I had to dig this out to send to someone, and thought I should post it. This is the last chapter of my doctoral thesis, about reggae music and globalization. Sadly, a lot of the positive energy has gone out of reggae music in the 10 years since I wrote this; what is left is assorted Marley kids living off their old man’s reputation and a lot of Caribbean accented hip-hop. Because this is part of an academic work, I left the cites in. If you want a copy of the works cited list, e-mail me.
If there is anything I have learned in the 10 years since I began trying to document reggae (first for newspapers and a book; later for this dissertation), it is that cultural phenomena refuse to hold still long enough for a thorough examination. Many things have changed since the first interview in 1990; some participants are deceased (Mikey Wallace, Panhead, Don Taylor and Garnett Silk) and others have made major changes in direction (Carlene Davis, Lieutenant Stitchie and Judy Mowatt are all singing Christian music). The music industry itself has been transformed by mega-mergers — who could have anticipated even a few years ago that the charts in 2000 would be dominated by teenage pop stars? To conclude this lengthy study, I will turn to my research notes and recollections in an effort to give additional resonance to some of the major themes of the study.
“Nuh Reggae ‘Pon Mi Radio”
The Senior Common Room, or faculty club, at the University of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica, is only a few miles as the crow flies from the Kingston ghettos that spawned reggae music, but it could be on another continent and in another century. I am here for the month of July 1997 to finish the interviews for this study, and I feel that I am crossing a cultural divide as I taxi back and forth between “downtown,” where the studios and musicians are, and “uptown,” the quiet, verdant Mona campus.
There are inexpensive and secure rooms for rent and a dining room serving one or two lunch specials on weekdays. Besides the dining room, there is a large banquet hall and smaller rooms for meetings, drama rehearsals and other functions. The whole enterprise is managed by a charming but no-nonsense woman in her 70s who brooks no disrespect from staff or guests. The S.C.R. bar, a watering hole so notorious that it has been cited as co-respondent in more than one faculty divorce (or so I’m told), overlooks the swimming pool and tennis courts. The pool is algae-filled and uninviting; the pump is broken and there are no replacement parts. The tennis courts bring in a steady flow of thirsty customers.
Besides a few Jamaicans who work at the university, the regulars at the bar are mostly expatriate types, Europeans and Africans in their 50s, who came to UWI Mona from abroad and stayed because they liked the lifestyle. A few appear furtive, as if they harbor guilty secrets. They drink, talk, argue, play dominoes or stare into space. There is little to indicate that we are in Jamaica — we could just as well be in India or Australia. There is no music playing except on weekends, when the bartender is allowed to bring in a boombox. In the birthplace of reggae, he plays North American soul and disco oldies. When I remark on the irony of this, the bartender says that he prefers Beres Hammond or Dennis Brown, but this is what the customers want.
On weekends, the facilities — which open onto onto a shady lawn and picturesque ruins that are dramatically spotlit by night — are much in demand by UWI administrators, faculty, staff and alumni for private gatherings. One Saturday during my stay, there is a graduation party in the afternoon followed by a wedding reception in the evening. “Only in Jamaica,” I think, as I watch a crew of teen-aged boys unload refrigerator-sized speaker cabinets from a stakebed truck and set up the mammoth ghetto-style sound system that will be used for both of these quintessentially middle-class events.
All week I’ve been hearing Jamaican music experts like Dermot Hussey and Gussie Clarke tell me how few young instrumentalists are coming up in Kingston these days in comparison with the hordes of aspiring DJs and singers. They say that music programs at places like Alpha Boys School (a Catholic “reform school” which trained many important musicians of the ska, rocksteady and reggae generations) are closing down because they can’t afford to buy instruments. The graduation party at the S.C.R. brings a crowd of dressed-up kids and parents involved in a different kind of music program: a Suzuki-method school that teaches the European classics to middle-class Jamaican children. Their tiny violins are sitting out on display when I pass by. Later that night at the wedding reception, North American R&B hits and Trinidadian soca boom out over the huge sound system. I sit upstairs in my room and listen. No reggae, roots or dancehall, is heard all night.
Everybody says it’s a bad time for the Jamaican music business, with no hits out of here in a couple of years. Each year there seem to be fewer Jamaican records on the international reggae charts and more competition from U.S.- and U.K.-based artists. Gussie Clarke says Jamaican producers bear a lot of the blame for making records and not making music — rush-releasing substandard dreck just to capitalize on the name of a flavor-of-the-month DJ or singer while he or she is still popular. Lloyd Stanbury says flatly that record labels still want to put out reggae, but are tired of dealing with the baggage that comes with many Jamaican artists — hangers-on, unreasonable demands for money, unreliability, lack of professionalism — so they are finding their reggae elsewhere.
I have seen ads in the newspapers for a nationwide “Vintage Record Spinners’ Competition” sponsored by Desnoes and Geddes brewery. I go to a hall in the Half Way Tree area of central Kingston to find older men from villages all over Jamaica competing over who had the hardest-to-find tunes on antique 78s and 45s — not Jamaican records but American rhythm and blues. My friend Jerry Small, a photojournalist in his 50s, tells me that migrant farm workers from Jamaica often brought back phonograph records, record players and reel-to-reel tape recorders from the United States when they were paid at the end of the season. He says it was common for returning farm workers who owned American records and phono equipment to provide entertainment at parties and bars around Jamaica. “John brings his records and record player down to the rum shop on Friday night and he gets to drink for free,” says Small, who as a youth went into business with his brothers running “a little sound system that was in steady demand.” Out of this homegrown practice grew the Jamaican sound system as we know it today, as well as a taste for imported rather than locally produced entertainment.
A new nightclub has opened in Sovereign Shopping Center, a few miles from the UWI campus. I go there with my friend Sharon Burke, manager of two performers who will be appearing: dancehall singer Tanya Stephens and a singing and dancing prodigy named Ambilique (who is extremely polite, addressing Sharon as “Ms. Burke” and me as “Sir”). The crowd is well-dressed, well-behaved, cellphone-toting, middle-class through and through. The singers perform reggae with a live band and receive a good but not overwhelming reception. Dancers flood the dance floor when the disc jockey resumes the flow of recorded North American R&B and hip-hop.
“Nuh reggae ‘pon mi radio.” For a few years after the debut of Irie-FM in the early 1990s, you could hear Jamaican music on the radio pretty much 24 hours a day, with Sundays reserved for oldies. But then demographic targeting took over. The listeners that advertisers wanted to reach — married middle-class women in the suburbs — liked smooth U.S. rhythm and blues, not reggae and definitely not hardcore dancehall. Aside from a few big hits by artists like Beenie Man, and aside from specialty shows hosted by the likes of dub poet Mutabaruka or veteran radio personality Barry G, even Irie-FM isn’t playing that much Jamaican music right now. Also, talk shows and paid religious programming take up a lot of airtime. Jamaican radio has come full circle since the ‘80s, when locally produced music was only heard after midnight.
The sound systems are completely dormant this summer — the radio is usually full of ads for sound system dances and sound clashes, but this year there are none. Sound system events are a uniquely Jamaican form of entertainment and I look forward to them each time I make the trip. Kilimanjaro, Stone Love, Inner City, African Star, Metro Media — the “sounds” are to Jamaica what the samba schools are to Brazil, outlets not only for creative self-expression but also for entrepreneurship in a community that has little opportunity for either. “It’s a class struggle, in that it’s a political situation,” says Louise Frazer-Bennett, head of the sound system owners’ association, who says the government is cracking down on sound systems for noise violations while protecting the equally noisy soca carnival (which appeals to wealthier Jamaicans). She confirms what I have been thinking about the shift in radio airplay from dancehall to softer North American sounds. “There is no airplay, no dances, the music cannot survive in its own country!”
The Failure of State Intervention
Broadcast privatization (both inside and outside Jamaica) is only one of several areas where state intervention in the cultural sphere has had unexpected, and generally negative, consequences for reggae. Because of the lack of crossover hits in recent years, reggae in 2000 is receiving probably the least exposure through mainstream media that it has received at any time since the early 1970s. Few reggae artists, Jamaican or non-Jamaican, seem to be able to access industrial globalization channels such as MTV or major record companies. This particularly highlights the need for dissemination and promotion of music through grassroots networks such as Reggae Ambassadors Worldwide if reggae is to remain musically viable in the global arena.
In the United States at least, broadcast privatization has had the net result of sharply reducing airplay opportunities for reggae. An undeniable effect of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 has been greater concentration of ownership in both radio and television, which in turn has led to tighter formatting and less room for reggae tunes unless they are crossover hits. At the same time, non-commercial public or community radio stations — which have provided a home for reggae, calypso, folk, bluegrass, and other non-mainstream musics — faces severe financial pressure as funding sources dry up. Many non-commercial stations are gradually turning away from specialized programming and attempting to draw wider audiences with classical music or jazz.
In Jamaica, privatization of state-run radio channels resulted at first in significantly more airplay for Jamaican music of all styles, from hard-core dancehall riddims to classics from the 1950s. However, as I mentioned in the previous section, commercial pressures have prompted even the newest stations, Irie-FM and CD-106, to soften their sound and add North American R&B and pop to the local dancehall favorites. Roots reggae is almost never heard on the radio in Jamaica; Burning Spear’s Grammy-winning album Calling Rastafari received little or no airplay in Jamaica during 1999. “Radio, the medium normally used to promote potential hits and new music, again came under the microscope, with most of its detractors criticizing radio stations for not offering more diverse reggae,” wrote Jamaica Observer arts editor Howard Campbell (1997).
Meanwhile, the 1996 sale of the state-run Jamaica Broadcasting Co. to the for-profit Radio Jamaica Rediffusion appears to have left a gap in public service programming, including Jamaican music. Although the JBC programmed little reggae per se, their cultural programming showcased Jamaican talent through documentaries, radio dramas and other forms of programming not usually offered by commercially driven radio. The “new” JBC is tightly formatted and features a mix of Jamaican and North American dance-oriented pop. Jamaican television airs reggae videos and special cultural programming, but is dominated by North American imports and offers little support for reggae.
In copyright and piracy enforcement, Jamaica appears to lag behind world standards. Only in 1998 were procedures finally implemented for copyright owners to file lawsuits for infringement through the Jamaican Supreme Court. One of the first to file writs was Studio One owner Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, whose classic rhythm tracks have been copied endlessly both with and without permission. In May 1999, Dodd sued three of Kingston’s biggest producers (Donovan Germaine of Penthouse, Bobby Digital of Digital B, and Fattis Burrell of Xterminator) in Jamaican courts and simultaneously filed writs in British courts against three London-based labels (Jamaica Gold, Peckings, and Sprint Records) for unauthorized use of Studio One material (Dodd, 1999).
Piracy, which would be a fairly easy activity to combat at the local level, continues to run rampant. Many tourist shops still sell cassette copies of the current hit parade, and many tourists still buy them. As lawyer Milton Samuda points out in chapter 6, everyone knows who the pirates are and no one does anything to stop them. Since Jamaica remains on the wrong side of the digital-analog divide — records and cassettes are in far wider circulation than CDs or DVDs — technological methods to combat piracy, such as digital watermarking and Macrovision copy protection, are not applicable. This is also true for key reggae markets such as Africa, India and Latin America, where piracy is a significant distribution channel for reggae, albeit a channel that returns no compensation to the music’s creators.
The most direct attempt at state intervention in the Jamaican music industry was the short-lived “Sounds of Jamaica” marketing initiative of the economic development agency Jampro (1996). This effort included a January 1997 trip by a large delegation of performers, producers and government officials to Midem, the international trade show of the music industry held in Cannes. Although the Midem initiative included crowd-pleasing performances by more than 20 reggae artists, there were few tangible results. As a Jamaican friend somewhat cynically put it, some government officials got to take the trip of a lifetime, the taxpayers got the bill, and then things went back to normal. Jampro made only token appearances at Midem in 1998 and 1999.
Four years later, Jamaican state policy toward its own music industry remains contradictory. Although reggae brings many tourists to Jamaica, little is done to identify this steady market and develop attractions for music tourism. Enterprising visitors — particularly the indomitable Japanese — do manage to find the clubs, recording studios and dances on their own, but an opportunity for package tours is being missed. There are few venues for live shows, and they are used infrequently. There is dog-eat dog competition among music festivals in Montego Bay and Kingston, which are supported by the tourist board. To attract the big crowds, promoters are adding more and more North American rap, pop, and R&B performers. Tourism officials appear more interested in bringing jazz and soul festivals to the country than in developing attractions that feature homegrown talent. The government promotes imported soca while cracking down on sound systems that feature local dancehall favorites.
The Jampro marketing study identified significant strengths of the Jamaican music industry as well as many weaknesses and threats. In hindsight, Jampro’s list of opportunities reads like an exercise in wishful thinking: increase Jamaica’s use as a location for movies, commercials and music videos; create linkages with cultural tourism, sports and multimedia. In the four years since the marketing campaign was unveiled, few of these opportunities have been realized. The only entertainment-related developments in Jamaica that have been consistently successful have been those financed privately (in many cases by Bob Marley’s heirs and/or his mentor, Chris Blackwell) and with a minimum of state involvement. I will discuss Marley’s legacy in the next section.
Bob Marley’s Legacy
Bob Marley is one of a handful of artists in popular music (his contemporary John Lennon is another) who not only died at his peak but left a body of work that has never gone out of fashion and remains creatively and commercially successful. Marley’s songs appeal to a wide range of listeners and he is selling more records in 2000, 19 years after his death, than at any time during his life. His greatest-hits collection, Legend, has sold an estimated 15 million copies worldwide (RIAA, 2000) and was identified by the SoundScan database as the most popular back-catalogue item of the 1990s (Weisbard, 2000). His dreadlocked face is perhaps one of the world’s most recognizable icons. In a global marketplace where “branding” is everything, Bob Marley™ is a highly visible and desirable brand.
Marley’s estate is administered by his widow, Rita Marley, and her co-executor, Island Records founder Chris Blackwell. Besides considerable income from Marley’s publishing, performance and mechanical royalties, the estate also runs the Bob Marley Museum and Tuff Gong Records in Kingston, operates a themed attraction in Nine Mile, Bob’s birthplace, and markets a staggering array of Bob Marley merchandise through a large Internet and mail-order business. Blackwell and Rita Marley zealously exploit licensing rights to Bob’s name and image. Some licensing decisions have been controversial; the Marley estate drew criticism from Bob’s teetotaling Rasta fans in 1997 when Marley’s song “Jammin’” was licensed to Anheuser Busch for a television spot featuring the animated Budweiser frogs. Earlier that year, the Marley estate had threatened legal action against a Panamanian brewery for using Marley’s image on an outdoor sign for De Primera beer. I heard Jamaican musicians joking that summer that the Panamanians just didn’t offer enough money.
The most ambitious marketing of Marley’s name and image opened in 1999 at the Universal Studios Florida theme park outside Orlando. “Bob Marley — A Tribute to Freedom” is a restaurant and club that is modeled after 56 Hope Road in Kingston, Marley’s former home and site of the Bob Marley Museum. It is on Universal’s CityWalk near “Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville,” the “NBA Restaurant,” and other themed attractions. The venue serves alcohol, shellfish and meat, all of which were shunned by Marley himself in conformity with Rasta dietary restrictions. A writer commented that “Rita Marley and other reggae figures are more interested in capitalizing on Marley’s popularity than in representing the issues and concerns of struggling Rastafarians” (Talvi, 1999).
The “branding” of Bob Marley has involved considerable refashioning of Bob’s image (easy, now that he is not around to complain). The ganja-smoking revolutionary who once sang that he felt like bombing a church has been replaced by the natural mystic singing sweet love songs like “Satisfy My Soul” and “Three Little Birds.” Bob’s image handlers are trying to distance him from the rest of the reggae community. According to a newspaper story on the enduring popularity of the Legend compilation, Island Records conducted a survey that “found that the word ‘reggae’ often had negative connotations, even to people who liked Marley [so] the word appears only once on the album’s back cover, in type so tiny it can’t be read without squinting” (Bauder, 1977). Needless to say, ganja spliffs aren’t on the menu at the Tribute to Freedom restaurant.
Marley’s offspring have used the family name to launch careers in music, movies and sports. Cedella, Sharon, Steven and Ziggy — Bob’s children with Rita — perform together as the Melody Makers and supervise the day-to-day operation of the family’s businesses. The Melody Makers won Grammy awards and toured successfully in the 1990s, but their career gradually appeared to stall in the late ‘90s as musical differences between Ziggy and Steven became more apparent (on a 1998 tour they traveled in separate buses and used different bass players). In 1999, the Melody Makers were accused of selling out their roots when they recorded the rock-influenced “Spirit of Music” with celebrity producer Don Was. “Scant interest at home in Marley clan,” proclaimed a Jamaican newspaper in a crabs-in-a-barrel tone. “The Marley children, who have followed in their father’s footsteps, are finding it difficult to make a name for themselves in their homeland … [they] do not have a mass audience in Jamaica” (“Scant Interest,” 1999).
Bob’s sons Julian, Damian, Ky-Mani and Rohan are thoroughly integrated into Marley family affairs. Julian, Damian, and Ky-Mani are U.S.-based solo artists whose shows are heavy on Bob Marley hits. They tour extensively on the North American and European reggae circuits but, like the Melody Makers, have difficulty gaining airplay or mass popularity in Jamaica. Son Rohan, the only non-musician of his generation, had a brief career in professional football and helps manage the career of his wife, hip-hop singer/songwriter Lauryn Hill. Hill, who was showered with Grammies for “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” has provided a crucial connection for the Marley children to the world of hip-hop.
Royalties generated by Bob Marley songs, records, videos, books, clothing and other merchandise — in addition to income from the family-run tourist attractions and the Tuff Gong studio/pressing plant — provide a comfortable living for the Marley clan. But two 1999 projects show that the younger generation of Marleys are using the universal appeal of their father’s music to forge new links with the hip-hop community. “Chant Down Babylon” is a Steven Marley-produced CD on which hip-hop artists like MC Lyte, Busta Rhymes, Chuck D, Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill sing duets with digitally sampled snippets of Bob’s own vocals. The CDs release coincided with a “Tribute to Bob Marley” concert in Oracabessa, Jamaica, aired in the U.S. on Turner Broadcasting Network and marketed on video and DVD. The concert featured a few numbers by Marley family members and old favorites Jimmy Cliff and Toots Hibbert, but was dominated by rock and hip-hop artists. Contemporary Jamaican artists who did appear were largely cut out of the broadcast (though their performances are available as bonus tracks on the DVD).
Bob Marley wrote and performed the songs. Chris Blackwell introduced Bob to the “big-time” and guided his career. Rita Marley took care of things, at home and on the road, and raised Bob’s children. After Marley’s death in 1981 (and after protracted legal battles), the widow and the record mogul took Bob’s legacy of words, music, image, and built it into an entertainment empire. In Jamaica, which after all is a small and rather poor country of two million people, Chris Blackwell, Rita Marley and Bob’s children are regarded with jealousy.
Where Bob is still esteemed as a prophet and down-to-earth man of the people, Rita Marley and Blackwell are frequent targets of scurrilous gossip. Mrs. Marley is described in anecdotes as a controlling and vindictive woman with extravagant tastes, Imelda Marcos-like. Blackwell (who was portrayed on a Lee “Scratch” Perry record sleeve as a blood-sipping vampire) is said to be a bisexual Dorian Gray who practices black magic to stay young. Allegations such as these appear frequently in the Usenet newsgroup “rec.music.reggae” and are discussed in the various Marley biographies (e.g. Davis, 1985; White, 1988; Taylor, 1993).
However, as the Jamaican music industry struggles to survive in a global market and as the Jamaican government struggles to solve chronic economic problems, Bob Marley’s legacy is a stablizing cultural and economic force. The Marley family’s various enterprises bring international attention as well as tourist revenue to Jamaica. Palm Pictures, the company Blackwell founded after selling Island Records in 1990, has emerged as one of the first truly diversified multimedia companies of the information age. Its two Jamaican-produced films, Dancehall Queen and Third World Cop, have reincarnated a dormant Jamaican movie industry while its record label is home to a hand-picked roster of reggae and non-reggae artists. Blackwell has also bankrolled projects by Jamaican producers, such as Sly Dunbar’s acquisition of Mixing Lab studio. In this respect, Marley lives on in much more than song.
Reggae and the Erasure of Memory
The idea that memories can be altered or erased was once the province of UFOlogists, hypnotists and conspiracy theorists. Since the early 1990s, the concept has been employed in a different context by a Los Angeles-based school of critical urban theorists including Mike Davis (1990, 1998), Allen Scott and Edward Soja (1996) and Norman M. Klein (1997), who uses the phrase “erasure of memory” in the title of a book. These theorists discuss the politics of urban redevelopment in post-industrial Los Angeles and document the distortions of historical record that are used to whitewash racial, economic and class conflict (important themes likewise in contemporary movies and fiction about L.A., from Roman Polanski’s Chinatown to the novels of James Ellroy, Walter Mosley and John Shannon).
Davis calls attention to the role of mass media in spreading contradictory myths about Los Angeles — sunny paradise, glamorous movie capital, corrupt Babylon, futuristic dystopia. Klein describes Los Angeles as “a city that was imagined long before it was built” (p. 27) and “the most photographed and least remembered city in the world” (p. 247). He argues that generations of boosterism have created an idealized image of the city that is more believable, even to its own residents, than the unvarnished reality. “The overall effect resembles what psychologists call ‘distraction,’ where one false memory allows another memory to be removed in plain view, without complaint — forgotten” (p. 2), Klein writes, describing demolished landmarks and neighborhoods as “phantom limbs” that sometimes ache with recollection although they no longer exist.
The social construction of collective memory has been widely discussed by theorists in a number of disciplines. The British sociologist Ruth Finnegan (1992) writes that social researchers are “moving away from the idea of storing verbatim memories to one of people reconstructing and organizing on the basis of what they know and do, so that remembering means not drawing on rote memory but a creative and organizational activity by the user” (p. 115). The journal History and Theory devotes an entire issue (Shapiro, 1997) to exploring the relationship between memory and history in a culture where mass-mediated representations are given more credibility than official accounts of events such as the Holocaust or the Kennedy assassination. Of course, false consciousness is not a new concept; the idea that media representations are used to naturalize and legitimate capitalism is a central tenet of Marxism.
The erasure of memory with respect to reggae music is well illustrated by liner notes to a recent compilation of non-Jamaican reggae (Wendt, 1998). Note how the author, a well-known North American critic and radio host, symbolically eradicates the generations of Jamaican music that preceded Bob Marley’s career:
It was a quarter century ago that reggae music burst forth from the Caribbean island of Jamaica, fully formed and ready to conquer the world. Through the simultaneous release of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Catch a Fire and the classic film The Harder They Come, starring Jimmy Cliff, reggae found an international audience for the first time. … Inspired by 60s soul and protest music as well as Jamaican independence, reggae kept the best instincts of the 60s alive with songs of love and social revolution. … It is of little wonder that reggae has joined rock ’n’ roll as one of the most pervasive, popular musics of our time.
The statement erases the history of Jamaican popular music before 1973 — including mento, ska, rocksteady and early reggae — both by claiming that Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff invented reggae and by implying that Island Records owner Chris Blackwell, like Columbus, merely “discovered” it. These myths are perpetuated by most of the mass-market books about reggae (as well as some of the academic works), which give the lion’s share of coverage to artists affiliated with Island Records and its descendants.
Reggae is globally significant not because of the works (or sales figures) of any one artist, but because it has so widely influenced recording studio practices and spawned so many other musical forms such as rap, hip-hop, house, techno, jungle, drum-n-bass and other variations. The use of the recording studio as a musical instrument, for “sonic painting” rather than accuracy of reproduction, was pioneered by Jamaicans in the mid-60s when the Beatles’ innovations were still a few years away. The idea that a phonograph record could be more than a product for mass consumption — that it could be the backing track for many different “versions” — can be attributed to Jamaican sound system operators. So can the idea that you don’t need to play a musical instrument to put on a show as long as you have turntables, amps and speakers — the idea that a Jamaican immigrant, Kool Herc, introduced to kids in Bronx, N.Y., playgrounds in the late ‘60s. The result was hip-hop — which has since evolved into one of the top musical genres in the world in sales popularity.
To be fair, hip-hop artists often speak of their indebtedness to reggae, and some, like KRS-One, Grandmaster Flash and Busta Rhymes, proclaim Caribbean roots. But it is safe to venture that the vast record-buying public has no idea that reggae existed before Bob Marley and thinks of hip-hop as something separate, an African-American invention. The erasure of memory is also at work in academic cultural studies; Tricia Rose (1994), for example, articulates a theory of rap as a fusion of African-American oral practices and postmodern technologies. She makes no reference to the fact that this fusion first occurred in Jamaica and was imported into the U.S. (Caribbean music and reggae are mentioned only in footnotes). Books and music magazines likewise ignore Jamaica’s significant contribution to other popular musics.
In 1993 and again in 1997, Jamaican producer Gussie Clarke said that crossovers between reggae and North American hip-hop worried him because he was afraid reggae would be swallowed up, would lose its distinctiveness, would be — in a word — erased. The same thought occurred to Kevin Chang and Wayne Chen (1998) in their “revisionist” history of reggae:
In 10 or 20 years’ time, although rap may have originally evolved from dancehall, given rap’s far larger market, artist population base and media exposure, it’s hard not to see dancehall eventually being devoured by its offspring, becoming just another branch of the rap tree, differing from hip hop in a way as say East Coast rap differs from West Coast rap.
Elsewhere in their book, Chang and Chen (who are partial to oldies and slick “uptown” artists like Byron Lee) have little use for dancehall, calling it monotonous and unoriginal and criticizing its tendency toward misogyny. However, it is difficult to argue with their claim that the advent of Black Entertainment Television (available in Jamaica on satellite and cable since about 1992), among other factors, is contributing to the gradual absorption of Jamaican reggae into a globalized version of hip-hop.
The prominent American music critic Nelson George (1988, 1998) writes that the “death” (as he puts it) of black popular music in the United States began in the 1950s, when white artists began playing a deracinated version of rhythm & blues and christened it rock & roll “to camouflage its black roots” (p. x). George argues that this pushed black music back into African-American communities, where it would emerge again as soul, disco, funk, or rap, become popular, be marketed to the infinitely larger white audience in diluted “crossover” form. To George, the “death” of rhythm & blues as a force uniting African-Americans happened because of too much cultural crossover:
[I]t is clear that black America’s assimilationist obsession is heading it straight toward cultural suicide. The challenge facing black artists, producers, radio programmers and entrepreneurs of every description is to free themselves from the comforts of crossover, to recapture their racial identity, and to fight for the right to exist on their own terms (p. 200).
The erasure of memory with respect to black music can be stated in more overtly theoretical terms: “[T]he subordinate group’s ability to express and represent its authentic experience is negated. … Thus, the subordinate group comes to experience the world in the codes of the dominant group” (Grossberg, Wartella, & Whitney, 1998, p. 190). However, in the case of reggae, the issue is clouded because the dominant group (North American rap producers and labels) and the subordinate group (reggae artists) share a common cultural ancestry and can both be termed subordinate groups within the dominant mainstream of global popular culture.
Global and Local Reggae: Divergent Paths?
“Carry mi ackee go a Linstead Market,” goes a famous folk song learned by generations of Jamaican schoolchildren. “Not a quattie wort’ sell.” It’s the lament of a poor country woman who has brought her perishable crop a long distance to market, only to find no one buying. Ackee, a fruit with a taste and texture like scrambled eggs, is a Jamaican staple; a quattie is a quarter of a sixpence, very small change indeed. “Oh, what a life, not a bite! What a Saturday night!” the woman wails. People want to handle the merchandise, but her pockets are empty. “Everybody come squeeze up, squeeze up, not a quattie wort’ sell.”
“Linstead Market” — either the song or the actual place in the hills north of Kingston — provides a metaphor for the global political economy of information/communication and the position of intercultural reggae within it. In the country market, sellers bring their goods from home and place them on display in predetermined areas. They take the risk because there is predictable demand for their goods — after all, everyone has to eat — and they know the preferences of their regular customers because most are from the immediate vicinity. Everyone is selling more or less the same things at more or less the same prices, so there is fierce competition for every advantage. Business success has much more to do with the market power of the seller than with the quality of the merchandise. Sellers compete for favorable locations on the basis of seniority, and high-traffic spots are defended zealously. Some sellers use friends and relatives as shills, on the theory that people equate a busy stall with quality merchandise. Others appear helpful and friendly, trying to ingratiate themselves to potential buyers. Some employ particularly creative, or particularly aggressive, sales pitches. But try as they might, they can’t force passersby to spend money, and sometimes they go home empty-handed.
Since the early 1990s, reggae has developed a split personality, a dichotomy of “dancehall” and “roots” musics appealing to largely different audiences. There appears to be little interest among contemporary Jamaicans in roots reggae, which ironically is seen by many as “foreign” or “international” music dominated by rock-style guitar and appealing mainly to whites. As non-Jamaican artists have begun to dominate roots reggae, popular interest in Jamaica has shifted to a mix of North American hip-hop and hard-core dancehall. In the inner-city communities of Kingston and Montego Bay, where sound systems rather than radio stations set the tone, dancehall is the only Jamaican music.
“The fact that the white controlled the purse strings usually meant that the true black form was forced underground and some less vibrant usurper came to hold sway,” writes Jamaican musicologist Garth White (1980). “Not satisfied with this, the whites, shouldering their ‘burden,’ often took over those watered down forms under the pretext of polishing them up, pushing the black practitioners out of the picture.” White’s essentialism aside, his statement suggests that the current dominance of dancehall in Jamaica is a form of local backlash against the globalization of reggae.
Although dancehall has many fans outside Jamaica, they tend to be confined to large urban areas where the music has gained popularity through play at clubs and dances. Elsewhere, roots reggae (e.g. Bunny Wailer, Culture, Burning Spear) and pop/reggae (e.g. Ziggy Marley, Steel Pulse) continue to draw the biggest crowds and sell the most records. Many non-Jamaican reggae fans dislike the sound and attitude of dancehall just as vehemently as U.S. soul and funk fans dislike rap. Take for an example this statement by a North American reggae show on its music policy: “Music on this show is ‘roots reggae’ only. No rap, no hip-hop. Dancehall style will be aired only if it has a clear reggae beat” (RAW, 1999c). Likewise, performers at Reggae Ambassadors Worldwide conferences have been almost universally “roots reggae,” with a preference for socially conscious performers in the Rastafarian tradition.
Thus, Jamaica finds itself in the position of the woman in “Linstead Market,” growing a crop and laboriously conveying it to market only to find few buyers. There is considerable interest in Jamaican music around the world (“everybody come squeeze up”), but no one makes a lasting commitment. All the talk of a slump in the Jamaican music business boils down to this: Jamaica is producing an endless supply of music, but not the kind that the global audience wants, so the demand for roots reggae is being satisfied elsewhere. Meanwhile, the global audience remains largely ignorant of dancehall, the music that is so popular in Jamaica, because multinational media corporations refuse to invest their resources in what they see as a mere novelty, rap with a Caribbean accent. One reason why there is no “new Bob Marley” is that there is no “new Chris Blackwell” investing in long-term artist development.
Anxiety and celebration, the intertwined narrative tropes about world music described by Steven Feld (1999), can be found in profusion in the ethnographic text: many participants optimistically claim that reggae will take over the world, but (almost in the same breath) worry about the seeming lack of major-label interest in the music. “[O]ne frequently encounters a critically suspicious stance on the workings and motivations of the music industry mixed with a critically sympathetic stance on the aspirations and activities of musicians and publics” (1999, p. 1), Feld writes. Instead, I will return to the dictum that I heard so many times in Jamaica, that there are “no facts, only versions” — in this case, a “global version” and “local version” of intercultural reggae.
Global version. Reggae has become the universal music of justice and social awareness. It is appreciated and performed everywhere in the world, and its meanings are understood by people in a broader range of cultural settings than any other popular music of the time. Through its practices of versioning, mixing and dubbing, it has exerted a strong influence on other musical forms and has given birth to entire genres — hip-hop, rap, techno, house, trance, jungle, and the many other variations of technological dance music would be unthinkable had not reggae paved the way. Reggae has produced a truly iconic figure, Bob Marley, whose words and music continue to inspire idealists and revolutionaries the world over. Through Reggae Ambassadors Worldwide and other communication networks, reggae is able to mobilize people and resources for grassroots movements on a global scale. For an unassuming ghetto music that was scorned in its homeland for many years, reggae has come far.
Local version. Like the first generation of African-American bluesmen and women, the originators of reggae have sat on the sidelines and watched while others profit from their creativity. A laid-back, informal culture of doing business has left Jamaica ripe for exploitation, while the individualistic nature of the business has led to many suspicions and jealousies that stand in the way of collective action. The government continues to fight both sides of the battle, cracking down on sound system operators who disseminate the kind of music loved by everyday Jamaicans while spending public resources promoting tourist events featuring every other kind of music under the sun: rap, soul, jazz, gospel, steel band or soca. It is no wonder that Jamaicans have developed something of a split personality about this. Significantly, the best produced album to come out of Jamaica in 1999 — From East Memphis to Kingston on Bob Marley’s own label, Tuff Gong — is an album of brilliantly performed covers of North American soul hits. In a way, Jamaican music has come full circle, playing cover versions and sanitized “island favorites” for the entertainment of tourists.
It is difficult to predict whether these tensions can be resolved. Perhaps reggae has already evolved too far toward a globalized musical style to ever re-connect with its Caribbean roots. Nevertheless, the values espoused by reggae practitioners are much needed in this conflict-ridden world, and their modest successes in spreading the message of reggae to every corner of the world gives hope that global reggae can prevail.