This popular social unrest has a strong bond with music. Prince Busters, a Jamaican songwriter, producer, and one of the protagonists of the evolution of Jamaican music during the sixties says the following in the foreword of Lloyd Bradley’s Bass Culture:
Michael Manley’s rise to power in 1972 must be understood within the historical context of popular social unrest and widespread call for welfare reform in the decade preceding the election1.
During his campaign, Manley and his party, the People National Party (PNP), was supported by a bandwagon with many famous reggae bands and artists playing, such as Max Romeo or Bob Marley and the Wailers3. Brandishing the “Rod of correction,” a real rod allegedly given to him by Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie4, “Manley openly courted black nationalist, Rastafarians, urban-youth, the unemployed, and the sufferers throughout the island”5 using reggae music and its symbols. Was it just exploitation of Rastafarianism and the hopes of the sufferah by Babylon? In order to answer this question, we have to understand what was occurring in Jamaica at the turn of the sixties. Jamaica gained its independence from the British Empire in 1962 but was strictly economically connected with Great Britain and culturally to the United States. The economy of the island was based on bauxite and tourism. In the late fifties Jamaica was the world’s leading bauxite producer, but the bauxite companies were all foreign-owned and they all exported the mineral ore without processing it into aluminum. Tourism represented a diversification of the island’s economy and become an important source of government revenue, second only to the mining sector6. With this in mind,
Jamaican music – call it ska, call it rocksteady, call it roots, call it reggae – has always been the people’s music. Their statements, their rhythms, their good times, their sufferation, their love songs. And every time the outside world catches up with it the beat changes again, so what’s being played on the sound systems remains truly representative of the people who are making it2.
And those “top-ranking civil servants and company directors” were part of the white minority of the island’s population, while the black majority lived in poverty. But the social unrest was not solely caused by poverty. During the sixties, a racial consciousness spread on the island. The Rastafarian movement, the activism of Walter Rodney, and the diffusion of Caribbean Black Power offered a radical political alternative to the unrest. On October 15, 1968, the Jamaican government, led by prime minister Hugh Shearer from the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), a conservative party despite the name, banned Walter Rodney from the country. Rodney, a Guyanese black activist and a lecturer at the Mona Campus of the University of West Indies (UWI), assassinated in 1980, was not a stranger; he attended the UWI in 1960 and had “come home” in 1968 after teaching at the University of Dar es Salaam. The day the government banned him, the campus of Mona erupted, and the rebellion reached the ghettos of West Kingston. The Rodney riot resulted in six deaths and damaged property as the march reached the city8. I think that the Rodney Riot proves both the strength of this new consciousness and that there was a form of interclass union between the radical students of the UWI, many of them from the black middle-class, and poor people of the ghettos. But it also proves that there was not a united movement, as if there were two worlds moving parallel. The sufferers looked at the Rastafarians more than at the students or the activists. But we must not forget this interclassism:
Just as it had been under colonial rule, a few top-ranking civil servants and company directors were doing very well, as were a rapidly increasing number of overseas-based multinational corporations, but other than that, this new money meant nothing except on paper. Back in the real world, so little of it was getting through to the public at large that it remained theoretical7.
Rasta and Rude Boy, wrote Nagashima, were seeking a cultural identity, but the Rastas more than the rude boys gave the sufferers political responses. The shitstem (a crasis between shit and system used by the Rastafarians) or Babylon (how the Rastafarians refer to the politics) or the politircks (again a crasis between politics and tricks), were symbols clearly recognizable by everyone in the ghettos. It isn’t easy to summarize how and when the rasta movement was born. It mixed religious and political thought, the belief in Haile Selassie and in Marcus Garvey10.
The 1960s were a decade of political and sociocultural turbulence. With the growing verbal and physical violence from “rudies” or “rude b(w)oys” who fringe the Rastafarians, Jamaican society could not ignore but had to face squarely their protests. Rudies and Rastafarians are in fact, the lost sons of a contradictory Jamaica, seeking and demanding a true Jamaican cultural identity out of desperate frustration. Partial answers have appeared. And here Rastafarians’ strong assertions and proposals to search for “African” identity have contributed to succor the awakening consciousness of “blackness” in Jamaica9.
And the way Rastafarians talked to the people from the slums of Kingston was with music. Reggae was the point of arrival of the evolution of genuine Jamaican music. The words of Prince Buster I mentioned earlier show a strong bond between Jamaican musicians and Jamaican people. Cecill Bustamante Campbell (aka Prince Buster) was a musician and producer born in 1938. He took part in the Jamaican music scene almost from the beginning. His words reveal a bond, real and strong, between Jamaican musicians and Jamaican people. This bond was born during the sound systems period. It would take a long time to analyze and describe the path from the fifties, when a true Jamaican sound was born, to reggae, but I think it is worth it to note some milestones. As Marco Peroni affirms in his books La storia contemporanea tra musica leggera e canto popolare, songs could be a source for historians if analyzed not just for lyrical content but also in terms of the music12. Like lyrics, sound is a cultural product, and I believe this is particularly clear in Jamaican music, as Prince Buster claims. I chose some milestones of Jamaican music considering how they contributed to the evolution of pure Jamaican music. I think that these songs will make clear the beliefs and evolution of Jamaican people. As noted above, it all started in the sound systems period when some pioneer DJs, Prince Busters among them, started to bring music to the people of the ghettos who were not able to dance in the club13. Lloyd Bradley, whose book will be fundamental for this part of my work, wrote:
Thus, Haile Selassie was not only the Ras Tafari, the Negus, the King of Kings, and the Living God, but also specifically the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah. (More recently, the simple appellation “Jah” has been used.) In these formulations the racial and religious problems which had preoccupied the Jamaican black for centuries converged and found immediate and simultaneous resolution. Predictably, the cult drew its support chiefly from the slums of Kingston11.
The sound systems were the roots of modern Jamaican music. “Sounds were large outdoor parties where DJs would playtime latest R&B and jump blues records.”15 The sound systems era began immediately before independence and it became part of Jamaican culture. Duke Reid, Clement Coxsone Dodd, and Cecil Bustamante Prince Buster Campbell were among the first DJs who made the Jamaican sufferers dance. Loyal to his beliefs, Prince Buster called his sound system, a group of disc jockeys, engineers, and MCs, The voice of the people. But in this first period what made a sound system better than the others was the newest, best American hits or American-like songs. Often, as Laurie Gunst recalls in her Born Fi Dead, these parties became violent and the police interrupted them, even if they weren’t a problem because at the end of the fifties some strikes distressed the authority. Social unrest and the sound systems created the backdrop for true Jamaican music. A “[…] music that beat with the very soul of downtown Kingston. Sufferahs’ music. A true expression of Jamaican blackness.”16 It’s not surprising that one of the first steps towards true Jamaican music involved a rasta. And we meet Prince Buster again, who actively sought out Count Ossie. Ossie was a percussionist and a Rasta; he set up a rasta community near Kingston. Prince Buster met him there and was fascinated by his style of percussion, the nyabinghi style. Nyabinghi was a queen of Rwanda, but the term was repurposed by Rastafarians in the 30s to describe their gatherings and, later, the drumming style performed during religious practices. Prince Buster wanted Count Ossie and his group in some songs he was producing because of the nyabinghi style. He needed Ossie because he was trying to create a music that “celebrated blackness through its African roots.”17 In the ghettos, Ossie had a huge reputation among the sufferers, as Rastafarianism was becoming a bond between black Jamaicans and Africa. However, in those days many Jamaican musicians didn’t want to play with Rastas and Rastas didn’t want to have contact with the sound system’s subculture, which they thought was typical of Babylon. It was hard for Prince Buster to convince everyone, but at the end of a long night of recording the Folks Brothers, with the Count Ossie Group on percussions, they recorded Oh Carolina. Prince Buster, interviewed by Lloyd Bradley, recalled that when “that drum pu-do-do-dum went up in the air for the first time ever it was the sound of Rasta searching for some kind of identity. This was the sound of poor black Jamaicans.”18 This time it is possible to completely omit the lyrics. The music transforms a typical love song, sung in a typical R&B style, into a milestone for Jamaican music. The dry percussion sound, which sometimes even overshadows the voice, is a trademark of the Rasta and is what Prince Buster was searching for. The piano intro and the drums sometimes create a musical standard over which Count Ossie and his percussionist seem to improvise. Oh Carolina, released in 1959, was one of the first ska hits and maybe the ska debut. However, it was initially boycotted by radio because of the Rasta19. But as soon as it was broadcast, it became a hit. The boycott of Oh Carolina and its subsequent success shows how Rasta scared the musical and political establishment of Jamaica and how the Rastas had gained a reputation among the people of the ghetto. Three years after the release of Oh Carolina, Jamaica gained its independence from the United Kingdom. Less than one year later, a massive rebellion erupted during the so-called Bad Friday. After an altercation at a gas station in Montego Bay, Jamaican police and military forces detained Rastafarians throughout Jamaica, killing and torturing many20. In the early sixties, a new generation of musicians took the scene. Prince Buster, Coxsone Dodd, and Duke Reid were the producers of some of the most famous emerging reggae and ska bands in the world. The Wailers, Jimmy Cliff, and the Skatalites showed off this new sound. Those were the days when the classic ska sound was born. According to Bradley, the future members of the Skatalites were the ones who shaped the new sound.
In an environment where any emerging indigenous – i.e., black – artistic or social expression was either discouraged to the point of being stillborn, drastically diluted in the name of artistic sophistication or blanded out to appeal to white tourists, the sound system had been created by and for Jamaica’s dispossessed14.
I think that some of the Wailers songs define this step in the evolution of the music and consciousness of Jamaican people. The first Wailers album, The wailing Wailers, released in 1965 and produced by Coxsone Dodd, includes Rude Boy on side two. Even if Rude Boy isn’t one of the band’s greatest hits, it is very interesting for many reasons. First of all, the music; Rude Boy is a classic ska song, with a guitar chop on the off beat (the so-called skank), the horns in foreground, and the piano underlining the bass line. The lyrics are also significant, as this is a song for the people of the ghetto and is sung with their language Wanti wanti cyan get it, an’ getti getti no want it. Wanti wanti cyan get it, an’ getti getti no want it. At the end of what could be defined as the first stanza, Marley sings,Fi go lick a mi head ‘pon you tambourine. It doesn’t matter what it means, it’s the language of the ghetto that stands out. But the lyrics show an incessant repetition of the same verses and the meaning is overshadowed by the sound. The lyrics themselves recall sounds and this recall seems to me to have more importance than the meanings, as the initial repetition that, not casually I think, recalls a train. The song is about a rude boy, walking proud in the ghetto, bouncing his head to the rhythm of the music. But what is a rude boy? In his, Reggae, Rastas and Rudies, Dick Hebdige define them:
Rimshots on the downbeat heralded the change of style as a new beat that practically cut itself in half from what had established the style. While it kept that 4/4 time, with the bass drum accenting the second and fourth beats in that marching-drum style, the off-beat emphasis increased by presenting itself as a single stroke. Which was taken up by either the piano or the guitar; instead of waiting for the return to come over as choon-ka… choon-ka… choon-ka…, it quickened its step and made do with just the -ka… -ka… -ka… A punching brass section added to the emphases already going on inside the structure, while a creeping-type bass-line underpinned the whole thing21.
Some lines previously, Hebdige affirms that the American soul element was clearly reflected “self-assured demeanor; the sharp flashy clothes, the jiveass walk.”23 Looking at the covers of the album, it is clear that the Wailers are a rude boys band. We are used to seeing Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailers with long dreadlocks and it is really unusual to see them without hair. The album was released with different covers, and in one of them, Tosh and Bunny are sustaining Marley, who has his arms open like the wings of a plane. They were a teenager’s band; Marley was 20, Tosh was 21, and Bunny Wailers was 18, playing the role of the rudies. And the rudies were a real issue in the sixties. In 1967, Prince Buster released Judge Dread, a parody song. In this song, Prince Buster is Judge Hunderdyears, called Judge Dread by the people, condemning four rude boys to five hundred years “for shooting black people.” But ska isn’t the music of the rude boys. It is the music of the ghettos, and here was spreading Rastafarianism and its spirituality. Even if, as Lloyd Bradley says, some songs looked like a more livened up Baptist Mass,, the references to the movement were obscure24. Some songs, like Carry Go Bring Come by Justin Hinds and the Dominoes, spoke clearly about Rastafarianism. However, in Six and seven books of Moses by Toots and the Maytals, there is a veiled allusion to a black nation deported as the lost tribe of Israel, even if the references aren’t clear25. Again, this song has all the characteristics of the typical ska song (the chop, the horns, the repetition of the verses), but the references to biblical books show a Rastafarianism influence. <i>Addis Ababa was released in 1964, performed by The Skatalites and produced by, once again, Coxsone Dodd. It was written by Don Drummond, who played trombone in the band. Drummond was a black nationalist and a Rastafarian; Bradley affirms he tried to produce a music connected to Africa. I think his musical intention shows through quite clearly in Addis Ababa. The horns lead the song; Drummond, who started as a jazz musician, wrote the horn part with the usual accent on the off beat, yet with a kind of improvisation in the middle of the song. But what I think is very interesting is the tuning of the snare which, I believe, sounds like Count Ossie’s percussions. Addis Ababa was released five years after Oh Carolina, which Don Drummond surely knew, and this could be one of the bonds he was searching to create with Africa.
The politics of ghetto pimpery found their way into the street-talk of shantytown Jamaica, and every Rude Boy, fresh from some poor rural outback, soon began to wheel and deal with the best of them in the ubiquitous bars of Ghost Town and Back O’Wall. The rude boy lived for the luminous moment, playing dominoes6 as though his life depended on the outcome—a big-city hustler with nothing to do, and, all the time rocksteady, ska and reggae gave him the means with which to move effortlessly—without even thinking. Cool, that distant and indefinable quality, became almost abstract, almost metaphysical, intimating a stylish kind of stoicism—survival and something more22.
“Out of many, one people” is Jamaica’s motto. However, these were just words a few years after independence. The Jamaican economy was based only on tourism and bauxite extraction, with just one bauxite company (Alcan Jamaican Company) converting bauxite into alumina locally. The unemployment rate grew and for poor people, the sufferers, and the black masses of the country, the national motto meant nothing26. For the 1964 New York World Fair, the Jamaican government wanted to show to the rest of the world a real Jamaican sound. So Edward Seaga, minister of the Development and Welfare, chose a band to perform at the fair. He chose Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, a band which defined itself as ska-lypso. According to Jimmy Cliff, Seaga chose them because they were from the upper class and, according to Bradley, because they did not arouse the slightest unease27. Before his political career, Seaga was a producer with a degree in anthropology. He supported and searched for a real popular Jamaican music, but he looked to black people and their tradition with suspicion. In 1980, he learned Manley’s lesson and defeated him in general elections, yet in the sixties he fought Rastafarianism and black consciousness28. In the first decade after independence, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), of which Seaga was a member, ruled the country. The JLP was a conservative party and the rise of the Rastas and black masses scared the government, as I already said before. They tried to normalize ska music to use it as a tourist attraction but it didn’t work. At the end of the sixties, the situation in the streets of Kingston and other cities was degenerating. Many songs, like Simmer down by The Wailers, included in the same album of Rude boy, begged the young rude to calm down. Maybe to calm down the people, the rhythm of the music slowed down and rocksteady was born. Judge Dread by Prince Buster, who converted to Islam, was an anti-rude boy song, but another maestro, Lee Scratch Perry, replied with Set them free. The bass line is now what leads the song, which is quite different from ska. The new and slow rhythm of rocksteady allowed bass players to explore new ways to play, darker or fuller than before. And in Set them free, the lyrics are supported by the bass line. The content of the song is a defense of the rude boys condemned by Judge Dread:
The unemployment rate, the spread of Rastafarianism, and black nationalism thanks to the activism of Walter Rodney inspired black poor people and the black middle class. Something new was happening. But rocksteady was slow in rhythm but fast to pass away and at the and of 1968 another step was made. One of the first roots reggae songs was Everything crash by The Ethiopians. While the lyrics describe the situation on the island, the music is a perfect description of what roots reggae is: Count Ossie “jumps out” in the percussion, which recalls the rasta way to play. The electric guitar emerges with crisp chords, while the electric bass is
They are from a poor generation
Having no education, no qualification
So they are driven to desperation
Can’t get a job, they have been forced to rob
I’m not suggesting that they should
But as you know, a hungry man is an angry one
So give them a chance, your honor, please
Everything in Everything crash is pointing to a real Jamaican style. And the protest erupting in the lyrics is just the cherry on top. According to Bradley, it was the people who forced musicians to move to a more conscious music30. Reggae was the arrival point of an evolution and around the beginning of the seventies this musical genre found perfect ground to grow. The Rastafarian influences, as the evolution of the Wailers demonstrate, and black nationalism were widespread among black people.
much more up-front and almost metronomically metered, while several guitars are used rhythmically rather than merely melodically. It’s those guitars that produce a speedy strumming pattern not unlike mento’s banjoes, while the overall measured percussiveness leaves all sorts of holes that are artfully filled in with Burru- and Kumina-style rhythmic statements. So, a little way beneath the surface lies a Jamaicanness so intrinsic that it doesn’t need to worry about the here and the now as it draws a line – a thick black line – straight back to Africa29.
In conclusion, truly Jamaican music was forged by several elements, among which the discovering of the roots of Jamaican blackness and the social unrest which was spreading on the island. Micheal Manley, in 1972, wanted to try to reform Jamaica socially and economically32. To realize this plan, he needed strong support either from poor black people and the Jamaican middle class. The soundtrack of Manley’s election campaign was Better must come by Delroy Wilson. Even if its author claimed that he never had any bonds with politics and that the song doesn’t refer to the political situation, I think this song makes clear what I mean. Better must come is a roots reggae song; the sound has every Jamaicanness and the lyrics, even if they were not political but reinterpreted as political, speak directly to all Jamaican people.
Perhaps far more worryingly for the Kingston power structure, though, and due in no small part to Walter Rodney’s efforts, was the apparent strength and universality with which these radical new doctrines were being taken on board. These adopted dogmas served to galvanize so many black Jamaicans that they had the astonishing effect of cutting across the country’s social hierarchy. The working classes, the middle classes, university students, the dispossessed, the gangsters… all could latch on to what was being said. And they came together in a big shout for black control of the means of production and popular influence on the economic consequences, comprising a large and apparently volatile section of the population which had to be appeased31.
Manley transformed the requests of black people on the island into what Peta-Ann Cherie Long defines as his Caribbean nationalism33. He was a democratic socialist, influenced by Fabian socialism, and Harold Laski, who worked in the trade unions, knew how to talk to the people. Around him was created a large coalition of people from different social classes and with different beliefs. He used reggae and Rastafarians symbols understood by black people from the ghettos but this choice didn’t scare the black middle class because the message of reggae and Rastafarians and the black power movement, with Walter Rodney activism and what happened in Mona Campus, created what Bradley defines as “the astonishing effect of cutting across the country’s social hierarchy.” This cut was possible only in a country that was experiencing its freedom from colonial power truly for the first time34, which was discovering its blackness with a charismatic leader capable of collecting these feelings and transforming them into an electoral push. In the end, Michael Manley didn’t exploit Rastafarianism, reggae or the symbols of the black masses, he normalized them, giving them an electoral way out.
Everything I try to do seems to go wrong
It seems I have done something wrong
But they’re trying to keep me down
Who God bless, no one curse
Thank God I’m past the worst
Better must come one day
Better must come, they can’t conquer me
Better must come
- David K. Panton, Jamaica’s Micheal Manley: the great transformation (1972-1992), Kingston Publisher Limited, Kingston, 1993, p. 31.
- Lloyd Bradley, Bass Culture. When reggae was king, Penguin Books, London, 2000, p. 18.
- Howard Campbell, That Manley bandwagon, Jamaica Observer, 30/8/2020. url accessed October 5, 2021.
- Laurie Gunst, Born fi’ dead. A journey through the yard underworld, Canongate, Edinburgh, 2003, p. 19
- David Panton, Jamaica’s Micheal Manley: the great transformation (1972-1992), Kingston Publisher Limited, Kingston, 1993, p. 33.
- ibid, p. 13.
- Lloyd Bradley, Bass Culture. When reggae was king, Penguin Books, London, 2000, p. 433.
- Michael O. West, Walter Rodney and black power: Jamaican intelligence and US diplomacy, African journal of criminology & justice, Volume 1, No. 2, November 2005, pp. 28-30 https://www.umes.edu/uploadedFiles/_WEBSITES/AJCJS/Content/VOL1.2.WEST%20FINAL.pdf url accessed October 6 2021.
- Yoshiko S. Nagashima, Rastafarian music in contemporary Jamaica. A study of socioreligious music of the Rastafarian movement in Jamaica, ILCAA, 1984, p. 2.
- There are many works on the Rastafarians and their beliefs. I used: Glenn Earl Bunn,, The Influence of Rastafarianism and Reggae Music on Jamaican and International politics, International Studies Masters, Paper 42; the already quoted work of Yoshiko S. Nagashima; Dick Hebdige, Reggae, Rastas, Rudies, in Resistance through Rituals, Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2003, pp. 135-154; Anita M. Water, Race, class and political symbols: rastafari and reggae in Jamaican politics, Routledge, 2017, and others.
- Dick Hebdige, Reggae, Rastas, Rudies, in Resistance through Rituals, Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2003, p. 138.
- Marco Peroni, Il nostro concerto. La storia contemporanea tra musica leggera e canto popolare, Bruno Mondadori, Milano, 2005.
- Cooper, “Ragamuffin Sounds”: Crossing Over from Reggae to Rap and Back in Caribbean Quarterly, vol. 44, No 1/2, Konversations in kreole, March-June 1998.
- Lloyd Bradley, Bass culture, p. 17.
- BBC – Music- Essential guide to reggae, https://web.archive.org/web/20071014032032/http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/bluessoulreggae/guides/reggae/ url accessed November 28 2021.
- Lloyd Bradley, Bass culture, p. 47.
- Lloyd Bradley, Bass culture, p. 53 Bradley interviewed Prince Buster who recall how the sound of Count Ossie “was the sound of the poor black Jamaicans”.
- Lloyd Bradley, Bass culture, p. 55.
- Alleyne, Mike (2012) The Encyclopedia of Reggae, Sterling, p. 84.
- Rastas beaten, forcibly trimmed of their locks after Coral Gardens, Jamaica Observer, December 16, 2015, https://www.jamaicaobserver.com/news/Rastas-beaten–forcibly-trimmed-of-their-locks-after-Coral-Gardens_45946 url accessed November 26, 2021.
- Lloyd Bradley, Bass culture, p. 79.
- Dick Hebdige, Reggae, Rastas, Rudies, in Resistance through Rituals, Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2003, p. 145.
- Ibid, p. 144.
- Lloyd Bradley, Bass Culture, p. 81.
- David Panton, Jamaica’s Micheal Manley: the great transformation (1972-1992), Kingston Publisher Limited, Kingston, 1993, pp. 12-16.
- Bradley, Bass culture, p. 108.
- Seaga’s own anti Rasta exuberance was manifest in the massive destruction of the poor communities of Western Kingston called Back o Wall in the ‘urban renewal’ project that became known as Tivoli gardens. H.G. Campbell, Edward Seaga and the Institutionalization of Thuggery, Violence and Dehumanization in Jamaica, Counterpunch, June 14, 2019 https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/06/14/edward-seaga-and-the-institutionalization-of-thuggery-violence-and-dehumanization-in-jamaica/#post-112453-endnote-ref-6 url accessed November 30, 2021
- Bradley, Bass culture, p. 152.
- ibid, p. 203.
- ibid, p. 157.
- It would take too long here, analyzing the idea of Jamaica that Manley had in 1972, it wouldn’t even help to understand if Manley managed to realize his plan. To better understand Jamaica under Michael Manley: David Panton, Jamaica’s Michael Manley: the great transformation (1972-1992).
- Peta-Ann Cherie Long, Michael Manley’s nationalism in the 1970s: an analysis of the speeches as prime minister of Jamaica, Theses-ALL. Syracuse, 2015.
- In his How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Walter Rodney define this a flag-independence, a nominal independence for a country which has its own flag but is still tied up to his former European ruler.