donderdag 3 november 2011

Crucial reggae songs on slavery

“Crucial” is meant double here as it has in Jamaican and/or reggae parlance also the meaning of “cool” or “excellent”, alongside the standard English meaning of “very important”. Both meanings are relevant as I delve into the theme of lyrics in reggae music and the “history of slavery”: how do reggae artists discuss this, in most cases their and Jamaica’s, history. What are informative as well as impressive songs about slavery in reggae?

I hope that many people will know that reggae is mostly known for the socially conscious, often Rastafarian lyrics, and therefore also deals with black history, historical injustices, Africa and other themes. That’s why I’m going to discuss the how and not the if.


This was further partly influenced by a recent and current discussion that arose in the country where I reside, the Netherlands. There a series discussing (Dutch) slavery history was aired on television starting in September 2011 and consisting of 5 episodes. The documentary series called De Slavernij (Dutch for Slavery) was presented as groundbreaking, comprehensive, and serious. Renowned Dutch historians on Suriname, the Caribbean and the Dutch slavery history advised the makers of the series.

To be short, the series met with a lot of criticism. Other historians, some with a Surinamese background, argued that the view presented of the Dutch involvement in trans-Atlantic slavery was too much from a White, Dutch perspective: too trifling and downplaying, inappropriately compared, and “white-washed”, i.e. made seem less bad or horrendous than the ”crime against humanity” which the United Nations recognized trans-Atlantic slavery to be in 2001.

Main – or best-known - critic was Sandew Hira (writer’s name for Dew Baboeram), a historian with a Surinamese background. He called the way of thinking of the advisors and historians behind the series “colonial”. Sandew Hira discusses this, according to him, colonial perspective of certain Dutch historians on his website (in Dutch).

I found this an interesting debate, though it at times became too personal. Either way I thought Sandew Hira had some good points, as did other critics of the series. For instance, already in the first episode of De Slavernij, colonial slavery in the Caribbean was more or less compared to the not ideal working conditions of present-day illegal Polish labourers in certain Dutch companies. Such inappropriate comparisons with “modern slavery”, albeit also worse cases than of the Polish, occurred constantly and too much, as was the excessive and irrelevant contextualizing within the generally harsher European societies of the time. Child labour, intolerance, and extreme penalties among Dutch people were mentioned almost as much as Atlantic slavery was actually discussed. Something had to be obfuscated, it seemed. Cruel and harsh mass slavery on racial grounds as part of Dutch history was too unpleasant to recognize apparently. Not just the papist, opportunistic Portuguese and Spanish zealots of the time, or the arrogant British, but also we, the saintly, tolerant Dutch actually traded in and had slaves! The self-image of the Netherlanders is mostly that of a cool, progressive country. This history does not fit in with that.

The attention to trans-Atlantic slavery, or enslavement, of Africans in the stricter historical sense in the series showed this same tendency to downplay the horrors. The clear and speaking fact that there was a mortality surplus among slaves (more died than were born) in Suriname, and most Caribbean colonies, was not even mentioned! Instead someone said about conditions on plantations that slaves got through the day as with other jobs. This, even if partly true, is superfluous. People, as a surviving skill, tend to try to get through periods and not lose themselves in desperation. Also a prostitute forced by her pimp to be raped in different ways by clients about 8 times a day “tries to get through the day” as did girls kidnapped to be sex slaves of which there were cases in e.g. Austria.


Besides this, in this post I wish to focus on one aspect of this discussion: that of perspective. Sandew Hira deplores the fact that there is an absence of Black Studies departments at Dutch universities as there are in the US and Britain, and he therefore calls for this. A black perspective, part of an effort to “decolonize” the mind and slavery historiography. He quotes Bob Marley (actually Marcus Garvey, who Marley in turn quoted) by stating “emancipate yourself from mental slavery”. This was from Marley’s famous song ‘Redemption Song’. I’m going to use this known song of Marley as a starting point for my discussion of such a “Black perspective”, namely slavery (history) in reggae songs and lyrics. From Jamaica, where the large majority descend from African slaves brought there by force. Of course also beyond Marley: I’m a reggae fan, not just (not even primarily) a Bob Marley fan.

I nonetheless start with ‘Redemption Song’. Jamaican Marcus Garvey – main prophet of the Rastafari and Black Power thinker - wrote and spoke a lot about slavery, describing – quite correctly also from a scholarly perspective – the historical trajectory of slavery in the West Indies, but also built his philosophies around it. One of the most impressive and inspirational was Garvey’s view to how the painful slavery past can be used to arise black people in the present. Despite hardships, high mortality and suffering, a part of the slaves survived to give a future to their children and grandchildren and other descendants: these must therefore make the most of their present in the world. As a tribute to the struggling ancestors. An interesting and uplifting take.

Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’, a song from 1981, has an equally wise quote from Garvey: ”emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our mind”, with partly the same uplifting message. Due to the international influence of Marley, the quality of the song and lyrics, and the fact that it was the latest studio recording of Marley before he died (adding to its dramatic feel) makes 'Redemption Song' unavoidable to mention as “crucial reggae song on slavery”.

Musically I liked it, but I actually liked the full instrumental (non-solo guitar) version of ‘Redemption Song’ better, but that’s a matter of taste. I’m in good company though: Marley slightly preferred that fuller version also (yet producer Chris Blackwell advised to add a solo-guitar song on the Uprising album). The lyrics are undisputably strong: describing the history of slavery, and how an own cultural strength helped black people to survive it: “it’s all I ever had” as maybe the dramatic lyrical highpoint. But there are several other equally impressive songs within reggae. I focus on the roots reggae heyday of and around the (late) 1970s, but not limited to that period. Let’s proceed.

Junior Byles, an idiosyncratic and talented artist, made the classic album Beat Down Babylon in 1972 with Lee “Scratch” Perry as producer. The lyrics on this album are mostly Rastafari-related and “conscious”, but two songs deal more directly with the slavery past: the beautiful ‘Place Called Africa’ and ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’. ‘Place Called Africa’ deals with Africa and how the memory of slavery survived in oral tradition passed from mother to child. The mother tells the painful slavery history taking them away from Africa (significantly: the mother tells not “they stole our ancestors on a ship” but instead “they stole us on a ship. We had to work and slave each day ETC”). Also here there is a dramatic highpoint in this song, as the mother breaks down and cries telling this story and the child responds “mama please don’t cry”.

The song ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’ has the informative and strong lines “I’ve been robbed of everything, because of the colour of my skin” and “all my life I’ve been bound and chained, and now I don’t even know what’s my name”. The sad history but taken to the present and identified in the present. There is also an uplifting message, partly in ‘Place Called Africa’ (“a brighter sun has come today”), but these lyrics emphasize the sad history and the consequences.

Other lyrics emphasize the uplifting message much more, in combination with the slavery history. As an uplifting highpoint so to speak. A good example of this is I think the Twinkle Brothers’ song ‘Rasta Pon Top’. Like many good songs or musical pieces ‘Rasta Pon Top’ has what can be termed a dramatic development. I mentioned such dramatic highpoints in other songs already, but in ‘Rasta Pon Top’ it is the chorus line: after describing slavery’s oppression, abuse, and rape the chorus goes: ‘Rasta Pon Top’ (background vocals), lead vocal: “we gwine walk pon dem ETC” (the table has turned, so to speak). Rastafari as an answer to 400 years of slavery and oppression: which I think is not a mere interpretation, but a fact.


Marcus Garvey was in favour of repatriation to the motherland Africa for black people, sceptical as he was about the possibilities for full and free development for black people in the white-dominated West (colonies and former colonies), such as the US, Caribbean, or Latin America. Repatriation to Africa also is a central tenet in Rastafari beliefs. Some see it as actual, if often eventual, physical return and migration to Africa, especially Ethiopia (Zion), others maybe see it more as (at least) symbolic or even for some (also) after death (some replace Christian Heaven with Zion). It remains in whatever way part of the “upliftment” for black people and Rastas: leaving out of Babylon (the Western world), and back to ancestral Africa.

Of course there is a connection with the slavery past: Babylon stole them from Africa and brought them to the West to start with. The connection - direct or indirect - is there as there is a distinct conception of time and of identification. Marley sang “Old pirates yes them rob I”, not “old pirates stole my foreparents”. Foreparents are us today (not separate from I), then is now, we are still not free (mental slavery), we (I an I) cannot be free inna Babylon, that’s why we (I an I) must return to Africa. That is how the repatriation call is most commonly related, though there is variation on this theme. Current singer/deejay Jah Mason, a Bobo Ashanti Rasta, chats/toasts militantly: “same place they take me from they better take me right back”). Also some other, and earlier, songs from the 1970s make a more direct connection between slavery then (how it began) and repatriation now. Sugar Minott’s ‘Africa Is The Black Man’s Home’ being an example, or also the Mighty Diamonds beautiful ‘Africa’ (a hit single in Jamaica in 1976).

Most common is the connection that is broader - intertwining present, past, and future - with also a focus on the present in Babylon, i.e. not wearing chains, but still not free. To cultural alienation, current oppression and poverty, though also related to slavery history. Actually similar to what Garvey said and did. Songs like Culture’s ‘Black Star Liner Must Come’ and ‘Too Long In Slavery’, or Burning Spear’s ‘African Postman’ and ‘African Teacher’. So does Dennis Brown’s ‘Jah Can Do It’. Also the classic Mighty Diamonds tune ‘Blackman’ thus intertwines past, present, and future.


Actually, most common in Rastafari-inspired reggae lyrics is such an intertwining of past, present, and future. This of course makes philosophically and even rationally sense. Yet a focus on historical epochs by themselves, are also not uncommon. Burning Spear’s ‘Slavery Days’ has such an approach, with history as the main focus. Not the only focus, because the line “some of us survived, showing that we are still alive” includes the present, which is almost unavoidable. Tetrack’s ‘Only Jah Jah Know’ (“how we survived”) has a similar historical focus, but also with a reference to the present. Worthy of mention as more historical is the Mighty Diamonds’ nice ‘Cat O’Nine’, its title referring to a type of whip used during slavery.

The Abyssinians ‘Declaration Of Rights’ in turn connects the slavery past (“Look how long they had us in chains, held us in bondage ETC’) with upliftment in the present and future (singing “Get up and fight for your rights”). The Abyssinians’ ‘African Race’ in turn has a more historical focus, as does Eek-A-Mouse’s for him untypical rootsy song ‘Do You Remember’ (“those days of slavery”).

Jah judgment and Amagidion (Armageddon) also is included as the wicked man at the end will have to pay for their oppression and enslavement, pay a price on Jah judgment day as Gregory Isaacs sings on his more history-focussed song ‘Slave Market’. Also more historical, though in present tense, is Isaacs strong tune ‘Slave Master’, with the lyrics set on a plantation.


New Roots, as the current group of Rastafari-inspired, conscious deejays or singers - often of the Bobo Ashanti mansion - is called, think artists like Sizzla, Lutan Fyah, the already mentioned Jah Mason, Richie Spice, Bushman, Capleton, Chezidek, or I-Wayne, follow broadly the same thematic lines as the earlier roots artists. That is not so strange, since these all fit within the Rastafarian worldview and philosophy. Calls for repatriation, remembrance of slavery, current continuing oppression of blacks (Babylon now using brains instead of chains) all recur, and similarly intertwine. The presentation and metaphors, such as an increased focus on “bun fyah”, may differ partly from before, the themes however remain largely similar. Chezidek gives an interesting account of how violence started with colonialism and slavery, continuing in the present, in his song ‘Who Start’ (2009).


Slavery is what Rastafarianism is an answer to. Trans-Atlantic slavery was forced labour, but combined with cultural alienation. It included the forced transport from Africans to another continent, destruction of large parts of the culture and community bonds (though partly revived or maintained), and even loss of Africans’ family names, replaced with European ones. Rastafari was mainly a way to restore black people’s cultural identity, restore pride in the own race, and through this the social position. This combined with theological aspects with Haile Selassie (Jah) as god and symbol of black and African independence, and a rereading of the White-manipulated Bible from a Black perspective. All along the lines of Marcus Garvey’s views and prophecies. With slavery the cultural alienation began, so this painful history is intrinsically part of the movement.

Much roots reggae is Rastafari-influenced and/or Garvey-influenced and this explains the lyrics. Slavery is seldom discussed as a closed historical topic, only perhaps on some songs, whereas other songs of the same artists (or even album) discuss it broader: slavery was then, followed by continuing oppression by the same wicked Babylon, so there is a need for upliftment through repatriation and African pride. As I said the past, the present reality, and the future are intertwined, inseparable. It makes sense as there is still racial inequality in e.g. Caribbean societies. Lighter-skinned people are still to be found in higher positions than darker-skinned people, relatively more residing in the ghettos. One of the direct heritages of slavery.

This is a black perspective that is regarding intellectual form and expressions typical for Rastafari-inspired people (and artists), but in deeper meaning more broadly present among Afro-Caribbean or Afro-American people, though to differing degrees: some are more fooled or influenced by Babylon, so to speak. Injustice began with slavery and was therefore essential (unfortunately) for the current identity and struggles.

This existential role of the slavery history differs in many cases from the distanced, trifling role white historians attribute to the history. They can afford to, without questioning their own being. Maybe they, in relation to historical facts, only have to moderate an inflated national self-pride (English or Dutch were also evil in history), but that is not that hard to deal with, not something to lose even a minute of sleep over. Much less existential or essential therefore than for black people as descendants of deracinated slaves in the Americas. This difference in perspective on this history seems to me therefore a matter of worldview, of sensed identity, as well as of social position.


The following 20 songs thus form a list worth checking out for people who do not know them. They are only some of many songs treating slavery in reggae, but I think they are good examples and representative. They are also for the most part great (lyrically and musically “crucial”).

-Bob Marley & the Wailers – Redemption Song (from album Uprising, 1981)
-Junior Byles – I’ve Got A Feeling (from album Beat Down Babylon, 1972)
-Junior Byles – Place Called Africa (from album Beat Down Babylon, 1972)
-Twinkle Brothers – Rasta Pon Top (from album Rasta Pon Top, 1975)
-Sugar Minott – Africa Is The Black Man’s Home (from album Ghetto-ology, 1979)
-Mighty Diamonds – Africa (from album Right Time, 1976)
-Mighty Diamonds – Blackman (from album Deeper Roots (Back to the Channel), 1979)
-Mighty Diamonds – Cat O Nine (orig. 1976?)
-Culture – Black Star Liner Must Come (from album Two Sevens Clash, 1976)
-Culture – Too Long In Slavery (from album International Herb, 1979)
-Burning Spear – Slavery Days (from album Marcus Garvey, 1975)
-Burning Spear – African Postman (from album Hail H.I.M., 1980)
-Burning Spear – African Teacher (from album Hail H.I.M., 1980)
-Dennis Brown – Jah Can Do It (from album Visions Of Dennis Brown, 1978)
-Abyssinians – Declaration Of Rights (from album Satta Massagana, 1976)
-Abyssinians – African Race (from album Satta Massagana, 1976)
-Tetrack – Only Jah Jah Know (from album Let’s Get Started, 1978)
-Gregory Isaacs – Slave Market (from album Soon Forward, 1979)
-Gregory Isaacs – Slave Master (orig. 1977)
-Eek-A-Mouse – Do You Remember (from album Skidip, 1982)
-Chezidek – Who Start (from album I Grade, 2009)