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Origins of Reggae Music

Origins of Reggae Music

Bob Marley Performing Ragaae
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Reggae is more than a genre of music; it is a lifeline to a generation; raw and truthful; music of freedom and identity; music with a powerful voice against discrimination.

How has Reggae transformed from just another music genre to the emotion and pride of an entire nation? Here is Reggae’s history and how it became an international sensation.


The beautiful land of Jamaica has a distinct vibrant culture. Reggae music is one of the leading global representations of Jamaican society. Although this Caribbean island gives a homogeneous vibe from the surface, it transcends diverse cultures. Jamaica was initially inhabited by the Taino settlers, followed by Spanish conquerors. The 1494 discovery of the Island by Christopher Columbus ultimately resulted in the colonization of the region by the British in 1655. These various invasions have made Jamaica culturally diverse. Nevertheless, the enslaved people from Africa became the dominant cultural influence as they suffered and resisted the harsh conditions of forced labor.

Although slavery was abolished in the 19th century, colonialism, which continued for years, didn’t result in significant change to the living conditions of Jamaicans. On the contrary, colonialism was simply a form of economic slavery under the same dominant overlord. Under these conditions, Rastafari and decades later, Reggae music emerged as a savior for people by providing a medium where people expressed discontent and their demands for self-recognition, socio-economic upliftment, and political rights.

By the 1970s, Reggae was recognized as an avenue to convey ideas, define and affirm values, and express expectations. Reggae expanded beyond Jamaica and traversed throughout the Caribbean and the Jamaican diaspora, particularly into England, due to the migration of thousands of Jamaicans. During the 1950s, Jamaican immigrants from England gained many supporters for the Reggae and Rastafari culture. This mass migration of Jamaicans to various parts of the world has resulted in the expansion of the market for Reggae music.

The music genres such as Ska and Rocksteady initially ruled Jamaican lands, which was later replaced and infused into Reggae music. In short, Reggae is the disciple of Ska. Reggae is a popular Jamaican music performed at moderate tempos with distinct offbeat elements. Reggae is known as “Protest music” as the songs, through lyrics, address social and political issues such as apartheid, discrimination, racism, materialism, and the Rastafari movement. However, the Reggae lyrics and music are open to themes such as love, fun, and socializing as well.

The connection between Rasta and Reggae has become well known globally, attributable mainly to the life and work of Bob Marley, along with other artists such as Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Culture, and Burning Spear.

Rastafari is a belief system rooted in African ancestry that has contributed to establishing a unique society for the artistic documentation of Jamaica. Rastafari distinguishes itself from Christianity in that Rastas believe in the godhead of Emperor Haile Selassie. It was developed by a group of individuals connected in lifestyle and philosophy, yet promoting individuality in self-development.

Emperor Haile Selassie

Jamaica’s racial and ethnic diversity has been represented and contemplated by internationally successful artists such as Bob Marley, Super Cat, Byron Lee, Sean Paul, and Tessanne Chin.

Generally speaking, Reggae is closely linked with Rastafari and marijuana. Bob Marley, the most prominent artist in the history of Reggae, also propagated marijuana through the messages of his songs and his lifestyle. The inclusion of lyrical themes in Reggae that advocate resistance to the status quo, peace and love among peoples of all races, and the opening of the mind to higher realms and reasoning through the use of marijuana, have all been very appealing to youths around the world. This notion might have led to the stereotyping, as not all Reggae artists smoke marijuana, nor all the Reggae music is Rastafari.


Bob Marley, the man who rose from the roots of Jamaica, fought against racism and became the voice for the oppressed. He used the song as a weapon to question the injustices and human rights violations. As a result, Marley became one of the most sensational voices of the 20th century. He represented the branches of Ska, Rock steady, and Reggae music. A CNN report of 2010 lists Bob Marley as one of the most popular singers in the world.

The troupe, The Wailers, was formed when, in 1963, Peter Mclntosh, known famously as Peter Tosh, met Bob Marley and Bunny Wailers (Bunny Livingston). As Marley was asked later about the significance of the band’s name, he replied, “We started crying.”

Initially, they were a group of teenagers who focused on Ska music. In 1963, the first album, “Simmers Down,” was a sensational hit. The song was a message to the young generation of Jamaica who had chosen violence and crime. The impact reached the band at the top of the Jamaican charts of the year.

Original Wailers left to right: Bunny Wailer, Bob Marley, and Peter Tosh.

The sensational success pushed them to meet Lee “Scratch” Perry and record with him and his studio band “The Upsetters.” He was the propagandist of Reggae music and altered the life of ‘The Wailers’.

By late 1963, singers Junior Braithwaite, Beverley Kelso, and Cherry Smith had joined the group. The line-up consisted of Braithwaite on vocals, Marley on guitar, Tosh on the keyboard, Wailer on percussion, and Smith and Kelso on backing vocals.

Shortly after Kelso and Braithwaite left the band, the trio Marley, Tosh, and the Wailers released a compilation of their tracks called “The Wailing Wailers.”

Later, the band met Chris Blackwell, the producer of Island Records. Though he needed to be convinced enough to fulfill their demands of granting royalties, he was impressed by their attitudes. Finally, in 1973, the album “Catch a Fire” was released. The album became a hit when Blackwell mixed the song and pulsed it up to the spirits of the young generation.

The album “Burning” was released in the same year and was hugely successful. Two of the songs from the album, “Get Up and Stand Up” and “I Shot the Sheriff,” were the master hits. This was the last collaborative album that the famous trio worked on together.

Later, in 1974, Bunny Wailers and Peter Tosh left the band for various reasons. The primary reasons were the band’s refusal to play their “Freak Clubs” and Blackwell’s obsession with Bob Marley. They felt Marley received more attention and money, and Blackwell favored him. Later, when the band was branded  “Bob Marley and the Wailers” instead of “The Wailers,” Tosh’s relationship with the producer worsened.

Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingstone chose a solo singing career, and Marley stayed with the band. “Bob Marley and The Wailers” never looked back.

The Natty Dread, released in 1974, was the first album without Tosh and Wailers. Instead, Bob Marley and the Wailers consisted of Marley, The Barretts, Bernard Touter Harvey on the keyboard, Al Anderson as the lead Guitarist, with female backing vocals by the I-Three members, Rita Marley (Bob’s wife), Judy Mowatt, and Marcia Griffiths. The band peaked in prominence with its performance at Lyceum in London on July 18th, 1975. The program was recorded and released as Live!, a huge hit.

That was a massive success, and the name Reggae Music developed fans and became a sensation. The lyrics of the songs found a way to the heart of the Jamaicans as they brought them a new perspective and a feel. They talked through the lyrics against bad politics and fought for their identity and individuality.

The extent of his courage in chasing his passion was that Marley performed a live concert in Kingston while bandaged from fresh gunshot wounds after a home invasion assassination attempt. He was also courageous to end the tribal political warfare in Jamaica through the “peace concert” at the national stadium. He invited bitter political rivals Michael Manley and Edward Seaga on stage to hold hands as a symbol of peace, unity, and love for the people.

After Marley’s performance in Zimbabwe in 1980, the flow of artists into African concerts rose. As a result, Jamaican Reggae artists now regard the African music market as one of the most important in the world.

Michael Manley, the former Prime Minister of Jamaica, was one of the first Jamaican political leaders to welcome and embrace Reggae. He developed close ties with ruling Reggae artists, some of whom performed on his campaign.

Two of  Marley’s most notable Jamaican concert performances transpired during this time. They were the “Smile Jamaica” concert, done two days after he was shot, and the “One Love Peace Concert.”

After the assassination attempt, Marley, seeking refuge, moved to England for two years in England. Marley contracted melanoma cancer (skin cancer) in 1977. He decided to forgo traditional treatment and instead chose alternative medicine. Unfortunately, this treatment was not successful and on May 11th, 1981, Marley died.

The man was considered a legend, and his songs were taken to heart not just for their musical sensation to the ears but for the meaning and message that never allowed them to relax. The music sowed the seeds of thoughts on revolution into the Jamaican souls.


Edited by Sharon Rosenberg

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