21st Century Music in Jamaica is Much More Than Reggae
21st century Jamaican music no longer carries the echo of Bob Marley and the Wailers alone. In recent years, a generation of artists has emerged who freely explore other fields to mix the reggae tradition with more global sounds like drum & bass, hip hop or electronic music.
Rolling Stone magazine recently ventured that Jamaican sound may be next to break out definitely in the United States through consumers of streaming platforms like Spotify.
A phenomenon similar to the one that music in Spanish is currently experiencing, mainly through Reggaeton and Latin trap.
REGGAE WANTS TO BE MAINSTREAM
The prestigious magazine has precisely emphasized the fact that reggae has traditionally been much more influential in American music than styles like reggaetón. But if we talk about consumption, it has not yet reached the levels that Latin music has enjoyed in recent months.
There is a really curious phenomenon that the heads of the North American musical industry have been noticing in the last years. Jamaican music is a seasonal sound: when summer comes and the heat sets in, its consumption shoots up. When the cold weather arrives, the public opts for less vitalistic sounds.
REGGAE, MUSIC FOR HOT WEATHER ONLY
“We’ve always been trying to solve this problem: why are we only subject to the summer season?” Asks Ricky Blaze, an artist and producer who created the rhythm for “Hold Yuh” by Gyptian.
There is some inertia in the heavy music industry that is difficult to correct. When spring arrives the American music industry imposes a consumption strategy that has become almost a tradition: it selects a Jamaican music song and pushes it to the top of the charts.
The lucky winner in 2018 was “Walking Trophy,” a song by Hoodcelebrityy, a Jamaican-born singer who lives in New York and is proud of her Caribbean roots.
In early July of last year, two months after appearing on the R & B / Hip-Hop charts, “Walking Trophy” reached a weekly audience of close to eight million.
Before Hoodcelebrityy, others such as Konshens [‘Bruk Off Yuh Back’, 2017], Kranium [‘Nobody has to know’, 2015], Gyptian [‘Hold Yuh,’ 2010] or Serani [‘No Games, ‘2009] “, passed through that bright yet ephemeral stage.
Streaming has helped multiple genres globally to achieve the kind of visibility that was unthinkable until recently. Thanks to the huge numbers recorded by YouTube and Spotify’s improved playlists, more Spanish songs than ever before have reached the famous Hot 100, the number one music chart in the American market.
REGGAE, CULTURAL HERITAGE OF HUMANITY
The next phenomenon may be a Jamaican one. And for that to happen it has to break away from the seasonal character that limits its growth. Unfortunately, it is common knowledge that the music industry works under this structure: if it triumphs in the United States, it triumphs in the world.
Perhaps it has to do with the history of Jamaican music itself. Let’s not forget that although reggae became popular in the United States, it really flourished in the UK in the 70s, a place that became home to many Jamaican immigrants after the end of World War II.
Last year UNESCO declared reggae “intangible cultural heritage” of humanity. This music genre, which emerged from Jamaica in the 1960s thanks to artists such as Peter Tosh and Bob Marley, achieved the highest degree of universal recognition. Reggae is “cerebral, sociopolitical, sensual and spiritual,” as stated by UNESCO when explaining its decision.
This recognition coincides with the 50th anniversary of the British reggae label Trojan, which launched the careers of artists like Desmond Dekker and Jimmy Cliff.
The truth is that Jamaican music undergoes constant reinvention, as is the case of flamenco in Spain. Both styles have a profound orthodox burden that forces those exploring new sounds to make adjustments between tradition and experimentation.
THE DANCEHALL AS THE EVOLUTION OF ALL THINGS
A very obvious case is the dancehall, considered the most elegant descendant of reggae, with electronic programming instead of classical Jamaican instrumentation and a more declarative vocal style compared to the melodic and relaxed reggae vocals.
“Dancehall is the son of reggae, but is father to several genres,” says Sean Paul, probably the biggest superstar of the dancehall crossover. Busy Signal also stands out in that category, certainly the most international of all.
Together, the two forms have given shape to new modern pop labels, such as hip-hop or afrobeats. Their influence has spread to artists known globally and not necessarily related to reggae.
Several of the 40 biggest hits of the past five years have a Jamaican base: “Sorry” by Justin Bieber, “Cheap Thrills” by Sia or “Shape of You” by Ed Sheeran are perhaps the most symbolic examples.
From the new Jamaican scene are emerging artists as interesting and unclassifiable as Chronixx, considered the heir of contemporary reggae.
His latest record, Chronology, is a careful balance of country rock, R & B and pop influences, while maintaining a strong focus on the traditional sounds of his country.
In an interview with the music magazine Exclaim!, he said that he wanted to play “a very important role in the evolution of Jamaican music. It’s a very beautiful feeling to be on a journey”.
MARLEY, THE FAMILY NAME OF REGGAE
On a similar frequency we find Protoje, nominated to the Grammy for best reggae album of 2019. All Jamaican artists have a permanent connection with the omnipresent spirit of Marley or Black Uhru.
It seems to be a necessary tribute, a musical and emotional reverence that explains the respect they all feel for the musicians who inspired their musical universe. But once this unavoidable protocol is fulfilled, everyone embarks on the adventure of mixing and experimenting with other textures alien to the Caribbean tradition.
Protoje is a good example. His latest album, “A matter of time”, pays homage to the traditions rooted in the genre. But it bursts into in a bold and brilliant territory, introducing hip-hop rhythms, orchestral jazz sequences and festive dances.
Protoje did not win. 44/876, the unusual collaboration between Sting and Shaggy, won the award and also raised eyebrows about whether the boundaries of reggae are being stretched too thin at times.
The prestigious Pitchfork is clear: “The reggae-lite collaboration between Sting and Shaggy is as professional, good-natured and helplessly uncool as its billing promises”.
But above all, the Marley name remains the icon of Jamaican music. Bob because he is the spiritual referent and his son Ziggy because he is the most international and revered artist of the whole saga. His seven albums and 8 Grammys have already made him a living legend. He is the best guarantor and backer of his father’s legacy.
There are other names in the Jamaican constellation that, from the island, the United States or Europe, are writing new stories in the reggae tradition and Rastafari culture.Israel Vibration, the great queen of Jamaican reggae of the 21st century; Marcia Griffiths, Queen Ifrica or the big name of the current dancehall style, Busy Signal, are some of the names to keep in mind.