For decades, the sound of Jamaica has been reggae, the infectious, uniquely syncopated music that transformed the small Caribbean island into a cultural powerhouse.
But the genre’s success has taken it far beyond its roots, and now many in Jamaica worry that reggae-lovers abroad are forgetting the motherland where it was born.
“Reggae was given to the world by Jamaica so nobody can or ever should discourage anyone overseas from making this music. But we think there should be acknowledgment that reggae was created in Jamaica,” said Michael “Ibo” Cooper, a musician who is chairman of the Jamaica Reggae Industry Association.
Around the world, music festivals celebrating the sounds made famous by reggae patron saint Bob Marley and followers who developed the faster, brasher derivative of dancehall are more likely to be headlined by bands from places like California or France than by native-born Jamaicans. Aside from albums by the late Marley or his progeny, few of the top-selling reggae CDs or downloads come from Jamaican artists.
To get a stronger foothold in the information age, Jamaican officials and reggae industry insiders are brainstorming ways to better capitalize on Jamaica’s exuberant music culture and help protect what some claim is local intellectual property. After years of only piecemeal support, the government increasingly is viewing reggae and other cultural enterprises as a hoped-for economic engine on the island.
Officials are hashing over the creation of a certification mark to designate “authentic reggae” — a sort of “Good Housekeeping Seal” — to encourage the use of Jamaican musicians, producers and merchandise. They also hope to defend Jamaican reggae by having the U.N.’s culture organization add it to a global list of “intangible cultural heritage ” such as Argentina’s tango and China’s Peking opera. The Paris-based agency says the island’s government has yet to apply for inclusion on the list of more than 280 cultural traditions.
Rob Bowman, a music professor from Canada’s York University who has researched intellectual property and Jamaican music, said that while population numbers mean reggae’s biggest markets always will be overseas there’s no reason why more revenue streams from foreign commerce shouldn’t flow back to Jamaica.
“With few exceptions, these styles of music cannot be authentically replicated by non-Jamaicans. As such, these styles of music represent intellectual property that is, for all intents and purposes, already a part of Jamaica’s branding,” Bowman asserts in a World Intellectual Property Organization consultancy report for Jamaica.
A country of fewer than 3 million people, Jamaica has had remarkable success originating influential musical forms such as ska, rocksteady, reggae, dub and dancehall. Musicologists say production innovations and the discovery of “toasting,” reggae deejays chanting over a beat, directly inspired hip-hop.
A cross-pollination of Afro-Caribbean folk music and American R&B, reggae first was introduced to Europe by Jamaican migrants settling in Britain in the late 1960s. Its popularity exploded in the 1970s with the rise of Marley and other Jamaican Rastafarian stars, whose music influenced British groups like The Clash, UB40 and The English Beat. Jamaican music later shaped U.S. bands like No Doubt and Sublime.
Eric Smith, CEO of the New York-based reggae label Easy Star Records, said American bands are succeeding now due to their strong “do-it-yourself” ethos and online marketing, a key to making it in independent music. Unlike some earlier non-Jamaican reggae artists who adopted island patois and themes, they use the genres to highlight their own U.S. culture, not Jamaica’s.
“While we certainly need to respect, understand and celebrate the unique and rich history of Jamaican music and do whatever we can to support it, there is no practical way to stop anyone else from tapping in and drawing something from the culture,” he said.
Few Jamaicans argue there is any troubling cultural appropriation going on with foreign artists who embrace their music. Still, local musicians want better opportunities to make money and reach audiences abroad playing the island’s top cultural export.
Just like everywhere else, Jamaican performers have scrambled to offset losses from plunging CD sales when consumers simply download music for free. And while dancehall reggae stars like Sean Paul and Beenie Man have notched international hits over the years, other current Jamaican acts have had difficulty building fan bases overseas due to difficulty securing visas, among other issues.
Jamaican artists say sustained support from the government could give the local music industry a much-needed boost and help prepare musicians to get a greater slice of the international market. There’s high hope for emerging artists like Chronnix, the most prominent member of a burgeoning scene dubbed “reggae revival” whose young artists are building their careers with a savvy understanding of social media.
Jamaica celebrates “reggae month” each February. This year, events included workshops on intellectual property for up-and-coming musicians. The island’s biggest university also recently hosted an international reggae conference, where the global business of reggae was a featured topic.
While non-Jamaican reggae artists are having the most success with the niche genre, Smith and others believe it’s only a matter of time before Jamaicans dominate reggae again.
“Over the years, the popularity of Jamaican music has fallen at times only to give way to a new explosion of creativity and popularity as Jamaica reinvents itself and shows the world once again what a musical powerhouse it is,” Smith said from New York.