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School of Politics and International Relations

Reggae Today: What Would Marcus Garvey Say? Event report


This report is a summary of points highlighted by the panellists, John Downie, CEO of UK UNSIGNED and reggae record producer, broadcaster and journalist Mandingo, at the recent event Reggae Today: What Would Marcus Garvey Say? on 2 June.

Growing up in Jamaica, John talked about how reggae music was propagated in the 1970s. Radio played a lighter shade of reggae, a sort of “uptown” reggae, whereas the dancehalls played the harder reggae, dubplates and reggae that was like the news for the people.

In the 1970s/80s there was cultural music by the likes of Bob Marley and Mighty Diamonds. But by the 1990s, the dancehall had moved somewhere else with the likes of Yellowman. However presently, roots reggae is what’s in demand internationally.

Recalling the 1990s, when reggae music, particularly the strand that fused hop-hop sensibilities, created crossover hits internationally, John thought reggae music could learn more of the business side from the hip-hop fraternity. Whereas hip-hop has its message side in the likes of Public Enemy, it also has a strong business side, as epitomised by Dr Dre, recently described as the Billion Dollar Man, on account of Apple buying his Beats audio business.

Marcus Garvey was not just about preaching race pride, he and his UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association) were about self-empowerment, entrepreneurship, and doing for self. Marcus Garvey therefore opined John would like to see the Jamaican reggae creators setting up institutions to control and receive a greater proportion of the revenues generated globally by reggae music. Garvey would naturally applaud the conscious roots artists trying to uplift the people, whilst decrying the materialistic, self-centred strand within dancehall.

Mandingo concurred with this view, but he was also of the view that there was no such genre as dancehall, and that dancehall is simply the place where most people congregated to listen to and dance to music. However, although MCs (known as DJs in Jamaican reggae parlance) now have preeminence, the initial records made for the dancehall featured singers, such as Alton Ellis (see END PIECE below for story of the influence of Alton Ellis early rocksteady classic ‘Girl I’ve Got A Date’, from the mid-‘60s rocksteady through to its late 1960s transformation into reggae. Indeed, when radio wouldn’t support Sugar Minott because he wouldn’t pay payola, he went into the dancehalls, where he sang live over backing tracks!

What we tend to forget, pointed out Mandingo, that the full name of Garvey’s organisation was not just the UNIA, but also included ACL (African Communities League). Underscoring the point of his people being African, whether on the continent or in the diaspora. And that’s why we must be described as African, he said, referencing Peter Tosh’s ‘African’ song.

Garvey, continued Mandingo, was a poet, who had some of his poetry set to music. Also, lines from either his poetry and speeches, have found their way into reggae lyrics. For example, Bob Marley used lines from Garvey’s ‘Man To Man’ poem in the ‘Who The Cap Fits’ song, whilst ‘Redemption Song’ contains bits from Garvey’s speech given in Nova Scotia during October 1937, in which he said: “We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind.”

Conscious performers, whose songs spoke of African history and pride, would have been approved by Garvey. One such person highlighted by Mandingo was an artist from St Ann, the same parish as Garvey, who’s done more than most reggae artists to bring Garvey’s name to the masses through song: Winston Rodney, better known as Burning Spear.

Although we were reflecting on where reggae music was today, it was important to have a historical background. Whilst the roots of the music can be traced back to Africa, in terms of its recent history, Mandingo pointed to possibly the first recorded ska record:

Due to the phasing out of 78 rpm records, the US R&B records enjoyed in the Jamaican dancehalls, were getting short in supply. So in 1956, sound system operator Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd got the Cluett Johnson studio band, Clue J and the Blues Blasters, with guitarist Ernest Ranglin, to record some tracks at Federal Studios. From those sessions came Theophilus Beckford ‘Easy Snapping’, released in 1959, which was a big hit into the early 1960.

This was part of the start of the indigenous Jamaican music industry narrative. But as we have seen, Jamaican music has gone on to influence studio techniques, dub, bass culture music such a drum & bass, bassline, jungle, electronic dance music, etc, plus the songs and records have generated millions of pounds. But if Garvey were alive, he’d ask, why haven’t the Jamaicans, particularly the singers and songwriters, had their fair share?

Part of the answer may lie in the fact that they relied on others to take care of their business for them.

Join us for Reggae Films, Music & Fun on Saturday June 28, 3-7pm at Flash Musicals Theatre in Edgware. The event consists of the screening of  ‘Britain's Contribution To The Development Of Reggae’, a guerilla documentary started by Kwaku in 2012 to mark JA@50 and Gus Berger’s ‘Duke Vin And The Birth Of Ska’, followed by a Q&A, quiz and a selection of purely British reggae! Bring the family, expect to learn and have fun! £5 adults, £2 under 16s, Profits go to charity. For more information or to book:



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