Available now, Rebel Frequency: Jamaica’s Reggae Revival by John Masouri [Jook Joint Press] looks at the resurgence of conscious reggae music in recent times. To give you a flavour of what’s in store, here’s the Introduction which sets out its scope.
“It’s phenomenal what is taking place right now in Kingston with the Dub Club, Vinyl Thursdays and Jukebox Fridays, Inner City Dub and Inna Di Yard. The music we’re hearing is uplifting. It’s conscious, it’s entertaining but at the same time it’s not degrading or demeaning. It’s positive and it’s a cultural movement because when you go to these events, you will see things other than just music. You find artwork, you find arts and crafts, you find books and you find food… A generation link we a talk ‘bout and we’re seeing it in that whole rebellion, and in young rebel lions like Chronixx with Capture Land. Yes bless, it come again.”
Jamaican dub poet Oku Onuora, speaking to the author in 2018
Five years earlier and you couldn’t drive anywhere in Kingston without hearing Chronixx‘s Here Comes Trouble blasting out of radios, bars, shop doorways and car windows. It had taken almost two decades for traditional sounding reggae music to come back round again and when Chris Blackwellcalled the thirty-year-old singer from Spanish Town “the new Bob Marley,” the die was cast. That statement, delivered just before Chronixx made his American television debut, heralded a fresh chapter in Jamaica’s rich musical history – one defined by a new generation of dreadlocked artists singing of truth and rights.
“Rebel Frequency” is a term I borrowed from Nattali Rize and I like to think we all intuitively get the meaning, even if we can’t find the words. In my imagination, I picture it as a manifestation of righteous energy that fills the hearts and minds of people with the glory, irrespective of race, religion or class. Rastafarians would say this invisible force has been with us “from creation” but the last time it set Jamaica ablaze was during the ‘90s, when Garnet Silk, Buju Banton, Sizzla, Luciano and others led another Rasta-inspired musical uprising.
I was a regular visitor to the Kingston studios throughout that period, either as a journalist with Echoes or whilst researching my book with The Wailers, and what I saw and heard made an indelible impact upon me. The music, like some of that made by Marley’s generation, was powerful, spiritual and revolutionary. It was music that inspired, and was unafraid to speak truth to power. You could live your life by it but after a decade or so the momentum stalled, since nothing had really changed for those who needed it most. If anything life had got harder, and the messengers who’d offered such hope had either died, faded from view or lost their credibility.
In the years following the Millennium, Jamaican music underwent a rerun of what had happened in the early ‘80s, as slackness and gangster lyrics regained popularity and high profile feuds, arrests, assaults and marital breakdowns dominated the news cycle. The pendulum had swung the other way and outlaw music of a different and darker persuasion took over. It wasn’t until the emergence of artists like Chronixx, Protoje and Kabaka Pyramid circa 2011 that the rebel frequency returned, and allowed Jamaica to reassert itself as roots reggae music’s rightful home.
In the years since then I’ve written extensively about the so-called Reggae Revival, and been privileged to interview many of those involved in its development. I’ve enjoyed talking to intelligent young people whose music has meaning and purpose, and that expresses a vision of society based on the kinds of values humanity should never have let slip in the first place like freedom, justice and equality for all, and respect for the natural world. The same could be said of previous roots cycles, but what made the Reggae Revival intake different was their level of education. Many of them had completed high school and attended university, either overseas or the University of West Indies (UWI) in Kingston. Others were graduates of the Edna Manley School Of Visual & Performing Arts where they’d met like-minded souls from all over Jamaica, and formed bands that would be in the vanguard of the new movement. For the first time, a generation of young Jamaicans had inherited a world where the island’s musical pioneers were honoured and every February was Reggae Month, by government decree. That’s when the city would fill up with tourists, drawn like bees to honey by the presentations, seminars, exhibitions and stage shows celebrating a musical legacy that’s now been granted World Heritage status by UNESCO.
A number of today’s singers come from musical families, including Chronixxand Protoje, and there are many advantages to be gained from this – not only in the musical sense, but also regarding resources. Oku Onuora, whose daughter Shaka is one of Jamaica’s most promising young poets, talks enthusiastically of a “Generation Link,” but not everyone from the old guard was convinced. Those lacking computer skills felt especially threatened, and worried that their hard-won status and experience had been made irrelevant. It wasn’t until the glue that held what remained of the reggae industry together finally came apart and an influx of mainly young fans of every nationality joined the party that the message hit home because, yes, the new technology threatened livelihoods, but it was also an aid to self-determination, provided you knew how to use it.
The same year that Chronixx hit with Here Comes Trouble I wrote a feature about how once familiar reggae landmarks lay in ruin – their treasures long sold off to collectors from overseas. Sonic Sounds and Joe Gibbs were boarded up and there was little happening at Dynamic, the studio by the waterfront that had once dominated record distribution on the island. That giant-size “1” painted on the wall of Channel One was still there but the studio itself was silent, like so many others in the downtown areas. There were far fewer record stores, hardly any pressing plants and the crowds that used to gather at Anchor, Jammy’s and Mixing Lab were long gone. Many industry veterans were left feeling stunned, since the changes had come too fast, and from too many directions at once for them to take it all in. There wasn’t anywhere on earth where Jamaican music wasn’t played, yet sales figures had plummeted; producers had to bribe DJs to play their tracks on local stations and the charts were still dominated by the same dozen or so artists who’d ruled the market for a decade or more. Noise control laws and curfews had made life difficult for sound-systems and whilst Rising Stars – Jamaica’s equivalent of X Factor – had given a platform to exciting new singers like Christopher Martin and Romain Virgo, few could deny that some inherent weaknesses within the reggae industry had been exposed, as globalisation and the Internet continued to wreak wholesale changes to how we discover, listen to, make and purchase music.
By 2011, things had got so bad that articles began appearing proclaiming “The Death Of Reggae.” This prompted Stephen Marley to start work on his landmark album, Revelation Pt. 1: The Root Of Life, which he recorded whilst producing his brother Damian‘s Distant Relatives set, shared with Nas. Along with other family members and young Jamaican roots artists yet to properly emerge, Stephen set out to prove the doubters wrong by making music that sought to build upon the past, rather than merely honour it, and that would also resonate with an international audience. The fight back had begun, although it would come from north, rather than south of Halfway Tree, which is the unwritten border between uptown and downtown Kingston.
It’s less than two miles from there to the Kingston Dub Club in Jack’s Hill, but time and distance really can’t do that journey justice. The new Jamaican roots scene was already well underway by the time I visited in 2013. I’d already been to some of the bigger European reggae festivals but I’d never seen the same style of presentation in Jamaica before, and if someone had told me that reggae’s next big thing wouldn’t come from the ghetto communities of West Kingston, as usual, but the hills surrounding the city where the wealthy and middle classes live, then I wouldn’t have believed them. I’m talking about places like Hope Pastures, Beverley Hills and Mona Heights to the east, and Sterling Castle, Stony Hill, Cherry Gardens and Jack’s Hill to the north. That’s where Rita Marley and other reggae millionaires lived – it’s a mountaintop enclave for the rich where the air is clean and fresh and the views are stunning. Number 76 Skyline Drive in particular, where the Dub Club’s situated, is one of the most picturesque settings imaginable.
I went there one Sunday night and marvelled as the road up the mountain twisted and turned and then everything to one side suddenly dropped away to reveal Kingston below – a teeming, urban sprawl lit by thousands of needle-point lights skirting the bay, with the inky water barely visible in the blackness. Skyline Drive is well named, but the advantage of going there at night is that you don’t realise how narrow the road is, or how steep the precipice that’s just inches away from the front wheels. It was a relief to get out and walk the last fifty yards or so, past the line of parked cars to the Dub Club entrance. Reggae music filled the warm night air – not the dancehall hybrids popular in New Kingston nightclubs, but cultural and dub music from all eras. Inside, the majority of people were in their twenties and thirties, of various nationalities and neatly dressed. There were a few dashikis and Afros, and lots of cool T-shirts, backpacks and expensive trainers. There was no rowdiness, no one was being coarse and there was an easy atmosphere as people danced to the music, or sat at wooden tables facing that wonderful, panoramic view of Kingston. How could any reggae fan not feel at home in such a place? The bar at one end of the main room sold natural juices as well as rum, beer and the rest, whilst ackee and saltfish, patties, ital wraps and melts were on the menu should you get hungry. In another room were stalls selling ethnic looking jewellery and crafts, artworks, records (vinyl, naturally), Afro-centric clothing and books on religion, psychology, spiritualism, philosophy, aromatherapy, crystals and black history. I noticed that several of the stallholders also had shops in New Kingston and this gave rise to doubts that no amount of coloured lights in the trees, great music, funky paintwork and murals depicting Ethiopian angels, Emperor Haile Selassie I, Rastas with chillums and lions could fully erase, but no matter, because the music was real enough. On one wall was a poster depicting a dreadlocked DJ that bore the legend, “The only good system is a sound-system,” and the Dub Club’s resident Rockers Sound Station proved it. Regular selectors Gabre Selassie and Yaadcore are to be celebrated for having helped revive the roots tradition in Jamaica by promoting new music – often on dub-plate – and encouraging young artists to come forward and sing and deejay at the mike. Also, they didn’t play old roots and dub music in a bid to please the tourists, but because the DJs and their circle of friends were on a journey of discovery that would result in some of the finest music to come out of Jamaica in decades.
Not everyone saw it that way of course. Some reggae diehards I know made the trip up to Jack’s Hill out of curiosity and hastily dismissed what was happening there as an uptown scene, catering for middle class types. As a veteran myself, I could understand why they might think that way. I’d been going to Kingston to interview artists, visit studios and write about the music for years by then, and had very different expectations. Many times I’d be invited to a dance – either a ghetto fabulous affair like Stone Love at the House Of Leo for example, or maybe something more down-to-earth held in places like Waltham Park or Maverley, where speaker boxes would be set up in the street and the whole neighbourhood would come and join in. You could buy food, drink and herb, the music was always good – even when played on cassette, if the DJ couldn’t afford records – and the vibes were generally friendly, although the atmosphere could get volatile at times. I’ve had guns fired just inches from my head – more in celebration than anything else – and been at dances where police in jeeps have arrived with rifles drawn, looking for someone on their wanted list. There was always the chance that something might happen but it came with the territory, and I’d experienced the same thing in the Nottingham blues parties I used to visit as a teenager – somebody would be there feeling the pressure, or was hell-bent on settling a score and next thing you knew people would be pushing and shoving to get through the door as a fight broke out.
Homophobia was also rife in the dancehalls prior to the Reggae Revival – “hands in the air if you hate batty man” – and even as Chronixx and Protoje began to release one magnificent roots track after another, all the talk was of Ninjaman and Vybz Kartel getting arrested on separate murder charges, Kartel’s sex-tape, Buju Banton‘s conviction for drug trafficking, Lady Saw‘s meltdown over her relationship problems and Snoop Dogg‘s visit to Jamaica after renaming himself ‘Snoop Lion’ and announcing that he was the reincarnation of Bob Marley. Meanwhile the island’s biggest dancehall stars were having trouble getting visas after being banned from certain countries because of their anti-gay lyrics. The Reggae Revivalists couldn’t have been more different, since most, if not all, practised tolerance and wanted their music to reach as many people as possible, rather than just a small following.
Dutty Bookman, in a blog entry from summer 2012, wrote the following.
“My conclusion is this: live and let live. Anyone serious about social equality and positive, progressive change in the world would work consciously and tirelessly to shed silly prejudices. My evolution of thought has been something worked on for years and I am glad that, even though I know I still have a ways to go, I am now somewhere over the rainbow. Hatred is outdated.”
Fresh horizons beckoned, and a younger, hungry and more computer-literate generation took the reggae baton and ran with it. A growing army of DJs, musicians, filmmakers, promoters, journalists, publicists and soundmen came from everywhere – Europe, the Americas, the Far East, Australasia and beyond – empowered by the Internet and drawn by the music’s siren call. Their first task was to build a new infrastructure, including media outlets, distributors and revenue streams, because everything about the music business had changed and thanks to file sharing, millions of people now had immediate access to the music of their choice and a vast body of information and opinion to go with it. We’d entered a phase where everything we wanted was just seconds away, and anyone with a smart phone could become a social media celebrity overnight – Koffee for instance, a nineteen-year-old girl from Spanish Town who got her break after posting a tribute to Usain Bolt on Instagram. The world’s fastest man then shared it with his multitude of followers and a few months later Koffee signed to Columbia Records and made her national US television debut on Jimmy Kimmel Live.
The rags-to-riches narrative that once dominated reggae history isn’t so prevalent anymore but Koffee’s pathway to success tells us that Jamaica is still a land of miracles, where young people from ghetto communities can make a name and a career for themselves with their music. Thank heavens for that. American poet and novelist Charles Bukowski once wrote how, “only the poor know the meaning of life – the rest of humanity can only guess.” Whether you agree with this or not, life is very different when driven by insecurity and fear, rather than ambition. I’m from a working-class background myself, and know only too well that hope is a valuable commodity when you’ve got little else going for you. That’s why if you hear some uplifting lyrics, delivered by someone who genuinely feels and understands the reality of what they’re singing about, it can mean a great deal.
This is also why so many people, regardless of nationality, can be overly protective when it comes to reggae music. It’s because they feel that the messages in certain songs were written for them, and that the music is theirs. This is something that a lot of Jamaicans tend to forget, and especially those who want to safeguard their own culture and represent it with a degree of accuracy. This is only to be expected, but at the same time there needs to be awareness that reggae music’s continuing popularity owes a great deal to the multitude of foreigners who’ve supported it over the past fifty years by buying, playing and generally promoting it best as they can, whether they are radio or sound system DJs, filmmakers, writers or whatever.
Many of them, myself included, were doing this at a time when there was little interest in documenting the music, either in the mainstream media or by academics. Yet the charge was made against us that it’s not ours, that it doesn’t belong to us, and only a representative of that culture can explain and assess it with any great authenticity.
This isn’t true of course, and the same thing works in reverse because why shouldn’t Jah9 use a sitar on one of her songs, even though she’s not Indian? She doesn’t need to defend her reasons for liking how it sounds, or for incorporating it in her musical palette. There’s nothing wrong with someone from another culture experimenting in this way, or expressing how they experience something and especially if they’ve grown up with it, which is true for a great many of us non-Jamaicans. Asked to define cultural appropriation, Chronixx talks about integrity and the importance of being true to ourselves, so if you have a genuine love for something, relate to what it’s saying and promote it in good faith, then you DO have a stake in it.
Rebel Frequency is an example of that, and I make no apologies for having attempted it because the people telling their stories within these pages are light-bearers, and deserve whatever exposure comes their way. I find their music joyous – it makes you want to dance, as well as think deeply, but above all, it inspires.
Finally, it’s only fair to point out that the roots movement in Kingston is now just the tip of a very large, global iceberg, but for the purposes of this book I’ve chosen to include Jamaican artists only – the exceptions being Alborosie and Nattali Rize, who were living on the island at the time of writing.
Purchase Rebel Frequency here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Rebel-Frequency-Jamaicas-Revival-Chronicles/dp/0993375995/ref=sr_1_1?crid=3B4AXL475Y3XN&dchild=1&keywords=rebel+frequency&qid=1586948846&sprefix=Rebel+Frequency%2Caps%2C138&sr=8-1