Styles & Forms | US Reggae

For most of reggae’s life the terms ‘American reggae’ or ‘reggae in America’, have remained oxymorons. A number of possible reasons have been proposed, ranging from the plausible to the patently absurd, as to why reggae has never enjoyed the same success in the US that it found in the UK, in terms of proportionate record sales and general rock-biz profile.

Some of the reasons given include: America already has a healthy black musical heritage and does not need or wantany imports; there is not a sufficiently influential Jamaican community to give it a kick start; Americans are not able to dance to reggae’s beats or understand the lyrics; or, during the roots era, any potential audience was totally baffled by the notion of sufferation – the righteous pursuit of the ultra-simple life in the name of Jah – as something to be aspired to. However, in spite of reggae never really making much of an impact on the American cultural mainstream, Jamaican music has seeped into the landscape on a number of levels as the result of it having been marketed there for 40 years.

The World’s Fair

In 1964, the Jamaican government organized a ska delegation to the World’s Fair in New York – Kingston musicians, vocalists Jimmy Cliff, Millie Small and Prince Buster, and former Jamaican Miss World Carol Crawford were sent to demonstrate the dance – to attempt to sell the music to US record companies. It nearly worked. Atlantic, Epic, ABC-Paramount and Capitol Records all put out ska albums the following year, but the only notable successes were Millie’s ‘My Boy Lollipop’ and Prince Buster’s ‘10 Commandments Of Man’. America never took to The Sound Of Young Jamaica as any sort of rival to Motown’s Sound Of Young America.

Rock steady passed America by, and the next Jamaican style to have an impact was roots reggae. Coming at the end of the hippy era in the early 1970s, it offered an extension of the same peace’n’love, dope-smoking vibe, and found an audience on the US college circuit, which was far more open-minded than the rigidly formatted commercial radio stations. Acts like Bob Marley and The Wailers, Burning Spear, The Mighty Diamonds, Big Youth, Culture, Steel Pulse and Linton Kwesi Johnson all did well among largely middle-class, young white audiences. It was one of Bob Marley’s biggest disappointments that he was unable to reach black America who, at the time, simply didn’t get what roots reggae was all about. Since his death in 1981, Marley has become something of a revolutionary icon in black America, but it’s unlikely his records will be found in the same households as his picture.

Having An Impact

By dabbling in the same samples and presentation styles as hip hop of the day, in the early 1990s dancehall began to make headway in the US. Rappers KRS-One, Public Enemy and Queen Latifah all flirted with the sound, and deejays Shabba Ranks...

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


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