Maybe a role that others only preserve for their “hip” Lonely Planet travel guides. I think the World Heritage List is a step further, or higher, though..
As a Reggae fan, it therefore certainly pleased me that on the “immaterial”, or cultural, part of that Unesco’s World Heritage List recently was also added - in Late 2018 – the music genre of Jamaican Reggae music. The placement on this list implies protection and preservation.
On his own Vlog, British Reggae singer Lloyd Brown commented on this new status for Reggae (protected as cultural heritage). Among other things, he raised the interesting question: from what Reggae needs protection? In other words: in what sense, by what is Reggae endangered?
That’s a good question. A question that Lloyd Brown answered a bit himself, suggesting that that status was needed to ease travel of performing reggae artists at the interest of festivals like Rototom (held in the Valencian region in Spain), or other big festivals, such as in Germany or France. The Rototom festival was even specifically mentioned at the Unesco meeting in the acceptance speech, by the Jamaican delegates (to illustrate Reggae’s important international status).
The urgency of this increased after all with the Brexit developments: probably bringing more travel restrictions for Caribbean artists travelling through Britain to the EU, of which it then will be no longer part.
Lloyd Brown can somehow understand such a reason for protection, but wonders why they did not state this more openly, if this was the case.
Interesting, but it also made me think further. Are there really no more reasons Reggae might need protection? Of course it is a living and maintained tradition in Jamaica, and popular world wide. Modern genres appearing later, as offshoots from Reggae, notably Dancehall, did not really replace Reggae.
Not really “replace”, but it affected it. There are certain areas (geographical and cultural) where Dancehall is more popular than (Roots) Reggae, where Dancehall pushes Reggae even to the background. The New Roots revival in Jamaica since the 1990s luckily kept Reggae music as such alive, along with actually “live band” musicians, alongside digital inclinations of modern Dancehall music. In Jamaica itself nowadays, especially among newer generations, Dancehall as genre is however much more popular than Reggae. Reggae is still there in Jamaica, but secondary, it seems, to Dancehall.
There are much more Dancehall parties held in Jamaica. This was already the case in 2006 and 2008, when I went to Jamaica. To be sure: there was Reggae to be heard, and there were (Roots) Reggae in Jamaica when I was there: only relatively more Dancehall parties.
I went to a nice (Roots) Reggae-minded party in the ghetto area of Rae Town, in Kingston, Jamaica, on a Monday, with good music from Black Uhuru, and other good Roots, from the speakers. It was held in an entire street, also outside.. Pleasant, cosy popular ghetto vibe, and I liked the vibe there. I recall the mighty chune General Penitentiary (bass line!) blasting through big speakers in a Rae Town bar..
I recall that the party was called something like Roots Revival. In the land of Reggae..you can only REvive something that was not already alive and present. That’s what that name says a bit. Just like having Throwback in a name for an event: it suggests it is not presently there.
Also a reason I can see the relevance of the “protected” status Reggae music’s placement on the World Heritage List implies.
Interestingly, in Jamaican musical history, Reggae can be seen as a synthesis, not as a passing stage. Ska and Rocksteady eventually synthesized, or sublimated, - some say “came of age” – in Reggae music, appearing around 1968. Some still play Ska and Rocksteady, of course, but these genres were also transitional phase, for all intents and purposes. Reggae, on the other hand , was kind of an end-stage for them, not a stage toward something else. Dancehall developed as offshoot too, but did - as said - not replace Reggae as such. It “threatens” it in some senses, though, albeit as yet only partly and marginally. Dancehall is relatively more popular than Roots Reggae in many places, including Jamaica itself – like I mentioned already - and the New York area, and even parts of Europe.
Travelling Reggae artists noticed that certain areas were more focussed on Roots Reggae than on Dancehall focused. The recently freed Buju Banton (he served a prison sentence up to Late 2018, for supposed involvement in cocaine traffic) commented on this years ago: in California, Roots Reggae was stronger and in New York/the East Coast of the US on the other hand Dancehall more. Buju, as other artists, adapted their set lists even a bit to this when performing in those places. Also Reggae dee-jay’s (selecta’s) I spoke with in the Netherlands commented on this, such as Amsterdam-based DJ Ewa on this blog playing more Roots Reggae outside of the busy urban area in the West of the Netherlands (with big cities Amsterdam and Rotterdam), and within it more Dancehall.
Protection from Dancehall dominance, is another protection, besides securing tour dates for festival organizers. More reasons for protection? Well, in a general sense, there is the fear of co-option of Reggae into other genres like Hip-Hop or Pop, while it itself becomes endangered. This can happen with every cultural expression or genre, of course. It can also be neglected and disappear altogether, but as said: Reggae is alive and well, and a living culture in much of the world. “Pollution” or “corruption” from outside is thus the main danger threatening Reggae, besides expression restrictions (due to travel restrictions on artists, and laws).
Besides such practical/material/political considerations, I love the very idea of Reggae being deemed “worth preserving” by a UN organization.
Other music genres, but far from all, have achieved the same status through and by UNESCO. Flamenco, actually a combination of folk music genres in Southern Spain, mainly Andalusia, has also this protected “cultural heritage” status. Also justly, in my opinion.. Flamenco is found in specialist circles in parts of Spain, specific clubs for connoisseurs, but there are also watered-down forms for tourists. Flamenco mixed with other genres, resulting in some cases in interesting and genuinely artistic mixes with Funk, Latin/Afro-Cuban music, Reggae, and Jazz, but also in a type of commercial “flamenco pop” reaching the mainstream much more than real Flamenco. Tango music/dance from Argentina is also on that list, to give but one more example.
As with Reggae, therefore, the “preservation” or “protection” of being on Unesco’s World Heritage list, has also to do with “guarding authenticity”, which I think is a good thing. The artists themselves can do that of course too, but some help may be necessary, especially when the cultural climate is not favourable. Moreover, the money is in this world often not where “real art” is.
That Reggae is “worth preserving” is also good in relation to its, well, tainted or polluted image. This is world wide, notably the association with the use of marijuana, a stereotype burden shared with the Rastafari movement.
It is of course a terribly simplified and generalizing stereotype, which is as much true as it is untrue, making it in the end no truth. Yet entire national policies and policing are in several cases based on them. Special control and arrests at Reggae parties due to marijuana possession and use seem to be policy. Maybe I am too optimistic, but Unesco’s protection might be helpful too in protecting an art form, separating it, from fanatic and excessive “anti-drug” policies.
The already mentioned Rototom Festival, an international Reggae festival held yearly in August, always managing to get big names, also in less commercial Reggae, is since 2010 held in Benicàssim, in the Valencian region, in Eastern Spain. A pleasant little town in a nice region, but Rototom used to be held in alpine Northern Italy (near Udine).
It had to leave there because of what was described as harassing and repressive policies against marijuana, increasing with a Right-wing upsurge in many parts of Northern Italy.
The Italian organizers of Rototom then struck a deal with Spanish parties in Benicàssim (a common festival location in Spain, also for other genres, perhaps because of the strategic location: as far from Madrid as from Barcelona), after finding out that marijuana control laws were more lenient in Spain, and certainly less enforced.
An example of how side-issues and legal machinations of states inhibit free culture, such as in this case a Reggae Festival in Italy.
The UNESCO is of course an international organization, so it seems appropriate to further address the “outernational “ spread of Reggae, that is outside of Jamaica. In Jamaica itself, as I mentioned, Dancehall is more mainstream and overall more popular, especially among younger people. Roots Reggae, especially in a modern variant New Roots (Chronixx, Tarrus Riley, Anthony B, Sizzla, Lutan Fyah, Morgan Heritage, Protoje, etcetera etcetera), is however present and living in Jamaica too, and a maintained tradition. Roots Reggae continues to be made in Jamaica, by several artists, with quite some variety.
JAPAN (& CJ JOE)
Reggae’s gone “international”, especially since Bob Marley rose to international popularity in the 1970s. After Europe and North America, it also reached quite early on the “Far East” country of Japan. Japan became known for a grown market for Reggae, starting with Bob Marley touring there in the 1979, but in time followed by several other Jamaican Reggae artists, that in time had quite some fans there. Japan had become a big Reggae market, including regular reggae festivals, and specific reggae labels/record companies, such as Mute Beat, to name but one.
That is more or less all I knew about it, but I had the opportunity to learn more about Reggae in Japan, speaking with Japanese Reggae singer CJ Joe, at present visiting and staying in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and whom I met several times by now. Reggae – and Rastafari - in Japan also compared to other countries - became part of our conversations, but I also chose to ask concrete and specific questions to him. Maybe that way I get to find out whether Reggae needs “protection” in Japan too.
Underneath, under the questions (in bold letters) you can read CJ Joe’s answers (in Italic):
How would you describe the Reggae scene in Japan presently?
It's more of the New Generation than the old school. Mainly Dancehall is bigger than the Roots Scene.
How would you describe the Rastafari movement in Japan presently?
There is little communities around Japan but very limited. The Majority would be out of the Big Cities because of the fast life and corrupt society. Nature protects and strengthens them.
How have these changed over the last decades?
After Bob Marley came to Japan in 1979, there were a lot of Hippies that chose to go into Rasta lifestyle, because they were the peace makers in that era of time. So you had a lot of followers. It was definitely a revival that start a fire to the nowadays Reggae scene. But now the Dancehall is the most active because a lot of the old school people left the scene or passed away. I am still a generation in the scene that is still alive I guess and keep the foundation “Respect to di Eldas”, long before me.
What are the main differences with Europe, regarding both Reggae and Rastafari?
I think it has to do with language. People in Europe still speak much more English than the Japanese. You see I am a International one Educated, not only in Japanese but through English by the Americans back home. But people like me are a minority so I am Blessed to know more deeply what Reggae and Rastafari means. But even though they don’t speak they feel through music because Music has no barriers, I guess. Plus I feel more deepness into the Reggae that many would fly to Jamaica constantly more than myself.
As for Rastafari, I think there is more of a Respect on peoples religion or lifestyle here in Europe or I would say Western Society. In Japan there isn’t a choice to be different. In society in Japan it’s a Must you must be the same and if you isn’t your automatically strange or not accepted. Of Course A Natty Dread would be a Outcast of Society and because of the stereotype minds on herbal usages it is strictly forbidden. So basically if a plant does not receive water or sun or earth it cannot grow just like how a Rasta is always on peer pressure, not a Easy life or way to go. It is much easier to follow the rules of the normal Japanese life style. ..
and with other parts of the World you know? Asia, America?
I would say it matters where in Asia. I can say there is a massive Reggae Scene in countries like Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand. Korea and China follows… They don’t have a history of Reggae like the Japanese, but because they speak more English they are fast learners so they can pick up very fast about the Reggae. I think in the next decade you will see thousands of Artists Bands etc. rising up just like Europe did to the now. On terms of Rastafari, in Asia there is more I think now than Japan, because for some places Bob Marley is what they would only know w/ some more Big Legendary names. Rasta equals Bob Marley so I see a lot of Natty Dreads around these days when I go to perform or visit.
Likewise Japan some places would more dangerous for any kind of herbal usage etc. But it depends where you are at that time; for example beach tropical areas surrounded by nature. Cities can be hardcore at times.
As for America, Reggae has been there for a long period of time because of the Bob Marley Boom So I would say back in the days Reggae was massive 90s to early 2000. Europe I think is just like the US Scene back in the days. Rastafari is there just like Europe because as you already know there a lot of Jamaicans living there all over. I would say states that have a big population of Jamaicans and Caribbean Africans most definitely you will find Rasta Communities there.
What artists have had relatively much influence in Japan, besides Bob Marley?
Garnett Silk, Dennis Brown, Jimmy Cliff, Shaba Ranks, Super Cat etc.
Is the Roots (Reggae) scene bigger or smaller than the Dancehall scene, in Japan?
Much more smaller than the Dancehall . Before It was more Roots Bands than the sound systems. Now it’s Sound Mecca. World Clash is popular you have the World Champs around here and there constantly playing dances every week.
Is there much Reggae in the Japanese language?
It is a massive Japanese Reggae Scene there. I would say at least 200 that have name value Many more maybe 1000 that I dont know??
What artists are important to know within Japanese Reggae, besides yourself?
The first ones to go to Jamaica were Nahki Rankin Taxi Joe Yamanaka. Afterwards Ackee & Sailfish. Now days you have Rankin Pumpkin Yoko in Jamaica.
About yourself: when have you started as musical artist, and how was the reggae scene in Japan at that time?
I started back in 1991 and I wasn’t a dreadlocks more like a rude boy ragamuffin style like Buju back in the days. It was more for me 90s dancehall but of course Roots was still very popular, but more of a mature crowd.
Was it difficult for you to have a musical career in Japan?
Yes, many ups and downs for sacrificing my life for Reggae. At times I was living on the street Because I left my house at 17 or 18?? But I been doing my Reggae half of my lif, so this is all I have to give.
How difficult is it for Rastafari in Japan?
I cannot express in words you’ll have to be extremely tuff in society. Many lose their minds and go crazy for life. Some even go to the hospital to rehab and later on leave Rastafari.
What foreign (or western) music tends to be most popular in Japan?
US Billboard or UK music. It all is connected from the war because US dominated from there It became very Americanized especially through music and lifestyles.
Conclusions I can draw from all this – including this recent interview with Japanese reggae artist CJ Joe -, is that it is good that Reggae now has a Cultural (World) Heritage status at the UNESCO, suggesting protection and preservation.
Now at the end of 2018, I furthermore notice that Reggae, notably New Roots of Jamaican artists like Sizzla Kalonji, Luciano, Tarrus Riley, Anthony B, Chronixx, Protoje, Morgan Heritage, and Lutan Fyah, has an international spread and popularity, with new Roots artists appearing regularly, securing generations.
Reggae’s offshoot, Dancehall, is overall more popular in Jamaica itself, as in some other places, including thus also Japan, as I learned recently, threatening in some sense Roots Reggae. Or maybe it’s still just a “threatening threat” (if you still know what I mean, haha).
In some countries and regions outside of Jamaica, however, Roots Reggae is relatively more popular than Dancehall, such as in some European countries, or in California. In parts of Latin America, a simplified offshoot of Dancehall (rhythmically derived from the Shabba Ranks tune Dem Bow) – called Reggaetón - is actually more popular, though in parts of Latin America there are certainly developed Reggae scenes, with good artists. So “the real thing” is still there.
Japan has very strict anti-marijuana laws, I also learned from speaking with CJ Joe. I also learned how this affected quite directly both the Rastafari and Reggae scenes in Japan, even threatening their development. Reggae being protected as cultural heritage might help here, although Rastafari certainly needs protection too, I argue, from Western society, as well as from the intolerance of main religions/belief systems, as the Islam and Christianity. With that we enter the terrain of basic human rights, a main idea behind the United Nations history.
Within the United Nations, however, the UNESCO is the cultural and educational organization, so it deals with cultural protection and preservation, rather than economic, religious or political rights. Cultural rights are however just as important, even if less material, being a reason why I always liked the idea behind the Cultural Heritage list of the UNESCO. It is not just nice, it might be even necessary, especially as protection against precisely those economic, religious, and political forces oppressing culture.
Protection is needed because of anti-marijuana laws, but also discriminatory travel laws against people of colour, or people from “poor countries”, prejudices connecting Reggae and Rastafari automatically with marijuana use, but also many of the lyrics in Roots Reggae and New Roots. These lyrics are often socially critical, and anti-systemic, causing much deeper dimensions than the marginal anti-gay lyrics of some artists that got so much media attention, because of some protests by gay people. These gay groups have of course the right to protest like everyone else, but I still think it is blown out of proportion. Lyrics in Reggae are about much more than that, and quite socially critical. Rastafari is an inspiration for many of these lyrics of course, that are in fact mostly positive. Dancehall has more Slackness and violent lyrics, but so do other genres in the Western world, as some Heavy Metal or Gangster Rap albums with cynical, awful lyrics show, often being worse than even the “slackest” Dancehall on “pussy” and “cocky”.
One thing I like about Bob Marley’s popularity, is that despite some musical/production adaptations to Western tastes, Bob mostly “kept it real” lyrically: socially critical “chanting down” Babylon and oppression/downpression, colonialism and neo-colonialism, inequality etcetera. He more or less got away with it, although conspiracy theories about Bob’s early death (that it was not really an inevitable result of cancer, but some think manipulated) exist. Of course, the most famous and heard songs by Bob Marley throughout the world are not the most socially critical or protesting ones: the omnipresent One Love, No Woman No Cry, or Stir It Up, for instance, but others (more “rebelling”) are heard as well. I like Bob’s Them Belly Full for instance too, but do not hear that song so much being played, to give but one example.
Yet, overall, as became evident with other Reggae artists, the more socially critical, Rastafari-inspired, or protesting your lyrics, the less success you have as Reggae artist, making you stay outside the Western mainstream. Inner Circle’s (Girl I Wanna Make You) Sweat, a both musically and lyrically mediocre song (in my opinion) being a case in point: Inner Circle’s most commercial (yet mediocre) hit, of a band that can do much better. Wayne Wade’s Lady, admittedly a nice cover and well-sung, was also Wade’s biggest hit, but Wayne Wade – a great singer - has better songs too, with more social and spiritual messages. And so on..
In short, and for obvious reasons, the “powers that be” have no interest in socially critical messages, speaking out against social injustice, and demanding equality and personal freedom, although in democratic societies they cannot stop them: they can only hinder or discourage them. Making it impossible to earn your living with conscious Reggae music proving to be, unfortunately, a wicked, if effective way.. Or otherwise excluding you from society.
In the Western world ("Babylon") this is of course evident, but as CJ Joe's story shows: also in Japan. though you can argue that it is also part of the "Western" or at least modern/capitalist world.. All these things – so including inhibiting “free speech”, "free opinion" (lyrics are part of this!) and "freedom of movement" - in some senses also “threaten” Reggae’s free development internationally. If not wholly, at least partly.
International recognition and protection through a UN organization like Unesco might just help, if substantial. Time will tell..