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MARCIA GRIFFITHS: REGGAE QUEEN?

BY JAMIE O'BRIEN

4/25/02

 

 

“Coxsone also recorded the most gifted woman singer in Jamaica, Marcia Griffiths.” (Barrow and Dalton, pg. 67).

 

“It is a cliché to say that some Jamaican singers would have sold millions if only they had been born in the USA, but it’s undeniably so in the case of Marcia Griffiths, who no doubt earned more money as on the Marley’s I Threes than all the gems gathered here.” (Barrow and Dalton, pg. 71) 

 

BEGINNING YEARS

 

            These two quotes are critical in answering the question of whether or not Marcia Griffiths is the true Reggae Queen. After looking at her success as a female artist, the answer to this question becomes obvious. Women have been oppressed across the globe for centuries, which make Griffiths success as a female Reggae artist that much more outstanding. Looking at her achievements throughout her life starting at a young age to thirty-seven years in the music business, the audience will understand why she is the true Reggae Queen.

            Linneth Marcia Griffiths was born and raised in Kingston. Music had always been apart of her upbringing from her father’s influence as a singer. Her talent was recognized very early by producers Clement Coxsone Dodd and Byron Lee, “who were said to be competing for her father’s signature on a recording contract even before she was ten. Coxsone won the compitition and his legendary Studio One and its downbeat rhythms became her musical college.” (Tafari, pg. 1)  Marcia reached the big stage for the first time at the Carib Theater in Cross Roads, Kingston at the age of twelve. At the age of sixteen she achieved her first Jamaican # 1 with the Rock Steady hit “Feel Like Jumping.” After that, she opened shows in Jamaica for Carla Thomas, Betty Wright and Ben E. King among others. Since those vintage days, music has been her life and she has risen to the top of Rock Steady and Reggae Charts in Jamaica.

            While growing up she listened to and admired singers like Aretha Franklin, Carla Thomas and Deon Warkick. There were not many female artists in Jamaica, but one that she admired was the late “Hortense Ellis” who was a local singer. At a young age Marcia established a name for herself before teaming up with Rita Marley and Judy Mowatt. Over the years Marcia has built up a long list of solo hits, but the re-make by Marcia and Bob Andy of the Nina Simone hit “Young, Gifted and Black” in the 1970’s put her into a household name throughout the Caribbean and Europe. (Tafari, pg. 2) The record’s popularity rose the charts in the UK and soon became popular across Europe.

            Europe producers were in awe of Marcia’s sound and wanting her to record a few tunes for them. “She did do two singles in German for a producer in Berlin, exulting in the fact that there she finally had access to a Warwick-type backing track: horns, strings, and chorale. But bad management and her own inexperience’s cheated her of the best opportunities that came her way-including a shot at a Motown distribution contract.” (Davis and Simon, pg. 138) She was disillusioned but not broken from the experience. She returned to Jamaica and continued recording with little or no creative control. “She was beginning to develop that consciousness that was springing out of Rasta, which insisted that a singer sing her own song-or failing that, only express those sentiments that revealed the most personal of truths and aspirations.” (Davis and Simon, pg. 138)

            Marcia made some records for Sonia Pottinger’s High Note label and in 1975 she became one of Bob Marley’s I-Threes backing vocalists. Along with Marcia, Rita Marley and Judy Mowatt were recruited to fill the vocal gap left by the departure from the Wailers of Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh. These women continued to record as solo artists and willingly “amalgamated into the top-ranking Wailers to become the feminine aspect of Bob Marley’s imagination-the I-Threes”. (Davis and Simon, pg. 139)

            The I-Three was made up of three beautiful black women who today are considered Jamaica’s three most regarded female singers. The artists were close friends before they came together in 1973 to sing backing vocals for Bob Marley. Marley first heard the three ladies harmonize early 1973 in the House of Chen Club located in new Kingston. “He immediately decided that together their melodious voices made the sound he was listening for.” (http://www.bobmarley-foundation.com) He enjoyed the sound of them so mach he featured them in the rest of the Natty Dread Album. By this time Bob Marley previewed them in his line-up concert in Jackson Five Concert in Kingston. It has been argued that at this time, Jamaica was ready for female Wailers. With the wide acceptance of the I-Three, they became a household name worldwide.

            Working with others, Marcia’s own song-writing talents flourish with Rasta sentiments as a major inspiration for her. “I was saying, that even though I’ve suffered so many injustices, it doesn’t really bother me because I know there is another world for me.” (Davis and Simon pg. 193) One example is the lyrics to ‘Steppin’ Out of Babylon. The chorus ‘steppin’ out of Babylon’ is not necessarily a movement in the physical. (Davis and Simon, pg. 139) It means rather that you are moving out of corruption and into a state of greater purity than what you might be experiencing in daily life. “Babylon can be either a situation or a system, but it is hell to anyone who knows of love, and light and warmth. So we want to step from a lower life into a higher one, and it’s not just a physical step, but an inner evolution.” (Marcia Griffiths) The audience will see later the influence that her lyrics has on the younger generation of female Rasta’s.

            Griffiths' response to working with Marley was mostly positive. “When we were working with Bob, we all know he is the main one out there and we have to work it out so that the harmonies suit everyone.”(Marcia Griffiths pg. 193) Bob’s influence continued to pervade the progress of the I-Threes. The last time the I-Three performed was in August 1981 in Montego Bay. One distinction that came up in many articles was the fact that Marcia was well established before she teamed up with the I-Threes. “It was 1964, and I sang Carla Thomas’s ‘No Time to Lose.’ From then on, things started to happen for me. I was never just a back-up singer…until Bob Marley.”(Davis and Simon, pg. 138)

However, touring the world with Bob Marley, the Wailers and I-Threes only furthered Griffiths’ title of Reggae Queen internationally. “Since Judy Mowatt stopped singing the kind of cultural songs she used to sing and converted to traditional Jamaican Christianity; and because Rita Marley seems to have put her recording/performing career on hold for the most part; Marcia has become a virtual I-One, as the sole remaining I-Three that still maintains her original vibe.” (Tafari, pg. 3) She has changed her style along with the times. What makes her unique as an artist is that she is willing to work with anyone to develop good music.

 

RECENT YEARS

            Since the breakup of the Wailers Band, Marcia has returned to an even more extensive and successful solo career. Marcia received Jamaica’s Order of Distinction (OD) award in 1994 for excellence in music. At the end of 2001 Marcia was still excelling and working as hard as ever on stages all over the globe. In the summer of 2001 her performance schedule was busy with calls for her to tour the Caribbean with Beres Hammond. In between dates, Marcia toured in Canada, ten shows in England to appear as part of I-Threes; and also solo dates in France. One of the performances she worked on that meant a lot to her is a show with the Byron Lee band backing both her everyone that she has ever sung with. We all know that encompasses a lot of people ranging from Bob Andy, Beres Hammond, Coco Tea and Buju Banton. (http://niceup.com/artists)

            In recent years Marcia has been teaming up with young talent. She explains that she “loves working with youngsters and it makes her elated and gives her a warm feeling to know that young artists wan to work with her.” (http://niceup.com/artists) She furthered her explanation by stating that she never ceases to experiment with newer artists and noted that DJ’s always want to do combinations with her. She is willing to work with the younger generation on re-mixes of her songs. One song that seems to be popular to re-mix is “Electric Boogie.” Many suggest for her to re-make the song into a Hip Hop style. What makes her unique is that she is willing to re-make the song in a Hip Hop style once she finds the right artists to work with on the project. “Electric Boogie” was a Bunny Wailer original that became a big hit for Marcia, especially in the USA in the late 80’s. The track, which Marcia did together with Bunny Wailer, inspired the dance the Electric Slide (which is still popular today). (While I was in Montego Bay last year, they were teaching the electric slide to the guests) The later months of 2001 Marcia was in the studio in Jamaica working on her new album. For this album she is involved in co-producing along with Clive Hunt of Tuff Gong and Mixing Lab fame.

       Last year she was reintroduced to fans from her US tour with the new-look Wailers. One of her biggest appearances for 2001 was at the Bob Marley Day/Raggamuffin Festival in California. During her stay in California she visited the official opening of Roger Steffens’ Bob Marley Exhibit at Long Beach. She commented that it was “Very, very interesting….It should be permanent.” (http://ska.about.com) She felt that the exhibition contained “a whole lot of history”, noting that she saw things in it that she had forgotten about. She furthered her remarks by suggesting that the exhibition should be on show in Jamaica.

       One of her most publicized shows was on October 12, 2001. The event was significant because it marked the first time that Marcia performed at the Riviera Beach. She was joined on stage by the very talented Kymani Marley, sax man Dean Frazer and Rod Spence. Another aspect to the show is that while the fans were enjoying the talents of Griffiths and the young Marley, they also had Dean Frazier to listen to. (http://www.jamaicaobserver.com)

 

LYRICS

            Griffiths has over a dozen albums to her credit, many singles, and has appeared on vocals for many of albums. “When she sang for the Wailers, her name was right there among the credits for most of the all-time best selling Reggae recordings ever.” (http://niceup.com/artists) Her accomplishes has brought in admiration from the younger generation of female singers. Many still look up to her standards as an artist. This becomes evident after looking at her lyrics. She has always been very particular about the words she sings and is into “Message Music” big time. (http://niceup.com/artists) “But besides penning and co-writing her own compositions, she has always been fortunate to get songs from some of the best lyricists in the Reggae business: including Bob Andy, Mikey Bennet, Hopeton Lindo, Annette Brissett and of course, Beres Hammond.” (www.jamaicaway.com) Take for example words like: “Talking to the wives of evil men, How do you do it? Eat, drink, sleep with a man, Who’s got blood on his hands. Talking to the wives of serial killers, How do you feel? When he holds you and touch you, Are you for real?” (Evil Men’s Wives) Another example looks at her duet with Beres Hammond, “Should I Sing.” The lyrics go as follows,

 “I’ve been singing my heart out,

singing blood, sweat and tears,

Because I love my people,

I’ve been singing through blood, sweat and tears,

Thought I was doing right,

Spreading the message around,

Trying to get my people to come together,

Stand in love with one another.

Wonder should I sing another love song?

Till I understand what’s going on.

What if we decide not to sing another line,

Would the people come together?”

            What makes her lyrics so dynamic is the reality of the words. Another female artist that has reality lyrics is Sister Carol. Marcia’s combination with Tony Rebel to the re-make of “We’ll be forever loving Jah,” puts her in the currency of modern Reggae business. After thirty-seven years in the business, Marcia is still working with the right people, singing conscious lyrics, and has been named Reggae Queen.

ROLE MODEL

            The most significant aspect of Marcia Griffiths’ work is the positive role model she is to many young female. Looking at the socio-economic structure of Jamaica, the poverty level becomes evident. Marcia born and raised Kingstonian is well aware of what goes on there. Kingston’s population more than doubled between 1943 and 1970, mainly from internal migration. One major problem with the increase of population is that industrialization did not follow the increase as usually seen in large migratory terminals of the developing world. Lack of jobs puts many young people on the streets. Frustration builds in the community and many young men fight with “fists, chairs, clubs, bottles, and ratchet knives. You feel like you mus’ take it out on someone.” (Brody, pg. 73) In 1974 so many of the upper class and political figures were shot that the government established a gun court with indefinite sentences for illegal possessions of arms.

            Shantytowns housed 22.8 percent of the population which few have piped water usually by illegal connection to a main. Shantytown is considered a highly fertile area. “In the largest shantytown of Montego Bay the average number of children under age four per 100 women aged 15 to 44 was 72, compared with 53 per 100 in the rest of the city (Eyre, 1976) One explanation of high fertility is that without other opportunities for self-expression or ego extension and with few social or economic resources, “men and women try to achieve them through parenthood and having children.” (Brody, pg. 87) The reality of poverty takes away the pride in parenthood. Poverty denies parents and children the most adequate food and shelter. Coming across money and opportunities are a major concern for Jamaican people. Women underlying feelings of oppression and resentment were pervasive. After looking at statistics many people feel that they were overworked and none were satisfied with their jobs. One example is of a third-grade-educated, 28-year-old mother of six by three men did not have a job because she had to look after her children. Only one of the fathers gave the women money to help her. After watching the films from class, we see this reality to be true for many of women. With no escape from poverty, women use their sexuality to produce money.

            Looking at the first pregnancy of women in Jamaica, approximately one-fifth of the respondents conceived within their first menstrual cycle. It was noted that the majority of women with a second partner were pregnant within six months. “The median age of first pregnancy was 16, and it had occurred for almost all by their twenty-first birthday.” (Brody, pg. 153) Some of the stories behind the data look to women wanting to escape the harsh reality of their lives. Some women fantasize that having a family of their own will bring stability in their lives. They forget the reality of poverty in which they live in. From the films in class we see young people making decisions to either sell drugs or guns for their survival.

            How does this relate to Marcia Griffiths being a role model? Marcia acknowledges how much the younger Rasta women look up to her on the stage, and a role model just as a woman. “Marcia attributes the respect and adulation she receives to the kind of life she lives: “Is not garments and hair. Is livity, what you do Works.” (http://niceup.com) She furthers her argument by saying that fan appreciation is more a motivation than money. She meets young females all the time who give her strength and in return she gives them inspiration. The reality of many Jamaican women is poverty. They need a woman that they can look up to and be inspired by. After looking at Marcia’s lyrics we see that she gives women that guidance. The way in which she cultivates her fans on and off the stage makes her the true Reggae Queen.

 

HER INSPIRATIONS

             Is Marcia Griffiths a Rasta? She argues the fact that Gospel is one of the most commercial forms of music today. She was born into true Christianity and not into Babylon’s version of that religion. She does state that she tries “to walk the way the Rataman and Rastawoman live.” (www.ska.com) This does not mean that she has dreadlocks; as a matter of fact she never has had them. Many people questioned this issue because of the way in which she carries herself and because of the spiritual image that she projects. Marcia has been apart of Rootz Rock Music since the days of Ska, through Rock Steady era, right up to the present day Rootz Reggae. (www.ske.com) She has always been around the Rastafari artists and musicians who formed the hardcore of the Rootz Music industry since the early days. It was also noted that all the men of importance in her life have been Rastafarians.

            What I like about her attitude towards the issue of dreadlocks and Rastafari is that she cannot believe that people identify others by hair. She makes a great point that originally dreadlocks represented a covenant with the Creator, but that now, dreadlocks have become a style and fashion statement for some people. The first Rastaman she knew was Bob Andy who emphasized that the true Rastafari disciples practice upfull living. By this they would give praises to the Almighty and live clean. Most importantly she states that one does not have to wear dreadlocks to be Rasta in your heart and mind.

 

CONCLUSION

            When answering the question if Marcia Griffiths is the true Reggae Queen, there is no doubt. She is arguably the most consistently successful female vocalist in the history of Reggae Music. She has recorded a number of songs ranging from Ska to modern-day Reggae-Rap crossover records. Due to her well-known talent, her proven professionalism and her outstanding track records of hits, Marcia is still busy and still always is in high demand. Three decades in the business makes one tough and she has gained spiritual strength from the experience. She argues to this day that music has taught her so many things that she cannot even express. “Kind and encouraging words from virtually every modern day female singer in Jamaica or the Reggae industry, warms her heart and touches her deeply, giving true satisfaction that goes beyond money.” (www.ska.com)

“I shall sing, as long as I live, I shall sing!”-Marcia Griffiths   

 

WORK CITED

 

Barrett, Leonard E. The Rastafarians. Beacon Press, Boston MA. 1997. Pages: 58-62.

Barrow, Steve, and Peter Dalton. Reggae, The Rough Guide. Penguin Books, New York. 1997. Pages 67-68, 71, 187,292,293.

Blake, Judith. Family Structure in Jamaica. The Free Press of Glencoe, Inc. New York. 1961

Davis, Stephen and Peter Simon. “Reggae International”. Pages 137-139.

Roberts, George W. and Sonja A. Sinclair. Women in Jamaica. KTO Press, New York, 1978.

 

WEBPAGES

 

Tufff Gong Intl./The Bob Marley Foundation

http://www.bobmarley-foundation.com/t55.html

 

An Interview with Sister Carol

http://ska.about.com

 

Marcia Griffiths

http://niceup.com

 

Marcia Griffiths

URL: http://hem.passagen.se