Chant Down Babylon: Reggae’s Role In Independent Jamaica

As Jamaica celebrates 50 years of independence, Felix Knapp looks at how reggae music became an integral part of Jamaican culture.

August 6, 1962: Jamaica leaves the West Indian Federation and becomes independent. Today Jamaica stands tall on the world stage, not because of economic wealth or military strength but because of its culture, its beat. There is no doubting that reggae music has been the heart and soul of independent Jamaica, a country not without its problems. Over the last fifty years Jamaica has had to deal with political violence, crime and poverty but despite this has produced music that has captured the world’s imagination.

Reggae has not only helped to form Jamaica’s post-colonial identity but has also given its population, many of whom spend much of their life in poverty, a voice. This is best illustrated by reggae’s most famous artist, Robert Nesta Marley. Bob Marley was a son of Trenchtown - one of Kingston’s many slums - but his voice and talent led to him becoming a global icon. His roots are very clear within his music, most famously in ‘No Woman, No Cry’, a song about surviving the grinding poverty of the slum. Another reggae anthem. ‘54-46 Was My Number’ by Toots and the Maytals, is a song about lead singer Toots Hibbert’s incarceration (54-46 refers to his prison number).

Reggae is derived from slave chants and just like those chants is a way of escaping the pains of life. Poverty was inescapable for many Jamaicans, just like slavery, and reggae became a way to alleviate this. I don't pretend to know what it was like to live in a slum, I'm lucky to not have experienced it, but I'm a firm believer in music being a great help to those in need. Just like the soul songs of Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke in America, reggae musicians gave hope to Jamaicans trapped in a life of poverty that they had no hand in making. The global success of musicians such as Marley also helped to publicise the plight of poor Jamaicans, and whilst it can be argued that this has led to little change, there is no doubt in my mind that this is a good thing.

Reggae is Jamaica’s voice, its roar, and it has helped to build an identity for this tiny island. Interestingly, due to the background of its musicians and the content of its songs, this identity is linked to the ordinary people of Jamaica. One of the biggest hits to come from the island in recent years is ‘Welcome to Jamrock’ by Damian Marley, which set dancehalls across the world jumping when it came out in 2005. The song sets out just how hard everyday life can be in Jamaica: “Welcome to Jamdown, poor people a dead at random/Political violence, can't done! Pure ghost and phantom.” It is essentially a protest song, however it became a dancehall filler for many DJs across the globe.

This is a common occurrence with reggae songs and this helps to give Jamaica a defiant identity. Reggae shows Jamaica’s determination, showing the world that no matter how hard life is the island and its inhabitants will persevere. The uplifting nature of the music contrasts with the highly charged political lyrics and this adds to that sense of defiance in the face of hardship. ‘Jah Glory’ the opening track off Third World’s seminal album 96 Degrees in the Shade states; “You wake up early every morning/Worrying about your earthly possessions/Don't make it hold ya/Don't make it hold ya/In these obsessions.” This song, like most reggae music, draws its inspiration from the band's Rastafarian religion and culture.

Reggae’s image and message was interwoven with that of the Rastafarian faith. Many of reggae’s biggest stars, like Marley and bandmate Peter Tosh, were proponents of the religion, which is much more complex than many believe. Drawing inspiration from the teachings of UNIA founder Marcus Garvey and the Ethopianism of the Jamaican Maroon guerrilla fighters, the Rastafari were a powerful challenge to the modern Jamaican state. The most obvious challenge was their use of the illegal drug marijuana. The Rastafari believed that it was a sacred herb and used it to meditate and pray. This has led to many stereotypes and is only one aspect of an extremely mystical religion. More important than this, however, was the Rasta’s belief in repatriation to Ethiopia, or ‘Zion’, and their worship of the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie I. The Abyssinians amazing 1976 album ‘Satta Massagana’ features the song ‘Forward Unto Zion’: “I call upon the head of society/To free the children now of captivity/And send us unto Zion city” - a clear call for repatriation.

Reggae music is full of references venerating Jah, the name that Rasta’s have given their king of kings, Emperor Selassie. Bob Marley’s songs frequently praise Jah whilst more recently the supremely talented Lutan Fyah has sung ‘Selassie I Within’ a fantastic song which preaches “You got Selassie I within your soul/ You got nothing to worry about.” These themes served two purposes. Firstly it helped to give hope to poor black Jamaicans, it gave them a goal – Zion - and it gave them a figurehead, Jah. More importantly it rejected the white colonial ideas that had oppressed them under British rule. Africa replaced Britain as the ‘motherland’ - not that many Jamaicans viewed Britain as their home. It also replaced the idea of the Christian god in the sky that would recompense suffering after death. Instead reggae and the Rastafarian faith provided a living, black god who ordinary Jamaicans found it much easier to relate to.

When Jimmy Cliff sings “They tell me of a pie up in the sky/waiting for me when I die” he is attacking the white Christian faith that protected slavery and colonialism. The rejection of white preconceptions has helped to portray Jamaica as a strong and independent country. Whilst many have criticised Britain for not helping their former colony more reggae has helped to show that they no longer need help. The music and its link to the Rastafarian faith has distanced Jamaica from its colonial masters and linked it intrinsically with black power and Africa.

Jamaica’s most famous son, Bob Marley, is always going to be the most notable example of this. He played the Zimbabwe Independence celebrations in 1980 and songs like ‘Buffalo Soldier’ and ‘Africa Unite’ show where his heart lay. Marley and his band the Wailers would become a potent symbol and his actions would become pivotal in the development of independent Jamaica. Politics in Jamaica is heavily based on the British Westminster system in that two major parties dominate politics and will take turns in power. The People’s National Party and the Jamaican Labour Party are the two dominant forces in Jamaican politics and their rivalry often spilled into the streets. Clashes between supporters of the parties was common and political violence has been one of Jamaica’s biggest problems since independence.

A common practice for both parties when in power is to create housing estates and then fill them with supporters, thus creating bastions of support. In 1978 with political violence rampant, leaders from the warring political factions arranged the One Love Peace Concert in an attempt to ease the bloodshed. Peter Tosh used the concert to publicise the plight of ordinary Jamaicans but it was Marley who would make history. During his set Marley invited Manly and the leader of the JLP Edward Seaga on stage proclaiming: “...show the people that we're gonna make it right, we're gonna unite...” The reggae singer then got the two leaders to shake hands, perhaps one of the most important symbols of modern Jamaica. Violence, be it criminal or political in nature, has been a blight on the country since independence. In Marley’s actions we see reggae and its leading lights taking centre stage to combat it. To me the One Love concert is the best example of how crucial reggae has been to the development of independent Jamaica.

During the last fifty years nothing has come to define Jamaica as much as its music. Reggae has become the heartbeat of the Island. It gives a voice to those who would not have one, and it provides hope to those struggling to find it. Artists such as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Toots and the Maytals, Beenie Man, Yellowman as well as innovative producers like Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry have created a cultural revolution that has spread across the globe. Jamaica is fifty years old, and it still roars.