dinsdag 2 september 2014

Animal references

It is much easier to show compassion to animals. They are never wicked.”

~ Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia

It is a common question I encounter regularly, at least in the Netherlands, where I live. “What do you like more: dogs or cats?”. This very question reflects the two main “pet animals” common in the Netherlands, but of course also in many other Western and other countries.

I have tried to answer this question for myself, and I have concluded that I am more a cat person than a dog person. Admittedly, for the basic, quite superficial reason that I find cats prettier to look at, and more pleasant to touch or have near. Perhaps there is even a reason beyond this: I find their behaviour more funny, and at the same time more “trustworthy” in some way. All this is subjective, and others may prefer dogs or other animals they know better.

In any case, I think it is interesting to focus a bit more on animals for me: from my perspective. This follows on a period that I increased my interest and focus on natural life in a more detailed sense. Although I might have been an “early adapter” to the environmental consciousness movement earlier in my life, and always loved healthy, natural landscapes.. it stayed somewhat abstract, detached, if you will, from actual animals – large and small – on the ground and in natural environments. Yet, those living beings keep nature going: think for instance of the important function of bees and their pollination in maintaining natural balance.


I was in this regard probably partly influenced by my upbringing. Like more cultures in the world, the cultures where my parents came from – Italy and Spain – were up to the 1990s not very “pet-minded”. Many of our Dutch neighbours had dogs, some cats, and some for some reason even hamsters. We only had little birdies – parakeets – in a cage for a time. Cats sometimes entered our backyard.

Like in for instance Caribbean and Latin American cultures, there were in Spain and Italy – especially in rural areas or outer parts of towns – dogs or cats that somehow were owned by people and loosely connected to particular houses, but they were rarely allowed inside the house, unless for purely functional reasons: cats to chase bothersome mice and rats for instance. Hugging pets too long, or even having pets “chilling” or “hanging” with you on the couch, or on your bed – common in e.g. Britain, the US, or the Netherlands - was in more Southern Europe long unheard of. This began to change – I understood - by the 1990s, when pets became more common as house-mates in South Europe. In some parts of Spain, having small pet dogs was for a time a trend, or distinctive custom, among particularly gay men (don’t ask me why), but it became more widespread among heterosexuals as well.

Likewise, elsewhere in the world, in e.g. Africa and the Caribbean animals were – even if connected to a household – long seen as especially functional, and only in a later instance affectionately. This is similar throughout parts of Europe – like I just explained – as well as most of Asia, Oceania, Latin America, Africa, and other parts. The “house pet” in the Western, domestic sense is in that sense rather exceptionally confined to North West Europe and the Anglo-Saxon world. At least, it was for a long time.

Photo: a stray goat in the town of Falmouth in Jamaica. I took this photo in 2008.

Yoruba proverb:

Àìrí èyàn, la ńpe ajá ní àwé. / It's the absence of anyone around that one calls a dog a friend.

[In the absence of the preferred, the available becomes a choice]

All this – of course – does not exclude affection between humans with certain animals, also in those non-pet minded cultures. There are enough historical examples of this, such as from Ancient Egypt. An affectionate bond between a person and a particular cat, dog, or in Africa of humans with a strong bond with particular lions, zebras, monkeys, antelopes etcetera. It is all known and recorded throughout history.


In virtually all human cultures, symbolic meanings have been attached to animals. On a metaphorical level, so to speak. Animals are in most world cultures compared to humans, as model or “archetypical”, to teach philosophical lessons to human beings. Here is for instance an interesting article on the traditional meanings attached to animals in traditional Yoruba (Nigeria and around) culture.


Relatedly of course, the Yoruba have many sayings/proverbs figuring elephants, lions, snakes, ants, and other animals common in Yorubaland and Africa, and - as known – proverbs are meant to convey philosophical or moral lessons to humans.

Yoruba proverb:

Kékéré àjànàkú kì í ṣe ẹgbẹ́ ẹkùn. / A diminutive elephant is no peer to a leopard.

[Appearance can be deceptive]

Further, in the Akan culture of Ghana there is the oral fable tradition around the “trickster” Anansi spider: a spider outsmarting other animals through his wit, and with human characteristics. This also has a symbolic function, teaching young humans about life. To be expected: the Akan, like the Yoruba and other African peoples, also have many proverbs with animal references, such as these ones.

The rain wets the leopard's spots but does not wash them off.” (meaning: a person’s nature is not changed by circumstances)

The tsetse-fly is perched on the tortoise's back in vain.” (about something being futile).


It is on this symbolic and metaphorical meaning of and reference to animals that I will mainly focus on from now on. I do this, however, connecting it with two of my main interests: reggae music and Rastafari.

I can focus on reggae lyrics – and I will -, and I have already some songs I like in my mind referencing certain animals.

Reggae is in part influenced by the Rastafari movement, like reggae originated in the Caribbean island of Jamaica. The lion is an important symbol within Rastafari, as is more widely known. Moreover, there is also the idea of “natural livity”, the balance of humans with nature, that is a very important notion within the Rastafari movement and worldview, alongside the focus on Black empowerment and Africa (and of course Marcus Garvey and Haile Selassie). How does this “natural livity” - and the fact that many Rastas are vegetarian as well – relate to actual symbolic references made to animals? I find this an interesting topic.

Not just the focus on nature and Livity, but also the Africa-centricity of Rastafari is interesting in relation to this. The fauna in Jamaica is mostly different from that in the African motherland, where the Jamaicans’ foreparents were stolen from: African animals as elephants, lions, antelopes, giraffes, zebras etcetera are not indigenous to the Caribbean, and can maybe only be seen for real in zoos. Other animal species are spread throughout different continents, of course: monkeys, alligators, birds, ants, by now dogs (also common in Africa now), cats, goats, chicken, crabs etcetera.

Analysing reggae lyrics by Rastafari-adhering artists is one way to get insight on Rastas’ reference to different types of animals, and their meaning.


The lion as an important symbol in the Rastafari movement can be related to one of the names Haile Selassie took on with his coronation as Emperor of Ethiopia in 1930: Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah. That the lion is the national symbol of Ethiopia, and is known as an African animal, perhaps further stimulated this symbolic use amongst the Rastas.

What might have stimulated it as well is the historical use of the lion as symbol of strength and ferociousness. It also is known as the “king” of the animal kingdom. Oddly enough this strength symbol of lions was adopted soon by many European nations as well. It is quite strange, when one thinks about it, why this (mainly) African animal became that important as national symbol for several European nations, even far up north (Scandinavia). Whereas eagles, bears, or wolves were more common and indigenous to Europe – and were also used as symbols in Europe - they became partly replaced by the lion as forceful symbol of a nation. That the bear had once this symbolic function as well in Europe can be deduced from the etymology of e.g. the place names Berlin or Bern.. both from the word for bear. Historians also say that the Spanish common surname García is originally Basque, and derives from a Basque (North-Spain and South West-France) word for “bear”, (as in “strong guy”). The word “garçon” for “boy/young man” in French – borrowed in English to mean "waiter" - has a related, Aquitanian/Basque origin.

The following list from Wikipedia is instructive: some “national animals” were chosen to be so because they are indigenous and typical within a country, others not (see e.g. Netherlands, the English ones, Luxembourg, Belgium, with regard to the “lion”).


Anyhow, the lion as Rastas use it has this reference to strength, but at the same time to Africa, and to Haile Selassie, giving it a wider, historical meaning, also for recuperating “identity” after historical oppression. It is used by Rastas at times to refer to oneself as a strong African, but also to refer to fellow Rastas, male or female (lions, lionesses), as terms of endearment so to speak.

These lion as a symbol replaced – some say – the Anansi (fable spider) figure, an Akan heritage also found in Jamaican folklore. Anansi is a trickster spider that through his cunning was benefited or got out of situations. While in some sense rebellious, Anansi represented at the same time an amoral model: selfish, and fooling already poor, downtrodden figures/animals as well when he wanted to or benefited from this, and not just mightier parties. The lion by contrast represented a “regal”, and more moral model – as well as a stronger and more independent image - that Rastas preferred over the trickster spider known in Jamaican folklore.

In a more negative way “wolves” recur also quite often in Rasta symbolic vocabulary. Though also strong and ferocious as animals, for which an unarmed human is no match, this is not regarded in a sense of dignity or pride. Wolves are discussed as mere predators: rapacious, murderous, treacherous, and opportunistic. The most common use in Rasta speech of “wolves” is therefore of “fake Rastas”, or other conmen, adding to wolves ..”in sheep’s clothing”, from the known saying. Devouring and preying on the symbolic “sheep” representing true Rastas and “Jah Jah children”.

Beyond the lion-wolf-sheep contradictory trio, many more animals are recurringly mentioned in reggae lyrics.


Ask any Caribbean person who went to live in Britain or the Netherlands – or whose parents had - , and most probably you’ll hear the same: they did not have the pet culture in the Caribbean, and were once somewhat surprised by the intimate in-house bonds of some native Dutch or British persons with their dogs or other pets. Animals as such were of course there however in the Caribbean, and seen as a part of life, especially in rural areas.

Many reggae artists hail from rural areas or know the country, or have known animals in some urban parts. While reggae developed in urban Kingston ghettos such as Trench Town, these ghettos were inhabited by migrants from rural areas. So, many reggae artists were born Kingstonians – city slickers, you might say - , but just as many of them had rural family or personal ties. Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, Bunny Wailer, the Itals, Ijahman Levi, just to name some, as well as later artists Bushman, Anthony B, Fantan Mojah, Luciano a.o., all were born or grew up in part on the country. Besides this, many Kingstonians got more attention to the rural and natural living – and self-sufficient farming - after “sighting” Rastafari (becoming Rastafari adherent): the already mentioned natural Livity idea.


This is relevant, I think, because these artists write lyrics from their own life experiences. This includes often poor ghetto living, but also rural settings. Though large-scale cultivation reminds of the slavery days and sugar plantations, small-scale or self-sufficient farming is mostly discussed positively by many reggae (and Rasta) artists. Many proverbs with animals in Jamaica seem to stem from the older popular peasantry tradition: “chicken merry..hawk deh near” is such a proverb, also found in reggae lyrics. It means: the chicken is merry, but does not know the hawk to slaughter it is nearby: meaning: not seeing things coming, being unaware of the situation..

In the Jamaican Creole language (also known as ‘Patois’) there are overall quite some proverbs involving animals. Some are comparable to ones found in English, or are derived from these, but there are many “own” sayings and proverbs as well. Like I mentioned before, the fauna in the Caribbean is partly different from the African motherland, and many seem to stem from farm life,..farm animals like cows, mules, and chicken recur in Jamaican proverbs. Also, dogs and cats recur often in these proverbs, later common pets (as mentioned) in countries like Britain. There are however also proverbs with monkeys, snakes, and lions, that perhaps have African origins.


The higher the monkey climbs, it is the more he will expose”, is an interesting Jamaican proverb. It means that when you “climb” socially, you get under more scrutiny.

Another common Jamaican proverb, also recurring in several reggae lyrics, refers to the also very urban mouse. “Fire deh a mus-mus tail..Im tink a cool breeze”: literal translation: the fire is close to the mouse’s tail, but the mouse thinks it is just a cool breeze. This also means that someone is unaware of what is to come.

These last two proverbs have a somewhat comparable meaning, pointing at changes in society and the need for consciousness, common in socially conscious reggae lyrics, of course.

Like in the Yoruba ideas in the article I referred to before, the Akan Anansi spider tales, but also in other cultures in the world, “animal rights” as such are not so much recognized as some would want, but animals are still symbolically and philosophically equalled with human beings: what can happen to them can happen to humans as well. This can be considered as a form of humanization. They are used as models to learn from, in that sense. Also many European proverbs with animals have that equalling or humanizing of animals of course, and had that long before something like “animal rights” were even considered in Europe. Animal behaviour as lessons or warnings for human mistakes is in other words common to many cultures globally.


The Livity idea – living in balance with nature, and eating no meat/fish - is widespread among Rastafari adherents. It is not unanimously practiced or required, but Rastafari does not have that much strict, centralized rules. It is highly valued though. The Twelve Tribes mansion among Rastafari is often looser on diet issues, for instance, even eating chicken and other meat and fish at times.

Many Rastafari are vegetarian however, and that is of course relevant for this post. To be more accurate, these Rastas prefer Ital food, which is broader than just the vegetarian not eating of meat or fish. Ital food should be really natural, and unprocessed, like raw fruit.

Nothing weh mi eat it nah bawl” sings reggae artist Bushman on his song “Fire Pon A Deadas”. The term “deadas” of the title is a disparaging term Rastas use meaning flesh: since animals were killed for it. The respect for life of animals is of course a praiseworthy attitude in societies where “animal rights” are under-recognized, or hypocritically dealt with, as in Western cultures.

The Rastas that eat meat or fish attach, again, some humanizing symbols to animals, even when eaten. There is a partly Biblical influence (no pork, shellfish, Levitical code), traditional African beliefs (in the avoidance of salt, for instance), and other rules on the animal characteristics. For that reason, Rastas avoid eating types of fish or other animals known as “predators”, for a possible infectious influence on humans eating them.


There is one contradictory aspect though. Hand drumming is also valued much by Rastafari adherents. The Kete drums are used for Nyahbinghi gatherings, including drumming and chanting, which are quite crucial “groundation” moments for many Rastafari communities. Besides Kete drums – based on Akan/Ghanaian Akete drum types - other drums recur as well, such as from the Congo-based Kumina Afro-folk tradition in Jamaica, djembes, or the Afro-Cuban (but based on African models, of course) congas or bongos. Most of these drums have heads made of animal hides. Maybe these skins were used after the animals’ natural deaths, but it is not known for sure. Kete drums tend to use goat skin, as do djembes, while sheep skin, cow skin (congas, mostly, and also bigger bass drums in nyabinghi), or buffalo skin (e.g. bongos) is also used. Historically in Africa, cow and goat skin, but further also antelope skin was much used for drum skins.

Nowadays synthetic drumheads exist, but many Rastas prefer traditional drums, also those who are vegetarian: with hides/skins of (killed?) animals. This is not hypocritical, I think, but can better be called ironic or inconsistent. I use the term “hypocritical” more for the “deceiving” manipulation of people with power, in higher social positions.

It is somewhat inconsistent though – using animal hides but not eating meat -, but “pro-nature” consistency is difficult if wooden materials are used, for drums or otherwise: trees have often to be cut for it.

Interesting is how traditionally in Nyahbinghi drumming sessions among Rastafari, animal hides are selected. The drums called “fundeh” (often mid-sized kete type drums), tend to give the “life line”, basic (heart) beat rhythms, with little variation. The variating role is much more there for the “repeater” drum, a kete that is a bit smaller/shorter in length (often also the diameter of the skin), and played for more varying, improvizing rhythmic patterns. Both these drums tend to have goat skins. Some Rastas – such as known drummer Count Ossie - believe, however, that for the head of the “basic beat” Fundeh a male (ram) goat should be used, and a female (ewe) goat for the Repeater head. This relates to the – compared to the male - more and varied - and higher-pitched - noises the female goat apparently makes when alive, thus fitter for the Repeater drum function. Animal characterizations also here, haha.

Even though a smaller head diameter and specific tuning – as well as length of the drum - influences the different pitch between drums, e.g. the fundeh and repeater (the latter is often tuned tighter), as well, different animal hides do have different sonic/tonal effects. That’s why for bigger, bass drums – as the big Nyahbinghi “Thunder” drum – the skin of cow (or sheep) tends to be used.

Photo: Me (Michel) playing with others during a Nyahbinghi session in a park in Amsterdam, Netherlands (2014). I sit around the middle (red sweater, yellow trousers) and play a Fundeh. The man on the right of me plays a Repeater (with a somewhat smaller drumhead size)


The Rastafari movement is Afro-centric, focussed on the African continent as the roots of kidnapped Black people in the West. “I won’t give up a continent for an island”, as Alton Ellis (and Hugh Mundell) sung, both now deceased reggae singers. The lived experience, however, is the Caribbean, and therefore specifically African animals are not mentioned very much, especially in Jamaican proverbs, though there are some examples. Also apart from the lion, that is.

Some African proverbs or tales (Anansi) have survived in the Americas, but many are derived from European languages or English, referring often to animals more common in Europe, and the Caribbean itself. Dogs, horses, wolves, cows, bulls, chicken, roosters etcetera. In other cases, proverbs come from Caribbean farm lands. Not much giraffes, elephants, or zebras in the wild there.. Sometimes, African (non-lion) animals are mentioned: leopards, elephants, as well as animals found on several continents. Bees, ants, birds, mules, monkeys etcetera, are all indigenous (in different subspecies) in both Africa and the Caribbean. The donkey is even originally African, they say. And the cat is, by the way, historically a domesticated version of the African wildcat.

More than fauna distribution, the symbolic use of animals is relevant here, also in (message) lyrics that characterizes much reggae, especially Rastafari-influenced reggae.

Thus contextualized, it’s now time to discuss examples of the reference to animals and their mostly symbolic meanings in reggae lyrics.


I will especially pay attention to Roots Reggae lyrics, with Rastafari influence, since the 1970s. This way I can bring reggae and Rastafari together in one thematic whole.

One side of Rastafari is the Bible, and a new interpretation of it, from a Black, African perspective. Though there are increasing numbers of Rastafari thinkers who opine that the Bible or Christian derivatives are over-emphasized in the Rastafari movement (Mutabaruka, for instance), the Bible still is overall important in the movement as a reference point.

This is also the case in reggae lyrics. The Congos’ ‘Ark of the Covenant’, refers to the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark, discussing different types of animals, saved on that ark, “even the ants”. Producer Lee Perry added cow sounds to the music for good measure.


The lion symbol recurs a lot throughout Roots Reggae, and New Roots lyrics. The song ‘Man A Lion’ by Bushman discusses it, ‘Black Lion’ by Jah Lloyd (a.k.a. Jah Lion). Burning Spear’s sings on ‘Lion’ (on the Man In the Hills album, 1976) not to kill the lion. The Itals sing ‘Don’t Wake the Lion’ (1976). Bob Marley sings about being “Iron like the Lion in Zion” (Ethiopia).

Dee-jay I-Roy also has a great song called ‘Heart of a Lion’ (1978) on this theme, from also a Rastafari perspective. Its interesting rhythmic and lyrical variation by the way proving that deejaying/toasting is a genuine art form (and not just someone talking over existing music).. but that’s another issue..

The Lion, especially in the phrase Conquering Lion, refers to Selassie, but the animal itself is also discussed as such, though also as symbol and animal at the same time.

On a more recent – energetic – tip: another example is a digital dancehall song ‘Lion Fi Roar’ (2002) by Sizzla.


References to the lion as Rasta symbol in reggae (including some dancehall) lyrics are overall too numerous to mention. The same can be said of the more negative use of the term “wolves” or “wolves in sheep clothing”. Dennis Brown talks about the evil by symbolic ‘Wolves and Leopards’ against sheep, in the song of that name (1977) , while Fred Locks also sings that wolves should leave the sheep alone (‘Wolf, wolf’, 1976) . Dee-jay Big Youth has a tune with the title ‘Wolf in Sheep Clothing’, but other reggae artists have similar song titles with “wolves” (Cornell Campbell, I Kong, Steel Pulse, the Abyssinians a.o.). I myself mention it in the last verse of my song ‘Rastafari Live On’ (Michel Conci, 2012).

Too much to mention – the wolf -, in titles or somewhere in lyrics, like the lion. Maybe for that reason it is interesting to discuss examples that are a bit more rare or (almost) unique. Original, some might say, though something that is not original can still be true.

Yami Bolo’s ‘Officials are like Locust’ (1994) a good song and good music led by Sly & Robbie, is an example of the use of a less commonly mentioned animal, in this case in a negative way. ‘Leopards’ in Dennis Brown’s well-known ‘Wolves and Leopards’ is in that sense also relatively “original”. Max Romeo compares foolish, aggressive raiding by police to ‘Three Blind Mice’ in the known song of that name. Mice indeed seem fast and nervous from our, human perspective, because their hearts pump blood faster, somebody told me once.

I liked the also quite original ode to the industrious, working Bee on the song by new artist Colah Colah called ‘The Bees’ (2012), a nice version on an old Studio One riddim, with a nice video as well, I think. Colah Colah even discusses the natural relationships between bees and other animals, like wasps, roaches, and rats.

From a ghetto, urban perspective, Mutabaruka talks about “roaches and rats take over the flat”, as indicative of poverty in the ghetto love song ‘Hard Times Loving’ (1983). Another early dancehall artist took on the odd, somehow funny moniker/artist name White Mice. Overall, however, in several (Rastafari-inspired) Roots Reggae lyrics, mice or rats are mostly presented as negative or at least as hindrance, perhaps predictable, due to the very behaviour of rats/mice: fast, and parasitic by gnawing on what humans leave – teeth of rodents grow faster than the rest of their body - while avoiding contact with humans. This causes irritation in several human cultures, although I have known about people who find rats actually “cute”.

In less Rastafari-inspired reggae, such as parts of Dancehall, such monikers from “fierce” animals recur as monikers: think of the artists Tiger, Super Cat, and the funny name Mad Cobra. The artist name Eek-a-Mouse sounds fun, but refers not to a mouse, but to a race-horse the artist once betted on. He lost the bets on this horse, so his friends jokingly named him after that horse. Eek-a-Mouse called himself now “mouse” by the way too, as his artist name has taken hold.

Locusts, wolves, leopards are animals used as metaphors of negative, evil human behaviour. Also ravens, vultures (lyrics by Israel Vibration for instance), hyena’s (e.g. in a song by Apple Gabriel) are used as negative, devouring symbols in lyrics. The devil (as force of evil) is in some lyrics described as a “cunning fox”.

The lion is a positive symbol, there was an ode to the bee, but also other animals are referred to in a positive sense, as positive examples for humans to learn from. Burning Spear’s ‘Elephants’ (who unlike humans take good care of each other), or ants that live in unity (unlike humans) as in the lyrics of Culture’s ‘Chanting On’ (1989).

Then there are of course the many sayings/proverbs in Jamaican Patois, which I discussed earlier, that made the way in the lyrics of these Jamaican reggae artists. Example: “high seat kill miss Thomas puss” (Puss = cat in Patois), about thinking oneself unrealistically too high in social standing, the “greedy dog that lost its bone” (both mentioned in the Israel Vibration song ‘Greedy Dog’). “Fire deh a mus-mus tail, im tink a cool breeze” (I discussed already) recurs in lyrics of several reggae songs. Further, the saying “Too much rat never dig good hole” (having too many doing the same thing is counterproductive) is in a lyric of the group the Itals (song ‘Kill Crime’, 1983). Gregory Isaacs (and others) sing: “the higher the monkey climbs, the more he will expose”, which I also already discussed before.

The well-known song ‘Maga Dog’ by Peter Tosh (the Wailers) also refers to a Jamaican proverb/saying, mentioned in one of the links I gave earlier. Literally: if you help/feel sorry for a maga (thin) dog, he still can bite you.. it is about ungrateful people after you helped them.

In fact, I found that with more knowledge of Jamaican sayings (in Jamaican Creole/Patois) – in this case including animal references - I got to understand the precise meaning of many reggae lyrics a bit better as well. Educational!


The symbolic use of animals in reggae lyrics thus has in a broad sense similarities with many other world cultures. It is furthermore Biblical and also Western (British) influenced – the latter in sometimes “European” animals used in expressions -, though with some African influences, and an own Africa-oriented interpretation. Animals are discussed as proud and strong symbols of a people and king or leader (as in several cultures, world wide): notably the lion. You might even say that Rastas “re-appropriate” the African lion symbol, after the lion has been appropriated by non-African peoples (in Europe as well as parts of Asia). Certain animals in reggae lyrics further represent the evil within humans, and in a more practical sense as having behaviour that can be used to educate humans by focussing on the essential. This is also found in several cultures globally, including ancestral Africa.

On a positive note (at least for animal lovers): all the while, there is an ongoing comparison between animals and humans that at least connect the human and animal worlds structurally. Lyrics do seldom set animals apart as abstract, strange beings, but rather as part of a natural whole with humans. Reggae lyrics overall do neither emphasize so much animals’ supposed “inferiority” to, or mere functionality for, humans, perhaps less than elsewhere in the world or in other genres. Overall these lyrics tend more toward equality or at least respect for the life of animals, and not just humans. This probably reflects somehow the connection with the natural world and Livity influencing Rastas.

There is in this sense in part a parallel with the article on Yoruba views on animals, I linked to earlier in this post: including in the fact that animals are like humans imbued with divinity, sharing the same life force.

vrijdag 1 augustus 2014

Reviews reviewed: the "aura of neutrality" and Colin Grant's biography 'Negro with a hat' on Marcus Garvey

Reviewing work by others is a multifaceted, complex issue. In this day and age, with mass media, broadly developed publishing and journalism, extensively developed cultural sectors and industries - especially in wealthy societies -, it is perhaps unavoidable that new works - be it biographical books, fictional and nonfictional books, music albums, films, or concerts - are scanned and discussed (opinionatedly). This is typically done by experts (or self-declared experts) on certain matters and fields, through mass media.

I guess this has – like so much in this world – pros and cons. Pros: there is much being published and offered, with new releases regularly, that even aficionado’s with relatively narrow interests cannot keep up. A review might just stimulate a choice to check out a book, writer, or artist. It can make curious and trigger interest. The simple fact is that you don’t have the time in one lifetime to check everything yourself that somehow interests you. The plethora of reviews might give you a hint what to choose/select from the bunch of cultural offers.

A main con of reviews, on the other hand, is that they are exactly that: “reviews”. That is: by definition opinionated; else it would be a summary or “abstract”. No, a review is an opinion by a person who for some reason got “authority” in a specific field, recognized by others around him/her, including his/her employers. This is especially the case when these reviewers work for big, well-known newspapers like the New York Times, or other big newspapers, journals, or journals with smaller, but demanding readerships, such as academic journals. Even this seems reasonable in some sense: if – by way of example – someone has studied and researched for over 20 years the Irish-British author Oscar Wilde, in a scholarly, profound manner, even including field work, and has read all previous biographies on Wilde, it is perhaps not a bad choice to let this person give an opinion on a new biography that appeared on Oscar Wilde. His opinions would then be well-informed.

However, at a deeper level even this can be problematic as well, because reviews are, again, opinionated. Academic researchers – and reviewers among them – might have the aura of neutrality. They have a purely rational, balanced, yet opinionated focus. The problem with this is that this is humanly impossible. In the whole wide world there is not one – not one! – human being who is fully able to detach oneself from oneself, so to speak. To have a rational, neutral analysis separate from one’s own personality, history, and biases. The selection of facts, and way to interpret these facts can only partly (if at all) be separated from deeply entrenched personal biases. One can – admirably – strive for balance or neutrality, that can be reached only to a degree.

I myself read reviews of music, albums, books (fictional and nonfictional), concerts, theatre plays, films, or television programmes. Besides this, I actually write reviews myself: for my blog (music, films, and books) and for other sites (of reggae albums mostly). So, I have to face these pros and cons of reviewing as well. I like to write, and in writing I also try to cultivate humbleness. This can be solved in writing by adding words indicating that it is “my” opinion, and with what I (with my knowledge and history) am able and willing to compare works. Terms like “In my opinion..” or “I find..” and “I think..” are very useful in this regard.

Not all reviews seem to have this overt humility, and I admit that I also have enjoyed reviews that are very humorous, though not seemingly modest or humble. I then find them “over the top” in a funny way. A reggae reviewer once said about a song on an album he found overall mediocre (and which he found less in quality than others by that artist): “the less said about this song, the better..”. This appears to be a harsh, arrogant, personal opinion about other people’s artistic effort, but is at the same time a funny way to put it. That compensates somehow.


I delve into this theme of “reviewing”, because I got curious about the critiques or “reception” of a book I personally appreciated very much. A pleasant and informative read, I found it to be. I am talking about ‘Negro with a hat : the rise and fall of Marcus Garvey’, a biography of Marcus Garvey – the Jamaican-born Black Power thinker and activist -, written by Colin Grant – a Briton of Jamaican parentage -, and published in 2008.

I understood quite some research for this biographical book has been carried out (secondary and primary research), resulting in a quite voluminous book of about 530 pages. I also liked its quite humorous writing style. Besides this I felt I learned a lot more about the nuances of Marcus Garvey and his movement. The author Grant had proper attention to social, political, and historical contexts, while I felt I got to know the person Marcus Garvey better as well, through his life story.

Specifically, Grant addressed Garvey’s personality, including his contradictions, good character traits, as well as flaws. This made the biography in my opinion all the more “real”. Of course he was a (pro-black) thinker and ideologist, as well as activist – and pioneering and influential at that -, but separating that from his personality is so functionalistic that it becomes artificial and absurd. Thus unconvincing. I know.. many such biographies – called “intellectual biographies” – on the ideas but with only superficial sketches of the person who had them - have appeared, and some I read, but most of these failed to convince me fully. There are, however, interesting philosophies and ideas independent of persons who formulated them, but they did not arise in a vacuum. I think Colin Grant in his 2008 biography on Garvey shows he grasps this unavoidable connection between person and ideas. A matter of credibility, in essence.

It also eases sympathy, at least in my case. Eventual “blind spots”, flaws, contradictions, irresponsibility of Garvey as a person or leader Grant describes as well, alongside “positive” character traits and actions, and certainly his noble goal of uplifting an oppressed people. Realistic, because no human is perfect. In essence it shows Garvey’s humanity: at times irresponsible, spiteful, paranoid, distrustful, even unreasonable.. it is all there.. but are those flaws not latently present in all of us, depending on circumstances? The importance is that you learn from your mistakes to improve yourself, and Garvey - as the “self-made man” par excellence, wanting to help downtrodden Black people forward - did just that: learn to then improve, as he recommended as well to his followers. In that sense he – despite that he was criticized for having a too big ego - showed more self-reflection than other leaders the world has known.

The flaws in his character further did not seem of the truly “wicked” kind to me. Maybe because he was a very honest and direct person, he lost the avenues to really fool or hurt people consciously. Though Garvey himself advised leaders to present themselves well in public and keep certain things private, his talent for hypocrisy proved overall too small. His rotund opinions on some issues could sound harsh in some ears, but inspiring to others: the same is the case with all “innovative” leaders and thinkers: including people like Rousseau, Kant, or Mahatma Ghandi. Or Buddha and Jesus Christ for that matter.

I think it is useful to give my opinion on the work with some argumentation, but before this part turns in a review of Colin Grant’s book (by me, this time), I think it is time to focus on how reviewers in the press and media, the US, Britain and elsewhere responded and discussed this book.

The biography has appeared in English in 2008, and a French translation, by Hélène Lee, has appeared under the title ‘Le Nègre au chapeau’ in October, 2012. The same Lee also wrote the biography on Leonard Howell ‘The first Rasta’. Also Garvey was of course very important for the Afro-centric Rastafari movement, as main inspirer, including of Leonard Howell and all early Rastas of course. Some describe this as a John the Baptist-like function that Garvey had for the Rastafari movement, that first arose in Jamaica in the 1930s.. not long before Garvey’s death in London in 1940 (after a stroke) at the age of 52.

So a French translation has appeared, and not yet in other languages as far as I know, however..the bulk of reviews of ‘Negro with a hat’ I could find were in English, and appeared in US-based, Britain-based, or (Anglophone) Caribbean newspapers and journals. These include the big newspapers Chicago Tribune, New York Times, and the larger British newspapers.

How did these reviewers read the same biography I read? What recurs or differs throughout these reviews, what is remarkable, what is emphasized or ignored? In the remainder of this post I will try to answer such questions..


“Las comparaciones son odiosas” – meaning “comparisons are hateful” - is an interesting Spanish expression, I did not hear yet in other languages. This is interesting, because not just reviews, but all analytical and scholarly work rely partly on comparison. Are all these analysts therefore hateful, or do they simply weigh pros and cons? Either way, I pointed out before that biases are ALWAYS there, even among known scholars who have (and cultivate) an “aura of neutrality”. This is an illusion, though recommendable as a goal.

That the person Garvey, as well as his social ideas and movement, all get attention in Colin Grant’s biography reflects in the reviews I read. Both Garvey as man, and Garvey’s ideas and movement get attention, also in these reviews. Balanced, it seems, but the aspects of his person and his movement that get emphasized at times surprise me somewhat. In some reviews they also annoy me.

The “authoritative” New York Times review (2008) states that the Garvey movement had Fascist characteristics. Inappropriate, I think, not just because I do not want to hear that, but because I read Marcus Garvey’s own writings as well. The recurring humanity in them, his espousal of equality among man kind (beyond racial conflicts), the nuances, despite radical aspects and indeed “collectivistic” aspects of his movement, sets it apart from the basic tenets of Fascism, first developed by Benito Mussolini in 1920s Italy. The context was also different: Italy was then an independent, if relatively young, nation and state. It wanted to make its mark, and perhaps was jealous of the imperial power and pasts of other European countries. Blacks in the time of Garvey, on the other hand, were – simply put – not even free in their own lands of origin in Africa: apart from Ethiopia, and a few other regions, most of Africa was subdivided among and controlled by European colonial powers. Blacks/Africans outside Africa were generally in a dependent and oppressed position. The Garvey movement was therefore an emancipation movement, aimed at acquiring basic human rights. It lacked the cynical (some would say; “male”) power and conquest rationale of Fascism.


This and other parts of the New York Times review – that was overall quite positive on the biography as book, by the way – made me doubt whether the reviewer Paul Devlin has read also ‘The philosophy and opinions of Marcus Garvey’, wherein Garvey relates his own views, and adds some biographical aspects. He might have, I don’t know. Some parts of his review describes the biography well, though his focussing on Garvey’s dealings with the Ku Klux Klan borders on the sensationalistic. It was perhaps an odd move by Garvey, but explainable in some way. Even some African-Americans today prefer the direct, overt racism of white supremacists or less organized “rednecks” over the hidden, hypocritical racism – or “white dominance” equally present among many white Americans, and covertly/hidden present in social and organizational structures. “Better the devil you know and see coming”, so to speak. Instead of this KKK episode, Devlin could have emphasized more Garvey’s pioneering role in giving Black people pride. He somewhat neglects Garvey’s historical significance and legacy.

Another authoritative newspaper, Britain’s The Guardian reviewed the biography a few months before, in February 2008. Maybe because Colin Grant is British himself, reviews appeared earlier in Britain than in the US. The reviewer for the Guardian, Margaret Busby, justly emphasizes Garvey’s pioneering role in black pride, more than Devlin. She summarizes also in a well-balanced way, on the whole. Busby, on the other hand, also mentions some aspects that seem a bit sensationalistic. That he had two wives, and married another one after separating from the first, is not that extraordinary nor immoral. The contributions of these women are more relevant, yet discussed little. Busby – as do other reviews – also mentions the odd circumstance that, after one stroke, some thought mistakenly Garvey had died, while Garvey still could read the premature obituary on himself. Not long after that the fatal stroke came.


Some say that irony/humour and death do exclude one another, yet some of these reviewers – perhaps unwillingly – seek to combine irony/humour and death. It is an anecdote worth telling, perhaps an interesting one, but not a very amusing, or even relevant one. The cause of death was a stroke: why this, and what could have caused this (hereditary, stress, health problems, poverty)? This seems more relevant to me. In the biography his mother died of a stroke as well (or “apoplexy” as it was called), also relatively young. The fun fact of someone reading his own obituary outweighed this crucial biographical detail, apparently.

I must point out, in all fairness, that Busby does not emphasize sensationalism or irrelevant anecdotes too much, and overall I found her review well-written and quite accurate and balanced.

I am also positive about Kevin Le Gendre’s review in The Independent, also published in February 2008. He gives a well-balanced description of the biography, and points – more than other reviewers – to Garvey’s lasting legacy, albeit in abstract terms. Not much I disagree with here, further, and Le Gendre points at the paradoxes in a good way, the opposition against him – note especially the second paragraph of this review.


I think Le Gendre has read Garvey’s own writings, including ‘The philosophy and opinions of Marcus Garvey’. A minor flaw is what became a cliché in reviews on Garvey’s biography: his dealings with the Ku Klux Klan, but I mentioned that already. At least the “obituary-anecdote” is refreshingly absent.

In the short review by Kirkus Reviews (anonymous?) both these clichés recur, but at least Garvey’s “genuine commitment to bettering the lives of blacks” was recognized. It argues, though, or worse: “states”, that this was compromised by Garvey’s outsized ego. As I mentioned elsewhere on this blog (e.g. regarding the biography of James Brown) sometimes things like “bluffing” or “an outsized ego” are nothing more or less than the only way of “survival” in an hostile world.


The extensive review by Eric Arnesen in the Chicago Tribune is actually quite critical, and partly negative. Both regarding Grant’s book as on its subject: Marcus Garvey. I think Arnesen exaggerates Garvey’s character flaws. I do admit Arnesen has some good points of weaknesses in the book, as well as of Garvey and his movement. With some of his conclusions I do not agree, however. I do not think Garvey treated his wives as servants: they were for their times quite independent already, and Garvey respected that. If anything, compared to other intellectuals and leaders from his time (white and black) – or even later times – Garvey seemed relatively more to favour female equality. The later Nation of Islam (partly influenced by the Garvey movement) in the US, had at times a barely disguised “(Black) women should be servants and get out of men’s way” focus – though differing per Nation of Islam-member. Even Malcolm X – who I overall consider to be intelligent and open-minded – in his own writings showed here and there this expectance of female obedience (to Allah/God, and then to men), probably derived from conservative Islam and conservative Christianity. Garvey had this much less.


At most, Garvey tried too much to be rational and practical, neglecting complex and strictly speaking “weakening” and “paralyzing” personal things like affection, emotions, relationships, love, and friendship. That is unfortunate, but understandable with a certain life history : Garvey soon – in his early teens - had to become independent, and in time he developed broader goals for his people, the world, and not just himself. A rational focus seems required for that.


Then there are reviews more aimed at a scholarly and academic public, in more scientific and academic journals. These tend to be more extensive and detailed – as can be expected. The scientific and scholarly world cultivates its “aura of neutrality”, which as I pointed out is in fact an illusion. Yet, many journalists do the same. At least some scholars strive for objective analysis, and that in itself can lead to new, valuable insights.

Huon Wardle of the University of St Andrews wrote a thorough and in itself fine review of Grant’s ‘Negro with a hat’. I find it only unfortunate that Garvey’s lasting legacy is sidelined in it a bit, and that Wardle focuses on his mass support at the time itself. He does not say this, but like that mass support depended more on circumstance or “magic” than on content. I think maybe the message itself was necessary, explaining the mass support, and not just Garvey’s good oratory skills or organizational and promotion capacities. Also, Wardle cannot avoid to go down almost sensationalistic side-paths too: his negotiation with the Ku Klux Klan, or the extraordinary uniforms he wore. Wardle pays much attention to the fact that Garvey was a Jamaican migrant in the US, and that his support included at first many other West Indians. This is only partly relevant, I would say. He soon got much support among African-Americans/US Blacks as well, making his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), by the early 1920s, the biggest mass organization of Blacks the world had yet seen. The attention he pays to the extravagant uniforms UNIA members and Garvey himself does not seem that relevant to me, but I do find interesting how Wardle (unlike other reviewers) draws the connection with the Caribbean carnival tradition of “inverting the order”, not to mimic but to rebel in a playful way.


I do not agree with Wardle at the end of his review, seemingly a conclusion. He wrote: “The sudden explosive growth of the UNIA is an instance where a submerged nexus of utopian ideas and values briefly pierce the membrane of what actually exists and acquire a reality of their own”. This is even derogatory in some sense, and ignores the deeper message and significance of the Garvey movement: black self-determination, a self-determination other races and nations already had. From that line of reasoning “nation” ideas like Netherlands, Italy, Spain, France, United Kingdom, China, USA, India and so on, are likewise “utopian”, as well as political parties or interest groups. Some ideas seemed once temporarily utopian because they were too progressive, different from the status-quo. They remain utopian because they are repressed by the powers that be.

Paul M. Heideman, writing a review on the biography in 2009 for the African-American Review, has some interesting points, I think. Like me, Heideman opined that the contradictions/complexities of Garvey come well to the fore in Grant’s biography, and that it is well- documented, -written and accessible. In addition, Heideman states that Grant “lets these contradictions speak for themselves”, by simply relating Garvey’s actions and reproducing Garvey’s own writings. This lack of authorial explanation has its advantages, but can also be a flaw at times, Heideman states. I agree partly. I also found some explanation lacking in Grant’s book regarding Garvey’s choices; not just regarding Garvey’s distancing from Marxism and the Left over time, but also his enigmatic religious choices. Garvey became Roman Catholic – while raised Methodist - , called himself even Catholic, despite his own critique that religious sculptures of Jesus and others in Catholic churches looked white and European. The irony is that Roots Reggae lyrics by Rastafari-adhering artists mention Garvey a lot positively, but also often criticize Rome and Catholicism (or mainstream Christianity). Some Rastafari-adherents might deplore Garvey’s adherence to Catholicism, others may explain it historically, but Grant unfortunately does not pay much attention to Garvey’s religious choices. Maybe, no information or sources were available on it, that is possible.


Anyhow, I found Heideman’s review all in all okay and balanced, albeit a bit limited in scope.

In the Caribbean Reviews of Books journal, Jeremy Taylor reviewed the biography in 2008. Quite critically, and not in all aspects positively. I do appreciate how Taylor does pay sufficient attention to Garvey’s historical influence and legacy, especially in the final part of his review.


Some aspects he found missing in Grant’s biography, I found missing as well, such as religious issues. The pop song Garvey wrote while imprisoned in Atlanta (1923-1927) could further equally receive more attention in Grant’s book.


It would recur partly in lyrics of some reggae songs, such as this one by the Twinkle Brothers (‘Give Rasta Praise’ from 1975): a few lines are taken from this pop song Garvey wrote (and named ‘Keep Cool’).

Jacob Dorman, at the University of Kansas, wrote a review of ‘Negro with a hat’ that was critical and even more negative. He even made me doubt if I read the biography that well, and if Dorman might indeed be right, if I look at the book in another way. I think this is only partly the case, because Dorman failed to note a main theme in the biography: the idea of the “self-made man” that Garvey represented. I think Grant really aimed at showing contradictions and complexities of Garvey, and did not aim at a negative portrayal.


Certainly, Garvey could be harsh, right-wing in some issues, sided sometimes with the wrong persons, was at times insensitive, inconsistent even theoretically, or mistaken. He was human and could make mistakes. Another glorified and influential self-made man, Henry Ford, also had inhumane, harsh, right-wing, and even anti-Semitic ideas, if one checks it out. Worse than the worst statements of Garvey, who overall at least seemed to believe in equality of races and people, despite criticizing some ethnic groups generally at times during moments of frustration.

Dorman misses the deeper layer: the story of someone starting with nothing, belonging to a poor oppressed race in a poor, marginal land, working himself up to lead a Black mass movement in the US by the late 1910s. A pioneer that inspired other, later Black leaders, influenced partly by his ideas but going beyond that.

The Rastafari movement – a “Black Power movement with a theological nucleus” (dixit Mutabaruka) is described as “using Garvey to go beyond Garvey”. After all, Garvey was Catholic, more European/British influenced in his cultural tastes, even colonially influenced, and Garvey even became critical of Haile Selassie, the main, revered person within Rastafari. Garvey applauded the coronation of Selassie in 1930, but later criticized in harsh terms as “cowardice” the strategy of Selassie in dealing with the invasion by Fascist Italy (i.e. by allying with other European powers against Italy), instead of organizing African unity at that time (later Selassie did help shape African unity, by the way). Garvey should have been more diplomatic, I think, but he was only partly wrong: the British, in hindsight, had a dubious, double role during Italy’s invasion, eventually favouring Italy and other imperial powers over Ethiopia’s (or Africa’s) interests. However, Selassie might not have known this neither at that time, and was then naïve rather than cowardice.. Besides this, Selassie’s strategy had some wisdom from a geopolitical perspective.

Similarly, also Kwame Nkrumah, other African independence fighters, like Kwame Nkrumah, initially also Nelson Mandela, several Black Power movements and intellectuals in the Caribbean and the US, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King.. all have been influenced by Garvey, without copying him in every single thing. The positive and necessary essence of Garvey’s Black emancipation and African redemption and repatriation ideas lived and live on. A good example of how “the good you do lives after you..”. Bad or nonsensical things one did or said stay behind, since they do not inspire.

Like some other (academic) reviewers Dorman describes Grant’s biography as a good, and readable introduction, but not much more than that, lacking according to him proper use of research and scholarly methods, and lacking also attention to aspects about Garvey himself, or the motivations of his followers. With the last aspect I agree: Grant could have paid more attention to why different Black people chose to follow Garvey and his movement..


Dorman’s reviews differs strongly from other ones I discussed, but had similarities with others. Reviewers even say the opposite from each other: some find that Grant wrote a sympathetic portrayal, some say a a balanced one, while – like just mentioned – Dorman characterizes Grant’s portrayal of Garvey as a negative one. Some reviewers called Grant’s biography “definitive”, others (especially in academic circles) as merely introductory.

It goes to show how perspectives on the same phenomenon differ from person to person, from reviewer to reviewer in this case.

Some things recur through all these reviews, though. They all seem to agree that the social and historical contexts of the Garvey movement were related well by Grant in ‘Negro with a hat’. Most agreed that Garvey as a person was in some aspects described too little in it, though not everyone found this. Likewise, more than one review noted that Garvey’s followers got too little attention, but several did not mention this as a flaw.

I criticized before the recurrence in reviews of sensationalistic anecdotes over relevant facts. The meeting with the KKK by Garvey, and the fact that he read his own (premature) obituary is remarkable enough to mention somewhere in a biography, but not in every single review of it (as is nearly the case). These became clichés. Another recurrent anecdote or description was on the, some find, extravagant “imperial” hats and clothes Garvey and other UNIA members wore. That does not seem the most relevant thing to me. Maybe it can be related with the “inverting order” notion of Caribbean carnival traditions, and some reviewers relate it to this. An interesting analysis would I think consist also of a psychological explanation: regaining dignity in a public way. In a few reviews something like this is hinted at.

Unfortunately, this clothing is used in most reviews to illustrate how egotistic, or megalomaniac (not always formulated in such words) Garvey according to some was. This ultimately devalues his importance and his movement’s. The same “school yard” insults due to appearance as a thick-spectacled, red-haired, or otherwise “different” child hears from the vane, bullying “cool kids”. This is meant to exclude such strange or nerdy people from their circle. That this sarcasm aimed at Garvey’s clothing or trivial aspects – apart from the content and goals - is also found in academic journals by scholars is not really surprising. The same exclusion through ridicule as nerdy kids in a school yard endure.

That is what Garvey and the author of this biography on him, Colin Grant, share. They stepped on privileged toes: such biographies are often written by respected academics, not by a journalist like Grant. The condescending “nice try, but we can do this better” message is barely disguised in some of these academic reviews.

Also, as discussed in the biography, WEB. Du Bois was an academically schooled Black leader with some influence in the US at the time that Marcus Garvey arrived, and developed and broadened his movement, but with a different message for the same people. Du Bois and others saw this as unwelcome competition for Black support. Privileged positions are disturbed and threatened, making ridicule and repression a final recourse for these privileged people: they have the power and connections to do this. Another, even more privileged group – the White establishment – eventually invented a “post fraud” charge to be able to incarcerate and later expel Garvey to Jamaica (he did not have the US nationality, but a British one).

Several sources – and also recurring in reggae lyrics – point at betrayal of Garvey by other Black people, in the US, Jamaica, and Britain.

Some of the reviewers I mentioned are themselves Black persons. It is good that they remain critical and try to be as neutral as possible on the subject: worshipping is different from reviewing, even if Garvey is seen as a hero by many. That being said, I still find it unfortunate and exaggerated to put the emphasis that much on mistakes, organization flaws, and supposed character flaws of a man like Marcus Garvey.

Garvey has inspired many people and was historically influential. He had maybe flaws, but nothing really came across to me as calculatedly wicked or evil. The FBI at one point even asked his wives, and other people close to Garvey, private questions, hoping to find some “hidden sins”, in order to put him away. Yet they could not find anything illegal in even his private activities. If he were an abusive husband or father (he had two sons), had buried people he killed somewhere, raped women (which for instance Benito Mussolini has done, as a youth, but still became a popular dictator in Italy), or made enslaved people work for free – to name just something – it would have been known at that time. Neither was he involved in financial fraud, extortion, robbery, or violent reprisals against people. Any of this the FBI hoped to find, but couldn’t.

So why this ridicule and critique as a way to downplay Garvey’s influence, among many reviewers?
Attacking the person instead of his/her message or what he/she says is a common distraction tool from what needs for some to be overshadowed or obfuscated: an unwelcome consciousness.

Are some of these reviewers really not open to hear his message and recognize its significance, even today?

That would be ignoring the fact that the world is still unequal today, in 2014. Racially and economically. In 2014 Africa still has less control over its own resources and economy than Europe. Black people in the Americas and elsewhere are overall still on the lower levels socioeconomically, and racism still exists, in daily life and in policies. Slavery as a historical crime against humanity is still only limitedly recognized until today by European nations.

Or, as the reggae group the Mighty Diamonds sing eloquently in their song on Garvey, ‘Them Never Love Poor Marcus’ (1976): “Now the human race in such a squeeze..”

Apparently, people in privileged positions - as part of this same racial and economic order - are not too keen to really ponder on the essence of Garvey’s message: they might feel, well, a bit ashamed or guilty.

That is the hidden bias I found in many – though not all- of these seemingly neutral reviews. Talking about being egotist.. The complexity of Garvey as an individual can be seen as intriguing as well, and other biographies – on other persons – actually embrace such complexity to give depth to a person. I guess to embrace some one’s complexity you must respect or love that person, else you would not care about his or her various traits. That is basic psychology. On Facebook nowadays many “life lessons” and philosophical quotes are shared, too much and too cheap some say, but some I like: like this one I read: “We judge others by their actions, but ourselves by our intentions”. Seems relevant here.. Besides, anyone can test for themselves through this thought experiment; think about this: do you want to know how your mother – or grandmother - lived when young?, or how she felt about certain crucial choices she had to make, even long before you were born? Many would say..yes I am interested in that. Yet..are you equally intrigued about the younger life of, not your (grand)mother, but another woman who you do not even know and who is not related to you?
The same I think applies to symbolical “mothers” and “children”..

Admittedly, other reviews were more balanced, quite neutral, with good argumentation, and also had attention to positive aspects and legacies of Garvey. Both among scholarly and non-scholarly reviews positive opinions were found on Garvey and this biography by Grant.

It’s a pity though that, from the reviews combined, the overall image that remains of Garvey and his movement is of a megalomaniac failure that mainly through some magic and slick propaganda skills got mass support. The overall image of the biography/book that remains is that it is an accessible, well-written work - not without humour - giving good historical contexts and some information on the complexities of Garvey. On the other hand..also that it is not much more than introductory and should have been written by an established scholar/academic. Not all reviewers say this last thing so directly, but if these reviewers can exaggerate or simplify complexity in such much read newspapers and journals – and several do -, I can do the same regarding them..

Negro with a hat: the rise and fall of Marcus Garvey: Colin Grant . – 530 p. – Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2008. ISBN: 0-19-536794-4, 978-0-19-536794-2

woensdag 2 juli 2014

Football/soccer as tabula rasa?

There is something about sport that makes it be experienced - and welcomed - like a “tabula rasa” (or empty, blank slate). It must be the mere physicality of it. Here there is just body movement that really matters. No difficult, indirectly driven, and hidden ideas or mental exclusions. Just what you came in the world with and in time naturally grew: your body. You have it and it can make a difference, in a direct way: in the field with a team, or individually.

It may seem like a tabula rasa, but events as the World Cup Football/Soccer – like the one that is going on as I write this (in 2014) in Brazil – contradict this. In fact, most sports do. I will explain why I think this, a bit later on.


First I think it’s good to explain that of all sports, I am most interested in.. soccer/football. That does not make me terribly original; the same can be said of many people in the world. I have played in a local Dutch football club (in the town Nieuw-Vennep, Netherlands) for about 4 years. Roughly between my 8th and 12 years of age. In and around that same period I played a lot of football (I use that term for soccer from now on) on the streets as well. Often with team mates from the same football club, as well as others. I mostly played centre-right in the clubs. I often took the corner shots on the right side, which I enjoyed, but it was probably because the right-forward player preferred scoring chances and positioned himself in front of the goal.

I say this because this experience – actually having played “for real”, under real circumstances – still makes you look different at football games now. More technical, or professional perhaps. More analytical. Others, even while aware of how it works, know the rules and when is scored, have this probably less. They recognize less.

This harkens back to my “tabula rasa” idea on football: simple physical steps: as practical and basic as learning how to walk. Back to basics. That in my case (and for many others in this world) playing in an actual football team is at the same time a memory of childhood and youth, seems to strengthen this “back to basics” idea. A new start, unaffected, with open possibilities.


“Seems” only.. because it is hopeful, though rather naïve. Like with all basic human activities – e.g. sexuality, agriculture, eating, music, beliefs and rituals, and sport and “play” - certain powers (economic and otherwise) for a large part gained control over it, trying to shape it in relation to their interests.

Football is no different. Financial interests in professional football are well-known, but it also is influenced by international politics, race relations, rich and poor countries, social inequality within countries, cultural imperialism, and nationalism.. all this is found in football. Nationalism seems obvious. In the World Cup countries compete. National pride and biases get heightened, mixing with – or even replacing – actual interest in football as a sport/game. “We” have to win. This “we” refers to deeply sensed identities, what you are or want to be. It can be fanatic, but is not always “fixed”.

A too fixed identity cannot help but become dubious: such an unchangeable, exclusionary “blut und boden” idea may be only part of a play, a football game, and nothing too serious. I am afraid, however, that it remains not reserved for this play. I know man kind. In both directions: they feel better than “other” people from other countries – that is why they support their country’s team so much. At least they can identify with it better.. Understandable, some might say: but in a multicultural, varied society..would these same people befriend or “hire” someone they don’t identify with? Just because of his/her ethnicity/background? Maybe they are less inclined to… Football fanaticism – with all its apparent innocence – might stimulate that. Like political competition or populist politics, even “playful” sport competition can sharpen contradictions and social divisions. This just might make social relations more tense.

It is a sport, a game, but not all human beings have psychologically as much talent for “playful, theatrical competition”: many are one of the two: either more competitive or more playful/creative.

That is why I like creative, playful styles of football: both at an individual level, and team-wise. This off-sets the “cold” competitiveness with “creative play”. I therefore like South American football, how some African teams play (I like how Ghana plays in this World Cup 2014 for instance), and the playing styles of several Spanish teams. The rules of the football game are of course internationally the same, but local, “cultural” differences may influence playing styles.

I do not like as much the tactically linear, aggressive, “hit hard, run and score” teams. A style of football that neglects the ground (“groundation” is also a Rasta term), and the middle-field. Neglecting - metaphorically – the joy of the process, by over-emphasizing a peak or end-goal.

The ground-football with short passes (“tiki taka”) of Spain’s national football team, proven to be successful in the period 2008-2012, in line with this, certainly had my appreciation, and not just because I am half-Spanish (on my mother’s side): others without that connection liked it too.


I have travelled to Cuba and Jamaica in the Caribbean several times, in the period 2001-2008. One trip involved the two countries over a period of about 3 weeks (two weeks Cuba and from there a week to Jamaica). In retrospective, it would be interesting to look at these travels from a “sports” perspective. Not that that was any consideration in my choice to go there: I was more focussed on music, culture, sociology, and history. But of course: sport cannot be separated from these broader areas.

An interesting difference: in Cuba baseball (ironically: like in the “nemesis country “ the US) is the biggest, most-practiced sport. In Jamaica it is – like in much of the world – football/soccer, though followed closely among older people by cricket. In Cuba, also other sports than baseball have some practitioners and aficionados, especially basketball and athletics. Baseball is most massive though, like football in Jamaica. When children play sports, they mainly play this sport: it became that culturally ingrained.

It is known that Bob Marley loved playing football, and he was reputedly quite good at it. It was a football injury that made physicians discover the cancer he had. More recent artist Lutan Fyah was a professional footballer before he chose a career in reggae music. When I was at Buju Banton’s Gargamel studio in Kingston, Jamaica – in 2008 – the young people present (artists and friends) placed two small metal goals within the yard to play football from time to time.

(I took the above photo at the Gargamel studio in Kingston, Jamaica in 2008)


In the lyrics of reggae music, however, references to football are rare. Not even indirect references – as metaphors of life or sayings – are found that much. Some artists (deejays and others) sing or chat about how they used to play football when they were younger. In fact, references to other sports (boxing or cricket) are a bit more common in Jamaican music. A ska song by Alton Ellis gave the example of a then well-known boxer – Bunny Grant - as model to strive for instead, for youths prone to violence at parties (on the song ‘Dance Crasher’, from 1965).

A song, ‘Big Fight’ (1976), by dee jay/chanter Prince Fari further opposes in a metaphorical boxing game the dreadlock Rasta against Babylon.

Special occasions, such as World Cups – also the one in Brazil in 2014 – inspired some Jamaican reggae songs, also when Jamaica went to the World Cup, held in France in 1998.

Therefore, a cultural link between reggae music and football/soccer seems far-fetched. Overall it is reserved for the play area, outside of music and dance. Brazilian football seems to be the most popular, as among many people in the Caribbean. British football is also followed relatively much..

The latter brings me to another point: football is known as an English invention. Like cricket, British imperialism helped spread it, albeit football was deemed more working class than cricket.

While other expressions of British cultural dominance among African Jamaicans were reworked or cast aside, football was maintained. It must be – again – the mere physicality of it, the “tabula rasa” idea. Defeating the British in their own sport, as before with cricket, became a not-so-hidden desire. An idea of rebellion, in a playful way.

Furthermore, again, a cultural difference may also create - to a degree - an own football playing style, expressing a type of cultural identity. The same way some called – albeit somewhat stereotypical - Brazilian football “samba football”.


An interesting topic is the relation of race to football. A likewise interesting study was based on football commentary on Dutch television in the season 2007-2008, specifically regarding the ethnic and racial stereotypes that were expressed by the commentators. This was a study by Jacco van Sterkenburg, finished in 2011. See this link (with summary in English of the study) at the Utrecht University: http://dspace.library.uu.nl/handle/1874/205609.
A main conclusion was that Surinamese, black, or African football players tended to be more often described in ”animal-like” terms – strong, athletic, fast – whereas white, European players were described more as tactical, intelligent, and resourceful. Also the stereotype of the “slick” and selfish Latin American recurred.

I was not that surprised by this study’s results. In that sense football, and everything around it, reflects life: with all the good and bad. Stereotypes, racial, and national preference. The façade of respect for your opponent is held up often, and some commentators or fans genuinely respect some players of other teams, or try to remain open-minded. However, personal biases often do come through in the end, even if hidden behind semi-neutral analyses.

For instance: my whole life I heard that the Netherlands – with the generation of Cruyff - were so original in football. Innovative – with the concept of “total football” – introduced by Cruyff in Barcelona, Spain, and then with worldwide influences. The reality is that “total football” was played in Latin America historically - by some clubs - before it was in the Netherlands. Even the Spanish way of playing (“tiki-taka”) that many deemed attractive – and with which Spain won the World Cup of 2010 in South Africa – was described by some as a belated result of Cruyff’s/Dutch innovations in Barcelona. There is in reality no evidence for this relation.

Also the political influence that some even claimed is nonsense. Cruyff went to play for FC Barcelona in 1973, when Spain was still a dictatorship under Franco (until 1975). Some claimed that making Barça (Barcelona) as a football team strong helped the rebellion it symbolized as a free place of Catalan nationalism, and therewith – a strange causal connection, by the way – changes in the whole of Spain politically, the dictatorship by then being in its latter days. Of course this is nonsense as well.

The essential injustice of the dictatorship of Franco was its suppressing of basic human rights of all Spanish citizens. Catalan (or Basque) nationalism was far from the only thing it repressed: that was more a marginal consequence of a “one state” policy.

Besides, free-thinking Scandinavian, French and other tourists that came to visit Spain in the later days of the dictatorship, had at least as much influence on many Spaniards’ mind-set as Dutch footballers of one Spanish club. Even more influence, though, had the Spanish people’s own discontent with the dictatorship, as well as liberal, democratic ideas from abroad. More than a football player like Johan Cruyff, who stated not to be too interested in politics, and was even slightly conservative.

Claiming ownership of things one has not really contributed to is a wicked, false, and covert way to show a sense of superiority. More refined and seemingly “sophisticated” than the fools who throw bananas at black football players, or shout racist remarks, but in a deeper sense part of the same basic emotion: “we are better”.

Football commentaries, for instance during the last (2010) and this World Cup (2014), differed in quality in my opinion. Some commentators showed in some remarks a bias, some with racist or stereotypical overtones. Mostly it was hidden and subtle. Dutch commentators focus all their analyses on the Dutch team when still in the race – even when other teams play -, showing their bias thus. In other countries the same might happen. National bias is of course there, not just in the Netherlands. He is a good player: a pity because “we” have to play against him in the next match.

I am sad to say that commentaries made during matches of African teams were still a bit more about the “physical”, than about their intelligence. Teams like Ghana and Nigeria had interesting, thought out tactics. The mid-field, passing focus of Ghana was at its best moments, as good as Spain’s in its heyday of 2010. Players positioned themselves well in the field and behind players. This was not or rarely mentioned.

Often commentaries were more neutral and seemed better to me: good things were mentioned by any player (of any race), but some stereotypes recurred here and there.


The final thing about football and race relations is the distinctly multicultural make-up of many national teams. Many see this as a positive sign of integration and possibilities for ethnic minorities and migrants in these countries. France for some time now, as well as of the Netherlands, England, and Belgium (this 2014 world cup), and more than before Germany, set themselves apart with their multiracial and multicultural national teams. In these countries there are relatively many ethnic minorities, and there is also a longer history of migration, also related to former colonies. In that sense it is a bit reflective of the societies.

Yet only in that sense. That ethnic minorities are represented in football teams with a higher percentage than their actual demographic representation in the countries, is a sign that sport allows possibilities that are absent elsewhere in society. Sport (and likewise music and entertainment, for example) are of course also known as alternative, playful areas where more is possible without affecting the structural status-quo of racial power and privilege.

Chris Rock, the US comedian, pointed at the fact that Blacks/African-Americans dominate main sports in the US (basketball, baseball a.o.) as a result of slavery: the historical selection of Africans with certain physical characteristics for slave, plantation work, during the slave trade. This most probably plays a role, but so does social and economic exclusion in other parts of society.

Thus, the tabula rasa, clean slate idea I associate with the interest in sport/football of so many people seems to apply here, but only limitedly, and relegated to the margins of society and power, to an area of mere “play”. That is: a freer area of possibilities: but without any influence or change toward meaningful equality or dignity in the rest of society.

Perhaps that is why sport/football references are relatively rare in the lyrics of socially conscious reggae music artists, even though football is a popular sport in Jamaica. Social critique and “consciousness” require attention to injustices that matter, that are real and powerful as part of an oppressive system. Football is from that perspective a distraction at the margins of that same system.

woensdag 4 juni 2014

Copyright and Jamaican music

“..When I ask ‘what’s there for me?’, you say ‘what will be, will be’.. ” ~ Ini Kamoze (song ‘Pirate’, 1986).

Copyright infringement is a big, and persisting, problem in much popular music. This is however even more the case in Jamaican reggae music. A recent, general development in popular music is the shift to digitalization and the Internet, which to a large degree augmented the copyright problems. The ready availability of songs in mp3 format - through Internet - can in that sense be seen as both a blessing and a curse.

The Jamaican music scene has always been mainly audience-driven, due to its strong popular base. Sound systems and dancehalls, or performances, were since the 1960s an important avenue for Jamaican upcoming artists to let their songs and voice be known among the local audience, often in direct interaction with it. This could make or break their popularity, maybe enhance their fame, increase recording/studio or paid performance opportunities, and as a later step boost sales of their recordings/disks, even abroad. In wealthier countries, outside of Jamaica, there came to exist in time enough reggae fans willing to buy (or pay for) Jamaican music. Reggae’s internationalization since the popularity of Bob Marley especially enhanced this market (beyond Caribbean migrant circles, as initially).

Music was – and is - for many Jamaican artists a “way out of the ghetto”. Inspired and often talented, but also searching for a means of income. A strong, creative musical folk culture - with various African retentions - , combined with a need to escape poverty, eventually made the Jamaican music industry relatively large for a small island with between 2 and 3 million inhabitants. And for a poor, developing country.

In that developed music industry - from the vinyl days to present digital availability – say: between 1960 to the present –, however, copyright and legal protection of especially composers’ rights have remained in Jamaica, to differing degrees, problematic. A complex of inequality and poverty problems comes here to the fore. Reggae experts/historians have - based on testimonies by artists themselves - pointed out how local Jamaican producers, who generally owned studios and had other means, tended to “rip off” artists. Artists recording would get some pay after studio work, in some cases even just some food, generally in a haphazard, informal nature. Pocket money or ready cash, in other words.

The informal, creative flow common in the music scene perhaps contributed to it, but mainly opportunistic "money sharks" as interested parties in relatively powerful positions, eschewed a structured legal protection for composers.

Big Youth, a rootical reggae dee jay/artist starting in the 1970s, called, during an interview at the Rototom reggae festival in Spain (2010), such producers “criminals”. Indeed like criminals, these producers lacked real intelligence regarding empathy or solidarity, and compensated this with a “colder” cleverness on humans: that of knowing how to make selfish use of weak spots or inadvertence of powerless people. In this case poor artists, uninformed, yet eager and desperate to reach somewhere.

Sometimes producers or studio owners kept the legal rights of songs by artists (who were as said paid only once after recording), and thus ensured for themselves a continuous, if capricious, income. In many cases, producers not even ensured royalties or legal rights for themselves that much, but just generated income from disk sales or dances where the songs were played. All in all they ended up with more money than the creative artists themselves. In British law furthermore the one “financing” creative endeavors obtained legal rights, i.e. a studio owner who might not have contributed anything to the creation of the song or music (“riddim”/instrumental).

In many cases, the lack of a larger, organized legal protection in Jamaica caused that almost nobody within Jamaica really profited sufficiently from songs, even if these got popular outside of Jamaica.

Piracy (illegal copying) and – international - distribution without compensation (or knowledge) of artists were of course also rampant, well before digitalization. Some Jamaicans and/or foreigners profited from this, not the artists.

With older folk songs this problem is well-known, also outside of Jamaica.‘Day O : the Banana Boat Song’ has been a Mento classic in Jamaica, and from early times shared within Jamaican oral and musical culture. Long before Harry Belafonte got a big hit with it in 1956. Its individual author is – as with many older folk songs – historically hard to pinpoint. That was, however, another time, in other conditions. A music industry as such was not yet developed.


In a later stage, the semblance of a modern record industry developed in Jamaica – mainly since the Ska era began around 1960 -, and when Coxsone Dodd opened Studio One in 1963. It was the first black-owned recording studio in Jamaica. It therefore had a stronger connection with the Jamaican people, especially with poorer people in downtown areas. It was for them more accessible.

Indeed, Studio One provided a way for aspiring artists to record songs, e.g. through auditions. Unfortunately, Coxsone Dodd wasn’t someone who ensured legal rights in writing, while many artists were partly unaware or inadvertent of such a need. They just went with the creative flow, and tried mainly to reach a public, get exposure, and in some way make money with music. In a humourous way, Colin Grant explains in his biographical book on the three Wailers (‘I & I : the Natural Mystics: Marley, Tosh, & Wailer’, 2011) how Studio One as a studio/business did not have departments (like a Marketing or Accounting Department or whatever) but simply was Coxsone Dodd, revolving around him. Artists thus were dependent on him and his whims, and he tended to keep at times people – like artists with demands - away, with the help of some “tough guys” around him.

Okay, one might say, these are problems – “teething troubles” – of a just beginning business in a developing country, still figuring things out.


One must conclude however, that from then (say 1963) to the present problems still remain regarding Jamaican music’s legal rights. Some things seem to have improved, though. There are many studio owners in Jamaica of a poor, black background, also in the ghetto areas. This increased since the 1970s and afterward. Other studios were maybe owned by more wealthy “uptown” people, but still gave poor artists a chance to audition or record, or offered a regular job or function in studios. Several artists, disappointed from dealings with and dependence on producers and getting little reward, opened their own labels and studios, such as the Wailers, Lee “Scratch” Perry (Black Ark studios), Abyssinians, Augustus Pablo, and later e.g. Gregory Isaacs (with Errol Dunkley), Bunny Wailer, Ijahman Levi, and Burning Spear.

This increased number of studios certainly did offer opportunities, and the Jamaican music industry of course expanded since the 1970, especially with Bob Marley’s rise to international stardom. Reggae went international, and more people worldwide got interested in reggae artists beyond Bob. Though there were/are also many who foolishly think that Bob Marley is/was the only interesting reggae artist. All in all however, artists like Jacob Miller, Black Uhuru, Culture, Burning Spear and others reached to differing degrees international markets. Less though, when compared to the more commercial sound of a band like Third World, but still: since the later 1970s reggae fans in several European countries, the US, Canada, Japan, and other continents bought, for instance, Black Uhuru or Burning Spear albums.

Reggae became since the late 1970s a well-known Jamaican international commodity, and a massive, cultural Jamaican export.

Culturally this is a great achievement and success. A small island really put itself on the global map. Often through a distorted image, but at least reggae spread and made its voice and presence known globally. That many people then can only respond to this with prejudice or superficial or racial stereotypes is still unfortunate (I discussed this in other blog posts), but does not diminish that fact. The lack of mainstream support for “real” reggae or dancehall is also a problem of course, but also authentic reggae reached international markets - often in a “niche” manner -, despite all this.

Great, in a cultural and artistic sense, but it has generally speaking not been a very big success financially. Not for Jamaica as a whole, its music industry, let alone for the artists (composers, musicians) themselves.

Earlier cases of exploitation and copyright infringement or ignorance (sometimes infringing and ignoring comes down to the same) - in fact: too many to mention - confirm the historical persistence of this injustice. This injustice has been perpetrated also by foreign parties. ‘Rivers of Babylon’ was recorded first by Jamaican group the Melodians in 1970, and was composed by Brent Dowe. It became a hit in Jamaica. The pop/disco group Boney M. – consisting of a few performers of Caribbean descent - , produced by the dubious German producer Frank Farian, had an international hit with it in Europe in 1978, eventually cashing millions. Most of it went to Frank Farian, and practically none of it went to Brent Dowe of the Melodians. Copyright was simply not ensured enough in an early stage for this composition and recording. Brent Dowe/Melodians were mentioned in the written credits on the Boney M. record, but without financial effects. Between, say, two US or European artists, such a cover without due compensation, was and is almost impossible, or at least much less easy.

The state of legal protection therefore reflects global inequality.

Such examples demonstrate how “big time” crooks outside of Jamaica, easily replaced “small-time” crooks exploiting artists within Jamaica. From “getting money where you can, and hold on to it” as a common survival mechanism in response to ghetto conditions – I discussed money in Jamaica in another blog post – to shrewd, international business getting even “more” money and hiding it. An example of neocolonial exploitation, if you will. Helped by an infrastructure of legal advise and structures, commonly available in wealthy countries.


Besides such more or less organic developments, larger legal developments caused changes for the positive. Internationally operating labels – partly of Jamaican origin – such as VP, Greensleeves and Jet Star - tend in recent times to observe copyright norms, including royalties for their Jamaican artists. Many artists prefer therefore that their material be distributed by these international companies. There remain however still objections regarding actual just recompense for Jamaican artists by these companies.

Jamaica adopted a modern copyright act only as late as in 1993. Although in Jamaica after this date, as the article in the journal ‘Popular music’ (and also found online) titled ‘The riddim method: aesthetics, ethics, and ownership in Jamaican dancehall’ (2006) by Peter Manuel & Wayne Marshall, states, regarding "post-1993":

..negotiation and registration of copyright and collection of subsequent royalties by musicians and composers continue to be irregular


Hence, most DJs (in the sense of artists-MC), except for major stars, may continue to value making records primarily for the flat fees they may receive, and for the prestige which can lead to more stage shows.. ”.

They, however, also point at some improvements and increased copyright awareness among artists since 1993.

This extensive article by Manuel & Marshall is in any case interesting reading with regard to copyright issues, also because it partly relates it to the current digital age. Over two decades after the (thus limitedly effective) Copyright Act adopted in 1993, in a general sense the opinion is that Jamaica and Jamaicans still do not get the just recompense for their reggae music and artists. That the economic and copyright situation currently still leaves much to be desired becomes evident from this (very recent) interview by Mutabaruka with Andrea Davis.

The current digital age is also discussed in relation to this.

Not just legal protection is discussed here, but also added economic revenues: merchandising, tourism development, and targeted marketing. The downtown, ghetto areas where reggae mainly originated, especially the Trench Town area of downtown Kingston (the capital of Jamaica), along with bordering areas as Waterhouse, Andrea Davis proposes, could be made into a walking itinerary for reggae fans internationally, boosting tourism income. A very good idea, I opine.

When I went to Jamaica I noticed that tourism attractions related to reggae were only developed when it had to do with the biggest name: Bob Marley. The Bob Marley Museum, mausoleum, studios or statues are well-organized and –marketed for tourists. Reggae is however much broader than Bob alone, I also wrote before on this blog.


Digitalization has also some artistic effects, beyond the practical. This is largely a matter of taste. Against people who claim vinyl “sounds” inherently better, others say digital music (wav, mp3) in time got to sound just as good or better. I think it is maybe so that the 0s and 1s of digital transcription of sound causes that music sounds a little bit less “flowing” or natural, but I can appreciate music in digital formats as well.

Another artistic effect is less discussed, I notice. The ready availability of mp3 songs changed the focus. The consumer selected what interested them: a certain song of an artist, and do not “download” or listen to other songs or albums of that artist. The very idea of an artist’s personality, in turn effecting his wider “artistic or cultural concept” gets lost in this: just a bit of his output is liked or heard, fitting a consumer’s whims. Reggae is not known for many “concept albums” and is traditionally mainly “single-oriented” (single songs tend to appear before they appear on albums).. though there are some great examples of concept albums within reggae, but still.. This is thus not too big a change, and partly a matter of distribution rather than substance. However: to get to know the artist behind the songs, it is not enough to just obtain an isolated, or superficial bit of his oeuvre..

The latter is especially the case due to the main advantage of Internet: there is so much at once available. This means that much more can be found more easily of more artists. This increased choice can be seen as a good thing, of course, but it can stimulate a too superficial attention. Before the Internet there were also many singles you could encounter in stores, of artists you did not have or know much of yet. On the Internet however, with so much music and information, even unique artists can get rather “drowned”..

Artistic considerations aside, the fact is that many people nowadays obtain songs in digital format through the Internet, or listen to it via streaming or e.g. YouTube on the Internet itself. This increased strongly since the last 10 years, to a higher degree in wealthy, developed countries. It is self-evident that this brings all kind of copyright and legal problems. In relation to this it brings economic revenue problems. This affects all genres, not just reggae.

Not too long ago artists could live off the records they sold, that they’ve put on the market. Downloading (illegally) through Internet diminished this income drastically, and made it even unprofitable. This caused – as readers might know – the increased emphasis on (and prices of) touring, concerts, and live performances by artists. Alongside income from merchandising and advertsing and such. This became simply more necessary to keep the music career profitable.

I think that this is not in all senses a positive development. I myself recorded a song in a professional studio in 2012: I had to pay (recording) studio time and musician’s fee, besides the mere effort of recording (which I saw as interesting as well, of course). Imagine how much entire albums cost and when you have to rent a studio for weeks or months, and you also have to take care of the marketing, with extra costs etcetera..

(By the way: my Indie publisher/label for that song – CD Baby - has the copyright issue well-organized: the copyright of the song, called 'Rastafari Live On' – which by the way had an original, “fresh” riddim - rests with me and is protected – also on the Internet - with percentages of royalties which were transparent from the start.)

There are of course also many proponents of the free availability of music, without copyright obstacles. These were there also before the digital age, in the early stages of Jamaican music. In line with a folk tradition, and a supposedly “non-materialistic” culture in Jamaica (different from the West) aimed at sharing culture among the people. Often the Rastafari worldview is also presented as supporting this “sharing” and open availability of music and songs, or instrumental “riddims” to vocalize on. Others contest this, and say that reggae artists (also Rastas) want their individual rights to be respected.

In conclusion, there is increased awareness and attention to this in Jamaican music in recent times. As Manuel and Marshall also explain in their article: only the “high profile” cases (big hits in the US for example) tend to receive legal attention from Jamaican parties owning copyright. An example is Mr Vegas pressing charges against well-known Pit Bull and Lil John’s song ‘Culo’ (2004) for using parts of Mr Vegas’ song – the chorus – ‘Pull Up’ (2003) for this (along with a simplified version of the accompanying Coolie Dance Riddim), without Mr Vegas’s permission or involvement. Indeed the songs are very similar, and Mr Vegas thus seems to have a strong legal case.

The large, “underground” and international reggae scene using extant Jamaican riddims or even song melodies tends to remain largely off the hook. Even when some of these latter artists actually put it on the market under their own name or perform with it for money. Gaining actual income using music of others, without their – or their legal titleholder’s - involvement or permission, is strictly speaking illegal and a case of copyright infringement. Most probably, though, it is too widespread and ephemeral to be handled, especially when done by obscure or relatively little known artists. I think that a poor country with a limited legal infrastructure also lacks the mean to address all this. By contrast, I imagine that even an obscure artist recording an unauthorized cover of a Rolling Stones song and making this public (via YouTube, Soundcloud or otherwise), will probably soon encounter legal repercussions by the Rolling Stones’ legal people. Again, global inequality..


In another post I wrote on this blog, of 16 February 2011, called ‘To know is to belong?’, I discussed “ownership” of Jamaican reggae music in another sense. It was a response to Eek-A-Mouse angered outburst at a festival in New York in 2008, in which he lamented the fact that white artists making reggae became famous and rich easily, get signed by big labels, unlike black Jamaican reggae artists. “Dem no waan black people fe run reggae music” he said. His criticism was based on race. He therefore mentioned mixed-raced or lighter-skinned Jamaicans as well (like Bob Marley), as unjustly favoured over black reggae artists. Eek-A-Mouse also complained that he got no money, unlike some other artists.

That critique of racial bias is I think largely just and founded. The fact remains, however, that – while less than could have been – many reggae fans all over the world search reggae records, even without mainstream support. In some countries the reggae fans seem to numerically increase relatively the last 10 years.

Even if artists are popular and their music paid for/bought, despite the mentioned odds and biases, limited legal protection might still impede artists getting their due reward. I know several reggae fans who bought all or near-all albums of certain reggae artists (in actual physical stores back then): Burning Spear, Culture and other artists. This is the Netherlands, and I’m sure several such committed, spending fans can be found in for instance Britain, Germany, Italy, France, Sweden, Japan, USA, and Canada. Many of these countries have sound system scenes playing reggae music. These local dee-jay’s/selectors need to buy records (often old-time vinyl) as well. Some parts of Germany have many sound systems, Japan as well, as does Italy. Sound system scenes are further coming up in countries in Latin America, Africa, and East Asia, and in Spain.

A proper legal protection combined with a structural copyright registration seems to me a first step in securing that Jamaicans keep – or regain, better said – control over their own music and cultural creation. It is in essence humiliating to have other people control what comes out of you. It dehumanizes and in a sense paralyzes.

Along with big companies favouring certain (white) reggae artists, and distorting reggae’s global, mainstream image with their power, also the limited copyright protection stems from wealth differences in the world and global inequality in development and possibilities. This translates as differences in power. Thus even to the degree that some people do not even have power over their own artistic and cultural inventions and expressions.

That is the deeper –and sadder truth – behind the chaotic and deficient copyright protection still affecting Jamaican music. Poor black people like Jamaicans lack control over their own economy, and - as part of that - over their own artistic expressions, and legal protection. This makes the goal once formulated by Marcus Garvey, black self-empowerment, all the more necessary.


As the opening quote of this post may have indicated, this theme is also discussed in several reggae lyrics. Reggae lyrics are partly known for dealing with “reality” and social critique, and this type of injustice is part of that. Burning Spear (Winston Rodney) has been talking about it for some time now in interviews and statements; he said that since his very debut single (in 1969) he did not get for his music what he was entitled to, reason why he founded his own, independent label in a later stage. He also mentioned it in some songs. ‘Legal Hustlers’ (from album Rasta Business, 1995) or ‘Wickedness’ (from album Jah Is Real, 2008) being examples from later albums.

Piracy (illegal copying and distributing of music) is discussed in the song ‘Mr. Pirate’ by Eric Donaldson, to give but an example, while financial misconduct or conflicts, or “bandwagonists” and “parasites”, are alluded to in several other reggae lyrics, as are specific cases of exploitation of artists by both fellow Jamaicans as foreigners.

The nice ‘Rasta Got Soul’ (2011) by Fantan Mojah, also refers to this, to give just another, quite recent example.

The interesting thing about the song ‘Pirate’ (1986) by Ini Kamoze (recorded with Sly & Robbie) is the broader, historical vision behind its lyrics. Whereas in reggae lyrics “pirate” or “old pirate” as in Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’ often refer to the old colonial white exploiters and enslavers (pirate Hawkins and others) of Africans, Ini Kamoze connects this image with “pirates” in the form of current exploiters and oppressors, while “collecting my royalty” in the lyrics directly refers to the music business.

Such a connection seems, as I already reasoned, to make historical sense: black people were historically oppressed and sidelined for over 400 years, still persisting in the present, and manifested in limited control and power economically, politically, or legally in the present-day world. Specifically – and tragically – even limited control over their very own creations and works.