By Charles Onunaiju
THE Caribbean or more specifically, Jamaican originated rebel music, more widely and internationally known as Reggae, has finally lived up to its universal appeal as a socially conscious advocacy for justice, equal rights and “one love” that transcends colour, creed and class.
On November 29, the world’s foremost cultural and scientific body, the United Nations, Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, UNESCO, placed reggae music on the list of “intangible cultural heritage” of humanity, worthy of preservation, protection and promotion, noting that “in its embryonic state, Reggae music was the voice of the marginalised.”
Though played by a cross-section of society, its enduring power as a music of the people is one of the key reasons why it is a cultural treasure. In admitting the music as a world cultural heritage, UNESCO writes that “its contribution to international discourse on issues of injustice, resistance, love and humanity underscores the dynamics of the element as being at once cerebral, socio-political, sensual and spiritual. The basic social functions of the music as a vehicle for social commentary, a cathartic practice and a means of praising God (Jah) have not changed and the music continues to act as a voice for all.”
The overly enthusiastic Jamaican Culture Minister, Olivia Grange, told a local newspaper that “it is important to recognise reggae music roots,” adding that the acclaim by UNESCO was “less about validating the music and more about making sure people are not confused about where reggae comes from,” noting that it should “be recognised worldwide as the creative input of the Jamaican people.”
Reggae Music actually originated from black youths mostly marooned in the squalid ghettos, lacking totally in political influence or social voice. Colonial Jamaica was socially hierarchical with tiny white elites occupying the highest echelon, and Creoles, Chinese and other variations of colour struggling at the middle ladder, with majority blacks condemned to the lowest rung.
Reggae music was at once, an outcry of the marginalised, social protest against the racial oppression of the black people and a spiritual assurance of a new dawn when the black man would take his rightful place in the scheme of things. The Rastafari movement that grew with reggae and venerates Emperor Halie Selassie as the “rightful ruler,” “conquering lion of the tribe of Judah,” was a spirited effort to identify a black saviour since the Christian saviour of few white, was largely uninterested in the dire condition of the majority blacks marooned in the ghettos. The Rastafari movement held that Halie Selassie was the product of the biblical visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon and was their prophesied redeemer that will come to save mankind.
Popularised by the Wailers band formed in the early sixties by Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, reggae music made powerful entry to the international scene with vehement advocacy for Africa’s liberation and unity and an affirmation that any Black man everywhere in the world is an “African.” Stirring the black youths in Jamaica’s ghetto “to get up and fight for your rights,” the music triggered a worldwide consciousness to common aspirations to “equal rights and justice,” a cry that resonated very strongly in the trenches of anti-colonial struggles in Africa and powered militant call for racial equality in America and Europe. The Wailers through rousing the sleepy Jamaican ghettos to militant demand for inclusion and recognition, inaugurated a global effects in the fight for freedom.
With a break up in 1973, the core members of the Wailers – Bob, Peter, and Bunny went on successful solo careers with Bob Marley becoming the most internationally recognised face of reggae music. Peter Tosh, a power-house of political activism and militant anti-imperialism took the world by storm when he released his Equal Rights album which followed his debut album that pledged to legalise marijuana, ganja or hemp.
One of the nuances of the Rastafari movement was the smoking of marijuana considered a “holy sacrament” since it is believed by them that hemp first grew on the tomb of King Solomon and therefore is “a tree of wisdom.” Despite the nuances of Rastafari movement that accompanied the rise of reggae music, the message of the music, the political agitations, philosophical reflections and spiritual outpouring continues to resonate to the world community, transcending its original appeal of Black man redemption to universal cry for justice for all, global peace and one love for all humanity.
Though, a corruption of reggae has multiplied in the so-called dance-hall, lovers rock, and other such variations, the original roots reggae and its militant demand for justice and equality bearing the original message of the genre remains intact. Among the many root reggae musicians bearing the original message of the genre includes the only surviving member of the original Wailers, Bunny Wailer, Burning Spear, whose epic rendition of the masterpiece Slavery days, still evokes tears about the Black man sufferings, Ijahman Levi, Max Romeo whose 1976 album, War in A Babylon mocked the Queen of England for “stealing in the name of law.”
Last year, Max Romeo in his 70s, released his 30th album, Horror zone, a social and political commentary of the dire contemporary world situation. Among the contemporary reggae artistes bearing the burden of the message includes Luciano, Morgan Heritage, Sizzla Kalonji, Capelton, Buju Banton, Bushman, the Marley sons, Andrew Tosh, and also includes such veteran greats like the dub poet, Mutabaruka, Daddy U-Roy, the trio of Israeli Vibration etc. Reggae music is at once a militant agitation against social injustice as well as soothing balm to cool down wanton and unbridled violence. It denounces crimes and vices as un-befitting of youths who are specially loved by ‘Jah.’
If any society today needs the powerful and instructive message of reggae music, Nigeria is one, but the current airwaves is tragically ruled by banalities and lewd lyrics by a generation who refuse to educate themselves that music is essentially a social service, not only rewarded with money but by such honor extended to reggae music by UNESCO as a world cultural treasure to be cherished, preserved, protected and promoted.