“I wanted to be Bob Marley since the first time I saw a picture of him and I still do; what I mean by that is conscious music needs to have a spotlight on it and he did that bigger than anyone who ever lived,” explained Jacob Hemphill, lead singer/songwriter of the Washington D.C. based American reggae band SOJA, in a late July interview with Billboard following their performance at Manhattan’s Pier 97, as part of the Michael Franti/Spearhead led Soulshine tour.
“I’m not mad that all I hear on the radio are songs about strippers and planes to Ibiza,” Hemphill added, “I just want conscious music to have a place at the table, too.”
If contemporary reggae with a forthright social conscience has a chance of impacting mainstream radio, SOJA is likely the band to accomplish that feat. On August 12th, the eight-piece outfit released their sixth album, Amid The Noise and Haste (ATO Records), and scored their highest chart debut position to date, No. 20 on the Billboard 200, selling 12,213 copies according to Nielsen Soundscan, slightly less than debut week sales for their 2012 set Strength to Survive. Like its predecessor, Amid The Noise and Haste premiered at No. 1 on the Reggae Albums chart. Hemphill’s impassioned delivery of topical lyrics include a compelling rebuke of the American system’s negligence towards soldiers returning home from war (“Promises and Pills” featuring Alfred The MC of the DC go-go group Mambo Sauce), supported by the band’s multilayered sonic montage, firmly anchored in reggae’s drum-and-bass-driven pulse. The subtly polished enhancements courtesy of Jamaica born producer Dwayne ‘Supa Dups’ Chin-Quee (whose credits includes Bruno Mars and Rihanna) facilitates the band’s broader aspirations.
Bands are often criticized for selling out and going mainstream, but we are trying to change the mainstream so that some artists played there have substance,” says SOJA’s manager Elliott Harrington, whose relationship with SOJA goes back to their high school days in Arlington, VA.
SOJA currently has four singles in rotation on radio stations in Hawaii (a major reggae hub that boasts the sole reggae-formatted station in the Clear Channel cluster, KDNN-FM Island 98-5) including “Your Song” (featuring Damian Marley) and “I Believe” (featuring Michael Franti and Nahko). “I Believe” is also in rotation at Triple A and Alternative formats throughout the U.S. and gaining traction on Hot AC stations.
For many of us, Jimmy Cliff’s 1973 song “The Harder They Come” was the first reggae piece we’d heard.
Reggae grew out of two earlier styles of Jamaican music, ska and rocksteady. And these were both preceded by the Jamaican folk/pop music of the 1950s, a style called mento. Here’s AlerthBedasse’s “Rough Rider” from 1955.
While Jamaican musicians were playing Mento, though, they were also listening to R&B music from New Orleans and Memphis. Folks like Louis Jordan, Fats Domino and Rosco Gordon. Here’s Gordon’s from 1952, with a song called “No More Doggin’.”
So what the Jamaicans were picking up on in songs like this Rosco Gordon track were the offbeats. So if the song is going 1-2-3-4, what they were hearing was 1-and-2-and-3-and-4. And that’s important because that offbeat would go on to become the basis of Jamaican ska music.
And ska held the seed of reggae. Accenting the offbeat and playing songs at a fairly brisk tempo made ska a wildly popular dance music. This is The Wailers with “Simmer Down” from 1963.
The next step in the evolution towards reggae was a form of music called rocksteady, which was basically ska slowed down. This is Alston Ellis with “Rocksteady” from 1966.
This sounds a lot like reggae. What’s the difference between this rocksteady that we’re listening to and the reggae we’re going to hear in a moment?
The sonic differences between rocksteady and reggae are small. But while the music may not have changed much, the world was changing around the music. Jamaica became independent in 1962, there were a lot of economic struggles related to that. And there was a religious aspect to reggae; most of the reggae artists were Rastafarians. And also at the same time, the black identity movement was happening.
So what started out as dance music wound up as protest music you can dance to.
The main event at fight night in Kingston, a popular boxing showcase, was hours away, but the crowd at the National Stadium’s indoor arena, from the young and hip to the elderly, was already pumped.
When reggae artist Tarrus Riley entered the stage, the screams of the full house were deafening, and the fervor persisted throughout his performance.
A musical and social roots movement called “Reggae Revival” is on the rise in Jamaica, where the raunchier dancehall genre has been king for the last two decades. The revival evokes music from reggae’s golden era of the 1970s, dominated by the late, laid-back legend, Bob Marley, who put reggae on the global map with his catchy tunes and spiritual and socially conscious lyrics.
“Reggae is bouncing back,” said Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records who introduced the group Bob Marley and the Wailers to the world. “It got lost somewhat in a negative and violent direction (but) I think it’s finding itself again,” he added.
The revival of traditional “roots reggae” also stands as “a peaceful revolution in a nation that is often typecasted as violent,” said Dutty Bookman, a Jamaican writer who has been documenting the movement which he says goes beyond music, likening it to the Arab Spring.
“Love, unity, positivity, truth-seeking, these things form the basis of the movement,” he said.
Jamaica is the birthplace of reggae, which became an international phenomenon thanks to Marley who died of cancer in 1981 at age 36.
“Reggae is the heartbeat of Jamaica,” said Ziggy Marley, one of Bob Marley’s reggae-playing sons, currently on tour for his “Fly Rasta” album.
“I think Jamaica misses it,” added the younger Marley. “In the past years a lot of the younger artists have been trying to move away from it with dancehall, but reggae is something that is needed because music affects our society deeply.”
DANCEHALL TAKES OVER
After reggae’s golden age, the music degenerated as artists moved from marijuana, considered a spiritual drug by Jamaica’s Rastafarian Christian sect, to harder drugs like cocaine, Herbie Miller, Jamaica Music Museum’s director, said.
“Slackness,” a catch-all term for bad behavior, including explicit sexuality and violence, became the norm, and with it came the rise of dancehall.
Dancehall is an offshoot of reggae with a hyper-energetic sound and often violent, misogynistic as well as sexually explicit lyrics.
In 1991, dancehall artists famously upstaged roots reggae performers at the popular annual Reggae Sunsplash music festival and dancehall artists such as Shabba Ranks, Yellowman, Buju Banton and Ninjaman became all the rage.
Dancehall moved reggae closer to the American gangster rap scene, led by artists like Snoop Dogg, one the biggest selling American rappers.
But dancehall was rocked by a series of scandals involving some of its stars. The Grammy-winning singer Buju Banton was convicted in 2011 on cocaine conspiracy and trafficking charges and is serving a 10-year sentence.
In April dancehall star Vybz Kartel was sentenced to life in prison in Jamaica for the murder of a former associate.
Despite fading, reggae’s influence can still be heard in mainstream American pop, including the Bruno Mars 2012 hit “Locked Out of Heaven.”
Mars performed a rousing reggae tribute to Bob Marley at the 2013 Grammys alongside Sting, Rihanna and two Marley sons, Ziggy and Damian, singing a cover of his 1980 song “Could You Be Loved.”
In a sign of the times, Snoop Dogg changed his name in 2012 after a trip to Jamaica and announced a conversion to the Rastafari movement and a new alias, Snoop Lion. His 2013 chart-topping, Grammy-nominated album, “Reincarnated”, put reggae firmly back on the map, featuring a fusion of reggae and dancehall.
BACK IN THE CHARTS
For the week of Aug. 23, Billboard ranks Chronixx’s “Dread & Terrible” the fourth bestselling reggae album. Ziggy Marley’s “Fly Rasta” ranks third and Snoop Lion’s “Reincarnated” ranks sixth.
The new crop of artists in the reggae revival include Protoje, Tarrus Riley, Chronixx, Jah9, and Kabaka Pyramid, who all play music with messages rooted in Rastafarianism.
What you have and how you look and what you don’t have, that’s dancehall,” said Kabaka Pyramid, who was ranked at the top of Billboard’s Next Big Sound chart last year. In the reggae revival, “ego is being taken out of the music,” he said.
The revival is being fostered by Billy Wilmot, a Jamaican surfing legend the vocalist, guitarist and songwriter for the Mystic Revealers, a Jamaican reggae band that formed in the late 1970s.
His surf camp, Jamnesia, became a seminal place where Reggae Revival artists cut their teeth on live performance.
“Reggae is always socially conscious music and socially relevant,” said Wilmot. “It might not be what you want to hear, but it’s what’s going on in society.”
Roots reggae and dancehall may have very different sounds and messages, but they’re not mutually exclusive. Some reggae artists have incorporated rap elements of dancehall, including Damian Marley and Tanya Stephens.
“Both can exist and live,” says Ziggy Marley. “The roots revival can bring things back into balance without being judgmental of one or the other.”
ORGANISERS of the annual Rototom Sunsplash festival say the August 16-23 show in Benicassim, Spain achieved its objective of appealing to a new demographic.
Katia Brollo, a Rototom spokesperson, credits the appearance of neo roots-reggae acts with attracting new fans to the festival which was first held in Gaio di Spilimbergo, Italy in 1991.
“The main objective of this year’s show was to increase the visibility of the reggae renaissance, giving the opportunity to the exponents of this movement to come to Rototom and porform on the main stage of the festival,” Brollo told the Jamaica Observer. “Jah9, Kabaka Pyramid, Jesse Royal and Chronixx offered high-quality concerts.”
Brollo added: “We could become the bridge between the historic reggae performers like Jimmy Cliff, Luciano and Alpha Blondy and contemporary hip hop dance icons such as Sean Paul, Shaggy and Lauryn Hill.”
She noted that veterans such as Cliff, Luciano and Inner Circle helped the festival maintain its core demographic (ages 20 to 45).
The Rototom Festival, which is the largest of Europe’s summer reggae festivals, again comprised workshops looking at ways to improve the reggae product, as well as reflecting on the music’s history.