A once solely Jamaica-based music style took over the world in the 1970's: reggae. It started in the Jamaican dancehalls, inspired by ska and rocksteady. By 1974, Bob Marley and The Wailers had released their 7th record Natty Dread, which includes iconic songs like “No Woman, No Cry” and “Revolution”. From the seventies onwards, reggae and Rastafarianism were no longer only parts of local Jamaican culture but instead had become global phenomena. Little did Marley and his Wailers know that their international success would spark a global following for reggae music, reggae aesthetic, and even for the Rastafarian religion.
Reggae and the history of Jamaica
Nowadays, reggae is played all over the world with entire festivals dedicated to it. From big cities to small towns, every continent has been affected by reggae and Rastafari culture. As of 2012, Rastafarianism counts at least 1 million followers worldwide according to History.com. This culture scape might be global but it is not homogeneous. All these affected places have their own particular way of practicing this culture. Reggae tells the story of the people living in rags and tags, struggling for their freedom, and to explain this we have to take a look at Jamaica from the moment European colonialists set foot on the island.
Jamaica's colonial history still shapes the culture of the island and its people to this day. The extinction of Jamaican natives and the many slave rebellions have had a huge influence on Rastafarianism, the main religion on the island. And in turn on reggae music. The feeling of reggae can be traced back to this history. The role reggae has in the world today, however, is in many ways a consequence of the rise of Rastafarianism, a religion adoring the divine leader Ras Tafari, King of Egypt and descendant from King Solomon.
The natives, the Spaniards, and the British
Jamaica, like many other Caribbean islands, has a past filled with slavery and colonization. But its real history starts with the natives that inhabited the island long before any European colonists were there. Native tribes Taínos and Arawaks lived on the island then, and they called it the island of wood and water. They lived a peaceful life making anything they needed from the bountiful Jamaican nature.
Everything changed when Christopher Columbus conquered the island in 1494. For a few years, he used Jamaica as his own private island, but by 1517 the Spandjards had taken over the island and had brought the indigenous tribes to extinction through slavery, war and the new diseases they brought with them from Spain. To keep their global trade going, the Spaniards brought in African slaves to do the work the indigenous people were first forced to do.
Then, in 1655, the British attacked the Spanish island and by 1670 the island was officially a British colony. Many sugar cane fields were laid and the slaves continued working, but under new oppressors. Several slave rebellions broke out and more and more slaves started escaping to the inland; they were called "the Maroons". The Maroons eventually signed a treaty with the British in 1739, promising to help go against any further slave rebellions if the British would stop their punitive expeditions against them. This treaty didn’t last long, and after many rebellions, the slave trade ended in 1807. But this was only the beginning of Jamaica's fight for independence from Britain.
Newfound African-centric Christianity and Emperor Selassie
So far, the history of Jamaica was filled with murder, slavery at the hands of Europeans, and many slave rebellions. Out of this history of continuous rebellions, a new religion would grow, Rastafarianism.
In the 18th century, a movement idealizing Ethiopia and Africa, the homeland, started within the slave communities in the Americas. Most slaves had (forcefully) been converted to Christianity, but in the Bible they found a passage that gave them hope: Psalm 68:31 - “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.”
“Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God”
And in the 19th century this belief was strengthened by the prophecy of Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican-born activist who started the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in 1914. His prophecy was as follows: “Look to Africa where a black king shall be crowned, he shall be the Redeemer.”
Not long after this, in 1917, the Holy Piby was published. This was a new version of the bible, written from an African perspective with God and prophets described as dark-skinned, as the followers of this Afro-centric Christian religion believed Europeans had wrongly translated the bible and made everyone white. Finally, the Jamaicans and many jamaAfrican citizens had a God that reflected the color of their face instead of that of their white suppressors. The rise of many Afro-Athlican Constructive Churches (by Black Supremacists) followed in Africa, and by 1925 an “AACC” also appeared in Jamaica.
Then, on November 2, 1930 Ras Tafari Makonnen, believed to be a descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, was crowned Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, often referred to as King of Kings, Lord of Lords and the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah. His crowning fulfilled both prophecies and gave the new African-centric Christian movement a name, based on his former name: Rastafarianism. Its followers believed Selassie to be the living embodiment of God.
Selassie's crowning gave the new African-centric Christian movement a name, based on his former name: Rastafarianism.
Meanwhile, the English government wasn’t happy with the uprising religion as it involved the practice of marijuana smoking (with the goal to self-reflect more). Again, Jamaicans rebelled against the British government until, in 1962, Jamaica became independent. Still, this island will never become free of the traces from its British oppression. Their English-Creole language Patois and many geographical places with British names are reminders of that past.
Grounation Day and Bob Marley
By now, the Rastafari religion was quite widespread through black supremacy activists, through the Holy Piby, and through Jamaican migration to England, America, and Canada since the 1950s. This migration also made Jamaica's music more globally known.
But this process of globalization really sped up after Bob Marley got inspired by what is now known as Grounation Day: the holy Rastafari day when their God made contact with the Jamaican soil. On April 21st, 1966 Haile Selassie visited Jamaica for the first time. Of course, many Rastafarians came to see their God land on the island that day. A crowd formed around the vehicle with drums, firecrackers, Abeng horns (instruments made out of animal horns), and a cloud of marijuana smoke. After about 30 minutes, the door of the plane opened and Selassie stood at the top of the steps.
This was the groundbreaking moment when Rita Marley, who was standing in the crowd, saw what looked like cruicifixion scars on Selassie’s hands as he waved to the crowd. Rita, who prior to this day was a Christian, took these scars as a true sign of Selassie’s divinity and told her husband, Bob Marley, about this evidence of the divine.
In 1967, Bob converted to Rastafarianism through the influence of his wife. Marley started writing music largely inspired by Jamaican ska, reggae, and rocksteady music as well as by his beliefs on Rastafarianism and Haile Selassie. Thus, Marley played a huge part in why reggae and Rastafari culture are so intertwined. This was the start of reggae becoming a global phenomenon and the moment Bob Marley became a pioneer of reggae.
Why reggae went global (and stayed relevant)
Nowadays, reggae is known all over the world and is even part of our global cultural heritage. However, this culture is often seen as deviant because it is associated with marijuana smoking culture. Still, we find reggae culture scapes in countries where marijuana is highly illegal because the content of the music speaks to people in a way not many other music styles can.
Of course, Bob Marley didn’t invent reggae but he is the biggest reason reggae reached such a global audience and became a global phenomenon. The release of the movie The Harder They Come with an entirely reggae soundtrack in 1973 had an impact on bringing the music style to a global audience, but what people remember is Bob Marley. Marley’s first international album was released in 1974 and Bob Marley & The Wailers became Rolling Stone Magazine’s “band of the year” in 1976.
Originally, this music style gets its name from the Jamaican phrase "rege-rege" which means "rags" (of clothing). In reggae music, you can hear Jamaican history and Jamaicans' centuries-long struggle for peace, freedom, and independence through protest and perseverance.
In reggae music, you can hear Jamaican history and Jamaicans' centuries-long struggle for peace, freedom, and independence through protest and perserverance.
This music tells the story of people living in rags who never give up on fighting for their freedom; it is a music style with a message of social change. That is why UNESCO’s recently added reggae to its cultural heritage list. As they put it:
“Its contribution to international discourse on issues of injustice, resistance, love, and humanity underscore the dynamics of the element as being at once cerebral, socio-political, sensual and spiritual.”
Reggae is the voice of the people, that is why the world reacted so positively to Marley’s music. There are people all over the globe living an underprivileged life. These people relate to the messages in reggae. It brings these underprivileged groups together on a global scale and creates a global culture scape. In addition, this globalization is also intensified through the internet nowadays as it makes global communication much easier. The powerful combination of reggae music, the Rastafari religion, and its ritualistic marijuana smoking form a culture many people admire, relate to, or simply think is cool.
This triple threat speaks to the underprivileged (minorities and majorities), people fighting for their rights or for peace, people who smoke marijuana (which is a huge global group), people who enjoy the music, and people interested in the Rastafari religion. Reggae culture is easily consumable, relatable and especially inspiring.
The reggae culture scape
According to Appadurai (1996), there are two kinds of globalization, hard and soft. The globalization of reggae can be viewed in both ways. Hard globalization is about the global mobility of goods, people, and money. Because this culture is highly commodified (think of anything red, green and yellow or with Bob Marley on it), it has an influence on the global flow of money and goods and is therefore partly a hard form of globalization. Most people enter their local Reggae culture scape through commodification; they buy themselves into the scape. This identity or stereotype they buy into, of a person with dreads and a Bob Marley shirt, is formed through the commercialization of the culture. Commodification is how the global identity of reggae is constructed. And, because we now live in a digital age, the mediascape of reggae also strengthens this identity constructed through commodification.
However, besides the global identity, or rather the global stereotype, of reggae, there are also local differences. Every scape of this global culture has its own modifications. This is the soft part of the globalization of this culture; every periphery of reggae culture has its own constructed identity. Jamaica is, of course, the original, the center of this culture. And all the other scapes are cultural peripheries and therefore subjected to this soft globalization; the local differences in Reggae culture. A few local scapes with their own modifications will be discussed in the next sections.
The Chinese reggae-scape
China and Chinese Jamaicans have one of the most unique stories in reggae culture because they weren’t just inspired by Jamaica. They lived there and some even had significant roles in the Jamaican music scene as producers or performers.
Already in the mid-1800’s, you could find Chinese migrants in Jamaica, often people from the south of China who had been abducted by the British and taken to the Caribbean to be indentured workers.
One of those significant Chinese producers was Vincent “Randy” Chin, the owner of Randy’s shop, a recording studio and a record label (VP records, located in New York since 1979) whose parents permanently migrated to Jamaica in the 1920s.
“Randy” had many talented artists in his studio since the early 1960's including Bob Marley & The Wailers and Johnny Nash. He has built a true Chinese-Jamaican reggae empire in which his eldest son, Clive Chin, still finds success to this day.
Around the same time, in 1967, a Chinese man named Stephen Cheng released the song "Always Together", which combines a rocksteady beat with Chinese opera style lyrics inspired by the Taiwanese folk song “Girl from Ali Shan”. The great diversity of cultural inspiration in this record makes it sound revolutionary. This song was released before Jamaican music had taken over America in the seventies, so the Chinese were one of the first to be part of the global reggae scape. But unlike many others, the Chinese had an integral part in really the entire Jamaican music industry. Topic Magazine even says: “Chinese reggae is a story of migration, shared identity, and colonial struggle.”
“Chinese reggae is a story of migration, shared identity, and colonial struggle.”
The story of Chinese reggae is very reminiscent of the story behind original reggae. Here you see how these scapes, the original Jamaican scape and its Chinese periphery, create convergence in this global culture. Their stories are quite similar, and because of this connectedness of their history, China has a large reggae scape to this day. In Shanghai, a center for reggae in China, for example, you can find local Shanghai reggae artist Jado performing in underground clubs.
When reggae took America by storm in the 1970s, popular rock artist Mick Jagger from the Rolling Stones was inspired to dip his toe into the reggae-scape. Already in 1976, the Stones had released the record Black and Blue with its quickly recognizable reggae beats. Later in 1978, Jagger showed his love for reggae again in a duet with the late member of The Wailers, Peter Tosh, named “Gotta Walk And Don’t Look Back”. Jagger's inspiration by this music style helped reggae reach an even broader, mostly rock music-listening, global public. The Stones' lead singer's most recent addition to the reggae scape is his collaboration with Damian Marley and three other artists to form the band SuperHeavy in 2011. In their song, “Miracle Worker”, you can hear Jagger's raspy, wailing voice mixing perfectly with the reggae beat. The Stones, Mick Jagger specifically, and Bob Marley and The Wailers have helped reggae reach the global public they have today.
So, this British band and Jagger did partially spark the love Europeans have for reggae today. It’s easily identifiable in Europe. You can find a wide international reggae-scapes consisting of even smaller inter-city scapes. From Uppsala, Sweden, to Vertheuil, France, artists like Ms. Lauren Hill, Elephant Man, and Ziggy Marley visit Europe for the many annual reggae festivals.
But even small European peripheries like my hometown, Zoetermeer, are affected by reggae culture. Rastaplas is a Dutch reggae festival that has been held annually in Zoetermeer since 2004 and has been a pretty significant influence in my social life as a teenager living in “Sweetlake City”. This shows that reggae culture has even found a place in the utmost peripheries, it even has found a role in small Dutch towns and the social life of their citizens.
Jamaica, the forgotten kingdom of reggae
Even though Rastafarianism and reggae have a wide and abundant global scape, Jamaica itself is forgotten. This is likely because Jamaica is a developing country in the Global South which tries to "build self-sufficiency, promote export, and service the growing tourism industry" but struggles. Wallerstein categorizes the world in three parties; peripheries (zones of primary materials, and low surplus), semi-peripheries (zones of transit economy, semi-finished products, and moderate surplus), and centers (zones of product innovation, finishing, and marketing with high surplus). In the context of this "world system" analogy (Wallerstein, 2004), Jamaica is striving to be a center; a country with a large surplus (in food) for export. However, this country cannot even provide its own citizens with enough food because of its dry soil. This is one of the reasons Jamaica cannot export and remains a periphery, a zone of primary materials, and low surplus. Additionally, the country is also characterized by its low levels of education.
The low level of development of Jamaica is a consequence of many factors. But looking at it from the perspective of religion, because religion has a big impact on a country, there are two values in Rastafarianism that may illustrate why development is low. “To remain true to the love of Rastafari, and not be swayed by the riches of the western world” and “to reject the pleasures of Western society”. How a Rastafari interprets these values may determine their desire to further educate and develop. These values in and of themselves aren't harmful in any way and interpretation is key here. Many Rastafari do not believe money makes you rich, as Bob Marley once said in a now-famous interview:
- Interviewer: “Are you a rich man?”
- Bob Marley: “When you say rich, what do you mean?”
- Interviewer: “Do you have a lot of possessions? Do you have a lot of money in the bank?”
- Bob Marley: “Possessions make you rich? I don’t have that kind of richness. My richness is life, forever.”
Besides this, Rastafari also often strive to eat "high vibration" food, meaning non-processed food. This is often food they produce on their own land. There is no need for money when you produce your own food. Still, internalized racism will have a bigger impact on development than Rastafari will ever have. As mentioned before, the aftermath of colonial history still shapes the lives of many Caribbean citizens.
Basically, reggae and Rastafari culture are the only things Jamaica has to offer the world. This country is a periphery in every sense except for reggae culture and Rastafarianism. Unlike other developing countries or formerly colonized Caribbean islands, this island has turned its century-long struggle for freedom into a religion and a very successful music style. So Jamaica is, partially, a prosperous country because it is the origin and center of a huge global culture scape and many cultural peripheries. However, their struggle for freedom has only recently ended, leaving Jamaica, much like other independent Caribbean islands, for the first time in hundreds of years in charge of itself. And that is a huge contributor as to why Jamaica is a peripheral developing country. Independent Jamaica is as old as a toddler in comparison to many first world countries that have existed for at least hundreds of years.
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Wallerstein I. (2004). World-systems Analysis. Durham: Duke University Press.
History.com Editors. (2017/5/31). Rastafarianism. https://www.history.com.
BBC. (2018/9/21). Rastafari at a glance. https://www.bbc.co.uk.
McAlister, E. A. (2019/6/20). Rastafari. Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com.
MacLeod, E. (2016/4/21). When Emperor Haile Selassie went to Jamaica on this day in 1966. https://africasacountry.com.