Reggae, style of popular music that originated in Jamaica in the late 1960s and quickly emerged as the country’s dominant music. By the 1970s it had become an international style that was particularly popular in Britain, the United States, and Africa. It was widely perceived as a voice of the oppressed.
According to an early definition in The Dictionary of Jamaican English (1980), reggae is based on ska, an earlier form of Jamaican popular music, and employs a heavy four-beat rhythm driven by drums, bass guitar, electric guitar, and the “scraper,” a corrugated stick that is rubbed by a plain stick. (The drum and bass became the foundation of a new instrumental music, dub.) The dictionary further states that the chunking sound of the rhythm guitar that comes at the end of measures acts as an “accompaniment to emotional songs often expressing rejection of established ‘white-man’ culture.” Another term for this distinctive guitar-playing effect, skengay, is identified with the sound of gunshots ricocheting in the streets of Kingston’s ghettos; tellingly, skeng is defined as “gun” or “ratchet knife.” Thus reggae expressed the sounds and pressures of ghetto life. It was the music of the emergent “rude boy” (would-be gangster) culture.
In the mid-1960s, under the direction of producers such as Duke Reid and Coxsone Dodd, Jamaican musicians dramatically slowed the tempo of ska, whose energetic rhythms reflected the optimism that had heralded Jamaica’s independence from Britain in 1962. The musical style that resulted, rock steady, was short-lived but brought fame to such performers as the Heptones and Alton Ellis.
Reggae evolved from these roots and bore the weight of increasingly politicized lyrics that addressed social and economic injustice. Among those who pioneered the new reggae sound, with its faster beat driven by the bass, were Toots and the Maytals, who had their first major hit with “54-46 (That’s My Number)” (1968), and the Wailers—Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, and reggae’s biggest star, Bob Marley—who recorded hits at Dodd’s Studio One and later worked with producer Lee (“Scratch”) Perry. Another reggae superstar, Jimmy Cliff, gained international fame as the star of the movie The Harder They Come (1972). A major cultural force in the worldwide spread of reggae, this Jamaican-made film documented how the music became a voice for the poor and dispossessed. Its soundtrack was a celebration of the defiant human spirit that refuses to be suppressed.
During this period of reggae’s development, a connection grew between the music and the Rastafarian movement, which encourages the relocation of the African diaspora to Africa, deifies the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie I (whose precoronation name was Ras [Prince] Tafari), and endorses the sacramental use of ganja (marijuana). Rastafari (Rastafarianism) advocates equal rights and justice and draws on the mystical consciousness of kumina, an earlier Jamaican religious tradition that ritualized communication with ancestors. Besides Marley and the Wailers, groups who popularized the fusion of Rastafari and reggae were Big Youth, Black Uhuru, Burning Spear (principally Winston Rodney), and Culture. “Lover’s rock,” a style of reggae that celebrated erotic love, became popular through the works of artists such as Dennis Brown, Gregory Issacs, and Britain’s Maxi Priest.
In the 1970s reggae, like ska before it, spread to the United Kingdom, where a mixture of Jamaican immigrants and native-born Britons forged a reggae movement that produced artists such as Aswad, Steel Pulse, UB40, and performance poet Linton Kwesi Johnson. Reggae was embraced in the United States largely through the work of Marley—both directly and indirectly (the latter as a result of Eric Clapton’s popular cover version of Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” in 1974). Marley’s career illustrates the way reggae was repackaged to suit a rock market whose patrons had used marijuana and were curious about the music that sanctified it. Fusion with other genres was an inevitable consequence of the music’s globalization and incorporation into the multinational entertainment industry.
The dancehall deejays of the 1980s and ’90s who refined the practice of “toasting” (rapping over instrumental tracks) were heirs to reggae’s politicization of music. These deejays influenced the emergence of hip-hop music in the United States and extended the market for reggae into the African American community. At the beginning of the 21st century, reggae remained one of the weapons of choice for the urban poor, whose “lyrical gun,” in the words of performer Shabba Ranks, earned them a measure of respectability.