Tone music I’ve heard is annoyingly cheery and – sorry to sound like a genre snob – less enjoyable than real ska; Bad Brains are (mostly) awesome, and so are The Clash. My point is, though, that punk is largely a musically conservative genre, the way people think about punk is largely conservative (with a small ‘c’, punx, don’t worry!), and both of these have been responsible for freezing (a particular version of) reggae in non-reggae fans’ minds – which means that we tend to think about it in terms of rock music, not world music.

The thing is, this freezing of what ‘reggae’ means – what reggae sounded like in the ‘70s – in people’s minds is particularly odd in Britain, which is easily reggae’s second home after Jamaica. The history of British reggae is a story of how the music of immigrants more or less developed into its own genre in a new country, much like British Asian music.  While British reggae has more or less followed the same trajectory as Jamaican reggae, from roots reggae to ragga deejays to a revival of ‘consciousness’, there have been British innovations, like the subgenre of lovers’ rock and the persistent interest in ‘steppers’ songs, roots and thunderously loud dub while these subgenres were out of fashion in Jamaica.

Classic lovers’ rock  from the ’90s

These differences mean that UK reggae has provided something like an alternative history of reggae, a different way in which the genre could have developed after roots reggae faded from popularity in Jamaica. Moreover, reggae in the UK has hugely influenced the growth of other genres of specifically British dance music like jungle, drum’n’bass, UK garage, grime and dubstep. The rise and fall of these genres in the mainstream, along with the large populations of Jamaican descent in Britain, have meant that mainstream awareness of reggae in Britain has been sustained. As it is now, reggae remains, much like British Asian music (or heavy metal or punk, I suppose), at a tangent to the mainstream, rarely heard in the mainstream media but able to attract thousands of fans to big gigs or festivals. I’m sure that if you walk through certain parts of the West Midlands or London you’re still more likely to hear reggae than any other type of music.

There is a definite claim then that reggae is a firmly British style of music, whose development has roots in Britain almost as much as in Jamaica. How, then, can we think of it as ‘world music’ when it’s completely ‘normal’ and intrinsically British? Well, for exactly the reasons I argued in Part I. The Britishness of reggae doesn’t change anything about why we could think of it as world music. It still has its origins outside Euro-American pop/rock, whether or not subsequent developments has meant there’s some crossover. And the idea that just because something is British we shouldn’t include it in ‘world music’ is silly, unless we’re going to make some absolute, objective scale of what is ‘foreign’ and what isn’t. The folk music of the British Isles is ‘world’, bhangra and the ‘Asian Overground’ are ‘world’ and so is reggae.

I’ve probably gone on long enough for now. I wanted to talk about the ways in which we think about certain other types of music, to compare them to the way we think about reggae, but maybe I’ll save that for another time. Part III coming up later then, but for now, here’s more proof that there’s far, far more to British reggae than UB40 and Aswad – the best hymn to veganism I know of:

Posted on May 31, 2015, in International and Fusion, North America, UK & Ireland and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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