The reggae music train could leave Jamaica at the station


In 1985, the US-based National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences introduced the Reggae category at its annual Gramophone Awards ceremony. The award was to be given to this artist or artists for quality works in the reggae musical genre to “honor artistic achievement, technical skill, and overall excellence in the recording industry, without regard to album sales or chart position”. In this regard, the Grammy Award for Best Reggae Recording was given to artists for eligible songs or albums. Clean Jamaica Black Uhuru won that inaugural Grammy in 1985.

Black Uhuru’s victory was a major achievement for Jamaican music, as their selection acted as an acknowledgment by the American music industry and its associates that Jamaican reggae music belonged. It was a fitting post-epithet to the groundwork done by the likes of Prince Buster, Millie Small, Desmond Decker, and especially, Bob Marley and the Wailers, all of whom have spent most of their adult lives taking Jamaican music around the world. The Grammy Award also highlighted the creative value of the islands’ capital, Kingston, and the importance of its role in creating world music, even if that same music was treated lightly and disdainfully by the owners of the capital and the creators of the island’s economic development policies.

Since Black Uhuru’s victory, several other artists have enjoyed similar success over the next 36 years. These include multiple winners, Ziggy Marley, Damian Junior Gong Marley, Stephen Marley, Bunny Wailer, Toots Hibbert, Jimmy Cliff, The Burning Spear, Steel Pulse, Shabba Ranks, Peter Tosh, Buju Banton, Shaggy, Sly and Robbie, Lee Scratch Perry, Morgan Heritage, Inner Circle and the only Koffee winner.

It is important that we keep in mind that these awards focus on genres, not country of origin. Additionally, their results are largely determined by “peer review” and not based on record sales. Nevertheless, a Grammy nomination (if the artists’ connections are properly wired) could bring positive elements to the artists’ careers. A Grammy win would be even more meaningful as it raises the profile of artists (again, assuming the success is carefully managed.)

Nonetheless, the 37-year-old’s successes have not been without issue or rancor, and the Grammys have been criticized for the continued dominance of the Marley name, among other issues. Throughout this time, too, Jamaicans at home and abroad have maintained that the quality of the music produced by our artists was below the standards to which they were accustomed. Jamaican music has for years influenced musicians around the world. After all, DJ music in the early 1980s spawned rap music in the United States, reggae spawned reggaeton in the Latin hallway, and dancehall spawned Afro beats. The common thread here is that in any case, it is Jamaican music that has traveled to different shores to influence sharp-eared artists and enterprising players in the music industry in those jurisdictions to incorporate Reggae/Dancehall into their own offerings, creating newer and more intriguing output while expanding the music’s audience base. Pulse of Steel is a Grammy-winning British band, and no other non-Jamaican band has done for Reggae what U-B40made an all-white British band.

From Jamaica’s point of view, Reggae music has served for decades to attract millions of visitors to the island and I am curious that if this music continues its pace of development on distant shores, will there be enough incentive for potential visitors to travel to Jamaica or to travel to other places where Reggae dominance is exploited? This is the takeaway I have from SOYwins the 2022 Reggae Grammy. We may have created the sound, but have we really done enough to deserve the genre’s maintenance as Jamaican? SOJA has done many recording sessions in Jamaica, giving authenticity to its own production. Their win serves to further broaden Reggae’s audience, so it’s up to our own musicians, artists, and industry interests to take advantage of this exposure instead of bawling about cultural appropriation.

In my view, these cultural appropriation arguments are meaningless because Jamaica has made little more than a verbal investment in the development of the industry. Despite the declared importance of music as an integral part of the cultural offer of the island, there are no arenas dedicated to the broadcasting of live music. There are no reggae music museums or theme parks for visitors and locals to connect with the giants of music’s past or to give an ear to the talent of the child. Add to that, the majority of our current generation of enthusiasts are unaware of music history. It is music that was born from the bowels of Kingston’s ghettos in the 1950s but is still treated with the disdain high society had for its creators and their production. The Jamaican music industry is sorely lacking in professional and experienced personnel, both in management and in performance. In the 1960s, there were only a handful of producers operating in a space where there was a plethora of performers. Sixty years later, there are more record producers than there are artists capable of producing quality output as the industry has satisfied the long-standing goal of “carrying” more personnel, but at the expense of quality.

Artists and management resent being completely plugged into the industry, especially in the areas of publishing, copyright, intellectual property, marketing and management. How many artists are registered to vote at the Grammys? Is the Jamaican market, including its diaspora, big enough to support the genre? Are we alone, doing enough to attract more non-Jamaicans to buy our music? Until these areas are addressed, the Jamaican influence in its own creation will shift to other shores as we continue to complain about cultural appropriation.
Last week we heard the news that Billboard had dropped Reggae and Dancehall. This week it’s Virginia based SOJA wins the Reggae Grammy. If that’s not a clear sign that the train is leaving the station, then I wonder what is.

About the Author

Richard Hugh BlackfordRichard Hugh Blackford hosts a 2-hour music-focused internet show Sunday Scoops on every Sunday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. The show focuses on the Jamaican Music Foundation and takes its audience on a nostalgic yet historic musical journey, looking back at years of Jamaican musical development as the hosts explore the careers of Jamaican artists. Sunday Scoops features interviews with personalities, discussions on Jamaican music and other hot topics. The show is co-hosted by famed DJ Garth Hendricks.

picture by Taken in joy to Unsplash


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