Rhetoric of Reggae
Hip-hop and Reggae: The Common Links of Politics and Music
Music is an art form and source of power. Many forms of music reflect culture and society, as well as, containing political content and social message. Music as social change has been highlighted throughout the 20th century. In the 1960s the United States saw political and socially oriented folk music discussing the Vietnam War and other social issues. In Jamaica during the 1970s and 1980s reggae developed out of the Ghetto’s of Trench town and expressed the social unrest of the poor and the need to over-through the oppressors. The 1980’s brought the newest development in social and political music, the emergence of hip-hop and rap. This urban musical art form that was developed in New York City has now taken over the mainstream, but originated as an empowering art form for urban youth and emerging working class.
Musically hip-hop spawned the age of DJ’s. With strong influences from Reggae, hip-hop has developed into an empowering form for the expression of ideas, power, revolution and change. Power and empowerment have emerged from these musical styles that now have many commonalities. Hip-hop and Reggae are both forms of protest music. “Protest music is characterized by objections to injustices and oppressions inflicted on certain individual groups…. typically, the intent of protest musicians is to oppose the exploitation and oppression exercised by dominant elites and member of dominant groups”(Stapleton, 221). Hip-hop has developed as a new form of protest music void of the common acoustic guitar. The goal of protest music is to promote freedom through music.
Bob Marley expresses his belief that music is a message and route to freedom in the song “Trench town.”
Most of them come from Trench Town/We free the people with music, sweet music/Can we free the people with music (Marley: 1983)
Hip-hop and reggae share many common themes in their music and in the lyrics that discuss the issues of drugs and crime, expose political problems facing minorities, and express social discontent. This paper is an analysis of the political and social aspects of hip-hop and reggae, as well as, addressing the commonalities of the music itself as they have developed and changed over time. This analysis produces the holistic view reflecting the interconnectedness of these two genres of music.
Reggae’s Influence on hip-hop
Reggae music had a direct impact on the development of hip-hop music. Both styles of music emerged from the dancehall, with lyrics containing social and political message. “Reggae started as ‘sufferah’s’ music in poor Jamaican villages. Inside gritty dancehalls, selectors spun scratchy sides, called ‘specials,’ and MC’s boasted, talked nonsense and criticized political, cultural and economic oppression” (Havlock). Reggae emerged out of the island culture of Jamaica and the “poor man’s party,” while hip-hop music emerged in New York City, specifically the Bronx, in the early 1970s.
DJ Kool Herc is credited as one, if not the originator, of hip-hop. Kool Herc brought his Caribbean style when emigrated from Jamaica in 1967. He began this new musical journey with the desire to bring the powerful Jamaican Dancehall sound system to play music at parties and in the streets. In 1973 he had created his own sound system to play music around town. He began his DJ career spinning reggae through the system, but found the urban New York City crowd unmotivated to groove to the Jamaican sounds. The African American community was still heavily influence by R& B and funk, from the likes of James Brown. Unable to dance to Kool Herc’s Jamaican beats, DJ Kool Herc began spinning the Funk that his peers had already been grooving too. When asked about how he developed his hip-hop style, Kool Herc said,
I'm from Jamaica and so I brought a lot of music from my home to work with. When people didn't catch on, I pulled out a couple of James Brown
records and mixed them with some Jamaican music. And my hip hop sound really
began to develop.(Shivers)
As Kool Herc was developing his hip-hop style he was still relying on his Jamaican roots. With the influence of early talk over DJs like U Roy, Kool Herc “began talking over the Latin-tinged funk that he knew would appeal”(Hebdige, 137). The talk over became know for “toasting,” when DJ’s gave praise the music and crowd. Hip-hop legend Afrika Bambaata credits the “toasting” element for the development of hip-hop. “People will say hip hop just comes from soul or rock. It comes from all types of music, but it's based mainly around the toasting element of reggae. That's how rap came about.”(Bambaata, http://www.daveyd.com/baminterview.html )
As the rapping element of hip-hop was developing, the skills of DJ’s were progressing rapidly as well. DJ’s were using turntables to cut and mix over the main piece of music. Kool Herc began mixing lead guitar riffs and drum beats at the breaks, through cutting and mixing. This idea of cutting and mixing during the breaks lead to Kool Herc’s first invention in hip hop that he is credited with, the “break beat.”
Kool Herc first developed “break beats” when he began mixing in the song Apache, by the Jamaican disco group, the Incredible Bongo Band. To set the timing for the ‘break beats,’ Kool Herc used headphones to cue up the drums to mix over. As he became more skilled at this technique, it became too difficult to “rap” and dj. In order to keep both occurring simultaneously, Kool Herc hired MC’s, Coke-la-Rock and Clark Kent, to do the rapping. “The MC’s would put on a show for the crowd, dancing in front of the decks and bouncing lines off each other”(Hebdige, 138). This addition brought the emergence of the MC and the first dance teams, another first credited to Kool Herc.
Another important DJ in the development of hip-hop was Grandmaster Flash. Grandmaster Flash used the Caribbean musical influence from his father to progress his own style in the emerging hip-hop scene. With the development of the hip-hop style, the DJ’s turntable skills were a measurement of progression in hip-hop. DJ’s were looking to see how they could use the turntables to bring more power and emphasis to the music. Flash is credited as one of the experts at “punch phrasing.” “The punch works in hip-hop like a punctuation mark in a sentence. It helps to give shape to the flow of sounds on the record in the same way that a comma or a full stop helps shape the flow of written language…. so the punch in hip hop can be used to accentuate the beat and the rhythm for the dancing crowd”(Hebdige, 139). Revolutionizing this technique, Grandmaster Flash and his group the Furious Five, with MC Melle Mel created a hard rapping hip-hop style.
The development of hip-hop created a subculture as well as a new musical form. The development of the new hip-hop culture fostered a new topic for MC’s to rap about. MC’s began rapping about the new culture, which included music, break dancing and most importantly the struggles of urban life, the latter adding a political element to the music. Hip hop and its artists took began taking the approach of rapping to “tell it like it is.” DJ, Grandmaster Flash, one of the originators of hip hop music, was one of the first to rap about the hardships of urban life, in his classic song, the Message. Flash said,
Don’t push me ‘cos I’m close to the edge/ I’m tryin’ hard not to lose my head/ It’s like a jungle some times/ Sometimes I wonder how I keep from going under. (Hebdige, 143)
To combat the problems of urban and ghetto life, leadership amongst the hip hop community needed to develop. Afrika Bambaata, now one of the figureheads for hip-hop culture, emerged as one of the leaders. Bambaata went from running the sound system at the Bronx River Community Center to becoming the founder and “Affectionate Leader” of the Zulu Nation. “In the Zulu Nation he set out to replace “rumbles” (fights) and drugs with rap, dance and hip hop style. He wanted to turn the gang structure into a positive force in the ghetto.”(Hebdige, 139). The goal of organizations like the Zulu is to help people from the underprivileged classes help each other make a positive impact on the community and themselves.
To combat the problems facing urban youth, community organizations and rappers began emphasizing the importance of education and staying in school. Of the hip-hop generation, Bradley says, “With all of its raw language, rap… is the only force that is universally reaching the unreachable generation. This is a generation that is expressing its dissent through music rather than speeches. A generation that has rejected the sanctity of the media’s re-creations of American life.”(Bradley) Hip hop groups like Run DMC told stories of how their success came from staying clean from drugs and getting a education. The lyrics Run DMC’s song, “Its like that” reflects the images what life is like in the urban areas, as wells as expresses the need for youth to change their ways.
Unemployment at a record highs/ People coming people going people born to die /don’t ask me because I don't know why/ But it's like that and that's the way it is…. One thing I know is that life is short /so listen up homeboy, give this a thought/ the next time someone's teaching why don't you get taught?
It's like that (what?) and that's the way it is. (Run DMC: 1983)
As hip-hop continues to develop, it has kept true to telling of how life is, and keeping the imagery real. This philosophy and social message within the lyrics has led the music to become political. Because hip-hop and reggae are forms of music with lyrics discussing social issues, the content over time has become political. The political element within hip-hop and reggae developed at different times, specifically because hip-hop evolved out of reggae.
Origins of Politics in Reggae Music
Reggae music finds its roots in the music and culture of Jamaica and its people. Elena Oumano argues that the political roots in Jamaica can be traced back to the Maroons. The Maroons were the slaves who escaped Spanish control and settled in the heartland of the Island, who were later granted their freedom by the British during colonialism. Oumano says that, “throughout slavery, the raw, rebellious pounding of Maroon Koro drums and the piercing wail of the Abeng horn echoed from the mountainous interior, surrounding a call to freedom on the plantations below.”(Oumano:1997) As music and culture evolved in Jamaica, reggae was born embodying the politics of the people the island.
Reggae music holds a political and social cohesiveness through religion compared to hip-hop that stays together through the culture it developed. Rastafarianism has a dominant influence within reggae music and, “there are intensely religious and deeply spiritual aspects of reggae’s religious base.”(Salmon). Rastafarianism, as well as the drumming of the Maroons predates reggae music, but their influence is strong. Rastafarians believe that the former Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie is God incarnate. The intertwining of the Rastafarian religion and the often “-secular” reggae music creates a balance to the music and a vehicle for each to feed from. (Salmon)
Rastafarians made many contributions to Jamaican music in its formative years including the use of African drum rhythms and political content within the lyrics. Dougy Mack used the African drum rhythms of Count Ossie in addition to his lyrics, to protest Patrice Lumumba’s murder.
Here is some news from the Congo land/I think it is a shame/You kill Lumumba over His own land I think it is a shame. (Wilson)
As Jamaican music developed Rastafarians have brought Jamaican culture politics, religion, a social message and music together in the form of reggae. To the Rastafarian and in reggae, ultimate social change can only occur with the end of Babylon System. Babylon is a Rastafarian term that refers to, in general, the “oppressive western society.”(Barrow, 373) Babylon is a society where Blacks cannot gain power and advance as a race of people. Wilson’s discussion of the early political Rastafarian music places the focus of the music on the structure of society and the need to over through Babylon system that is holding society down.
Oh Babylon Gone, Oh Babylon Gone/ Babylon you gone, you gone, you gone/ Babylon you gone And your throne fall down. (Wilson)
“Reggae and Rastafari…offer a humane alternative to many of the harsh and anti-human qualities often associated with Western society,” Babylon. (Salmon) To criticize Babylon is to chant it down, and this is done musically most notably by Bob Marley. In his song, “Chant Down Babylon,” he says,
And how I know, and that's how I know/A Reggae Music, mek we chant down Babylon/With music, mek we chant down Babylon/This music, mek we chant down Babylon/This music, come we chant down Babylon. (Marley:1983)
Exemplified in these lyrics is the power of music as a platform for gaining support to help bring the social change. This social change is what is needed for blacks within Jamaica and the rest of the world. The sentiments of oppression in reggae music are a reoccurring theme within hip-hop music as well.
The concept of Babylon has traversed its way into hip-hop music as well, following in the footsteps of other elements of reggae and Jamaican culture. Babylon to the Rasta is the oppressive western society, but in the context of hip-hop it refers to the oppression facing African Americans in U. S. cities. Hip-hop artist Talib Kweli, in his song “This means you,” makes reference to Babylon and the struggles for African Americans in New York.
Things changed since we cam out, been some shit in New York/ Niggas stopped getting jig in New York, bloods and crips in New York/ The Y2k celebration wasn’t big in New York, Babylon live in New York. (Kweli, 2000)
Kweli’s chorus and answer to these problems, is this situation is, “you need to get up right now and move with this, this means you, you, you” (Kweli, 2000). His call is for African Americans to get up and move with the changes in society that are occurring to help elevate their status within society.
Politics in Hip Hop Music
In the late 1980s and early 1990s the rap group Public Enemy, lead by hip-hop icon Chuck D, was working hard to raise public awareness of the troubles facing African Americans. Public Enemy was following in the footsteps of their predecessors who have made social awareness one of the defining elements of hip-hop music. The mission of social awareness in hip hop is noted by Katina Stapleton who sees that “from its rough and tumble forms to the most commercial jams, hip-hop has been able to raise awareness among African Americans and the general public about the issues that face black youth on a day-to-day basis”(Stapleton, 221). Public Enemy’s album Fear of a Black Planet makes clear and direct statements about the struggle of African Americans. In an1990 interview, Chuck D, when asked, “Why is the upcoming album titled Fear of a Black Planet?” responded,
Fear of a Black Planet is the refusal to accept the Afro centric point of view and the continuing indoctrination of the Euro centric point of view. Which I don't think is beneficial to the majority of those on the planet. Fear of a Black Planet, in a nutshell, is a counterattack on the system of cultural white supremacy, which is conspiracy to destroy the black race. ( Chuck D,http://www.daveyd.com/peterrord.html)
The theme of this album focuses on elevating the black race in America, raising awareness and challenging the social problems, faced by the modern African American. This message is consistent throughout many of the songs on the album. Chuck D, gave insight into the meaning of two of the more powerful and political songs on the album.
“'Brother's Gonna Work It Out” is about “the rise of black intellectualism where the black male is going to have to step up mentally and unify together in order to do a little bit of something. It will have to be a collective effort. Individually, the Black man is a pawn in a game.” “911 Is A Joke', which is the next single, is also self-explanatory, as it deals with the lack of emergency [assistance]. In our neighborhoods, when there's an emergency and we need help right away, we don't get action as quick as in more posh areas. Especially in urban settings.” ( Chuck D,http://www.daveyd.com/peterrord.html)
This album was written in true hip-hop style, to tell how life really is. The political and social messages, in the lyrics of Public Enemy’s songs, are emphatic and direct. Although Public Enemy and this album are an important part in the development of hip-hop music, they only represent one era of hip-hop music.
Politics and Social Change in Hip-hop and Reggae Music
As hip hop and reggae music have developed, they have followed the path of most forms of music by going through stages, with certain groups, albums and styles define an era within their genre. By the late sixties, politics and social unrest mixed in reggae music creating a new fierce music of Rock Steady filled with images of the gangster ‘rude boy’. “’Rock Steady’ music rather than rejecting the depravity of the political mercenary exalted and glorified the pugnaciousness of the ‘rude boy’”(Wilson).
Musical artist such as Desmond Decker and Peter Tosh wrote and sang images of the ‘rude boy.’ In ‘007 Decker sings
’007, ‘007 at ocean’s eleven rude boy ago wail cause them out of jail/ rude boy cannot fail cause the must get bail/them a loot, them a shoot / them a wail, a shanty town/ rude boy de pon probation, shanty town/ rude boy a bomb up de town.’(Wilson)
Peter Tosh with his bold militant philosophy even went as far as to call himself the “Toughest” in a self-declarative song.
Anything you can do I can do better / I’m the toughest, I can do what you can do, never try to do what I do, I’m the toughest (Wilson)
The lyrics of the Rock Steady era were harsh images of gang life and social unrest. This was a period of political and lyrical anarchy. Politicians from both political parties, the Peoples National Party (PNP) and the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP), were using urban gang leaders to clear turf, and control neighborhoods in order to gain political power. Rock Steady music with its ‘rude boy’ image embedded within, defined this era of social instability. This period of political and lyrical anarchy needed to end in order to help breed peace amongst the youth in Kingston and bring higher consciousness back to reggae music.
Similar to the Rock Steady period of Reggae, hip-hop in the early 1990’s found itself in the ‘rude boy’ era. The music and image of hip-hop traversed into the mainstream changing the imagery portrayed in the lyrics. The voice and picture of hip-hop changed from life in the developing underground urban hip-hop culture, with a message of social change, to images of the hard gang life in Los Angeles and New York City. Hip-hop culture took another fierce turn in the wake of incidents like Rodney King. Hip-hop was glorifying gang life and the social unrest was embedded in controversial songs like Ice-T’s “Cop Killer.” The social elements in hip-hop lyrics were strong and explicit. The glorification of gang life in hip-hop music found a culmination in an east coast/ west coast feud that took the lives of two of hip hop’s biggest stars, Tupak Shakur and Notorious BIG were dead. Although the commercialized hip-hop was glorifying gang culture in the 1990s, the underground scene still kept to its roots holding to a strong social message and push for empowerment.
Hip-hop, in the year 2001, emerged with a mission of peace. Although, politically hip-hop has rarely been on the positive side of politics, the hip-hop community decided it needed to make a strong political statement. Hip hop took politics to the highest level in the year 2001 when, “Along with leading hip-hop pioneers such as Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaata, Chuck D of Public Enemy and the Ruff Ryders, KRS will present a Hip-Hop Declaration of Peace to UN leaders. The Declaration is the first of its kind. The document will contain 25 paragraphs of thought and opinion from leading rappers about the socially conscious direction they believe rap needs to take.”(Gordon) Hip-hop and rap is the new political music in the United States. The backbone of the hip-hop community lies with its originators, who have maintained the vision of music as a form of social change and empowerment.
Jamaican Politics in Reggae Music
As reggae and hip-hop have gone through changes in their imagery of society, they have also gone through changes politically. Reggae, in contrast to Hip hop moved beyond political in its message and speech, and entered into the world of politics in the 1960’s in Jamaica. In 1960, the government of Norman Manley recognized the Rastafarian Movement as a new force in the power configuration of Jamaica and sent a mission to Africa, which included their Rastafarian Brethren to explore the possibility of Jamaicans repatriating to Africa. (Wilson) Although this mission took place, reggae music and Rastafarianism did not become popularized in politics until the 1970s.
The 1972 electoral campaign of Michael Manley initiated the popularization of reggae music and Rastafarianism out of political necessity rather than acceptance. The People’s National Party (PNP), “sifted through the culture of the Rastafarians in order to find symbols that Michael Manley, its candidate for prime minister, might use in his political speeches.”(Lewis, 12). Manley Politicized the Pastas and tried to align himself with their image as sufferers in order to implement policy for creating a socialist state in Jamaica. He aligned himself with the Rastafarians because he believed they were “bearers of an African identity worthy of emulation by the public.”(Lewis, 12)
Manley employed several different tactics to use reggae and Rastafarianism in his campaign. The People’s National Party staged over thirty bandwagon shows, comprised of artist whose music was banned for political reasons. The music was used as a weapon against the Shearer Government. Delroy Wilson’s ‘Better Must Come’ became on of the campaign slogans. Clancy Eccles ‘The Rod of Correction’ symbolized the impending purge of the corrupt Jamaica Labour Party. Manley adroitly used a rod given to him by the Rastafarian ‘Messiah’ Haile Sellassie, as a biblical symbol connoting righteousness. (Wilson) Manley’s embracement of reggae solidified the important role reggae music has played in politics in Jamaica.
The Importance of the Artist
Reggae music has always had substantial influence on the culture and politics of Jamaican society and is in turn affected by the same forces. For reggae music to push for social change, the music and culture is dependent on strong artists willing to portray the struggles of life and the necessity for social change. Basil Wilson believes that, “the task of the reggae artist is to shape his society by understanding and supporting the need for structural changed in Jamaica. The reggae artist must recognize that the culture that replaced the old imperialistic culture is by no means wholesome and embraces a belief system that is not commensurate with modern development.”(Wilson) Wilson’s characteristics solidifies the idea that reggae music is more than entertainment and is dependent on artists, rather than entertainers, to be successful in their social message.
Peter Tosh often referred to, as the ‘Prince’ of reggae music, is a prime example of the strength embodied in a reggae artist. Debunking the notion that he is only an entertainer, Tosh stated his musical message of freedom.
People must know, I’m not an entertainer, but I love to make people happy. When I come on stage it’s not to entertain and just smile, because my songs are not smiling songs. My songs is a revolution. How can you sing a revolution, which you know is a threat to society? You have to be thinking who is out there to assass-the-fucking-nate you, seen! And when you do these things you become a threat to society. (Steffens, 47)
Peter Tosh praised his songs as a revolution. The “Stepping Razor,” named after one of his songs, was truly not afraid to make overtly political statements through his music. From declaring himself the “toughest” to openly criticizing the criminalization of marijuana in “Legalize It,” Tosh was willing to take a strong stand through his music. One of Tosh’s biggest political statements came on his 1983 European tour when he began playing a guitar made out of and M-16 assault riffle. “That guitar was made by on of my white musical terrorist friends in the U. S. This guitar is firing shots at all them devil disciples. Music is my weapon to fight against apartheid, nuclear war and those gang-Jah criminals.”(Steffens, 52) Peter Tosh’s belief in the power of music to insight revolution and bring social change is undeniable, but as the Prince of Reggae music, he can only be out done by the King.
Bob Marley is often referred to as the King of reggae music. Marley is the opitimey of the reggae artist whose goal is to insight social change, revolution and over through Babylon. Bob Marley lived up to his position at the top of the reggae world in 1978 at the “One Love Peace Concert” in Kingston Jamaica. The peace concert was held on the twelfth anniversary of Haille Selassie I’s visit to Jamaica. The concert was promoted as, “a celebration of the peace treaty which claimed to bring an end to years of tribal warfare fomented in the ghettos by Jamaica’s fractious politrickal factions.”(Steffens, 48) The defining moment of the show saw Bob Marley successfully coax both political candidates onto stage with him and raise arms together in a sign of peace and unity. Legend has it, this handshake was such a strong mark of peace and politics that it caused a lightning flash the instant their hands met. The efforts of Bob Marley and other artists at the concert solidified the political role of reggae music and the reggae artist to promote social change.
In general, Bob Marley made many significant contributions to reggae music and culture, from defining “roots reggae” to exposing his music to the world, his presence and impact through his music is undeniable. Tricia Nichols say that for his efforts to promote peace and his continued social message in his music Bob Marley was awarded a Third World Peace Medal, presented by Senegal on Behalf of all the African countries at the United Nations. He merits this award because “no one has spread the message of Rastafari with greater reach or impact than has Bob Marley”(Nichols, 74) Marley has impacted the world both socially and musically. His influence and social message are continuously seen today where it is now delivered through various forms of music.
The commonalities and influence of reggae and hip-hop have brought artists to collaborate for social expression and music. Recently the Bob Marley’s family put together and all-star cast to celebrate the message, music and life of the King of reggae, Bob Marley. On the recent release of Chant Down Babylon, a collaborative album, some of hip-hop’s famed artists such as Erika Badu, Chuck D, Busta Ryhmes, The Roots, and others mix duets with the late King of Reggae paying tribute to rebel music. “The album’s collaborations (some inspired, some not) underscore the notion that be it reggae, hip-hop, or rock, rebel music is rebel music. Busta Rhymes’s fierce Jamaican patois-flavor Selassie I rap for “Rastaman Chant” and The Roots’ turn on “Burnin’ and Lootin’” are just two tracks that elucidate the natural links between any musicians bent on upsetting the rulers of Babylon.”(Oumano: 2000)
As culture and society change, so does music, and hip-hop and reggae music two forms reflective of progression. The social message continues to be strong in hip-hop and reggae music. Both have developed music and cultures that feed off each other portraying the image of what life is really like through their music. Music has the ability to empower people. Politicians in Jamaica have been forced to accept the power of reggae because it contains such a strong social message. Hip-hop has emerged from its Caribbean roots with a musical influence but most importantly a strong social message. Without music that contains the message of hip hop and reggae, society is unable to change, because the issues and problems that face the lower classes, which Mainstream society is so dependent on, would not be seen. If Babylon cannot be over through, music can only help as a unifying force to help challenge the system.
Davey D’s Hip hop corner: http://www.daveyd.com/
Afrika Bambaata interview: http://www.daveyd.com/baminterview.html
Chuck D interview: http://www.daveyd.com/peterrord.html
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Full Text Computer Databases: No Page Numbers
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Honorary Citizen: Peter Tosh, Sony Music Entertainment:1997
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Reflection Eternal: Talib Kweli, Rawkus Records 2000
“This means you”
Run DMC: Run DMC, Arista Records 1983
“Its Like That”
Bob Marley: Confrontation, Polygram Records 1983
“Chant down Babylon,” and “Trenchtown”
Bob Marley: Suvival, Ploygram Records 1979