Styles & Forms | Roots Reggae

Roots reggae is probably the best-known genre of Jamaican music. Thanks to artists such as Bob Marley and Burning Spear, it achieved genuine worldwide success. Through these artists and their carefully articulated political dissent, social commentaries and praises to Jah Rastafari, it has been accepted across the world as one of the most potent protest musics.

Roots reggae grew up in Kingston’s slums in the early 1970s, as the ghetto dwellers – or ‘sufferahs’ as they called themselves – wanted to express their dissatisfaction at a government that, almost a decade after independence, had failed to deliver on its promises for a better life. If anything, ordinary people were worse off. Many were turning to Rastafarianism, if not going so far as to grow dreadlocks then at least following its principles as a way of surviving the harsh times as Jamaica’s underclass. Rasta is a faith inspired by Marcus Garvey (1870–1940) who believed that black Caribbeans were the lost tribes of Israel, and that they should rid themselves of the oppressions of the west and return to the promised land, to Africa. Rasta espoused black self-help and self-respect, and it struck a particular chord with a people less than a century removed from the slave ships. And this being Jamaica, popular feeling soon found its way into popular song.

Finding A Voice

It was on the sound systems that the voices of protest first made themselves heard, as people could simply pick up the mic and chat about anything they wanted to, provided it was on the beat. This was a new breed of deejays, who felt the same pressures as their audiences and gave voice to them in a way the people could identify with. It was then that Big Youth, Prince Jazzbo, I-Roy and Prince Far-I built up huge followings and went on to have hits with tunes like ‘Heavy Manners’ (Prince Far-I), ‘Natty Cultural Dread’ (Big Youth) and ‘Natty Passing Thru’ (Prince Jazzbo). It did not take long for a new wave of producers to sit up and take notice, and who saw this new attitude as their chance to make an impact: Gussie Clarke, Augustus Pablo, Keith Hudson, Niney, Jack Ruby, Lee Perry and Yabby U all made their names producing roots reggae’s first records.

Once it became obvious that there was a market for protest music, it broadened out and as Michael Manley’s People’s National Party, voted into office in 1972, was far more tolerant of Rastafari, reggae’s whole tone changed. As part of the shift towards Rasta’s ganja-fuelled spirituality, rhythms slowed, bass lines became more pronounced, east-Africanisms began to creep in, dub versions sought to intimidate with the very weight of their presence, and lyrics pulled few punches as they told of society’s ills and preached revolution.

The Main Man

Singers like Culture (‘Two Sevens Clash’), The Mighty Diamonds (‘Right Time’), The Abyssinians (‘Satta Massa Gana’), Max Romeo (‘War Inna Babylon’) and The Congos (‘Heart Of...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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