Jamaican Popular Music: Culture and Creative Spaces
SOJA, a Virginia-based reggae group, won the 2021 Reggae Grammy for their album "Beauty in the Silence". SOJA's win ignited a firestorm on social media spaces, backlash from Jamaican dancehall icons Bounty Killer and Beenie Man, and an uproar in the Reggae/dance hall community. The controversy centred on race, geography, and reggae authenticity. SOJA is a White American reggae band. SOJA isn't the first non-Jamaican group that lives outside Jamaica to win the reggae Grammy. That honour belongs to the Afro Caribbean British-born reggae group Steel Pulse. The authenticity argument centres on whether Beauty in the Silence 'phonetically qualifies as authentic reggae.
Jamaicans would have accepted a Grammy win if Caucasian Italian reggae singer Alborosie, who lived in Jamaica, had won a Grammy for an album. SOJA lives and works exclusively in America, and the Grammy is an American music award. The album "Beauty in the Silence" is filled with collaborations by white America bands Stick Figure, Slightly Stoopid, Rebelution, and Bermudian Collie Buddz. The album was up against six Jamaican base artists, Etana, Spice, Sean Paul, Jesse Royal, and Gramps Morgan.
Veteran Musicologist Dermot Hussey thinks it may be a case of a "Bad Mind" fueled by parochial nativism, the impulse to protect native-born's interest against outsiders and rationalised because the mental capacities and structures are innate rather than gained through experience and learning.
Also, critics have failed to understand "something that's been happening for quite a while: the "Americanisation of reggae". More white American reggae groups are becoming dominant. These groups had certain built-in advantages that they exploited. White reggae bands can attract a market around them and give free shows without a visa needed to perform in America. They can work 365 days a year. Then too, they love 70s reggae and couldn't understand why Jamaicans discard 70s reggae. The American bands are dominating the market in North America. They sell out their shows. All this reflects the audience's loyalty to SOJA and then getting the reggae Grammy.
The director of the Jamaica Music Museum, Herbie Miller, a former New Yorker with an astute understanding of reggae's development, offers another perspective. Miller asks the critical question should Jamaicans, including pianist Monty Alexander, not receive any accolades from the American jazz community, or should they have not given Patrick Ewing the opportunity to play basketball, an American sport because both are Jamaican and not American?
Reggae's development in America was predominantly through the support of Caucasian Americans. On every level, white American promoters like Larry Gould at SOB's booked Jamaican artists from 1970 through 2000. The journalists like Timothy White, Peggy Quatro, Elena Oumano, and Pat Maschino wrote about the music. College radio stations like New York University, WNYU 89.1 FM 's Get Smart Show (this writer was a member), or 39 WUSB at Stony Brook University, diaspora radio figures like Ken Williams, Jeff Barnes, and Karl Anthony on WLIB catered to the diaspora audiences. The embracement of reggae by White Americans at every level played a critical role in the career of Bob Marley, Burning Spear, 3rd World, and Peter Tosh.
Miller argues America cannot claim ownership of jazz, and Jamaica cannot claim ownership of reggae. Once a culture is expressed in an international context (without parochial restriction), history shows other cultures appreciate it and tap into it. Jamaicans freely tapped into American music from the 1960s to today, from Delroy Wilson's Rain from the Sky to Bob Marley's use of Curtis Mayfield's catalogue. The embrace of Jamaican culture by foreigners has spread to places where they would not have been able to go. This year is the 50th anniversary of The Harder They Come.
Before The Harder They Come soundtrack and the movie, there was nothing to identify the primary culture of a specific people called Jamaicans.
Is the criticism of Beauty in the Silence as not being authentic reggae justified?
The architecture of great music is the province of creativity. It is decidedly not a matter of unedited free association. But as American literary music critic and essayist -Albert L. Murray argues, it is an "effective stream-of-consciousness narration - the product of verbal precision, not just of literal documentation."
Reggae Music's global appeal and success are the inevitable results of the Marley lead generation's mission to "spread reggae to the four corners of the earth." Designated an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural and scientific agency.
Jamaican popular music, generally and reggae in particular, has punched significantly above its weight class on the world stage without firing a shot, Peter Tosh's "Coming in Hot" notwithstanding.
Kingston, designated as a Creative City of Music by UNESCO, is one of the most established creative cities in the western hemisphere.
For the past five decades, the city has created and contributed to more genres and musical styles such as mento pop and folk, Jamaican R&B, ska, rock steady, reggae, dub, and dancehall. Influencing several other genres, including electronica and reggaeton. As a member of UNESCO's collection of "intangible cultural heritage", Kingston's protected status allows Reggae music globally to "functions as a vehicle of social commentary, as a cathartic experience, and means of praising God remain unchanged, and the music continues to provide a voice for all."
Jamaicans created reggae. The music now belongs to the world. Jamaican acts have become window dressing at the major American festivals across the US.
In their acceptance speech, SOJA thanked Jamaica for its inspiration. "To the founding fathers of reggae and the island of Jamaica–you've inspired us all. Give Thanks, one love. The acronym SOJA is short for Soldiers in Jah Army. The name pays homage to Rastafari, the socio-cultural, religious, and political force behind reggae's message, influence, and significance.