Reggae and the African Culture of Resistance

Reggae and the African Culture of Resistance

“A culture is a total way of life. It embraces what people ate and what they wore, the way they walked and the way they talked…music and dance had key roles in ‘uncontaminated’ African society. They were ever-present at birth, initiation, death, as well as at times of recreation. Africa is the continent of drums and percussion. African peoples reached the pinnacle of achievement in that sphere.”

Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa

When inquiring as to why the development of culture in radical struggle—and the development of culture in general—is important, Walter Rodney answers this thoroughly. Rodney emphasizes culture as the way of life: what people wore, what they ate, and how they interacted. One’s culture would define those special moments in life, such as birth, marriage, and death. Rodney was intentional in expressing the importance of culture as a component of a people’s development in every other aspect. Rodney highlights Africa as the continent of drums and percussion and that Africans reached the pinnacle of achievement in that sphere.

This brings us to reggae. Reggae—roots reggae specifically—is one of many overt cultural manifestations of resistance and radical movements. Though reggae did not directly come out of Africa, its main component, the drums, is a strong and pure African influence. The drums are the very first thing one hears in most reggae songs—and that’s for a reason. The drums are the heartbeat of any reggae song. 

Reggae came out of Jamaica in the 60s, but it was known as ska at that stage. Ska had a much higher tempo, mostly due to the fact that Jamaicans wanted upbeat music that reflected the mood of the country—the mood exemplified by their newfound independence. By the late 60s and early 70s, however, Ska slowed down and became rocksteady. This only lasted for a brief moment in Jamaican music history, and then rocksteady slowed down even more to become the reggae we can recognize today. The 70s, however, was when roots reggae really developed as a subgenre of reggae. Roots is the genre that specifically “deals with the everyday lives and aspirations of Africans and those in the African diaspora, including the spiritual side of Rastafari, Black liberation, revolution, and the honoring of God, called Jah by Rastafarians.” 

To establish roots reggae as one of the many cultural contributions to African/Black resistance and revolutionary struggle, it’s crucial to analyze the historical and political conditions of the time in Africa, Jamaica, and the United States. In the 70s, African politics were—among many things—characterized by decolonization. By the 70s, a great portion of African countries had only been independent for about a decade. A great many were still under colonial rule, and even if they weren’t, it was clear that it was independence in name, not practice. At this stage, classic colonialism receded, and neocolonialism took hold. Kwame Nkrumah, in Neocolonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism, defines a state under neocolonial rule as one that “is in theory independent, [and] has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty, but in reality, its economic system and its political policies are directed from outside.”

The only reason independence was given to African nations was because it was no longer profitable for Europe. Europe needed to rebrand after World War II. That meant to leave but replace themselves with African leaders physically who retained the same economic situations for their respective former colonies. Africans were suffering under a new form of economic hegemony under neocolonialism.

 In the late 60s and early 70s, Africans in the U.S. was growing disillusioned by civil rights laws. It was becoming evident, on a mass scale, that liberation through legislation was not feasible. This gave rise to the call for radical change; radical movements and ideologies were what the mass of our people wanted. In ‘66, the Black Panther Party was founded, in ‘72, the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party expanded to the U.S, and in ‘72, the African People’s Socialist Party was also founded. Black radical organizations were simply in high demand. 

In Jamaica, the 70s were characterized by political violence. The streets of Kingston ran red with blood because one’s political affiliation was a death sentence in specific areas. It was at this point in time that Bob Marley’s assassination attempt took place. Though it was an overall violent time in Jamaican political history, it was also marked by the popularization of the Rastafari movement and faith by artists like Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Jacob Miller, and many more.

So, when considering the violent conditions that plagued Africans worldwide, it becomes clear why roots reggae developed as a cultural and musical manifestation of resistance. Africans were suffering at the hands of Babylonian forces regardless of where they were. Africans wanted and needed music that spoke to and about their plights. Africans worldwide needed a border-defying sense of peoplehood and roots reggae developed out of the need. Roots is one of the earliest cultural examples that emphasized Pan-African solidarity and consciousness, and it was because of these violent conditions that Bob Marley said, “a hungry mob is an angry mob.” Because of these conditions, Marely proclaimed, “it takes a revolution to make a solution.” It was in the efforts to build that crucial united consciousness that Peter Tosh said, “don’t care where you come from, as long as you’re a Black man, you’re an African.”

By the late 80s, however, the militant and radical fervor that was exemplified with reggae began to disappear from the sound systems in Jamaica and beyond. Reggae, in general, became replaced by dancehall, and though bands like Steel Pulse and Culture tried to keep the roots sound alive, they were definitely a minority at that point. 

There could be a lot of reasons why roots reggae receded the way did. Some argue that the deaths of many crucial figures like Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Joseph Hill, Augustus Pablo, and Bunny Wailer were the final nail in the coffin. Though there can be countless reasons, a strong force was that the overt negative conditions the made roots reggae a necessary cultural development grew to become subtle. Those same conditions that led to the development of roots reggae shifted—not for the better—but changed, nonetheless. 

Regardless of its current state, the development and legacy of roots reggae is one of the most important cultural manifestations of Africa/Black history. 

In Rasta and Resistance, Horace Campbell writes, “Robbed of their language and forcibly tied to the institutions of capital, African peoples developed musical forms which were means of both communication and inspiration. When the planters banned the nocturnal drummings, this African drumming survived the storms of prosecution and repression by taking refuge in the villages and in the spirit of those who kept the memory of Africa alive.”

As we continue to develop and grow our culture. It is our responsibility to keep the memory and legacy of Africa alive. 

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A current Sophomore Political Science major attending Hampton University, I started writing in hopes of establishing my journalistic voice. I write about politics, history, music, and anything I deem important, interesting, or both. I am very open to suggestions as well as criticism. Feel free to reach me through Instagram or Twitter.