Jamaica has produced some of the most influential artist in popular music history. The unique style of reggae that emerged from the island in the 1960s quickly captivated the world and gave rise to living legends whose legacy endures today.
From Bob Marley’s groundbreaking roots reggae to Sean Paul’s high-energy dancehall, these 10 Jamaican musicians have left an indelible mark on world music.
Probably the most famous Jamaican musician ever, Bob Marley brought reggae to a mass global audience. Born in a small rural village in 1945, Marley began his musical career in the mid-1960s as the leader of The Wailers.
Early hits like “Simmer Down” and “One Love” helped define the distinctive reggae sound. By the 1970s, Marley was an international superstar with influential albums like “Exodus” and “Rastaman Vibration.” His uplifting anthems about unity, freedom, and social justice resonated worldwide. Marley died prematurely from cancer in 1981 at age 36, but his music lives on in the hearts of millions of fans.
Born in Kingston in 1968, Shaggy masterfully blended Jamaican dancehall with pop and became one of reggae’s biggest global stars. He achieved massive mainstream success in the mid-1990s with upbeat, catchy songs like “Boombastic” and “It Wasn’t Me.” Shaggy has sold over 20 million albums, won two Grammy Awards, and continues to top the charts with collaborations with contemporary artists. His distinctive blend of rapping, crooning, and humor made him one of Jamaica’s most recognizable artists.
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Before Bob Marley’s rise, Jimmy Cliff was the first Jamaican musician to achieve international fame. Born in a coastal town in 1948, Cliff was a ska and rocksteady pioneer in the early 1960s. He got a major breakthrough in 1972 when he starred in the seminal movie The Harder They Come. The soundtrack, with hits like “You Can Get It If You Really Want” and “Many Rivers to Cross,” introduced him to a global audience. Cliff also helped spread reggae among non-Jamaican audiences and remains a worldwide ambassador of the island’s music.
One of the most successful dancehall artists of the modern era, Sean Paul has dominated the charts for two decades. Born in Kingston in 1973, Paul released his debut album Stage One in 2000. He quickly gained attention with high-energy dancefloor hits like “Gimme the Light”, “Get Busy”, and “Temperature.”
His distinctive blends of dancehall with pop, hip hop, and electronica made him an international phenomenon. Paul has collaborated with top-tier artists like Beyonce, Sia, and Dua Lipa, demonstrating the global influence of Jamaican dancehall. With over 10 million albums sold, he remains a staple of dance floors worldwide.
The youngest son of legend Bob Marley, Damian Marley has carried his father’s legacy into the 21st century. Born in 1978, Marley grew up surrounded by reggae royalty. He launched his solo career in the new millennium, blending hip hop, dancehall, and traditional reggae into hits like “Welcome to Jamrock.” His 2005 album of the same name won two Grammy Awards, making him the first Jamaican artist to win multiple Grammys. Marley has also collaborated with rappers like Nas and Jay-Z, demonstrating how Jamaican reggae continues influencing hip hop.
Nicknamed the “Sinatra of Reggae”, Beres Hammond is Jamaica’s most successful soul/reggae balladeer. Born in 1955, Hammond began his career in the mid-1970s and quickly stood out for his exceptional vocal range, heartfelt melodies, and romantic lyrics. Albums from the ’80s and ’90s like A Love Affair and In Control established him as a pan-Caribbean superstar and R&B favorite worldwide.
With his powerful baritone voice, Buju Banton became one of dancehall’s most passionate and controversial performers in the 1990s. Born Mark Myrie in an impoverished part of Kingston in 1973, he took on the artistic name “Buju Banton” as tribute to an earlier dancehall artist.
His 1992 album, Stamina Daddy, catapulted him to stardom with controversial hits like “Love Me Browning” and “Boom Bye Bye”. While Banton faced accusations of homophobia for his harsh lyrics, he also addressed social issues in songs like “Untold Stories.” After a hiatus due to legal troubles, Banton triumphantly returned in 2010 with the acclaimed album Before the Dawn.
Known as “Crown Prince of reggae”, Dennis Brown helped define the 1970s lovers rock genre with his exquisite smooth voice. Brown, born in Kingston in 1957, began singing professionally at age 11 and recorded dozens of successful albums. With chart-topping hits like “Money in My Pocket” and “Should I”, he established himself as Jamaica’s number one male vocalist.
Brown also collaborated with other greats like Bob Marley. Revered by fans worldwide, Brown faced health challenges in the 1990s and tragically died from drug-related stroke in 1999 at age 42.
Controversial Vybz Kartel is one of the most popular contemporary dancehall artists. Born Adidja Palmer in violence-prone Portmore area of Kingston in 1976, he adopted the alias “Vybz Kartel” in the early 2000s. He quickly gained notoriety for his explicit lyrics and distinctive vocal style.
Hit anthems like “Ramping Shop” and “Dancehall Hero” made him one of Jamaica’s most successful stars. However, legal troubles have clouded his career. Kartel was jailed for murder in 2014 but still prolifically releases new music from prison.
Marcia Griffiths is a pioneering female artist who has made tremendous contributions to reggae for over 40 years. Nicknamed the Queen of Reggae, she was born in Kingston in 1949. She began her career in the 1960s singing soul and R&B before transitioning to roots reggae. As a founding member of the I-Threes, Griffiths provided spellbinding harmonies for Bob Marley & The Wailers.
She pursued a successful solo career and her 1983 hit “Electric Boogie” became an international classic. Griffiths continues releasing noteworthy music, most recently 2014’s acclaimed album Stepping Out. Her amazing voice and enduring influence make her a true living legend.