I feel like most people who say they like reggae don’t really mean reggae, they mean Bob Marley. Now I don’t mean everyone because there are wide swaths of folks into Ts and the Maytals, Burning Spear and a slew of other reggae acts. I mean middle America, the rank and file citizenry–they know only Marley in my experience.
Marley should be credited for bringing the music to the masses. However, reggae as a form itself doesn’t get enough respect and I think that it should. It may not be developed to the level of blues or jazz, but it hasn’t had the time either; reggae as we know it hasn’t been around that long. Even jazz wasn’t even considered an art form for a long time and was eschewed by the music buying masses as “race music”. (Now it’s turned into this slightly snobby type of thing that only the intellectual elite can enjoy, but that line of thought is for another day.) Reggae, enjoyable to listen to and socially aware at times, demands respect.
Reggae has a fairly short history and you could probably do yourself a favor by googling it and reading for a while. However, for the sake of this post, I will give a summary. As we know it, reggae came together in the late 1960’s and is an amalgamation of the traditional Jamaican genres of ska and rocksteady. Those types of music basically blend African traditions, Jazz, and American rhythm and blues into their own character. This is how all music starts, by blending a few different styles into one original sound. It’s distinctly different from popular rock music with its use of off beats and stop timing, perfect for dancing around like a fool. They say the Maytals popularly coined the term with a 1968 song called “Do the Reggay”, but after some research, it looks like it was around long before. Marley got his start in the late 60’s but wasn’t international for a few more years.
As I said early, Marley really did bring reggae to the masses. Or, more aptly, Eric Clapton did when he covered Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff”. As usual, it took a white dude to bring a black art form to the masses, a lamentable and recurring event in musical history. But, eventually, Marley become a superstar on his own and his appeal seems to grow more each year. Walk into any high school in America and count the number of Marley shirts worn by kids thirty years after his death. He represents freedom, social awareness, pot smoking and a plethora of other ideas. His cultural impact is matched by his musical impact, bringing reggae to the realm of pop music.
Every white boy reggae band and numerous Clash rip-offs have covered Marley and to great effect, since it has advanced his musical messages. Sublime, 311, O.A.R., Dirty Heads, and every college band since 1980 have lifted something. I can safely say that nearly every reggae band owes a debt to Marley and the Wailers because they were the first superstars of the genre. His messages of peace and acceptance are universal and it’s a shame we don’t have more pop stars like him. I am sure he will be in the social fabric for decades to come and with all this in mind, I think there is a multitude of other reggae to enjoy and it’s too bad Marley seems to be the standard answer when you get into a reggae conversation.
I have been a reggae fan since about ninth grade when I visited my sister at UVM and went home with a copy of Legend, the ubiquitous greatest hits album. I really liked “Stir it Up” and “Redemption Song” but soon moved on to deeper cuts as my hippie neighbor bought me Songs of Freedom. Referred to by fans as “the bible”, this four cd set contains tracks from his entire career including his oft covered “Acoustic Medley” which is still one of my favorite Marley tracks. It does a better job than any other song to really show Bob Marley the man.
I had the good fortune of going to college in a town that had constant acts rolling through so I was able to see many of today’s top reggae bands. I have seen Toots and the Maytals at least eight times, the Wailers, Culture, Mike Franti, Easy Star All Stars and a slew of big and smaller time bands that are not now coming quickly to my mind. Yes, I have also ran the gamut of white reggae but I don’t want to get into that as it is probably best saved for another day.
My major impetus for writing this post was the recollection a conversation I had with my neighbors in college, the dirty hippies. They lived in a very dirty house near my apartment in college whose occupants were dubbed as such; they all played music or were artists and all of them hated reggae. I think this is due to mostly everyone in the college age liking it nowadays. I’d go out of my way to expose them to what I thought was quality reggae and was always rebuked based on the principle that they “didn’t dig on reggae”. I have always taken offense to this and I needed to get it out of my system.
Reggae should already being viewed as a completely legitimate musical art form ranking up there with Jazz and Blues. I know many people will disagree with this, but for decades, both of the above mentioned forms of music were not considered by the populace at large as legitimate, largely based on ignorant race judgments. The mass appeal of reggae is apparent by people like Eric Clapton and bands like UB40 having a huge hits with reggae covers. Further, the influence of reggae can be seen across genres of music, from it’s use in dubstep to country stars like Zac Brown using reggae breakdowns in his number one hit “Chicken Fried” to a classic rock band Rush adding a reggae beat to their hit “Working Man” in live shows last year. Everyone loves the stuff because you can shake your booty to it. The stop times are literally designed for you to get your groove on which brings me to my final point.
Reggae is the same deal. Jazz and blues comes from a wide variety of sources from a lot of different places, just like reggae. It’s a constantly changing style of music that will almost always make you move, just as Jazz and Blues does. This, to me, is the ultimate judgement of a lot of things. Even if you dislike the lyrics or style of song, if it makes you move, it must be at least a little good.