Aristotle declared in his Poetics that ‘the function of the poet is to describe, not what has happened, but the kind of thing that might happen, what is possible according to probability or necessity’ (Aristotle, 350 B.C, p. IX). It was the necessity of the struggle for liberation that ushered in the birth of Reggae music. With Reggae music being an art as describes by Aristotle who was schooled in the libraries of Egypt, the music had to tell people of what is to be, of the possibilities according to necessity for those who were oppressed; for this task Reggae music was itself as a prophet and that prophet was embodied in the form of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. If one was to consider colonisation and enslavement of the African people within the New World as a process of depersonalisation, then Reggae music was a means to speak back personality into not just the Jamaican people but all African descendants of the world. Reggae music has a message and within that message is the history of a people and also its future. Here we will examine how Reggae music shapes black identity from the remembered history of a people that was broken and oppressed.
There is no identity without history, and the history of human civilisations have a long tail. The Kingdom of Akwamu became a wealthy and powerful state by 750AD. Then the kingdom became the Empire known as Ghana. The Empire lasted from 750 AD to 1200 AD. The people of the fallen Empire migrated to the North West Cape Coast around the 14th Century. These people were Akwamus or Akans. They sought to form a new State and between 1629 and 1710 started a new expansion. The expansion of the Akwamu led them into war with splintered factions that led to the formation of the Ashanti Empire. Many imported slaves came from the regions of modern Ghana, Nigeria and Benin which between 1660 and 1775 was the scene of large scale warfare of African Empires. Slaves obtained by raiding and warfare were sold in markets on the coast; like the great slave market at Hanso near Cape Coast that supplied slaves to the English Empire (Sherlock & Bennett, 1998). Yet still, the history of civilisations can be traced back even further, to what modern societies refer to as the ‘first civilisations’; notably of which is the ancient Kemites (popularly known as Egyptians). It is on the foundations of these ancient civilations that Europeans sought to build new civilisations in the New World; and for this purpose they brought with them as slaves, Africans from the Old World. We can see the legacy of Egypt here in Jamaica in the naming of towns like Aboukir in St. Ann after Abu Qir, a town in Egypt. Just as how Aboukir is located near Alexandria in Egypt, so too does the Jamaican Aboukir town in St. Ann is located near a town called Alexandria. However, it was not just the British inhabitants on the island of Jamaica that sought to build societies fashanioned on the foundations of the ‘first civilisations’. Amoung the Africans of Jamaica there was the belief that, “Ethiopians were the instructors of Music, founders of Arts, Science and Philosophy…The Ethiopians were the architects that laid the plans and measured the spaces and laid the foundations of the Pyramids of Egypt…and put the finishing touches on the Sphinx” (Howe, 1999, p. 73). Such it was that another identity was formed alongside that of the British in Jamaica, an African identity.
The Africans brought with them across the Atlantic, oral traditions and music. Being that a significant portion of the slaves came to Jamaica from the West African coast, a lot of them were Akan but still there were many different tribes from significantly different regions of Africa, not all speaking the same language. Music was not merely a means of entertainment but a means of communication. Correspondingly, some of the slaves escaped and formed for themselves in the hills of Jamaica, a New State birthed by an Akan Ohemaa (Nanny); a State rivalling the British Empire in the mountains of Jamaica over the course of the first Maroon War. A war that ended in an agreement where the British ruled the coast and the Maroons ruled the hills. Furthermore the Maroons maintained contact with each other via a sophisticated, intelligence system that involved slaves on plantations acting as spies and communicating through drums and the abeng. This tradition of drumming has been passed down in the drumming of the Nyabinghi that can be heard in reggae music even to this day. Nyabinghi is the oldest mansion of the Rasta movement and was very influential in the sound of Reggae music. The Nyabinghi of Rasta traces themselves back to a region of Africa now called Zimbabwe. Similarly as how the drums of the Maroons and other escaped slaves carried the secret messages of war and liberation across the hills of Jamaica, so too did reggae music continued the tradition and carried messages of liberation to Africans across the world. In the first place, it was a message to remember who they are. The words of Marcus Garvey and Leonard Howell; It was the first step to give personality to those who were depersonalised.
To the Jamaican people as so eloquently put by Rex Nettleford, Rasta was a movement to remind the Jamaican people that they are Africans. The African memory runs deep in the traditions of not just Jamaicans but of all the people of African descendants in the New World. As a matter of fact, it was an American British ex-slave by George Liele, who came to Jamaica after the American civil war and started the Ethiopian Baptise Church in Jamaica 1784 (O’Neill). The foundation of the belief that Ethiopia was the foundation of even Egyptian civilisation can be said to have started in Jamaica at this time. Then by the time of Marcus Garvey in the 1900’s, the pan-African movement had become global, a movement to revolutionise thinking for the Black masses throughout the New World. The words of Garvey, to look for the crowning of a King in Africa was seen as prophecy fulfilled when in 1930, His Majesty Ras Tafari was crowned as King in Ethiopia. So it was that Leonard Howell wrote, ‘Black People, Black People arise and shine for the light has come and the glory of the King of Kings is now risen upon thee’ (Howell, 1935, p. 26). Marcus Garvey and Leonard Howell played the role of prophet to the King that was Ras Tafari that gave birth to the Rasta movement in Jamaica with Nyabinghi being the first sect or mansion. Above all else, the Rasta movement was for the most part an intellectual Black movement. Garvey and Howell were men of letters, writing books, and publishing pamphlets. It required an extensive reading of not just the Bible but of material from Black intellectuals to be a conscious Rasta. Notwithstanding, it took the genius of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry to give sound to the words of Garvey and Howell. Reggae became the means of bringing the pan-African message started by Liele from the fringes of Jamaican society and to the masses. Reggae had within it the drumming of the Nyabinghi, and a base reminiscent of the abeng, the musical signatures of a tradition of secrete messages; messages sent across the trade winds to the shores of Africa. A message to put back together what has been broken: a message to remember, a message for Africa to Unite.
As in the case of Garvey who rose to remind the people of their African ancestry, that they were a mighty people while at the same time reminding them that they were Black, so too did Emperor Ras Rafari show them that they were Kings and Queens still. Correspondingly, if Garvey was a prophet and Ras Tafari was the King then so too was Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry a prophet and Bob Marley a King; Prophet and King of Reggae music. Garvey sought to bring into being a Black Star to bring people back to Africa; while in the form of Reggae music, Lee Perry created a Black Star in the form of Bob Marley that brought the message of liberation back to Africa.
The message of an Ethiopian ideology is carried in songs like Exodus with lyrics, ‘We know where we’re going, We know where we’re from, We’re leaving Babylon.’ Exodus was named album of the century by Time magazine in 1999. With Ethiopia as the foundation ancient civilization, Reggae music became a hallmark of Black identity across national borders of being a movement of liberation.
With the re-member of one’s identity, the next step is for freedom. To free your mind from mental slavery also means to open up one’s self to a myriad of possibilities. For the early pioneers of Reggae music, these possibilities meant revolutions. Reggae music is music for the rebels, music to usher in a revolution by uniting all African people of the world. In places like Kenya and Zimbabwe Bob Marley inspired independence movements away from colonial rule. The genius of Bob Marley and the early pioneers of Reggae music can best be seen in how the long historical tradition of messages hidden in the music was used. The Rasta movement in Jamaica with its spiritual foundations in Ethiopia long taught among themselves the language of Ethiopia, Amharic. Africans in the New World, who were properly oriented with their roots growing towards Africa, could recognize Amharic when they see it and those that weren’t oriented could not. Therefore the language became a means of communication for the conscious and properly oriented Africans of the Western world. Likewise as how the Maroons of Jamaica can communicate with those of Suriname and other groups from Africa who use the Twi language; Amharic became a language of intercontinental communication for the Rasta movement. Reggae was the sound that carried the words of this coded message. It was no accident that Bob Marley inspired revolutions in Africa with his music; it was made so by the possibilities of design in the genius of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. The Exodus album had on it a message for all those of the continent to see.
What may look to some like writings that don’t signify anything is in fact an Amharic script. The album art is recognisable to those from the continent that reads Amharic as a variation of the name for Ethiopia. In fact, what is written is a phonetic translation pronounced Ethiopiyahe – thats the sound that would be made if one was to sound out the Amharic fidal (script) written above. For one thing, in an interview, Bob Marley is said to have uttered, “Why can’t we go to Ghana? Go to Nigeria-meet some people, learn a new language” (Bob Marley and Africa, 2005). And learn a new language he did, Amharic was the central language of the Rasta movement which later proliferated down into Reggae music. Amharic was seen as a language of power, the language of the first civilizations with its Semitic structure. The use of Amharic meant a symbolic and physical liberation from the words of the Englishman. Rasta spoke differently if they had to use English at all since after all word was power. Not only the language but Reggae also in effect adopted the Christian tradition of Ethiopia and rejected the Christian tradition of Rome (Babylon). With Lee Perry as the prophet, Reggae had a trinity of its own: word, sound and power. It spread the words of George Liele, Marcus Garvey and Leonard Howell through the sounds of Reggae music; word and sound. The call for a revolution to bring about a United Africa was the power. It was this message and this power of a unity that saw Job Kadengu and Gordon Muchanyuka flying to Jamaica to invite Bob Marley to mark Zimbabwe’s independence with a performance. The power of reggae music and its message speaks of what is to come and it is in this way that Reggae is a true Aristotelian art form; a form that honors its roots in the histories of Africa.
Finally, Reggae is not just a symbol of liberation to Africa but had also become a global source of power for the liberation struggles across the world. In India, the sound of Reggae is being used to play a role in political activism “in a project called World Sound Power, which tried to meld Indian folk resistance music with Jamaican sounds, with lyrics focusing on caste violence, state abuse of power and crony capitalism” (Singh, 2017). Even in Europe, Reggae music played this role where in the 70’s, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Junior Murvin hit single Police and Thieves was covered by the British band The Clash, in protest of social unrest and brutality in Britain at the time. Just as with India today and Britain then, police and thieves are still in the streets fighting the nation with their guns and ammunition and Reggae music is still acting as a rallying cry to all people but mainly those of African descent to lead a revolution against such oppression. Equally important, the Ethiopian message still reverberates through Reggae even to this day. Within it is the history of those of African ancestry and the possibilities of liberation to come. We can see clear evidence of this in the prominence of Damian Marley’s latest Grammy winning album, notably the single Speak Life. Just as his father’s Exodus album invoked the symbolism of Amharic to communicate with Africa, Damian does the same in the music video which was captioned in Amharic. To demonstrate a very powerful imagery invoking the messianic symbolism accompanied by the Semitic words for all to see. As it was then so it is now that Reggae is both a reminder and a message. A reminder that, Africa must wake up and a message that ‘way too much time has been wasted, building military bases and fighting wars with no basis; that Life is sacred.’ (Marley, 2017). It is in this way that Reggae music shapes black identity from the remembered history of a people that was broken and oppressed.
Aristotle. (350 B.C). Poetics. (S. H. Butcher, Trans.)
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James, L. R. (1999). Rastafarianism and the Third Millennium: Cultural Liberation and Judgment of the World. Journal of Millennial Studies. De Pauw University. Retrieved April 15, 2018, from Click Here
O’Neill, C. (n.d.). Mythical Pasts: Ethiopianism as a Revitalization Movement. Retrieved April 18, 2018, from University of Vermont: Click Here
Sherlock, P., & Bennett, H. (1998). The Story of the Jamaican People. Kingston: Ian Randle.
Singh, V. (2017, May 22). India’s Reggae Resistance: Defending Dissent Under Modi. Retrieved April 19, 2018, from Aljazeera: Click Here