The music world, as well as modern culture, has been heavily influenced by reggae music. Reggae emerged in the late 1960s and throughout Jamaica, people took to reggae’s beat and the words. Over time, reggae became as much a part of Jamaican culture as a fast-paced game of uptown pokies on a hot summer’s night.
There are many theories about why reggae was so appealing to Jamaicans. Reggae features slow jerky rhythm and spiritual and militant lyrics. That, combined with the rebellious appearance of reggae singers, created a genre that influenced societies and cultures throughout the world.
There’s probably no other form of music that has contributed to the development of modern counter cultures as much as reggae. When reggae was emerging, young people, especially in the USA, Africa and Europe listened to ‘60s reggae sounds and related to what they were hearing on a personal level. Reggae was a major influence in the birth of the skinhead movement in the UK and it impacted on Western pop/rock cultures, as well.
Reggae inspired America’s first rappers and hip-hop artists. Over the last 50 years reggae has influenced African singers and performers from the Ivory Coast as well as musicians in France, South Africa and the USA.
How has reggae exercised such a wide impact on the worldwide cultural universe?
There’s a large Jamaican community in the UK. The majority of Jamaican immigration took place in the ‘50s and the ‘60s. By the ‘70s, there was a large population of Jamaican-British youth who were anxious to express their native culture in their adopted home.
Most Jamaican immigrants lived in working-class districts such as Brixton in South London and Tottenham in North London. Ska, rocksteady and early reggae music – genres which were popular in Jamaica during that era – gained followers within London’s Jamaican immigrant community.
Simultaneously, the skinheads, a counterculture movement of young white youths, were surfacing in those same working-class districts. “Skins” were a tough bunch. Many were attracted to black night clubs where they danced to Afro-American music as well as to the new sounds that the Jamaican expatriate youth played. They danced, socialized and drank together, with reggae music playing in the background.
Roddy Moreno, one leader of the skinhead movement, said, “As much of Britain kept itself distant from the immigrants, the skinheads embraced Jamaican style and music. We would attend all night Blues parties together and many young Blacks were skinheads themselves. Remember the [Jamaican] migrants were relatively poor and so the working class kids had more in common with them than with the middle and upper classes of Britain. We lived on the same streets, went to the same schools and we partied together. While much of Britain saw the migrants as ‘those black people,’ we skinheads saw them as ‘our black mates.’ Of course there were skinheads with racist attitudes, but most skinheads had black mates and most skinhead gangs had black kids amongst their ranks. […] Skinhead would not exist without Jamaica.”
Skinheads felt that they recognized themselves in reggae music.
Don Letts, born to Jamaican parents in London, was a DJ at London’s Roxy nightclub when he introduced reggae and dub music which blended the new punk scene with the Jamaican sound. Punk was just emerging in 1977 when Letts brought in reggae. He became a key force in influencing British punk bands such as The Sex Pistols and The Clash who were also going for a sound that expressed rebellion against the norm.
Letts explained, “This was so early in the punk movement that there weren’t any punk records to play. So I played what I loved, dub reggae, and lucky for me the punks loved it too, although I did slip in a bit of New York Dolls, Iggy and the Stooges and the MC5 occasionally. They liked the bass lines and the anti-Establishment stance and the fact that the songs were about something (and they didn’t mind the weed either!).”
In return, the punk scene actually ended up influencing Bob Marley. Marley was Letts’ friend which gave him exposure to punk. Marley composed “Punky Reggae Party” as an anthem to the cultural exchange that Letts had started.
Reggae music and punk rock, though completely different from a musical perspective, shared multiple similarities. Both were counterculture musical movements which spread a message of rebellion against the Establishment. Both expressed ideas of freedom and of rebellion against social norms.
Throughout the 70s and 80s, other British pop and rock artists were inspired by reggae. They included Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, Nina Hagen, Boy George/Culture Club and Sting/The Police.
Reggae has also played a major role in the emergence of electronic music. Electronic music derives from the remix technique quasi-intrinsic to Jamaican music. Remix launched musical genres such as bass and drums and hip-hop and jungle.
The sound system subculture joins remix in impacting on the British electronic musical scene. Such electronic musical events include free/rave parties which are events that are held outdoors or in disused buildings.
French musicians such as Serge Gainsbourg and Bernard Lavilliers began recording reggae rhythms in the late ‘70s. They inspired many young musicians of French Caribbean and African origins who recognized themselves in reggae’s socio-politico-spiritual message. Ultimately, artists such as Pablo Master, Princess Erika, General Murphy, Daddy Nuttea, Daddy Yod and Tonton David launched the French reggae school.
Reggae music remained on the top of the charts in France until the mid-1990s. Recently, a new generation of dancehall/reggae artists has emerged in France, spearheaded by immigrants from the French West Indies. They include Lord Kossity, Admiral T, Straika D, Yaniss Odua, Mr. Janik and Raggasonic.
Many critics say that the reason that reggae has become so important in French popular culture is that, for one, there’s a tradition of rebellion and unrest in France that has influenced artists and intellectuals such as Camus, Sartre, de Beauvior, Vian, Brel, Brassebsm, Ferré and the Grécos. Also, France is a former colonial power. Immigration from the former colonies has created a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society in which immigrants recognize themselves in a musical style that denounces colonialism, slavery, oppression and exclusion.
Many reggae aficionados are affected by reggae’s lyrics’ spirituality. Rastafari is a Pan-African religion and in general, people with African heritage tend toward spiritualism and mysticism. This was pointed out by Kenyan-born philosopher John Mbiti who wrote in Concepts of God in Africa, “African people do not know how to exist without religion.”
America’s rap music owes much of its popularity to reggae. Once again, Jamaican immigrants, who stayed in contact with their home country, initiated the roots of rap music through the ‘70s DJ style. The Jamaican DJ culture combined with urban American society which eventually led to the development of rap and hip-hop.
Kool Herc, a Jamaican-born DJ who came to the Bronx in the late ‘60s, was instrumental in fusing reggae, rap and hip-hop culture. Over the years, other American rappers of Jamaican background continued the evolution including Busta Rhymes, Notorious B.I.G. and Heavy D.
It’s worthwhile noting that both reggae and rap emerged from a context of oppression. Both reflect the lifestyle and sensibilities of black inhabitants of urban ghettos. Both genres express rebellion against the Establishment.
Most of the population in Jamaica is from Africa. Reggae has its roots in ancient African musical forms. Reggae singers pay tribute to the motherland Africa in the music’s style and cadence.
In return, reggae has had a strong impact on the African continent. Tunes like Marley’s “Africa Unite” (1979) and “Zimbabwe” (1979) have played a big part in cementing reggae’s place as a symbol for African youth.
Throughout Africa, many young Africans have begun to identify with Jamaicans and the Rasta culture. Both involve black people living in harsh conditions and both have been oppressed by white people politically, financially and socially. Artists such as Alpha Blondy and Tiken Jah Fakoly in the Ivory Coast or the late Lucky Dube in South Africa are often cited as some of reggae’s best artists.
The impact of Rastafari and reggae on the worldwide cultural universe is immense. Hundreds of millions of people on multiple continents have been culturally influenced by reggae music along with its Rastafarian message. Reggae conveys a message that resonates globally.