Do We Own Reggae? - Charles Campbell

November 19, 2007

Recently, at the end of an interview with Empress and Steven Golding on NewsTalk 93 FM’s On The Corner, I was asked the programme’s question of the day, “Do we own Reggae?”

Unfortunately, because the programme was wrapping up for the main evening news, I did not have enough time for a comprehensive answer. I instinctively and nationalistically gave the simplistic one word answer of ‘yes’. This issue, however, is a complex one deserving a more in-depth response. In any dispassionate examination of the question, the music business will have to be addressed separately from the music itself. Even so, in today’s context, no discussion of the ownership of Reggae music can ignore the fact that its international appeal and dimensions have penetrated all the continents.

Did you know that the latest major Reggae star is Matisyahu, a Jewish kid from New York who does a sub-genre called Hasidic Reggae? His album Youth was nominated for the 2007 Reggae Grammy, alongside Buju Banton, Ziggy Marley, UB40 and riddim-duo Sly and Robbie, who had collaborated with him in late 2006 on the digital single version of Jerusalem, originally featured on Youth.

Indeed, there is also a definition dimension to the issue. Does it, for argument’s sake, include the new musical genres that derive in large part from Reggae like Dancehall, rap, Hip Hop, Reggaeton, etc? When therefore, I give yes as my answer, I did so to claim paternity - more or less. In other words, Reggae originated in Jamaica and today, all Reggae musicians, the world over, pay homage to Jamaica as the birth place and spiritual home of the music. For example, I was just introduced to some material from Zoster, a Bosnian Reggae band, promoting Jamaica as their spiritual home on the track Majka Jamajka (Mother Jamaica). And even though I do not understand a word of what they are saying, the song Sell Off.

This narrow perspective is the only standpoint from which that positive response was offered by me, to the question, do we own Reggae. In essence though, this is the still largely underexploited potential which Jamaica has to increase our annual earnings from tourism and entertainment/music. Ironically, the biggest obstacle to doing so is the Jamaican status quo. For instance, in mid-October I met Senator Terrence ‘Positive’ Nelson, a dreadlocks Rastafari member of the legislature of the Virgin Islands and secretary of their intergovernmental and territorial affairs.

He related an encounter with some high government officials during which he got the distinct impression from them that a conscious attempt was being made to disavow the umbilical link between Reggae and Rastafari. Sadly, I had to inform him that the prevailing attitude is long standing and consistent of all Jamaican governments across the party lines since the 1970’s when Reggae began its international outreach.

In the land of Reggae, until the prejudice-the psychological barrier - is broken and the Rastafari community gain greater acceptance of the movers and shakers of society, their rightful contribution to the genesis and evolution of Reggae will continue to be denied, thus the potential growth and promotion of the music stultified in the process.

Meanwhile, as alluded to earlier, Reggae is now a global genre. Musicians all over the world are composing authentic Reggae music and penning songs in the great tradition of the music that offer people a sense of hope for the future. Reggae’s essential message of ‘one love’ continues to break down national, racial and class barriers. We no longer have the hegemony on the music. Brazilian Polish or African Reggae is no less authentic, even when they are addressing issues relevant to their societies and/or portraying images unrelated to Jamaica. That is the genius of Jamaica’s musical gift to the world and from that perspective, we can no longer claim to own Reggae.

The business of Reggae is another matter entirely. For the most part, we have come a far way from the uninformed days when artistes sold their creative works, lock, stock and barrel to a producer without protecting his/her copyright. Over the years, Jamaica has also developed a large pool of allied skills in the technical, administrative, management, public relations and production fields. This has allowed us to secure and protect the employment of Jamaicans within the industry.

On a larger scale however, the artiste have to rely on the big multi-national record companies to promote and distribute reggae products, this is the reality in a globalised world, where Jamaica-owned companies like VP Records are small fish in the scheme of things. The big ones gobble up even successful enterprise like island records in their drive to monopolise the market. Source - Jamaica Observer


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