Let’s Talk Reggae :On the New Movement

Starting in around 2010 there was a shift in Reggae music that people started calling Reggae Revival. Personally, I’ve come to call it the ‘New Movement’ since reggae was always here. Calling it a revival is akin to Columbus’ ‘discoveries’. Such thinking comes from a state of mind that is not present but removed. So removed that there needs to be a revival.

This new movement in Reggae carries with it different technical arrangements in the musical composition from the era of Dennis Brown. Listening the beat alone reveals a sound traditionally unlike Reggae, post DanceHall. The tempo of Reggae in the late 1990s was more upbeat with few major artists. There was however, the Mystic Reavealers – itself a story for another time.

Protoje’s Who Dem a Program and Kabaka’s Liberal Opposer has within them other elements than this uptick in tempo. There is something like a ‘fusion’ of other musical developments since the Internet became mainstream. However, I’m very apprehensive of referring to it as ‘fusion’ since that implies an atmosphere lacking in originality. I do think the New Movement is in fact something novel. Building upon what came before, drawing inspiration from Dennis Brown, Jacob Miller and Ini Kamoze to name a few. For now I’m more focused on the content of the lyrics rather than their musical arrangements but, it is prudent to keep all aspects in mind.

Protoje’s Who Dem a Program, starts with imagery of the symbolic representations of the Jamaican State and asking a question. “Who dem a Program ?” This question is first echoed against the backdrop of a rock with the words ‘indignation’ written on it. One can have alot of fun with the meaning here, given the juxtaposition of the Jamaican state and rock – JamRock. Not only is the question coming form a place of resentment, unhappiness and discontent, the word ‘Indignation’ is written for the audience to clearly see. It is not just a label. The sentiments over the imposition of the State on ones’ life and also discontent with continuing social injustices is very evident. By ‘dem’ the opening lines invoke two dichotomies: Young Girl and Mr. Babylon. That is to say, the dem (they) that the song is refering to is both feminine and masculine.

Protoje then introduces himself as the new ‘Prince’. As if to say, yes it is I who they are trying to programme. Situating himself as the subject of the discourse but with a description that shows he is not powerless but rather a ‘General’ and a force of nature. He is being watched because he must be watched, since he is afterall entertaining ‘dem’, both Young Girl and Mr. Babylon. There are alot of references here, notably General Echo’s. Interestingly Protoje goes on to assert that ‘dem’ [their] perceived power is but a dream like Arleen’s and that they aren’t in fact Kings but rather entertainers (Dancehall Queens to be exact). Now, there is a metanarrative here conveying a relationship between power dynamics and gender but for now I’ll set that aside momentarily. That is the subject of an entirely different discourse.

For now I would like to introduce the idea of how philosophy is embedded in our music. What I write here is an overt reflection of that. Philosophy as a form of entertainment, taking on the role akin to a jester. Protoje continues to show his power by how he can overcome obstacles set by ‘dem’ to deliver an important message; philosophic in mind, bringing you the gift of art. One glimpse of what he’s delivering can be seen in the line, ‘Their power isn’t real’. This is a discourse on the illusion of power, that the power of Young Girl and Mr. Babylon is illusory. One need not to worry about being programmed by such a State; No watch no face, mek ‘dem’ do what they please.

What I find most interesting about this discourse is that it raises some questions about where in our society power really lies and the responsibility of those that have it. Since if it is the entertainer who has the power then should we also worry about being programmed by dem?

In Kabaka’s Liberal Opposer, the focus is still Mr. Babylon but its more of an historic telling that leads up to how the present situation came to be. It opens with the statement, ‘don’t you fight us’. Now, this is aimed at the audience. Why, I say the audience is because that is followed by the third person use of ‘dem’. The second person use of ‘you’ vs the third person use of ‘dem’ sets up the classic ‘you’ vs dem dichotomy. The role Kabaka plays in this dichotomy is the Rebel, and not just any rebel. A rebel with a cause, what he refers to as the Liberal Opposer.

Some interesting visuals can be scene with the Arawak studio logo. Also another instant of pairing label names with messages. [A side note, I first started to take note of these pairing with Akan sounds]. Words occasionally flash across the screen but they aren’t cryptic, but they are deliberate given how editing is done. Start is flashed on screen during the opening, at 54s in the word that flashes reads, ‘picture’ and at 1:04 reads ‘start sound’. More interestingly than the visuals, is the upbeat tempo starting at 1:41s. Experiments in sounds like this is what I consider the characteristics of this New Movement. Emblematic of building upon the old with the new.

The question can be asked, what is the Liberal Opposer, against? This is where we find the philosophy that’s embedded in Reggae. The object to rebel against is yet again the State. No where is Jamaica’s tenuous relationship with the State more evident than in the music. On top of that, this type of rebellion by the Liberal Opposer is not a physical one. The battlefield here is ideological. One that is against Western materialism and capitalism. Its an economic rebellion, the battlefield is the economy. An economy that obscures the reality. Yet still, we must ask, since entertainers are often better off financially. When they do not help their broader community, shouldn’t we also rebel against them?

Philosophy is embedded in Jamaican music. The entertainer plays the dual role of a jester and a philosopher. Not only is the lived experience of the Jamaican people portrayed in dance but also in sound. Music being the oldest means of collective rebellion.

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