Adam Elias

Rhetoric Of Reggae


“The Commercialization and Westernization of Rastafari and Reggae Music”


It may be true that imitation is the greatest form of flattery, but in our commercialized society imitation can turn into exploitation.  Out of the hundreds of people who wear a Bob Marley T-shirt, how many of them actually know what Marley stood for?  How many people today know what actually is associated with Rastafari traditions and the meaning behind herb? My assumption is that most people do not.  The commercialization of Rastafarian culture and reggae music has gone too far.  There is a lack of understanding in western society about Rastafari, which is often associated with “chilling” and “smoking ganja”.  There is too much depth and passion behind this religion to exploit it, and making money off Rasta culture is incongruous with the roots of Rastafari and does it a tremendous disservice.  As Jacob Miller sings, “There is too much commercialization of Rastafari”.  

From 1950-1971, Jamaica’s popular music became identified with the Rastafarian movement.  This movement did not only focus on the issue of giving voice and power to Jamaica’s poor black communities, but also spread the religion of Rastafari, which preached the worship of Haile Selassie I as JAH.  Most Rastafarians believe that Selassie is in some ways a reincarnation of Jesus and the Rastafari are the true Israelites. This religion was the first that worshipped a black man as their god, and became widely followed by the lower class, black community of Kingston.  The Rastafarian religion entails its own dialect (patois or Iyriac), diet (Ital) and ways of life such as the use of ganja as a sacrament and the growing of dreadlocks that are followed by most Rastafarians, although there are many different sects and interpretations within the religion.  The Rasta culture also reinforces the idea of Afro centrism, which is the concept of a return of all blacks to the holy land of Africa, and shows disdain towards the modern world, or “Babylon”.  Music has played an integral role in Rastafari as well.  The most basic form of Rasta music is Nyabinghi folk, which consists of drumming, chanting and dancing and is played at worship ceremonies accompanied by the ritual smoking of ganja.  Another kind of music called Reggae also became associated with the Rastafarian religion.  Reggae was born amidst the lower class blacks in Trenchtown, Kingston’s main ghetto, although the actual name “reggae” did not come into existence until Toots and the Maytals made a song called “Do the Reggay”.  Reggae music became largely associated with the Rasta movement because of the lyrics that were mostly concerned with social injustice and inequity in Jamaica, as well as praising JAH and showing disdain towards the complacency of human misconduct in the hands of JAH. (Ayelle, 92)   The repetitive drum and bass rhythms associated with reggae was also essential for the Rastafarian culture because it allowed for the chanting and steady beat that was resonant in the traditional Nyabinghi music.  Obviously, reggae became and international phenomena.  Reggae stars such as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Jimmy Cliff are known worldwide and have appeared in movies and toured with western rock bands such as The Rolling Stones (Tosh).  Some orthodox Rastafarians disdain reggae as a form of commercial music to “sell out to Babylon”, while others considered it “the new voice of JAH”.   Reggae was obviously commercialized since its roots from Nyabinghi folk, but did it go too far?  Obviously it is not a bad thing to spread the message of JAH and expand the rebellious message of reggae to the international scale, but has it gotten to a point of exploitation?  Modern reggae music has generally veered from its Afro-Caribbean roots.  Reggae music and Rastafarian culture have too much depth for the majority of the western world to lack understanding of the actual religion and movement behind this extraordinary music. Although good things have come out of the commercialization and westernization of Reggae and Rasta culture, it has exploited the essential values involved with this fascinating and powerful religion.

            In order to answer the question of whether Rasta culture has been exploited by the commercialization of reggae, we need to understand how reggae became an international phenomenon in the first place.  By the late 1950’s, a newfound optimism spread through Jamaica, giving birth to a new musical form known as ska.  Ska was a mixture of the Jamaican musical form known as Mento, American Jazz, and Rhythm and Blues.  On the surface ska sounded happy, but there were underlying messages in ska that were deceptive of the government. (King, 32)   Ska music was much associated with the Rastafarian religion musically and lyrically.  “Lyrically, ska promoted Rastafarian ideology through faint themes of repatriation and the introduction of the term “Mount Zion,” the Rastafarian’s heaven in Africa. Instrumentally, ska featured Rastafarian drumming, and even instrumental songs bore titles such as “Another Moses”, and “Babylon Gone,” highlighting the movement’s belief in the divinity of the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie and the hope for the deliverance from oppression, or “Babylon”. (King, 33) When ska music rose to fruition in Jamaica, it allowed Rastafarians to explore a new mode of political expression.  In the mid 1960’s, Jamaica’s economic prosperity began to give way to “political instability and chaos” (King, 71).  This economic degradation gave birth to Rocksteady music and the “Rude Boy” movement that was an integral part of Jamaican society from 1965-1967.  Rocksteady musicians expressed the problems with Jamaican life more clearly in their music.  Patrick Hilton states that Rocksteady musicians, “sang songs that were expressive of the people’s suffering, their everyday life, and their attitude towards the society in which they lived”.  The Rude Boys movement was associated with Rastafarian culture because many of the Rude Boys adopted this culture, but true Rastafarians did not fully embrace the movement because they were still convinced that religion would be their “salvation from oppression”.  However, this movement did cause a doctrinal change that allowed for Rastafarians to be more politically active in Jamaica.  When reggae rose to fruition in 1968, it caused a “wholesale” embrace of Rastafarian faith and allowed for more radical political themes to make their way into Jamaica’s music.  Although some Rastafarian groups such as the Twelve Tribes of Israel embraced reggae as a “new voice of Rastafarianism,” “the traditional tendency toward political withdrawal and spiritual meditation was challenged by calls to fight for human rights in Jamaica”. (King 104)  This controversy led to a tension between “religious” and “political” Rastafarians, which should be examined when assessing the commercialization of reggae and Rasta culture.  Reggae music gained significant popularity in Jamaica, even though some reggae songs were banned from the radio by the government because of their radical political agenda.  The government also did not like reggae music’s association with Rasta culture such as dreadlocks, an Ethiopian inspired hairstyle, and the colors green, red and gold because these customs aid the worship of Haile Selassie, a living black god, and support the return to Africa and the view of Jamaica as “the Babylon which holds them in captivity of the protracted Diaspora”.  However, “Since the 1930’s, the Rastafarian movement has been in conflict with Jamaica’s colonialist web of economic exploitation and racial stratification.”(King, 135)  It was inevitable that this music associated so closely with the powerful Rastafarian religion would be exploited and commercialized.  If reggae could have reached the international scale without changing the core of the music and retaining its Afro-Caribbean roots it would be very beneficial to our society.  The spread of the rebellious message that is so fundamental in reggae music and the mass understanding of the powerful religion of Rastafari would make a very positive imprint on western society.  In a sense the commercialization of reggae did lead to this.  It did lead to the introduction of the music and culture on an international level.  However, the extent to which this took place did change the music from its roots and made the music conform to the constraints of popular music in the west solely for economic reasons.  The major record labels that introduced reggae into the western world were not trying to teach people about the message behind the music, but exploit these rebellious themes for sheer profit.  The general commercialization of Rastafari could have been beneficial, but, as Jacob Miller sings, “there is TOO MUCH commercialization of Rastafari.” The extent of the commercialization is what is detrimental to the Rastafarian faith.

            There were many influential reggae artists such as Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, and Jacob Miller that became popular on a large scale.  However, Bob Marley was probably the most influential figure in internationalizing reggae, with help from Island Records president, Chris Blackwell.   “Marley’s pivotal position as first Caribbean artist to receive large scale financial backing from a western record industry makes assessing his career crucial to an examination of commercial transformation in regional popular music.”(Alleyne, 93)  Marley cut his first recordings in 1962 at the age of sixteen.  These songs had a ska feel and were recorded under Leslie Kong’s Beverly’s label.  After these recordings were released, Marley’s coach and tutor, Joe Higgs, helped him form a tight knit group with friends Bunny Livingston and Peter Macintosh (later known as Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh).  Higgs gave this group the name “The Wailers.”  The Wailers became relatively big around Jamaica and much of their music preached the Rastafarian faith; post the coming of prophet Haile Selassie I.  His coming inspired The Wailers to make their lyrics more related to Rastafari and adhere to such customs as the growing of dreadlocks.  The Wailers recorded in a number of places around Jamaica including the studio of Lee “Scratch” Perry, a unique producer that resided in the Kingston area.  The Wailers proved to not see enough financial backing from their music in these local record labels.  According to Bunny Wailer, Perry actually did not pay the Wailers any of their agreed salary until 25 years past the date.  Because of their economic hardships they tried starting their own record label, Tuff Gong Records, but to no avail.  They wound up signing to Island Records where president Chris Blackwell paid them $8,000 dollars to record the album “To Catch a Fire”, which they recorded in less than a month. (Davis, 93)  This relationship with Blackwell is what truly internationalized reggae music and the wailers and changed it from its original roots.  “From the outset of “To Catch a Fire” (1972), Blackwell was determined to culturally and commercially recontextualize The Wailers’ music and image.”  (Ayelle 95)  Blackwell’s goal was to make reggae music appealing to a western audience.  He changed their image, displaying them as “rock stars” instead of reggae artists and exploited their rebellious message for sheer profit.  He made album covers displaying the Rastafarian use of ganja as a sacrament, as a rebellious act that further led to a misunderstanding of Rastafarian culture. “The transformation brought about by Blackwell was not merely a minor cosmetic modification, but a reformation of the text of reggae in which elements considered most appealing to the western rock audience were fore grounded at the expense of its primary Afro-Caribbean characteristics.” (Ayelle, 95-96)  Obviously, Marley did not have solely bad intentions, but there is evidence to believe he knew the change of his music was solely to receive financial and commercial benefits. Marley’s “reported presence during the overall reshaping of “To Catch a Fire” suggests he understood the inevitability of record company intervention and the probable commercial benefits brought through wider dissemination.”(Ayelle 96)  Blackwell changed the name of The Wailers 1974 album, Knotty Dread to Natty Dread.  Although this does not seem like a big deal, the change in name “diluted the dreadness” of the album and made it more culturally compatible with norms of western society.  This diluted “dreadness” is not only found in titles but also the music itself, taking away from the strong, essential drum and bass rhythms of primary reggae and adding lead guitar and keyboards to the mix, veering away from the Rasta Afro-Caribbean roots.  Furthermore, with his album “Rastaman Vibration,” he seemed to give in to commercialization to a greater extent.  Many argue that his main intent for the album was to spread his message to a greater audience, which would truly be a good thing.  Songs like “War” in which the lyrics were the words from a speech given by the Rastafarian prophet, Haile Selassi I, would justify the spread of the message. However, songs like “Roots, Rock Reggae” have lyrics that admit his commercial status such as, “We’re bubbling on the top one hundred like a mighty dread”.  In essence his intentions could have been to spread the message of JAH, however, at this point it is evident that he was aware of his commercial status and the change of his music that resulted from this.  Many people such as Paul Gilroy defend Marley’s international status saying, “His primary objective was cross cultural outreach aimed especially at uniting the threads of the black Diaspora.”  This is true, but it is evident in his work that he only analyzed the situation in part.  “Capitalist bases of the record industry and the economic fruits reaped by both Island and Marley in consequence of the music’s assimilability are deemphasized in Gilroy’s critique.”(Ayelle, 100)  Even after Marley’s death, the commercialization did not stop.  Marley became a legend, and a figure that epitomized reggae music as opposed to the reality, which is that there are many other influential reggae artists with a stronger message and more ties to the Rastafarian faith.  Reggae artists such as Burning Spear made many songs to remember the slavery days and Marcus Garvey, a radical black activist from Jamaica who was an influential part of the Rastafarian movement.  Garvey actually predicted the coming of a black prophet before Haile Selassie made his appearance, which made way for the Rastafarian movement.  Not that Marley is not an amazing artist and a key figure in the movement, but the fact that many westerners see Marley as the essence of reggae music has shown that commercialization has exploited the music and message itself.  After his death new albums were released solely for commercial value.  The song, “Iron, Lion, Zion”, was enhanced and changed so much in the studio that the song can hardly be recognized from its original recording.  This modification was made solely to appeal to the western audience. In this day and age you can go into almost any shop and see a Bob Marley tapestry, poster, t-shirt, hat, or other commercial apparel, often with a phrase “Rastafarian”, or “Legalize It” written in the border.  It is my assumption that this message confuses the masses as to the origin of this music, image and culture.  This commercial exploitation is what has transformed reggae from its original roots and undermines the true essence of Rastafari.

            As before stated, the tension between “religious” and “political” Rastafarians should be examined when discussing the commercialization of reggae.  Evidently, Rastafari was established as a religion and the politics associated with the Rasta movement only started during the “Rudeboy” era of 1964-1967.  This shows that the true essence of Rastafari is a religious belief that entailed many moral obligations as well.  The traditional, religious Rastafarians showed disdain towards the “commercialization and secularization” of the movement even before Marley signed to Island Records and internationalized the movement.  Movies like “The Harder They Come,” which starred another influential reggae singer, Jimmy Cliff, also commercialized reggae in a sense. However, it also taught many people about the hardships in Jamaica and struggles involving the Rastafarian faith.  This kind of commercialization is beneficial to society because instead of changing the music and image, it embraces its roots.  The more politically oriented Rastafarians hoped to exploit reggae’s popularity to further their cause and gain mass awareness of problems facing Jamaica.   If reggae could have been internationalized without changing its fundamental roots, the religious Rastafarians most likely would have had less of a problem with it.  But for a music that was dubbed “the new voice of Rastafari” to some, the westernization of this music was appalling to those who believed in this religion from the start.  Not only was the music being commercialized, but the culture was as well. “The popularity of reggae spawned a number of pseudo-Rastafarian groups, who imitated the cultural trappings of Rastafarianism—the dreadlocks, the ganja smoking, and the lingo without embracing its religious and ideological tenets.  In effect the commercialization of reggae music, in the view of more traditional Rastafarians at least, trivialized and degraded the movement. Because the popularity of the music was associated with the movement, the movement itself seemed to become more of a cultural fad than a serious religious and political movement.”  (King, 176-177)  For the Rastafarian religion to become a “cultural fad” shows how the commercialization of reggae exploited the movement’s essence.  Although political Rastafarians hoped to exploit the music’s popularity in order to spread a message, they did not want this movement being a “cultural fad”. In essence, Babylon took advantage of the Rasta movement.

            Although the extent to which reggae was commercialized led to the exploitation of Rasta culture, there were definitely benefits to reggae becoming internationalized.  The westernization of reggae spread the roots and core of the music to many other genres, and led to new modern forms of reggae such as dub and dancehall.  These two more modern forms of reggae were essentially Jamaican, but have now been westernized and commercialized as well.  The influence of reggae on other types of music has made way for great artists to incorporate multi-national styles into their music.  In addition to this, there are still many “roots” or predominantly Rasta reggae artists that have continued to express their radical political agenda and Rastafarian faith in their music, trying to stay clear from the exploitation of their core values.  One particular artist that retained his essential Rastafarian roots and political pro-black agenda was Peter Tosh.  Although Tosh played with The Wailers and reached the international scale, he never strayed from his roots.  The sound of his music changed partially because of his large scale funding by western labels, but his message generally stayed clear.  He was a pro-black activist and a Rastafarian.   Such songs as “Downpressor Man” used the Rastafarian language because, in this dialect, the word “oppressor” is changed to “downpressor” because oppression is a bad thing and the sound op (pronounced “up”), is positive.   Tosh gained such acclaim that he actually toured with The Rolling Stones, having gained the admiration of lead singer, Mick Jagger, because out his courage, purity, and determination to spread his message. Other singer’s such as Jacob Miller, who gained international recognition, even made songs to make the problems associated with modern reggae known.  He recorded a song actually entitled “Too Much Commercialization of Rastafari”, in which he expresses his fear for the modern reggae and Rasta movement and anger towards the lack of understanding of Rastafari.  This song suggests that the international level to which reggae has reached could be a good thing if it was not so commercialized.  He doesn’t discredit commercialization or the spread of reggae, but emphasizes that there is just too much.  A line needed to be drawn between the spread of a powerful, spiritual culture, and the exploitation of this culture.  There are many westerners that do understand this culture, and for that I am glad reggae was brought to an international scale.  There are new reggae artists emerging from all over the world including Italy, Germany and the United states who understand Rastafari and actually produce “roots” reggae that embraces the faith and movement.  International reggae also reflected more awareness of international issues, which benefited western listeners and helped them gain knowledge about troubles outside of Jamaica.  Key themes expressed in international reggae dealt with the political turmoil in Zimbabwe and South Africa.  A lot of international reggae benefited western society and gained awareness about the Rastafarian faith, again it was the EXTENT to which this commercialization occurred that exploited the Rasta culture.

            The commercialization of reggae definitely did exploit the Rasta culture to an extent.  However, what art form in our society has not been commercialized?  As sad as it is, it is a fact that in our modern capitalist society, everything is dependent on economic stability.  Every art form that is created out of pure intentions and passion is inevitably going to be looked at by another person as a chance for profit.  It is unfortunate that the world has to work this way.  The commercialization of reggae exploits the Rasta culture to a greater extent solely because of what the religion and movement stood for in the first place.  Modern society was “Babylon”, and the Rasta man’s ambition was to “tear down the walls of Babylon”. ”Paradoxically, while reggae acts as a voice of counter hegemonic change, it simultaneously consolidates the economic power base of the status quo.  This incongruity suggests that the perception of creative empowerment through the music’s dissemination must be tempered by a consciousness of how Babylonian forces are extracting oil from the well of reggae.” (Aiello, 100)  The reason the commercialization of this culture exploited it so much was because it went against everything it stood for.  Making money off such an art form and culture seems to undermine the essential message.  In Jamaica people take the Rastafarian religion very seriously.  In a television show called “Madventures”, two Finish men explore Jamaica and visit parts that are not common for a tourist to go.  In their travels, they meet a man known as “Big Dread.”  Big Dread turned to the Rastafarian religion at age 49 and soon after left the city of Kingston and moved into the woods in the outskirts of the city.  This man lives in a shack that he built out of sticks, and grows vegetables in a little garden by his shed.  He only owns a dog and a donkey and every Sunday he rides the donkey into town to sell his fruit.  This garden is his sole livelihood and he does not even make enough money for clothes and food, but still he claims that he is the happiest he has been in his life.  He says that JAH love and nature is all he needs to be happy.  This is a testament to how powerful this religion really is.  The fact that someone can stop their entire life to live in the woods, and be perfectly happy is perfect evidence for the purity and power of this religion.  Big Dread escaped Babylon by his decision, and that was all he wanted.  Obviously, not all Rastafarians are like this, but the story behind Big Dread makes an interesting point.  There is so much more to this religion than what is known by many westerners, and the stereotype of this religion as “just chilling and smoking” given by many westerners does it a significant amount of injustice.  The use of ganja for Rastas is to enhance meditation and please JAH.  Many Rastas do not even smoke marijuana recreationally, but solely at religious ceremonies.  The image that the western record labels gave ganja as associated to reggae as a rebellious act takes away from the true essence of why Rastafarians smoke the “wisdomweed.”  

            In our society, almost everything has potential for profit.  Because of this almost everything including art, music and culture have been commercialized to some extent.  Some see it as “selling out.” Almost everyone knew a musician or artist that they have seen on a small stage at a bar or community room.  Five years later they are playing at Madison Square Garden and making music videos for MTV.  Yes it is commercialization, and yes it is considered selling out, but in our day and age it is almost inevitable.  The commercialization of Rasta culture led to such exploitation because selling out is considered “giving in to Babylon,” and is contradictory of the movement’s initial agenda.  There is too much commercialization of Rastafari and key figures in the commercialization such as Bob Marley did veer from their roots, but it does not mean Marley had bad intentions or take away from the fact that he was an extremely talented artist and creative, passionate human being.  Although he might have sold out, he still kept the message of Rastafari in his songs, and promoted universal love and peace, which are themes that should be accepted and preached by everyone.  So although there was too much commercialization of reggae, the movement should continue.  Reggae artists continue to thrive in society such as Buju Banton, Ziggy Marley, Damien Marley and many more. Inevitably, the music has veered from roots reggae and has been modernized, but the message and core of reggae is still shown.  Reggae was, is, and will continue to be a liberating voice of the poor and oppressed, and continue to spread messages of “human rights and universal love in a “Babylonian” world of civil unrest, political instability, and economic collapse.”(Winders, 228)  The essence of the Rastafarian religion and the music associated with it will continue to be powerful and spiritual, regardless of any commercialization and exploitation that takes place.









Works Cited:

Alleyne, Mike. "Positive Vibration? Capitalist Textual Hegemony and Bob Marley." Caribbean Romances: The Politics of Regional Representation (1999): 94-104.Print

Colman, George D.  Oba's Story. Trenton: Africa World Press, 2005. Print.

Gilroy, Paul. There Ain’t No Black in Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation. Chicago: Univ of Chicago Press, 1991

King, Stephen A. Redemption Song in Babylon: The Evolution of Reggae and the Rastafarian Movement. Indiana: University of Indiana, 1997. Print.

Rastafari Religion. An Overview of Rasta Culture." Web. <>.Redington, Norman H. "A Sketch of Rastafari History." Norman Hugh. Web. <>.

Winders, James A. "Reggae, Rastafarians, and Revolution: Rock Music in the Third World." American Popular Music: The Age of Rock. Bowling Gree State University: Popular, 1989. Print.

Links to the “Madventures TV show: Part I Part II Part III