Unesco can add reggae to its cultural heritage list, but this music has no time for government and global power.
Don’t you just know that Unesco’s decision to add reggae to its list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity will be the kiss of death for any remaining semblance of “rebel music” in Jamaica? While the island’s delegation at the United Nations was skanking in celebration the other night, there was no corresponding “jam out there” in the streets of Kingston, Spanish Town, Mo’ Bay or Ochi. Once upon a time there would have been, but this recognition by the UN is at best too little too late and, at worst, somewhat suspect.
Suspect? Yes, when the institutions that reggae has been decrying for decades as “Babylon” – the Jamaican government and global power – are the very ones hailing it as an international cultural treasure worthy of protection and promotion. Turkeys endorsing Christmas come to mind, with the gobblers hatching a cunning plan to turn 25 December vegan. If this gong gives the Jamaican government the ownership of reggae that it craves, Unesco may be guilty of endorsing the Caribbean equivalent of John Lydon (once Johnny Rotten) appearing on a television butter advert. That moment whacked the final nail into the coffin of punk and the 1977 anarchy in the UK that roots reggae went in tandem with back when, if you were fortunate enough to be the white man in the Hammersmith Palais, you got two rebellions for the price of one. Unlike the punk thing, the political potency of reggae has endured for generations. And the Jamaican authorities certainly don’t like that.
Jamaicans do not need the UN to endorse the soundtrack of their lives. They do not need Unesco to tell them that reggae is “cerebral, socio-political, sensual and spiritual”. Jamaicans know that already. They have known for half a century that the reggae beat is their nation’s heartbeat and that its lyrics are the soul and conscience of its people – from Burning Spear’s Slavery Days to Damian Marley’s Welcome To Jamrock.
It’s not the Jamaican people but the Jamaican establishment that needs to hear that. The very same Jamaican establishment that fought against reggae for years until they realised it was bringing in more revenue than the nation’s ailing bauxite industry so they had to incorporate it – minus the lock, stock and two smoking barrels, still smouldering from the days when it was inspiring revolutions from Zimbabwe to Angola to Grenada. In those days the Jamaican establishment only cared about reggae at election time, when they used it as a conduit to reach out to the masses, many of whom got their political education through the music of the Wailers, Culture, Burning Spear, the Mighty Diamonds and toasters/rappers such as Big Youth, I-Roy and, much later, Buju Banton.Advertisemen
The government’s contempt for reggae meant the revenue that was earned from the music worldwide went into the coffers of every other country but Jamaica.
Wherever people were oppressed, reggae provided a battle cry for change: “Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights.” In Jamaica especially, reggae was accusing the authorities of being the new “slave drivers”. That message was tantamount to sedition as far as the authorities were concerned and they came down hard on it. Back then, in the genre’s 70s heyday, you couldn’t hear a reggae tune on the state-controlled airwaves on the island. You could hear Abba and Jim Reeves, but Jamaican radio gave you no inkling that reggae was the “heart and soul” of the country, as the minister for culture, Olivia “Babsy” Grange gushed at the Unesco gathering earlier this week.
Oh the irony. Grange, a former reggae producer herself, is touting a sanitised vision of the island because that’s where the money is. This was evident from the Bob Marley track her delegation chose to play to celebrate the momentous occasion – One Love, a tune that became a huge posthumous hit for the reggae king, but one that he rarely, if ever, performed live. As subversive a song as it is, its outward sweetness didn’t sit well with the music maker from the ghetto of Trenchtown, when he toured the world as a superstar in the late 70s.
The government- and Unesco-sanctioned “heart and soul” of Jamaica is that of the happy tourist on a beach with a few club sodas, meditating to the music of Bob Marley. Where the reggae doesn’t point fingers at the establishment that sold you that all-inclusive holiday in the sun. It is not the gritty sufferer’s heart and soul – that’s one the tourists will never see. This is reggae without its teeth.