Our nation celebrated another Reggae Month. February was so designated in 2008. It is an important time on our calendar. We must therefore applaud our leaders, both in government and the music fraternity, for maintaining this focus. This year its observation has been exceptional, given the variety, quality, and intensity of the events delivered.
The celebration of Reggae Month is important, to my mind, for a major reason — the music form is ours. Let’s never forget that it was born out of the belly of our people. It represents our experiences, journey, and mood. It has proven to be God’s gift to us that we have, in turn, given to the world. And the world has fully embraced it.
Not many nations can boast that they have given an acceptable music form to the world. This should not be taken lightly, because it leaves great responsibility on us. Whenever you give a gift, one wants to ensure it is a good gift that is of great benefit to the receivers. For us, giving this gift of reggae to the world is in keeping with the national charge of our founding fathers, recorded in the words of our national pledge, “…so that Jamaica may…play her part in advancing the welfare of the whole human race”.
The responsibility is, therefore, on us, the leaders of this nation and industry, to ensure that our reggae music accomplishes that desired end. Everything about it should be advancing the best welfare of mankind. Any aspect that does not should be discouraged.
From this standpoint alone, we have every reason to celebrate.
The theme this year says, ‘Come Ketch De Riddim’, and Jamaican parlance would add, “and ride di riddim”, because reggae forms naturally a part of our Brand Jamaica. We should treasure it, protect it, develop it, market it, and ensure it is maximised for the greatest good of our nation and its people.
The move of our Minister of Culture Olivia “Babsy” Grange to partner with the Ministry of Tourism for national good is tremendous. These factors increase the need for us to ensure a few things are done with the reggae brand, as it is now synonymous with Jamaica.
The music reflects who we are and effectively represents our image. Not the image of a few, but the image of the many. The image we want the world to have of us is the image reggae should portray. The image should be the best of us!
Reggae should be lifted to represent a standard of excellence; a standard that unquestionably should be good for the world — from the baby on the breast to the elderly in their twilight years.
What is reggae?
We must define reggae ourselves and not let others define it for us. Reggae cannot be whatever anybody wants it to be. Is reggae just a “riddim”, or is it also content? For example, if reggae is to be authentically Jamaican, should only the conscious reggae music, the powerful message music, the challenging social commentary calling for positive change, be what is defined as reggae? Is reggae music to teach, to build up, and put you in a good mood? Is it a music of hope and encouragement? If the answer to these question are affirmative, then it should be declared as such.
We must clearly define it for ourselves and for the world. We cannot effectively teach it, develop it, and market it unless we define it. It is only after it is defined and positioned for longevity that it can be left as a legacy.
We must decide where we want to place it among the genres of music. Do we want it to be on the unforgettable upper level with the likes of music genres such as classical, jazz, and R&B, or the lower level with forgettable sounds like techno, hip hop and grunge? Is reggae merely an ordinary genre of music of the level of normal indigenous music for local consumption only, or is it a premium product for international embrace, that adds value to all nations of the world.
I believe our reggae is an international product geared toward making the world, at large, a better place. It must therefore have a certain character to it, aimed at a distinct purpose for humanity.
We should not allow it to be bastardised and lose its authenticity. A clear definition helps that. Commitment of producers to the defined brand will assist that. Some regulation may be necessary to aid that. Public education may be needed to help that. But protect it and use it we must.
The creator does nothing without purpose; therefore, this gift was not given without an intended purpose. Let’s shape it! Let’s celebrate it!
Reggae vs dancehall
I was in an interesting discussion a few days ago with a musicologist and reggae lovers. A hot debate ensued as to whether dancehall is reggae. It was argued by some that it is not reggae in rhythm or content. The musicologist argued that the Oxford Dictionary defines reggae as a style of popular music with a strongly accented subsidiary beat, originating in Jamaica. Cambridge Dictionary describes reggae as a type of popular music from Jamaica, with a strong second and fourth beat, he said. These are definitions which define reggae purely from a rhythmic point of view, he argued. If they are to be accepted as correct, then most of our current dancehall music would be disqualified, as they do not sport a “strongly accented subsidiary beat” or a “strong second and fourth beat”. Dancehall, instead, is a fusion of beats similar to American hip hop and gangsta rap with similar negative content.
The musicologist contended further that the Oxford and Cambridge definitions were not totally correct. Because, from a purist music perspective, he said, “subsidiary” should be replaced with the word syncopated in Oxford’s definition, and syncopated should qualify “second and fourth” in Cambridge’s definition. This further strengthens my argument that we, here in Jamaica, must define our reggae genre ourselves and not someone on the outside. After we properly and comprehensively define it, then we should impress on Oxford, Cambridge, and whoever else, to reflect our definitions in their dictionaries.
In addition, isn’t it full time we have schools where both our people and foreigners can learn the rudiments of reggae music, both in rhythm and content, so that the purity of the music can be maintained? No one can get away with playing anything they want and calling it classical music. Yet, we seem to be allowing anything to be called reggae by anybody, anywhere.
Reggae and Rasta
Another question in the discussion was, “Is reggae for all, or is reggae for Rasta?” My view was that reggae is Jamaican and is, therefore, for all. Bob Marley, our best individual promoter, was Rastafarian, but that does not make reggae Rasta any more than the fact that a baby born in a garage makes it a car.
Reggae is Jamaican, born for all, so anyone can use it — Rasta, Christian, Muslim, etc. So it should not be branded with trappings; it stands alone, because it is good by itself and can be good for all.
Music is a powerful tool that should be in responsible hands. Martin Luther, the well-known German monk of the 16th century, said it well when he opined, “Music is a fair and glorious gift of God.” Reggae is so good, and the fact that it belongs to us demands that we should be using it in economic development, social re-engineering, and as a vital part in education and the fight to defeat crime. A nation should seek to maximise the use of what it has in its hands.
May 2020 be a year for us to agree on its definition, set the framework to protect the brand, and carve a path to use it for national good as part of our national treasure. May all of us “ketch de riddim”.
Copyright © 2020 by Rev Dr. Al Miller.