Reggae is more than a genre of music. It represents a cultural identity that celebrates its Jamaican roots. In the United Kingdom, reggae was originally an underground music scene with political songs that rallied for change. Over time, the soundtrack for protest amongst citizens from the West Indies became disconnected from its cultural roots and absorbed into a mainstream British sound of commercialization and appropriation. In this photo essay, we’ll trace the origins of reggae in Britain from its early beginnings to its modern changes.
In the 1950’s and 60’s, British citizens of West Indian descent faced a difficult situation. Unlike the United States, black British citizens lacked an incumbent identity. Faced with the task of representing their own cultures, particularly cultures rooted in Jamaica, the celebration of identity came through the dancehall and soundsystem culture that emerged. “We wanted to be British, we wanted to become fitting at to become a part of the society but we found ourselves in a racialized environment. This is where Reggae came in.” (Wheatle, 2009) These celebrations involved playing Jamaican music on various audio equipment available, eventually home sound systems. Live music eventually became essential to these events, with many notable British reggae artists originating from this scene. In being marginalized from a white British majority, black Britons found a celebration of their culture through the dancehall and soundsystem parties.
What Reggae offered was a platform to relate to larger symbols of oppression and be empowered by historic stories of cultural significance in the music. In A Conversation With Linton Kwesi Johnson, reggae artist and poet Linton Kwesi Johnson states: “Reggae afforded us our own independent culture identity. We were rejected by the wider society so this was our music, this was our culture.” (Wheatle, 2009). Reggae songs from the 1960s such as “Israelites” by Desmond Dekker are latent with political protest. The first verse, “Get up in the morning, slaving for bread, sir / So that every mouth can be fed /Poor me Israelites, ah”, is one that describes the plight of black Britons facing discrimination and oppression at every turn. Due to the racist, capitalist structures that kept them oppressed, Dekker parallels their modern living conditions with that of slavery. These kinds of sentiments permeated the live music within the reggae scene of this 1960s era: songwriting that combined a celebration of identity and a protest towards the oppressor.
An example of early reggae as a celebration of Jamaican culture can be tied to the The Wailing Wailers album release in the early career of Bob Marley and the Wailers. The 1965 release featured celebratory songs, such as the incredibly popular “One Love”, that promoted a joyous celebration of Jamaican identity through a positive message of togetherness. This idea of united conjoins perfectly with the separate themes in Reggae of protest, as both were essential for the formation of an identity in an exterior environment that did not promote inclusivity of black Britons.
The popularity of the Reggae genre and artists was hindered by an anti-immigration sentiment still very prevalent throughout the ‘60s and into the ‘70s. Britain was living in the shadow of British Member of Parliament Enoch Powell’s 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech at a meeting at the Conservative Political Centre in Birmingham which further divided society: alienating new immigrating families with such racist notions a fear of increased immigration leading to a period in “15 or 20 years” time in which “the black man has the whip hand over the white man.” This anti-immigration attitude was prevalent in all aspects of society and proved detrimental to Reggae’s growth as a genre.
There was a distinct snobbery against Reggae in its first form, as both radio stations and studios thought of the genre as a novelty and refused to promote Jamaican musicians. The radios and studios were ignoring any other cultural identity and curating only to a white British audience, and as such the voice of West Indian immigrants was suppressed and forced to remain within the confines of the sound system circuits. Only a few record labels were open to the Reggae scene, and while their ideas on inclusivity remain unsolved, their willingness to promote Reggae remains present in the late 1960s promotion of Reggae artists. In the documentary Reggae Brittania, founder of Island Records Chris Blackwell explains how they “were the just about the first people who decided to record Jamaican artists making popular music for a Jamaican audience… There was nothing played on the radio, there wasn’t a few, there was nothing played on the radio… I never sent them to the press because nobody was interested in them.”
As Reggae slowly grew on UK music charts into the 1970s through Bob Marley, Lee Scratch Perry, and other prominent Jamaican artists, so too did the interest in Reggae among white Britons blossom. By the mid-1970s, fascist white groups, more prominently known as skinheads, began to take direct influence from the sound of Reggae and utilize their sound and culture for their own ska and punk music. While initially revolving around groups of disaffected white working class individuals, bands such as The 4-Skins, Cockney Rejects, and others that outwardly spoke for political centrism slowly became co-opted by far-right groups as symbols to push their anti-black Briton agenda. Though many working class punk and ska bands with direct Reggae influences of the late 1970s and early 1980s maintain a anti-facist nature towards Reggae in general, their appropriation of the genre created an environment by which white British males could steal the culture as a means of racist takeover.
It wasn’t until Reggae was absorbed into the commercial system of music production that it became commercially viable, promoted, and well-liked. A new wave of white faces came to represent Reggae in the likes of The Police and Culture Club, stripping away any significant cultural connection to the origins of the music. Maintaining the sounds and otherwise holding onto few of the sentiments of the lyrics, the genre was reformed over the ‘70s and ‘80s. This gave way to the newly found recognition of the genre, slowly becoming ‘Pop’ as it adapted into a mainstream form that moved Reggae away from the culturally empowering opportunity into a another part of a commercialized system.
As a result, Jamaican born artists had very short lived careers in the United Kingdom. Their success was inhibited by a structure that failed to support black artists, giving preference to white faces and removing the cultural significance and origin of the genre.
The lasting impression of black artists on the genre had become erased from the Reggae narrative, and a capitalistic effort to co-opt the genre into a thing of pop-filled commercialism had become Reggae’s new identity.
Wheatle, Alex. A Conversation With Linton Kwesi Johnson, Wasafiri, pg 35-41. Volume 24. 2009.