Reggae is a music genre that originated in Jamaica in the 1960s. Nowadays, the term encompasses the contemporary popular music of Jamaica and the international Jamaican diaspora. Among the primary influences that shaped the genre are traditional mento as well as American jazz, rhythm and blues, and African folk music. Reggae is known not only for the unique rhythm and musical patterns but also for the lyrics which reflect deep social consciousness. The present essay will examine the intersection of reggae with race, class, gender, and sexuality.
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Reggae and Race
Reggae has always had close ties with Rastafarianism – a Pan-African religion that originated in Jamaica in the 1930s. Rastafarians’ views on race are based upon their unique interpretation of the Bible, and namely, the Old Testament. The adherents of Rastafarianism believe that throughout the history of humankind, race dynamics were influenced by the inherent superiority of black people and inferiority of whites (Waters 32). The pain and suffering to which white people subjected people of color can be explained by the fear of greatness and world domination in which whites would be the lower, underprivileged class.
Marcus Garvey was one of the major influences that shaped the belief system about race in Rastafarianism and reggae. Jamaican-born political leader and journalist, Garvey, was convinced that African people all over the world needed to unite to impose the new world order (80). Due to his radical black empowerment thought, Rastafarians deemed him to be a prophet and the second reincarnation of St. John the Baptist.
Reggae and Class
One of the possible interpretations of the term reggae is rege-rege or ragged clothing. In the 1960s in Jamaica, if someone called a person ‘streggae,’ it meant that the said person looked poor and was not dressed well. This understanding of the word makes sense, as the genre itself originated from the lower class, and namely, “maroon villages” – secluded subculture founded and run by escaped slaves.
Reggae artists and Rastafarians were in opposition to societal norms and political regime, as they advocated for radical changes and refused to conform to the White man’s rule. Political leaders were aware of the potential that reggae held, which made Prime Minister Manley announce that the adherents of reggae culture were the wicked enemies of the country (Waters 23). Reggae as social movement transcended nations and became a protest music genre in many other countries. For instance, in colonialist Africa, Lucky Dube became one of the first artists to help to legitimize music as a protest gesture.
Reggae and Gender
Although the gender roles in Jamaica were largely influenced by the legacy of slavery and colonialism, the country’s population was able to retain some of the traditional views on what constitutes men’s and women’s responsibilities. Jamaicans inherited the concept of male supremacy from their European colonists while believing in the sanctity of the maternity (Thame and Dhanaraj 10). At the same time, women’s duties to bear and raise children were not seen as incompatible with being workers and providers.
The contents of the music genre were aligned with the prevailing views on women in Jamaican society. While the majority of reggae songs communicated expected social change, very few of them addressed the challenges of women and advocate for their betterment as “The Message” by Neville Martin. Many popular reggae songs appeared to be lenient about male unfaithfulness. For instance, one of the interpretations of the famous “No Woman No Cry” by Bob Marley is comforting a woman whose partner is committing adultery. In the same song, Marley describes how his wife helped him in the times of struggle, which did not stop him from betraying her.
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Reggae and Sexuality
Reggae has its roots in the mento music genre which is known for its sexual innuendos galore and double entendres. Despite the strong Christian influence and the impressive church per capita rate, Jamaicans have never been strictly puritanical. Even before the emergence of reggae, musicians were not afraid to play with risqué topics while choosing witty metaphors for sexual acts and making up entertaining stories about love trysts.
Being outspoken about sensuality and the physical side of romantic relationships was also an act of protest as the government tried to police the expression of sexuality by the indigenous population. However, not everyone was free to act upon their sexual urges: while male reggae musicians objectified women in their songs, women were reprimanded for acting ‘loosely (Makari 10).’ The criticism of female sexuality was also grounded in the Rastafari theocratic order which treated adultery as a crime and revealing clothes as misconduct.
Ever since its emergence, reggae music has been known for its sharp social commentary on politics and religion. First, reggae has always been associated with Rastafarianism – religious teaching based upon the criticism of the oppressive Western culture. Having chosen black empowerment leaders as main sources of inspiration, reggae artists supported the unification of all Africans to usher the world into the new era.
Due to the calls for radical changes, reggae artists were seen as rebellious and non-conformists, and their roots in the lower class only amplified the schism. Despite the political rhetoric built upon the notion of freedom, women’s interests were also dismissed, and in the songs, they were often diminished to sexual objects or submissive wives. Their ability to execute sexual autonomy was limited whereas men’s promiscuity was seen as the norm.
Garvey, Marcus. Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey. Ravenio Books, 2015.
Makari, Elly. Gender Issues in Selected Reggae music (Riddims). 2015. Web.
Thame, Maziki, and Dhanaraj Thakur. Patriarchal State and the Development of Gender Policy in Jamaica. 2014. Web.
Waters, Anita M. Race, Class, and Political Symbols: Rastafari and Reggae in Jamaican Politics. Routledge, 2017.