True, “Bredda Bob” (Marley) and his popularity ended up doing a lot for Reggae’s international, worldwide spread since the mid-1970s. Jamaican music, however, came at least a decade before that, the 1960s, already to parts of Britain with Jamaican migrants to Britain, including also Reggae’s musical 1960s precursors Ska and Rocksteady.
It did however not remain a cultural heritage closed to outsiders: it influenced and reached British popular culture and White Britons, especially youth movements, already in the later 1960s.
Not unlike how earlier Black culture of the Jazz age in the US became seen as a “cool” model to follow for some hip White people, or how Rock & Roll followed out of African American Rhythm & Blues, Black culture became cool and “hip” among some young, white subgroups in parts of Britain: first Jazz and R&B, later Caribbean music, like Ska.
In all this, the Trojan record label had a crucial role. I recently read a book about this British label – founded in 1968 - focussed on Reggae, with the title ‘Young, Gifted, and Black : the story of Trojan Records’ (Omnibus Press, 2018), after the UK hit of Bob (Andy) and Marcia (Griffiths) of that title (cover of a Nina Simone song). This song reached number 5 in the UK national chart, in 1970. This book was written by Michael de Koningh & Laurence Cane-Honeysett.
The book itself was readable and interesting, if somewhat chaotic and lacking of direction and structure. I have been used to scholarly works, with sometimes “too much direction and structure”, but the other extreme proved here neither to be very nice and stimulating to read. The timeframe is followed, a structure somehow there, but further many details are given, specific anecdotes told, about how the label started , people involved etcetera.. I often thought, however: “why is this told?”.. I did not think: “who cares?”: - that would be too harsh -, but did find difficulty sometimes to fit stories and facts in the book in the wider whole.
Overall, however, the book did give an interesting view on Jamaican music’s early spread in Britain.
Trojan was actually in its origins and finance connected to Chris Blackwell’s Island record label, and likewise White (and Indian) people were in charge in Trojan records too, using the talents of Black Jamaican people for selling records. Definitely skewed, of course, but common.
Lyrically strongly Rastafari-influenced Roots Reggae arose in Jamaica especially after 1972, and this book deals with also the period before that: earlier Jamaican Ska and Rocksteady or Reggae since the 1960s, with mostly love and party – sometimes social - lyrics, but with a Jamaican touch.
Early Reggae, arising around 1968, was relatively faster than later Reggae, and even often faster when compared to earlier Rocksteady. It had a certain energy, of course connected to new dances. Songs by Toots & The Maytals like Pressure Drop, Reggae Got Soul, or Do The Reggae are examples of Early Reggae, if Gospel-influenced. Other Early Reggae, such as by the Ethiopians, showed other, rural/folk (Mento) influences, but Early Reggae had a specific organ shuffle, higher-notes bass lines, and semi-fast rhythmic structures, among its recurring elements.
This Early Reggae seemed to be a specialty of Trojan Records, managing to release Ska, Rocksteady, and Early Reggae songs that became hits in Britain, and not just among Jamaican migrants there, by the likes of Prince Buster, Laurel Aitken, Ken Boothe, Dandy Livingstone, Desmond Dekker, the already mentioned Toots & the Maytals, the Pioneers, Lee Perry’s Upsetters, and some other artists. Most of these were Jamaican, but some of them settled in Britain.
As a “Reggae scene” is more than just fans of a genre, it should also include own artists, and those soon arose too, but not at first: mostly Jamaicans recorded songs for Trojan records to sell and produce. To reach the White market, the original Jamaican sound needed to be adapted to European and British tastes. The addition of strings, also to Bob & Marcia’s Young Gifted And Black, being an example of this. This consisted of an Europeanization, apparently, although violins were known in some Jamaican folk music . Further adaptations were also made at Trojan Records in order to reach different groups, and widen the market.
Some of the public groups Trojan was aimed at, consisted of new youth movements among White Britons, fads or fashions – or scenes -, such as the Mods in the 1950s and 1960s, and the Skinheads after them. The Mods were fashion-conscious, semi-intellectual and hip Jazz, R&B, and other Black music lovers (including Ska), but with expensive tastes.
The latter explaining perhaps the rise of another youth movement a bit later in Britain, since the late 1960s, partly an offshoot of those “Mods”, but more labour class: the “Skinheads”. These had often a preference for Jamaican and other Black music, including Ska, Rocksteady, and Early Reggae.
This even gave rise to a subcategory within Reggae, some recognize and some not, known as “Skinhead Reggae”. Some authors – “Reggae historians” - just describe it as Early, faster Reggae lyrically aimed at skinheads. Some describe it musically as a phase between Rocksteady and Early Reggae. I myself still don’t know quite how to define it, although I know some examples of songs popular with Skinheads (Toots & the Maytals’ Pressure Drop, or the Ethiopians’ super-catchy What A Fire, for instance).
The connection to Jamaican music stayed a while among these skinheads, but the increased influence of Rastafari and Black nationalism on reggae and its messages after 1972, created a distancing of most white skinheads from what would be Roots Reggae. The song Selassie, by the Upsetters/Reggae boys, was one of the few songs musically in the Skinhead Reggae vein, but lyrically about Rastafari, that was popular among the skinheads. Another one was Laurel Aitken’s Haile Selassie.
Yet, as Rastafari-influenced Roots Reggae began to arise and dominate Jamaican music, a part of the skinheads lost interest.
Trojan records did not bet on this one horse, however, and sought like other companies to broaden its market, for more monetary gain, during the following decades , including Roots-focussed compilation albums, that however always maintained one foot in the preceding Early Reggae phase.
I know some of these compilations, such as A Place Called Africa, with songs about the African motherland, showing how even artists once popular with skinheads (like Desmond Dekker), lyrically could still be conscious and true to themselves, while also including songs of Roots icons (Dennis Brown, Junior Byles, Sugar Minott) Trojan also released..
In reality, this was the earliest phase of Jamaican music’s internationalization. Jamaican migrants sometimes mingled with White Britons in some youth scenes: there were even Black skinheads, such as in bigger cities like London and Birmingham. This influenced the tastes of some white British youth. This would remain in later scenes in the 1970s and 1980s, such as the Punk movement, with bands like the Clash clearly borrowing from Reggae.
One moral problem, though, is that the Skinhead movement later got in a bad light, as Extreme Right and White Nationalists groups co-opted it partly, making many skinheads synonymous with anti-foreigner stances in Britain. This was not movement-wide, but did cause mistrust. The hooliganism from early on by some violent skinheads neither did help. There seem to have been, though, many non-racist skinheads, with just their own cultural interests and labour-class affiliations, some in to Black music, like Reggae. Perhaps predictably: some would become Punks.
The skinhead-aimed reggae hits released by Trojan, became British hits, at least in clubs or underground, and on occasion reached the national charts. Some reached outside Britain to become small hits in countries like the Netherlands, Belgium, or Germany, but not often.
Reggae’s much wider internationalization, of course came with Marley’s rising popularity during the 1970s, spreading reggae throughout the world, far beyond just Britain or even the US. It also put Jamaica on the map, outside of Britain.
Jamaica, a small island that the British captured in the 17th century, soon became a plantation-driven island, with the use of imported enslaved Africans, making today that over 90% of Jamaicans are of mostly sub-Saharan African descent. Jamaica remained a British colony until the 1962 independence, but ties remained, also due to migrations.
Racism in Britain was rife, and the arrival of West Indian migrants in the 1950s to a “White Man Country” like Britain, caused some hostility, even violence, against new Black residents.
The interesting thing about someone like Linton Kwesi Johnson is that this is a theme in his lyrics: the acceptance of Black people in British society over time, persisting, subtle or less-subtle racism and discrimination etcetera. Songs like Inglan Is A Bitch, It Noh Funny, and several others relate this.
This early popularity of Jamaican music on which Trojan records partly capitalized with 1960s and 1970s hits, among multiracial groups, even going to multiracial clubs, must of course not be idealized as “one big racial harmony”. Rather, it can be seen as a hopeful sign of people coming together through culture and music, beyond race, in an otherwise racist, pro-White British society that it was.
That many White skinheads or other more trendy Reggae fans lost interest with rising Rastafari influence is less positive, though.
Rastafari is after all a Jamaican cultural and spiritual movement, focused on Africa, related to Black people’s own history and identity. As Reggae it is a part of Jamaican culture.
A pity that the open mind seemed not so open for an own expression and culture, other than their own. Maybe some more White people would have learned early on this way about the history of slavery, or larger history, but such lyrics distracted them apparently from their want of dynamic “pumping” Reggae grooves in line with their white skinhead lifestyle. A bit in the same disrespectful vein as those men joking about their women, saying: “I like to have sex with her, but she likes to talk too much about her problems..”.
Some white Reggae fans in Britain may have indeed opened their mind with Reggae lyrics, even in this early wave, or perhaps even through having Black friends.
A later stage of Reggae’s internationalization, the 1970s, with Bob Marley’s and other Roots Reggae artists’ fame (Dennis Brown, Culture, a.o.) was in another cultural context (hippy movement and social criticism), while some anti-authority lyrics in Reggae - in fact quite common – appealed to some in the following, 1980s Punk movement, with their own purposes and interpretations, but hey.. Late 1970s Roots Reggae songs, like Junior Murvin’s Police and Thieves, and Culture’s Two Sevens Clash were hits among Black Britons, but also among many Punks.
Reggae never “sold out”, due to the “honesty” of Rastafari-influenced and socially critical lyrics. Even Bob Marley, while commercially promoted by Island Records, kept true to these lyrics and messages against oppression of Black people.
Musically, Chris Blackwell cum suis, made some adaptations to the Wailers’ original Jamaican Reggae sound, to suit supposed “White tastes”, of Rock fans, this time.
At Trojan records, this occurred too, as the book ‘Young, Gifted, and Black’ relates. This included adding of strings in Britain to early, “rougher”, Reggae songs, while the changes by Island and Blackwell to Bob’s sound are also known and by now well-documented. I wrote about this on this blog too. Not much use, therefore, repeating it all here..
In short, production, mixing, and adding of instruments to suit White tastes occurred. The added instruments were now not strings or violins. In fact, I do not know of any Bob Marley song with violins. I think some electric guitar solos were added with a White (“Rock”) audience in mind, though there are also “quality” solos between them (like on the song Heathen), irrespective of the race it is aimed at.
All this helped Reggae to crossover, and eventually (by the late 1970s), once “crossed over” to other races and cultures, it became respected also by many White fans “on its own terms”, listening to the lyrics, and many White people started to consider themselves Rastafari, even though it essentially started as Black Power movement. Many even respectful, and not for fashion-sake, with proper knowledge to back it up.
This scepsis about “White Rastas” is all-too understandable, as White people throughout history more than once “copied to take over” what is not theirs. Yet, if respectful and sincere, it is another sign of hope of people coming together, joining as one, irrespective of racial or other background, against injustice. The surrounding British society is in the present (2010s) a bit more democratic and multicultural, but still in many ways racist, and pro-White (Britons). The whole Brexit issue showed that too.
The period on which the book , ‘Young, Gifted, and Black’ centers, the 1960s and 1970s, was in that sense harsher, though young White and Black Britons hesitantly came together in clubs, became friends, through music.
This was still exceptional, as it was also common that the first mixed-raced (black-white) couples in British streets in the 1960s were insulted, and often even chased or even beaten up by White men and youths. The demeaning entry signs on many pubs and other locales throughout Britain, “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs”, have really existed, and were no invention, as some said. Historical photos have been taken and films shot of these discriminatory texts at entrances.
In such a context, this early reach of reggae of white markets, by Trojan Records, can be deemed as remarkable and innovative.
This quite recent (2018) work: ‘Young, Gifted, and Black : the story of Trojan Records’ gives some of these social glimpses and insights, but is overall more for the practical mind, than for the sociologically or scholarly interested. Many facts or events are described in business terms, how to gain profit, reach markets, business plans, legal rights, managerial choices.. Even music and the songs themselves get relatively little attention, and all the more whether it sold.
Their choice, but I personally do not find that interesting or pleasant reading material. I am more interested in culture than in business, more in humanity and life than in money.
The book is well-documented, on the other hand, including for a large part comprehensive lists of all Trojan releases, possibly of interest to record collectors.