The story of reggae music is complex and tightly intertwined with the social and cultural history of Jamaica. As the Jamaican National Library points out, "Rastafari and reggae music are internationally identified with Jamaica. Bob Marley is an icon for both." Even the name of Jamaica's national soccer team--the Reggae Boyz--reflects the strong cultural influence of reggae music in the country.
Most historians agree that reggae evolved from early Jamaican music styles with influences from American pop music. During the 1930s, big band and swing music, which were imported from the United States, and Jamaican mento, a folk music style heavily rooted in African culture, dominated Jamaica's music scene. During the 1940s and '50s, American blues and soul music became popular. Ska music grew from the combination of mento and blues influences, and reggae evolved from ska.
The religion of Rastafarianism grew out of the teachings of black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey and the 1930 crowning of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia. Early forms of Rastafarianism used Baptist hymnals in religious ceremonies. In the slums of West Kingston, the Rastafarians adopted African-influenced burru drumming to create a sound known as "Rasta music" or "Rasta chant." The Rasta chant of the 1950s was not yet full-blown reggae. It lacked melody, but it had reached the ears of the mainstream and planted seeds for the wild success of reggae music in the 1960s and '70s.
The lyrical themes of reggae are almost as important as the rhythm. The Rastafarian religion and its message of black unity are the obvious basis of reggae. Reggae song lyrics often evoke Jah or God, Haile Selassie, the God in flesh and Marcus Garvey, the prophet. Another common religious theme is the use of marijuana or ganja in Rastafarian rituals. Reggae addresses social injustices as well, often encouraging defiance of social oppressors referred to as "Babylon." Other themes include poverty and the violence it harbours.
Reggae music began topping the music charts in Jamaica in the late 1960s in part because of the middle class Jamaican youth who adopted the peace and love philosophy of the era. Though religious in tone, reggae music appealed to the masses. As the Jamaica Journal points out about the Jamaican working class reggae fans, "Even those who did not wish to go back to Africa found they could forget their troubles and dance" to the music. Jamaica's 1962 independence from British rule encouraged the creation of a national music of Jamaica, and reggae was viewed as distinctly Jamaican.
By the 1970s, the reggae music scene in Jamaica was gaining international attention. The 1972 film, "The Harder They Come," which tells the story of a Jamaican recording artist, was released internationally and brought some attention to Jamaica's music industry. Bob Marley, who grew up in Kingston's now-famous Trenchtown slum, brought reggae front and centre on the international stage with his 1974 solo album "Natty Dread." The addition of rock guitar riffs and three talented female singers polished the sound, and Bob Marley became an international phenomena and an ambassador for Jamaican culture.
Reggae music is still popular internationally and exists in many offshoot forms, from conscious and roots reggae to sexually explicit dancehall. Reggae music is flexible, lending itself to different arrangements and meshing well with varying musical styles. Reggae-influenced artists span across the globe and include the British band UB40, New Zealand artists the Screaming Meemees, and Hasidic Jewish-American musician Matisyahu. Reggae complements American hip-hop music, rock 'n' roll and even various forms of electronic music.
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- Stanford Graduate School of Business: Trench Town Rock-The Creation of Jamaica's Music Industry PDF
- National Library of Jamaica: History Notes-Information on Jamaica's Culture & Heritage
- Jamaica Journal: "Reggae, Rastafarianism and Cultural Identity"; Verena Reckord
- Caribbean Quarterly: "Rasta Chronology"; McPherson and Semaj