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Rhetoric of Reggae
Hip-hop and Reggae: The Common Links of Politics and Music
Music is an art form andsource of power. Many forms ofmusic reflect culture and society, as well as, containing political content andsocial message. Music as social change has been highlighted throughout the 20thcentury. In the 1960s the UnitedStates saw political and socially oriented folk music discussing the VietnamWar and other social issues. InJamaica during the 1970s and 1980s reggae developed out of the Ghetto’s ofTrench town and expressed the social unrest of the poor and the need toover-through the oppressors. The 1980’s brought the newest development insocial and political music, the emergence of hip-hop and rap. This urban musical art form that wasdeveloped in New York City has now taken over the mainstream, but originated asan empowering art form for urban youth and emerging working class.
Musically hip-hop spawnedthe age of DJ’s. With stronginfluences from Reggae, hip-hop has developed into an empowering form for theexpression of ideas, power, revolution and change. Power and empowerment haveemerged from these musical styles that now have many commonalities. Hip-hop andReggae are both forms of protest music. “Protest music is characterized by objections to injustices andoppressions inflicted on certain individual groups…. typically, the intent ofprotest musicians is to oppose the exploitation and oppression exercised bydominant elites and member of dominant groups”(Stapleton, 221). Hip-hop hasdeveloped as a new form of protest music void of the common acousticguitar. The goal of protest musicis to promote freedom through music.
Bob Marley expresses his belief that music is amessage and route to freedom in the song “Trench town.”
Most of them come from Trench Town/We free thepeople with music, sweet music/Can we free the people with music (Marley: 1983)
Hip-hop and reggae share many common themes in theirmusic and in the lyrics that discuss the issues of drugs and crime, exposepolitical problems facing minorities, and express social discontent. This paper is an analysisof the political and social aspects of hip-hop and reggae, as well as,addressing the commonalities of the music itself as they have developed andchanged over time. This analysisproduces the holistic view reflecting the interconnectedness of these twogenres of music.
Reggae’sInfluence on hip-hop
Reggae music had a directimpact on the development of hip-hop music. Both styles of music emerged from the dancehall, with lyricscontaining social and political message. “Reggae started as ‘sufferah’s’ musicin poor Jamaican villages. Insidegritty dancehalls, selectors spun scratchy sides, called ‘specials,’ and MC’sboasted, talked nonsense and criticized political, cultural and economicoppression” (Havlock). Reggae emerged out of the island culture of Jamaica andthe “poor man’s party,” while hip-hop music emerged in New York City,specifically the Bronx, in the early 1970s.
DJ Kool Herc is credited as one, if not theoriginator, of hip-hop. Kool Herc brought his Caribbean style when emigratedfrom Jamaica in 1967. He began this new musical journey with the desire tobring the powerful Jamaican Dancehall sound system to play music at parties andin the streets. In 1973 he hadcreated his own sound system to play music around town. He began his DJ career spinning reggaethrough the system, but found the urban New York City crowd unmotivated togroove to the Jamaican sounds. TheAfrican American community was still heavily influence by R& B and funk,from the likes of James Brown. Unable to dance to Kool Herc’s Jamaican beats, DJ Kool Herc beganspinning the Funk that his peers had already been grooving too. When asked about how he developed hiship-hop style, Kool Herc said,
I'mfrom Jamaica and so I brought a lot of music from my home to work with. Whenpeople didn't catch on, I pulled out a couple of James Brown
recordsand mixed them with some Jamaican music. And my hip hop sound really
As Kool Herc was developing his hip-hop style he was stillrelying on his Jamaican roots. With the influence of early talk over DJs like U Roy, Kool Herc “begantalking over the Latin-tinged funk that he knew would appeal”(Hebdige, 137).The talk over became know for “toasting,” when DJ’s gave praise the music andcrowd. Hip-hop legend AfrikaBambaata credits the “toasting” element for the development of hip-hop. “Peoplewill say hip hop just comes from soul or rock. It comes from all types ofmusic, but it's based mainly around the toasting element of reggae. That's howrap came about.”(Bambaata, http://www.daveyd.com/baminterview.html)
As the rapping element of hip-hop was developing, theskills of DJ’s were progressing rapidly as well. DJ’s were using turntables tocut and mix over the main piece of music. Kool Herc began mixing lead guitarriffs and drum beats at the breaks, through cutting and mixing. This idea of cutting and mixing duringthe breaks lead to Kool Herc’s first invention in hip hop that he is creditedwith, the “break beat.”
Kool Herc first developed “break beats” when he began mixing in the songApache, by the Jamaican disco group, the Incredible Bongo Band. To set the timing for the ‘breakbeats,’ Kool Herc used headphones to cue up the drums to mix over. As he became more skilled at thistechnique, it became too difficult to “rap” and dj. In order to keep both occurring simultaneously, Kool Herchired MC’s, Coke-la-Rock and Clark Kent, to do the rapping. “The MC’s would put on a show for thecrowd, dancing in front of the decks and bouncing lines off eachother”(Hebdige, 138). This addition brought the emergence of the MC and thefirst dance teams, another first credited to Kool Herc.
Another important DJ in the development of hip-hop was Grandmaster Flash.Grandmaster Flash used the Caribbean musical influence from his father toprogress his own style in the emerging hip-hop scene. With the development ofthe hip-hop style, the DJ’s turntable skills were a measurement of progressionin hip-hop. DJ’s were looking tosee how they could use the turntables to bring more power and emphasis to themusic. Flash is credited as one of the experts at “punch phrasing.” “The punch works in hip-hop like apunctuation mark in a sentence. Ithelps to give shape to the flow of sounds on the record in the same way that acomma or a full stop helps shape the flow of written language…. so the punch inhip hop can be used to accentuate the beat and the rhythm for the dancingcrowd”(Hebdige, 139). Revolutionizing this technique, Grandmaster Flash and his group theFurious Five, with MC Melle Mel created a hard rapping hip-hop style.
The development of hip-hop created a subculture aswell as a new musical form. Thedevelopment of the new hip-hop culture fostered a new topic for MC’s to rapabout. MC’s began rapping aboutthe new culture, which included music, break dancing and most importantly thestruggles of urban life, the latter adding a political element to themusic. Hip hop and its artiststook began taking the approach of rapping to “tell it like it is.” DJ, Grandmaster Flash, one of theoriginators of hip hop music, was one of the first to rap about the hardshipsof urban life, in his classic song, the Message. Flash said,
Don’t push me ‘cos I’m close to the edge/ I’mtryin’ hard not to lose my head/ It’s like a jungle some times/ Sometimes Iwonder how I keep from going under. (Hebdige, 143)
Tocombat the problems of urban and ghetto life, leadership amongst the hip hopcommunity needed to develop. Afrika Bambaata, now one of the figureheads for hip-hop culture, emergedas one of the leaders. Bambaatawent from running the sound system at the Bronx River Community Center tobecoming the founder and “Affectionate Leader” of the Zulu Nation. “In the Zulu Nation he set out toreplace “rumbles” (fights) and drugs with rap, dance and hip hop style. He wanted to turn the gang structureinto a positive force in the ghetto.”(Hebdige, 139). The goal of organizations like the Zulu is to help peoplefrom the underprivileged classes help each other make a positive impact on thecommunity and themselves.
To combat the problems facing urban youth, communityorganizations and rappers began emphasizing the importance of education andstaying in school. Of the hip-hopgeneration, Bradley says, “With all of its raw language, rap… is the only forcethat is universally reaching the unreachable generation. This is a generation that is expressingits dissent through music rather than speeches. A generation that has rejected the sanctity of the media’sre-creations of American life.”(Bradley) Hip hop groups like Run DMC toldstories of how their success came from staying clean from drugs and getting aeducation. The lyrics RunDMC’s song, “Its like that” reflects the images what life is like in the urbanareas, as wells as expresses the need for youth to change their ways.Unemployment at a record highs/ People coming people going people born to die /don’t ask me because I don't know why/ But it's like that and that's the way it is…. One thing I know is that life is short /so listen up homeboy, give this a thought/ the next time someone's teaching why don't you get taught?
It's like that (what?) and that's the way it is.(Run DMC: 1983)
Aship-hop continues to develop, it has kept true to telling of how life is, andkeeping the imagery real. Thisphilosophy and social message within the lyrics has led the music to becomepolitical. Because hip-hop andreggae are forms of music with lyrics discussing social issues, the contentover time has become political. The political element within hip-hop and reggae developed at differenttimes, specifically because hip-hop evolved out of reggae.
Originsof Politics in Reggae Music
Reggae music finds its roots in the music and cultureof Jamaica and its people. Elena Oumano argues that the political roots inJamaica can be traced back to the Maroons. The Maroons were the slaves who escaped Spanish control andsettled in the heartland of the Island, who were later granted their freedom bythe British during colonialism. Oumano says that, “throughout slavery, the raw, rebellious pounding ofMaroon Koro drums and the piercing wail of the Abeng horn echoed from themountainous interior, surrounding a call to freedom on the plantationsbelow.”(Oumano:1997) As music andculture evolved in Jamaica, reggae was born embodying the politics of thepeople the island.
Reggae music holds a political and social cohesivenessthrough religion compared to hip-hop that stays together through the culture itdeveloped. Rastafarianism has adominant influence within reggae music and, “there are intensely religious anddeeply spiritual aspects of reggae’s religious base.”(Salmon). Rastafarianism, as well as the drummingof the Maroons predates reggae music, but their influence is strong. Rastafarians believe that the formerEthiopian Emperor Haile Selassie is God incarnate. The intertwining of the Rastafarian religion and the often“-secular” reggae music creates a balance to the music and a vehicle for eachto feed from. (Salmon)
Rastafarians made many contributions to Jamaican musicin its formative years including the use of African drum rhythms and politicalcontent within the lyrics. DougyMack used the African drum rhythms of Count Ossie in addition to his lyrics, toprotest Patrice Lumumba’s murder.
Here is some news from the Congo land/I think it isa shame/You kill Lumumba over His own land I think it is a shame. (Wilson)
As Jamaican musicdeveloped Rastafarians have brought Jamaican culture politics, religion, asocial message and music together in the form of reggae. To the Rastafarian andin reggae, ultimate social change can only occur with the end of BabylonSystem. Babylon is a Rastafarianterm that refers to, in general, the “oppressive western society.”(Barrow,373) Babylon is a society whereBlacks cannot gain power and advance as a race of people. Wilson’s discussionof the early political Rastafarian music places the focus of the music on thestructure of society and the need to over through Babylon system that isholding society down.
Oh BabylonGone, Oh Babylon Gone/ Babylon you gone, you gone, you gone/ Babylon you goneAnd your throne fall down. (Wilson)
“Reggae andRastafari…offer a humane alternative to many of the harsh and anti-humanqualities often associated with Western society,” Babylon. (Salmon) Tocriticize Babylon is to chant it down, and this is done musically most notablyby Bob Marley. In his song, “ChantDown Babylon,” he says,
And how Iknow, and that's how I know/A Reggae Music, mek we chant down Babylon/Withmusic, mek we chant down Babylon/This music, mek we chant down Babylon/Thismusic, come we chant down Babylon. (Marley:1983)
Exemplifiedin these lyrics is the power of music as a platform for gaining support to helpbring the social change. Thissocial change is what is needed for blacks within Jamaica and the rest of theworld. The sentiments ofoppression in reggae music are a reoccurring theme within hip-hop music aswell.
Theconcept of Babylon has traversed its way into hip-hop music as well, followingin the footsteps of other elements of reggae and Jamaican culture. Babylon tothe Rasta is the oppressive western society, but in the context of hip-hop itrefers to the oppression facing African Americans in U. S. cities. Hip-hop artist Talib Kweli, in his song“This means you,” makes reference to Babylon and the struggles for AfricanAmericans in New York.
Things changed since we cam out,been some shit in New York/ Niggas stopped getting jig in New York, bloods andcrips in New York/ The Y2k celebration wasn’t big in New York, Babylon live inNew York. (Kweli, 2000)
Kweli’s chorusand answer to these problems, is this situation is, “you need to get up rightnow and move with this, this means you, you, you” (Kweli, 2000). His call is for African Americans toget up and move with the changes in society that are occurring to help elevatetheir status within society.
Politicsin Hip Hop Music
In the late 1980s andearly 1990s the rap group Public Enemy, lead by hip-hop icon Chuck D, wasworking hard to raise public awareness of the troubles facing African Americans.Public Enemy was following in the footsteps of their predecessors who have madesocial awareness one of the defining elements of hip-hop music. The mission of social awareness in hiphop is noted by Katina Stapleton who sees that “from its rough and tumble formsto the most commercial jams, hip-hop has been able to raise awareness amongAfrican Americans and the general public about the issues that face black youthon a day-to-day basis”(Stapleton, 221). Public Enemy’s album Fear of a Black Planet makes clear and directstatements about the struggle of African Americans. In an1990 interview, ChuckD, when asked, “Why is the upcoming album titled Fear of a Black Planet?”responded,
Fearof a Black Planet is the refusal to accept the Afro centric point of view andthe continuing indoctrination of the Euro centric point of view. Which I don'tthink is beneficial to the majority of those on the planet. Fear of a BlackPlanet, in a nutshell, is a counterattack on the system of cultural whitesupremacy, which is conspiracy to destroy the black race. ( Chuck D,http://www.daveyd.com/peterrord.html)
Thetheme of this album focuses on elevating the black race in America, raisingawareness and challenging the social problems, faced by the modern AfricanAmerican. This message is consistent throughout many of the songs on the album.Chuck D, gave insight into the meaning of two of the more powerful andpolitical songs on the album.
“'Brother'sGonna Work It Out” is about “the rise of black intellectualism where the blackmale is going to have to step up mentally and unify together in order to do alittle bit of something. It will have to be a collective effort. Individually,the Black man is a pawn in a game.” “911 Is A Joke', which is the next single,is also self-explanatory, as it deals with the lack of emergency [assistance].In our neighborhoods, when there's an emergency and we need help right away, wedon't get action as quick as in more posh areas. Especially in urban settings.”( Chuck D,http://www.daveyd.com/peterrord.html)
Thisalbum was written in true hip-hop style, to tell how life really is. Thepolitical and social messages, in the lyrics of Public Enemy’s songs, areemphatic and direct. AlthoughPublic Enemy and this album are an important part in the development of hip-hopmusic, they only represent one era of hip-hop music.
Politics and Social Change inHip-hop and Reggae Music
As hip hop andreggae music have developed, they have followed the path of most forms of musicby going through stages, with certain groups, albums and styles define an erawithin their genre. By the late sixties, politics and social unrest mixed inreggae music creating a new fierce music of Rock Steady filled with images ofthe gangster ‘rude boy’. “’RockSteady’ music rather than rejecting the depravity of the political mercenaryexalted and glorified the pugnaciousness of the ‘rude boy’”(Wilson).
Musical artist such as Desmond Decker and Peter Toshwrote and sang images of the ‘rude boy.’ In ‘007 Decker sings
’007, ‘007 at ocean’s eleven rude boy ago wail causethem out of jail/ rude boy cannot fail cause the must get bail/them a loot,them a shoot / them a wail, a shanty town/ rude boy de pon probation, shantytown/ rude boy a bomb up de town.’(Wilson)
Peter Tosh with his bold militant philosophy even went as far as to callhimself the “Toughest” in a self-declarative song.
Anything you can do I can do better / I’m thetoughest, I can do what you can do, never try to do what I do, I’m thetoughest (Wilson)
The lyrics of the Rock Steady era were harsh images ofgang life and social unrest. Thiswas a period of political and lyrical anarchy. Politicians from both political parties, the PeoplesNational Party (PNP) and the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP), were using urban gangleaders to clear turf, and control neighborhoods in order to gain politicalpower. Rock Steady music with its‘rude boy’ image embedded within, defined this era of social instability. This period of political and lyricalanarchy needed to end in order to help breed peace amongst the youth inKingston and bring higher consciousness back to reggae music.
Similar to the Rock Steadyperiod of Reggae, hip-hop in the early 1990’s found itself in the ‘rude boy’era. The music and image ofhip-hop traversed into the mainstream changing the imagery portrayed in thelyrics. The voice and picture of hip-hop changed from life in the developing undergroundurban hip-hop culture, with a message of social change, to images of the hardgang life in Los Angeles and New York City. Hip-hop culture took another fierce turn in the wake ofincidents like Rodney King. Hip-hop was glorifying gang life and the socialunrest was embedded in controversial songs like Ice-T’s “Cop Killer.” The social elements in hip-hop lyricswere strong and explicit. Theglorification of gang life in hip-hop music found a culmination in an eastcoast/ west coast feud that took the lives of two of hip hop’s biggest stars,Tupak Shakur and Notorious BIG were dead. Although the commercialized hip-hop was glorifying gang culture in the1990s, the underground scene still kept to its roots holding to a strong socialmessage and push for empowerment.
Hip-hop, in the year 2001,emerged with a mission of peace. Although, politically hip-hop has rarely been on the positive side ofpolitics, the hip-hop community decided it needed to make a strong political statement. Hip hop took politics to the highestlevel in the year 2001 when, “Along with leading hip-hop pioneers such asGrandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaata, Chuck D of Public Enemy and the RuffRyders, KRS will present a Hip-Hop Declaration of Peace to UN leaders. TheDeclaration is the first of its kind. The document will contain 25 paragraphsof thought and opinion from leading rappers about the socially consciousdirection they believe rap needs to take.”(Gordon) Hip-hop and rap is the newpolitical music in the United States. The backbone of the hip-hop community lies with its originators, whohave maintained the vision of music as a form of social change andempowerment.Jamaican Politics in Reggae Music As reggae and hip-hop have gone through changes in their imagery of society, they have also gone through changes politically. Reggae, in contrast to Hip hop moved beyond political in its message and speech, and entered into the world of politics in the 1960’s in Jamaica. In 1960, the government of Norman Manley recognized the Rastafarian Movement as a new force in the power configuration of Jamaica and sent a mission to Africa, which included their Rastafarian Brethren to explore the possibility of Jamaicans repatriating to Africa. (Wilson) Although this mission took place, reggae music and Rastafarianism did not become popularized in politics until the 1970s.
The 1972 electoral campaign of Michael Manleyinitiated the popularization of reggae music and Rastafarianism out ofpolitical necessity rather than acceptance. The People’s National Party (PNP), “sifted through theculture of the Rastafarians in order to find symbols that Michael Manley, itscandidate for prime minister, might use in his political speeches.”(Lewis,12). Manley Politicized the Pastasand tried to align himself with their image as sufferers in order to implementpolicy for creating a socialist state in Jamaica. He aligned himself with the Rastafarians because he believedthey were “bearers of an African identity worthy of emulation by thepublic.”(Lewis, 12)
Manley employed several different tactics to usereggae and Rastafarianism in his campaign. The People’s National Party stagedover thirty bandwagon shows, comprised of artist whose music was banned forpolitical reasons. The music wasused as a weapon against the Shearer Government. Delroy Wilson’s ‘Better Must Come’ became on of the campaignslogans. Clancy Eccles ‘The Rod ofCorrection’ symbolized the impending purge of the corrupt Jamaica LabourParty. Manley adroitly used a rodgiven to him by the Rastafarian ‘Messiah’ Haile Sellassie, as a biblical symbolconnoting righteousness. (Wilson) Manley’s embracement of reggae solidified theimportant role reggae music has played in politics in Jamaica.
TheImportance of the Artist
Reggae music has always had substantial influence onthe culture and politics of Jamaican society and is in turn affected by thesame forces. For reggae music topush for social change, the music and culture is dependent on strong artistswilling to portray the struggles of life and the necessity for socialchange. Basil Wilson believesthat, “the task of the reggae artist is to shape his society by understandingand supporting the need for structural changed in Jamaica. The reggae artist must recognize that theculture that replaced the old imperialistic culture is by no means wholesomeand embraces a belief system that is not commensurate with moderndevelopment.”(Wilson) Wilson’s characteristics solidifies the idea that reggaemusic is more than entertainment and is dependent on artists, rather thanentertainers, to be successful in their social message.
Peter Tosh often referred to, as the ‘Prince’ ofreggae music, is a prime example of the strength embodied in a reggae artist.Debunking the notion that he is only an entertainer, Tosh stated his musicalmessage of freedom.
People must know, I’m not an entertainer, but Ilove to make people happy. When Icome on stage it’s not to entertain and just smile, because my songs are notsmiling songs. My songs is arevolution. How can you sing arevolution, which you know is a threat to society? You have to be thinking who is out there toassass-the-fucking-nate you, seen! And when you do these things you become athreat to society. (Steffens, 47)
PeterTosh praised his songs as a revolution. The “Stepping Razor,” named after one of his songs, was truly not afraidto make overtly political statements through his music. From declaring himself the “toughest”to openly criticizing the criminalization of marijuana in “Legalize It,” Toshwas willing to take a strong stand through his music. One of Tosh’s biggestpolitical statements came on his 1983 European tour when he began playing aguitar made out of and M-16 assault riffle. “That guitar was made by on of my white musical terroristfriends in the U. S. This guitar is firing shots at all them devil disciples.Music is my weapon to fight against apartheid, nuclear war and those gang-Jahcriminals.”(Steffens, 52) PeterTosh’s belief in the power of music to insight revolution and bring socialchange is undeniable, but as the Prince of Reggae music, he can only be outdone by the King.
Bob Marley is often referred to as the King of reggaemusic. Marley is the opitimey ofthe reggae artist whose goal is to insight social change, revolution and overthrough Babylon. Bob Marley lived up to his position at the top of the reggaeworld in 1978 at the “One Love Peace Concert” in Kingston Jamaica. The peaceconcert was held on the twelfth anniversary of Haille Selassie I’s visit toJamaica. The concert was promotedas, “a celebration of the peace treaty which claimed to bring an end to yearsof tribal warfare fomented in the ghettos by Jamaica’s fractious politrickalfactions.”(Steffens, 48) Thedefining moment of the show saw Bob Marley successfully coax both politicalcandidates onto stage with him and raise arms together in a sign of peace andunity. Legend has it, thishandshake was such a strong mark of peace and politics that it caused alightning flash the instant their hands met. The efforts of Bob Marley and other artists at the concertsolidified the political role of reggae music and the reggae artist to promotesocial change.
In general, Bob Marleymade many significant contributions to reggae music and culture, from defining“roots reggae” to exposing his music to the world, his presence and impactthrough his music is undeniable. Tricia Nichols say that for his efforts topromote peace and his continued social message in his music Bob Marley wasawarded a Third World Peace Medal, presented by Senegal on Behalf of all theAfrican countries at the United Nations. He merits this award because “no onehas spread the message of Rastafari with greater reach or impact than has BobMarley”(Nichols, 74) Marley has impacted the world both socially and musically.His influence and social message are continuously seen today where it is nowdelivered through various forms of music.
Thecommonalities and influence of reggae and hip-hop have brought artists tocollaborate for social expression and music. Recently the Bob Marley’s family put together and all-starcast to celebrate the message, music and life of the King of reggae, BobMarley. On the recent release of Chant Down Babylon, a collaborative album, someof hip-hop’s famed artists such as Erika Badu, Chuck D, Busta Ryhmes, TheRoots, and others mix duets with the late King of Reggae paying tribute torebel music. “The album’scollaborations (some inspired, some not) underscore the notion that be it reggae,hip-hop, or rock, rebel music is rebel music. Busta Rhymes’s fierce Jamaican patois-flavor Selassie I rapfor “Rastaman Chant” and The Roots’ turn on “Burnin’ and Lootin’” are just twotracks that elucidate the natural links between any musicians bent on upsettingthe rulers of Babylon.”(Oumano: 2000)
As culture and societychange, so does music, and hip-hop and reggae music two forms reflective ofprogression. The social messagecontinues to be strong in hip-hop and reggae music. Both have developed music and cultures that feed off eachother portraying the image of what life is really like through their music.Music has the ability to empower people. Politicians in Jamaica have been forced to accept the power of reggaebecause it contains such a strong social message. Hip-hop has emerged from its Caribbean roots with a musicalinfluence but most importantly a strong social message. Without music thatcontains the message of hip hop and reggae, society is unable to change,because the issues and problems that face the lower classes, which Mainstreamsociety is so dependent on, would not be seen. If Babylon cannot be over through, music can only helpas a unifying force to help challenge the system.
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Chuck D interview: http://www.daveyd.com/peterrord.html
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