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The Science Survey

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The Science Survey

We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

Reggae: More Than a Music Genre

How a mix of cultures and social movements influenced the reggae genre.
Bob Marley ranks as one of the best-selling musicians of all time, with estimated sales of over 75 million records worldwide. (Photo Credit: Bill Fairs / Unsplash)

Other than producing some of the fastest runners in the world, Jamaica is also known for being the birthplace of reggae. Reggae music first emerged in Jamaica in the 1960s. It is a perfect fusion of traditional mento (Jamaican folk music), American Jazz and R&B, calypso, ska, and rocksteady. The first ever reggae song, ‘Do the Reggay’ by Toots and the Maytals, came out in 1968, defining the genre and giving it a name. As demonstrated in its inaugural song, reggae is most recognized for its off-beat and syncopated rhythms. It uses staccato beats, notes that are played quickly and sharply, played on the piano and guitar to create a “jumpy” feel.

Reggae serves as a powerful voice for social and political issues, addressing oppression, inequality, and resistance. It has become a globally recognized genre outside of the Caribbean — particularly in Britain, the United States, and Africa — influencing diverse musical styles worldwide. Not only is reggae known as a unique form of music, but it can also be seen as a cultural phenomenon. Reggae’s messages of love, unity, and social justice resonate with audiences across the world, inspiring movements for change and empowerment. Despite being formally established over fifty years ago, reggae continues to have influence and importance globally.

One of the earlier styles of music seen in Jamaica was mento. Mento draws on traditions brought by enslaved West African people, who were required to play music for their masters in return for rewards. It is a style of folk music that uses Creole, African, and European influences, and set the stage for the emergence of other music styles like ska and reggae.

Ska differed from mento by combining Jamaican folk music with calypso, which is a form of music from Trinidad and Tobago. The calypso style usually has highly rhythmic and harmonic vocals while typically being sung in French Creole. When you slow down ska, mix it with Caribbean, African, and European music, and add some spiritual elements, you’ll get music resembling reggae.

One contribution to Jamaica’s evolving music was its political scene. By the mid-1900s, the Jamaica Labor Party (JPL) and the People’s National Party (PNP) emerged, paving the way for their independence. In 1962, Jamaica declared independence from the United Kingdom. Following their independence, the country saw socialism ideals rise to reduce concerns of poverty and inequality. Independence empowered Jamaicans to shape their own destiny, creating a strong sense of nationalism and pride.

Additionally, Jamaica had a history of social and religious reform prior to the reformed activism seen in the 60s. In the 1930s, the Rastafari movement began in Jamaica, seen as a blend of spiritual, cultural, and social activism influenced by African spiritual traditions and Christianity. Rastafarians believe in the divinity of Emperor Haile Selassie I, who they commonly refer to as “Jah.” They follow principles like respecting nature, living simply, and avoiding materialism, leading to them sticking to a natural diet and staying away from alcohol and other substances, except for the ceremonial use of cannabis.

Reggae music plays a central role in the Rastafarian culture. Its peaceful and social justice tones paint it as sacred music for the Rastafarians. Many lyrics in reggae works stem from Rastafarian interpretations of the Bible and relate to longing for freedom from oppression and a return to Africa. This message connects with audiences globally, especially those who identify with struggles against injustice and oppression.

A well-known example of Rastafari sentiment in reggae music is Bob Marley & The Wailers’ song ‘Exodus.’ This song features a chorus with the lyrics, “Exodus, movement of Jah people.” The phrase refers to “Jah,” their god, and suggests that Rastafarians are on a journey led by divine guidance. It symbolizes the Rastafarian longing for spiritual and physical liberation from oppression and bondage.

Additionally, Bob Marley’s grandson, YG Marley, continues to carry on his legacy, infusing his own music with Rastafarian ideals, such as in the song ‘Praise Jah in the Moonlight,’ which continues to gain popularity on social media platforms like TikTok.

Through his music, Bob Marley not only became a global icon but also a symbol of hope and empowerment for generations to come.

Bob Marley, born in 1945 in Jamaica, grew up in poverty but used his passion for music as comfort and motivation. In the late 1950s, he moved to Kingston, the capital of Jamaica, and formed The Wailers, a band with his friends Bunny Livingston (Neville Livingston) and Peter Tosh (Winston Hubert McIntosh). He and his band members created powerful music influenced by Rastafarian beliefs, consequently becoming symbols of hope and unity for the oppressed internationally. Throughout the 70s, Bob Marley & The Wailers rose to fame globally with their songs ‘No Woman, No Cry’ and ‘One Love.’

Despite facing near death from an assassination attempt in 1976, Marley continued to protest for peace for people around the world. One of Bob Marley’s most notable contributions to activism was his performance at the One Love Peace Concert in 1978, where he united opposing political leaders in Jamaica during a time of civil war.

Bob Marley’s life was tragically cut short at 38 years old when he passed away due to cancer.

Notwithstanding his premature passing, his music and legacy continue to inspire millions.

Most recently, Paramount Pictures released Bob Marley: One Love in the U.S. on February 14th, 2024, a biopic film based on Marley’s life, starring Kingsley Ben-Adir. Although some critics believe the portrait of Marley in this film wasn’t accurate, others applaud the extent that which Marley was represented as a powerful influence. “If the movie succeeds at anything, it’s in capturing Marley’s lingering spell on fans. The wall-to-wall music makes you want to crank him up even louder on the way home,” said New York Times reporter Amy Nicholson. Additionally, some audience members think this movie captures Marley’s passion for social justice.

Marley’s blend of reggae music with spiritual and political lyrics established a model for generations of reggae artists to follow. Today, musical artists often are inspired by his music and activism to address social justice issues in their works.

Other than its influence politically and socially, reggae is accredited for shaping diverse musical styles around the world. It has specifically impacted rock and pop music, where artists use its rhythms, instrumentation, and vocal styles in their own songs. Additionally, reggae also has an influence on hip hop and rap, typically seen by integrating reggae beats and socially conscious lyrics relating to current event issues.

Beyond its influence on music, reggae has also made a significant impact on fashion and art. The vibrant red, gold, and green colors of the Rastafarian flag, as well as the style of dreadlocks, inspired fashion trends worldwide. Furthermore, reggae’s iconic message of love and unity against oppression has shaped artistry in many forms, such as visual art, graffiti, and street art.

Reggae’s influence on other music genres and its impact on fashion and art are a testament to its cultural significance and universal appeal. From its roots in Jamaica to its global reach, reggae continues to inspire creativity, foster cultural exchange, and promote messages of peace, love, and unity across the world.

Reggae’s influence on other music genres and its impact on fashion and art are a testament to its cultural significance and universal appeal. From its roots in Jamaica to its global reach, reggae continues to inspire creativity, foster cultural exchange, and promote messages of peace, love, and unity across the world.

About the Contributor
Aviv Kotok, Staff Reporter
Aviv Kotok is a Copy Chief and Social Media Editor for ‘The Science Survey.’ She finds that the most appealing part of journalistic writing is the research involved in producing an article since it allows her to delve deeper into a topic in which she is interested. Her favorite topics to report on are music and sports. She loves journalistic photography because it gives her the ability to capture different viewpoints from varying perspectives. Outside of school, Aviv is found crocheting, reading, playing lacrosse, listening to music and playing musical instruments, or spending time with her friends and family. She is not certain as to what she will pursue after high school, but she aims to explore the intersection of STEM and humanities and hopes to incorporate journalism in this process.