Remember Reggae?

By De Stefano, George | The Nation, January 26, 1985 | Go to article overview

Remember Reggae?


De Stefano, George, The Nation


Back in the mid-1970s rock critics proclaimed that the sound of Jamaica would be the next big thing in pop music. With hindsight, the naivete of that claim becomes obvious. During that time, the music market fragmented; no longer did any one form dominate popular tastes, as rock had in the 1960s. Reggae, a foreign music with a funny beat, performed by singers whose accents confounded American ears, hardly stood a chance of conquering the mass market. Several reggae artists, most notably Jimmy "The Harder They Come" Cliff and Peter Tosh, tried to overcome the resistance by diluting their music. Their gamble succeeded only in alienating the small but loyal audience of serious fans.

today few reggae records crack the pop charts, and without hits, groups or solo artists don't get much chance to tour. While undiluted reggae hangs onto the periphery of the pop market, reggae-derived hits by such non-Jamaican superstars as Boy George, Tina Turner and Sting get all the glory.

Why such a comedown for an idiom that was touted both as great dance music and as a force for spiritual renewal and political revolt? Music journalist Nelson George blames a fickle white audience for reggae's commercial collapse. George, who is black, says hip young whites have tired of reggae and are looking to ther styles--urban funk, the African pop of such artists as Nigeria's King Sunny Ade--for their fix of black exotica.

There's some truth to George's observation, but he fails to account for the disenchantment of many nontrendy fans. The fact is, reggae has lost its cutting edge: it seems unable to challenge and surprise its listeners. Rather than expand its formal vocabulary, much of the new reggae absorbs, often awkwardly, elements of rock and funk. Although celebrated for its acute social consciousness, 1980s reggae has little on its mind except the familiar Rastafarian moral precepts, not to mention the moon/June cliches of romantic balladry. Rebellion, restless energy and a commitment to truth-telling drew many to reggae, but those qualities are getting harder to find. An unmistakable sign of the music's decline is the success of Yellowman. Currently the hottest thing in reggae, Yellowman is less a singer than a rapper, Jamaican-style, who specializes in smutty, sexist doggerel.

Shortly before his death, in 1981, Bob Marley, the singer-songwriter who was reggae's most gifted and charismatic exponent, was expanding the music's stylistic range and capturing a mass following in America. But it wasn't only the loss of Marley that contributed to reggae's slump. Two other factors must be figured in: the change in Jamaica's political climate signaled by the 1980 election of right-wing Prime Minister Edward Seaga, and the exhaustion of Rastafarianism.

although Marley Seaga, and the exhaustion of Rastafarianism.

Although Marley and most reggae musicians kept their distance from Jamaican politics, it's undeniable that reggae's greatest creative period co-incided with the eight years when Prime Minister Michael Manley and his People's National Party held power. Socialism, anti-imperialism and solidarity with other developing nations dominated Jamaican political discourse in the Manley era, and that climate nurtured the radical ruminations in the best of reggae. Not all Jamaican music was so sober-minded; for every militant reggae broadside there was a sentimental love song or a bawdy novelty tune. But in the mid- to late 1970s reggae so forcefully articulated the restless modd of the island's poor that certain records were banned from the airwaves.

Rastafari, the millennial religious-cultural movement whose followers deify the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and reject "Babylon" (capitalism and its institutions), claimed the allegiance of nearly all reggae artists and much of Jamaica's youth and urban poor. At its peak, Rasta seemed to be pitting its black nationalist, anticapitalist ethos against that of bourgeois Creole society. …

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