Down to the Roots: The Radical Politics of Reggae

Bob Marley is a paradox — part “Is This Love” and part “Buffalo Soldier.” He is the poster boy and evangelist for reggae music, viewed through a commodified 21st-century lens that sanitizes the truly radical nature of his music and legacy. Although less discussed among much of Marley’s contemporary worldwide fanbase, the singer-guitarist’s political messaging and activism speaks to the generations-long resonance and power of reggae music.

“For a lot of people in the 21st century, Bob Marley is all about ‘One Love,’ and he’s been systematically defanged. But for a lot of people, it’s still about ‘Get Up, Stand Up,’” said Don Letts, a first-generation Black British man of Jamaican descent whose contributions to reggae and punk include multiple documentaries, videos for The Clash, BBC 6 Music shows, and the Reggae 45s podcast co-presented with Turtle Bay. This dichotomy is certainly present in Marley’s work and reverberates through UNESCO’s recent designation of reggae as an “intangible cultural heritage.”

Despite (or, perhaps, because of) its feel-good, island vibe and emphasis on bass and rhythm, reggae is a unique vehicle for delivering messages of empowerment, Afrocentrism, and anti-colonial critique. It’s also inherently political music, grown from the freedom sounds of Jamaican independence in 1962 and blossoming into the heavier, socially conscious sound that reflected less celebratory times in 1968. Reggae – as well as its sonic predecessors ska and rocksteady – spread like wildfire throughout the island, holding up a groovy mirror to Jamaican national politics and the state of marginalized people the world over.

While Marley started out singing upbeat covers of “What’s New Pussycat” with The Wailers in 1965, his later discography includes albums such as Rebel Music and Uprising! Marley’s breakout reggae-rock crossover album, 1973’s Catch a Fire, features a number of heavy political themes that are exemplary of the consciousness-raising power of reggae. “Slave Driver” makes a direct connection between the slave trade and continued inequity among Black people:

Every time I hear the crack of a whip/My blood runs cold/I remember on the slave ship/How they brutalize the very souls/Today they say that we are free/Only to be chained in poverty/Good God, I think it's illiteracy/It's only a machine that makes money.

Before the public acknowledgment of the legacy of colonialism, songs like “Slave Driver” served as a vehicle for important, alternative narratives. “The music has informed the whole planet; it’s become part of the fabric of popular music, and some people picked up on the roots radical, get up stand up reportage,” Letts told The North Star, noting his own reggae-fueled consciousness in the early ‘70s. “In the UK they’re showing images of white Jesus and perfection, and I could never achieve that, and nor did I want to. And here comes reggae and they’re talking about Africa and not being so Eurocentric in our ideology. It taught me about my own roots and what we had to bring to the party.”

Everything from Marley’s “African Herbsman,” to Burning Spear’s “Door Peep Shall Not Enter,” and The Abyssinians’ "Satta Massagana" subverted a colonial mentality which was still present after independence, said Carter Van Pelt, VP Records’ director of catalog development and founder of Coney Island Reggae on The Boardwalk. “After the colonial masters are no longer in power you have a system that, no matter who the person is, is perpetuating aspects of domination and subjugation that are coming from slavery. Naturally, there will be an oppressed part of society that resists, and reggae articulated that.”.

This aural education predates other ‘70s era protest music and certainly informed the messaging of hip hop and punk. The first wave of reggae is entirely rooted in the Jamaican experience and the nation’s long history of dissent and protest, though it’s not the first popular island sound to question the status quo. Rooted in the traditions of enslaved West Africans brought to the Caribbean, calypso long predated reggae and was a method of “communicating and interpreting political events, and a primary news source for many islanders,” according to the BBC. In the early ‘60s, rude boys — a youth subculture known for their sharp dress, attitude, and violent tendencies — made international headlines for the way they challenged the system with a cool and copacetic attitude. Both ska and early reggae are associated with rude boys; Bob Marley sang in praise of and against the rude boy, and “rudies” would appear in countless singles throughout the decade and two songs in 1979.

1968, the year reggae was born, was volatile and creatively rich. Jamaica experienced widespread public-sector workers’ strikes for better wages; prominent Guyanese professor and Black Power advocate Walter Rodney was banned from returning to Jamaica and labeled a communist threat, Patricia Meschino wrote in Billboard. The resulting Rodney Riots in Kingston resulted in six deaths, nearly 100 arrests, and damages. That same year, The Maytals released “Do The Reggay” and a slew of singles using the word “reggae” followed.

Others engaged in the much loved, inherently subversive Rastafari belief system, which emerged in Jamaica in the 1930s and embraced an Afrocentric view that encouraged followers to escape Babylon — ostensibly the corrupt, colonial world. In 1966, Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie (whom the Rastafari view as divine) visited the island, striking a chord in the newly independent nation, and the 12 Tribes of Israel was founded two years later. Bob Marley was a member of this branch of Rastafarianism, and the religion’s messages permeate throughout the history of reggae music. “A lot of political messages were being articulated by people who were Rasta, or if they weren’t they were very sympathetic to the cause of Rastafari and the way Rastafari viewed the relationship with Western civilization,” Van Pelt said, adding that Rasta culture also preached a message of unity which broadened the audience for reggae. “Maybe that was promoted as a way to make the music less intimidating. And a lot of it just has a positive spirit.”

Journalist and NYU professor Vivien Goldman has made a career of reggae and worked with Bob Marley as a PR officer at Island Records. “[Bob Marley] was really spiritually committed, and believed in Jah and believed in reggae,” Goldman told The North Star. “He said to me, ‘This is the music the Bible speaks of in so many places.’ For him…music was the weapon spiritually and socially.”

As Bob Marley and his generation reckoned with what it meant to be in control of their destiny as the “Sons of Slaves,” reggae’s messages spread to Black people (and woke others) throughout the world who iterated on its sounds. Punk is among the genres influenced by reggae (and heard throughout songs by The Clash, Bad Brains, and even Elvis Costello), and this cross-pollination gave birth to a punky reggae hybrid called Two Tone. This short-lived, second wave of ska grabbed hold in the UK in the late ‘70s with a mixture of political sensibility and upbeat rhythm and was popularized by multi-ethnic bands such as The Selecter and The Specials, whose single “Ghost Town” practically defined England in ‘79. It was uncommon to see Black and white people together on stage in England at the time — which was in the throes of racist violence and fear mongering from fascist political group the National Front, and its Black population terrorized by equally racist “sus” laws — and Two Tone bridged a racial divide.

Around the same time, dub reggae and soundsystem culture (mobile, underground parties featuring homemade stereo equipment and emcees) created community among its mostly Black, often marginalized fans. This culture was exquisitely captured in the incendiary 1980 film Babylon, which officially premiered in the US March 8, and continues today in multiple countries. Both Two Tone and the dub soundsystem scene were influenced by an earlier generation of white youth and West Indian immigrants, who found commonality in their working-class roots and love of ska and rocksteady music such as Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites” – a phenom described in detail in the Trojan Records documentary Rude Boy which also continues worldwide.

Back on the island, an eight-year experiment in socialism that began in 1972 under the People’s National Party (PNP) government brought education, health care, and labor rights. At the same time, poor economic conditions, politically-affiliated gang violence, and organized crime, as well as an alliance with communist Cuba, put the PNP in opposition to the American government and made it a target of the CIA. An assassination attempt was made on Bob Marley in 1976, ahead of the Smile Jamaica peace concert which some saw as supportive of the PNP. Multiple people were wounded, and Marley was shot in the chest and arm, while his wife, Rita, was shot in the head. Miraculously, no one died, and The Wailers played the event. Several years later, the US threw its power behind the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) in the 1980 election of Edward Seaga, who overturned much of the PNP’s socialist programs.

“Things improved somewhat economically, so I think that took a lot of the wind out of the sails of reggae,” Van Pelt noted. Bob Marley would pass away in 1981 from cancer. Fifty years after reggae came to wake the town, its political fury has calmed down. Letts and Van Pelt surmise that the consumerism of the 1980s, years of political turmoil in Jamaica, and trends of hypersexualized dancehall and instrumental dub all but snuffed out the flames of golden age reggae (often characterized as “roots reggae”). “Rastafari lyrics are alive and well, but they don’t point toward anything specific. It’s the abstract of chanting down Babylon,” Van Pelt said, adding modern artists such as Chronixx, Kabaka Pyramid, Protégé, Jesse Royal, and Jah Nine are considered part of a reggae revival that’s Afrocentric but not expressly political. “There was a time when it felt like music as a tool for social change was out of vogue. There are still people who are inspired and understand the possibility of music to shake things up, but no one is going to put them on a pedestal,” Letts adds.

Goldman points to Tanya Stephens as a modern reggae artist tackling social issues such as homophobia. Still, “it’s arguable how much of the revolutionary content really stayed in foreground today. Has the 'let’s roll a fattie brigade and sort of veg out' taken over?” Goldman questioned. “We’re hoping some echoes of it still remain to stir people up on a different level and use the music to help achieve the truth and rights that were so essential in the first wave.”

However, the fact that reggae sounds have informed the planet is a good thing, even if it’s in the form of easy listening. “It’s found a home in both camps. For those who were tuned into the rebellious aspect, there’s that, then there’s other people who picked up on the good time skanking music that makes you want to dance,” Letts said. “[Bob Marley] wasn’t one dimensional. He wasn’t just 'One Love,' just as he wasn’t 'Get Up, Stand Up.' Bob was inspired by Black Panthers; he was a rebel at heart but knew you can’t be fighting all the time. He was that raggamuffin rude boy and a spiritual lover.” The continued political resonance of reggae follows much debate about UNESCO’s affirmation of the genre’s cultural importance. “Jamaicans do not need the UN to endorse the soundtrack of their lives,” Dotun Adebayo wrote in The Guardian. “It’s not the Jamaican people but the Jamaican establishment that needs to hear that. The very same Jamaican establishment that fought against reggae for years until they realized it was bringing in more revenue than the nation’s ailing bauxite industry so they had to incorporate it.”

Letts said the UNESCO nod seemed condescending. “There seems to be a lot of money going into the island through music and tourism, but it doesn’t seem that it trickles down to the man on the street” — an inequity reggae fought against in the 1970s. Van Pelt noted that Jamaica’s minister of culture, who spearheaded the UNESCO designation, came up with reggae. “I think it helps everyone who’s involved in reggae, who take it serious as an art form. What it will do to change the way the Jamaican government treats the music, we have yet to see.”

The real political legacy of reggae is not a crowing swipe of the pen by UNESCO; it’s the way the music has disseminated throughout the world. Letts noted that there are hundreds of dub sound systems in faraway places like Croatia. “It’s a very interesting phenomenon, which is so far removed from their own culture. There’s something about Black culture speaking to the souls of these white kids, and you hope that it resonates and helps facilitate us coming together.”

The fact that people in the far corners of the globe have Bob Marley posters on their walls, know of the Rastafari movement, have created hundreds of roots reggae bands, and sing songs of revolution and unity is a testament to the ongoing power of reggae. Its longevity is inherently political. “We’re talking about an island that spent 100 years under the yoke of colonization, and then in the 20th century, it colonized the whole world,” Letts said.

About the Author

Jessica Lipsky is the content editor for The North Star. Her work as an editor and reporter has appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Vice, Billboard, Remezcla, Timeline and LA Weekly, among others. She regularly pens authoritative features on subculture, broke several music industry-focused #MeToo stories, and also writes on the business of music.