OPINION: The History Of Reggae Music Is A Bigger Part Of Black History Than You Know
“Don't care where you come from,” Peter Tosh sang on his 1977 album Equal Rights. “As long as you're a Black man, you're an African.”
The song is classic Tosh—a forceful declaration of unity amongst Black people all over the diaspora, reaching out from Kingston, Jamaica stretching across the Caribbean to the UK, Europe, Canada, and the United States of America. “No mind your nationality,” Tosh goes on. “You have got the identity of an African.”
Tosh’s message resonates with particular power as we come to the close of yet another, Black History Month, which happens to have also coincided with Reggae Month, a worldwide celebration of Jamaican music. While the month of February was chosen because the birthdays of reggae legends Dennis Emmanuel Brown (Feb. 1st) and Robert Nesta Marley (Feb. 6th) both take place during the first week, it’s more than fitting that these two commemorations should take place simultaneously.
If you think reggae is all about ganja, shottas, and doing the “dutty wine,” think again. Dancehall may be known as the world’s greatest party music, but ever since the inception of classical reggae music in the late 1960s, the message has been one of unity, upliftment, and Black empowerment.
February 1 of this year, Studio 17: The Lost Reggae Tapes, marked the debut of a film I produced about the birth of Jamaica’s music industry. It had its worldwide premiere on Tidal and Qwest.TV, a video platform founded by Quincy Jones. Studio 17 tells the story of one of Jamaica’s most important creative spaces. Tosh made his albums Equal Rights and Legalize It at Studio 17, and also worked as the in-house studio musician there. He and Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer recorded many of the Wailers’ most timeless classics in that space, along with the great producer Lee “Scratch” Perry. To lovers of reggae culture, the smoky upstairs room at 17 North Parade in downtown Kingston was sacred ground.
Then one day the magic came to an end when the family that established this cultural nerve center fled to the U.S. because of the political violence that overtook Jamaica during the late 1970s. When the Chin family moved to New York City, they were in such a hurry that they left behind over 1,000 reels of precious audio recordings—the “lost reggae tapes” that drive the action of my film, which was recently hailed by ESSENCE magazine as a “must-see.”
While putting the film together I talked with many iconic figures of Jamaican music whose songs have circled the globe. Grammy-winner Jimmy Cliff, whose starring role in the 1972 movie The Harder They Come introduced Jamaican music, slang, and street life to the world, spoke about the new mood that took hold after the excitement of Jamaica’s independence from England began to fade during the late 1960s.
“Music was what we would use to express what's going on in the society,” said Cliff, looking sharp in a red snakeskin suit. “So, when we saw that independence is not working for us as African descendants, we start looking to Africa for our roots. And that’s when the music changed to reggae.”
The rawness and the realness of songs like “The Harder They Come” and “You Can Get It If You Really Want” touched hearts and minds all over the world, setting the stage for Marley, Tosh, and countless other musical icons to carry the message forward.
The Jamaican duo of Bob Andy and Marcia Griffiths recorded a cover of Nina Simone’s “Young Gifted and Black” that reached the British pop charts in the spring of 1970—even before American stars like Donnie Hathaway and Aretha Franklin adapted this inspirational anthem of self-love. Just 500 miles south of Florida, Jamaican listeners could tune into American radio stations, strengthening the musical connection between the two countries. By the summer of 1973, a Jamaican youth named DJ Kool Herc started throwing parties in the Bronx with his sister Cindy, giving birth to a cultural revolution called hip-hop that would not exist if not for Jamaica’s vibrant sound system culture.
“So as sure as the sun will shine, I’m going to get my share, what’s mine,” Jimmy Cliff sang on the title track of his famous film, but the sad truth is that many musical pioneers of his generation did not get their fair share of the profits from their timeless tunes. In The Harder They Come, Cliff’s character can be seen confronting a producer who tries to offer him just 20 Jamaican dollars for recording a hit song. While shooting Studio 17 I learned that this sort of thing happened all too often, sometimes leaving great artists living in desperate circumstances.
As the reggae and dancehall editor for Tidal, we’ve curated a special Reggae Month campaign to highlight the legendary studios, producers, and musical pioneers who created this great music that continues to touch the world. Jamaica is an island nestled in the Caribbean that takes up just about 4,400 square miles on the map, but it’s oversized impact on worldwide pop culture, from music to athletics to slang and swag, is much larger. Jamaicans have a saying to express this concept, stating proudly that “We likkle but we tallawah”—meaning small but powerful.
I hope that everyone reading this will take the opportunity to dive into the sweet sounds and life-affirming lyrics of reggae music—which will be featured on Tidal’s homepage for the first time this February—ranging from The Wailers’ “400 Years,” to Sizzla’s “Black Woman and Child.” And most of all I hope that all of these songs, both new and classic, will bring us all a little closer and help us to understand that the distance between us is often just in our minds. It’s what Bob Marley was singing about when he sang, “One love, one heart ? Let's join together and a-feel all right.”
Reshma B is a music journalist and filmmaker specializing in reggae & dancehall. Her column Murda She Wrote appears monthly on Tidal where is also the reggae & dancehall curator. You can find her on Twitter @ReshmaB_RGAT.