woensdag 2 maart 2016

Employment in reggae lyrics

Employment, job - or otherwise said “labour relations” - issues tend to end up as the proverbial “elephants in the room” in many social debates internationally. That is: determinant and heavy, yet ignored and avoided. There are social debates, especially political ones, where this is not the case of course. Politicians habitually adress it rhetorically as well as with policies. This tends to be partisan and ideological, hindering a truly philosophical reflection. Reflection, for instance, on workers’ required dependency on employers during most days of the week, and on those days on most waking hours. Such philosophical, critical reflections exist solely on the margins, it seems, in present-day Western society.

Some progressive movements or political parties, such as certain Left-wing and Green parties, recently started to support a standard 32-hours work week standard, instead of the now standard 40-hours. This was formulated in election programmes as well, along with arguments related to limiting unemployment, freeing more time for family, social or “care” activities, or environmental reasons.

In many Western societies that 40-hours work week only really started to become the legal standard in the 1960s, and gradually at that. Before that employers could exploit much more and worse (with work weeks of about 75 hours), as workers had little social protection. This improved somewhat over time, although 48-hours work week remained common, and it took some time (1960s/1970s) until the Saturday became another standard day off, alongside Sunday, in countries like Britain, the Netherlands, France, Germany, or the US.

It is interesting to note that the Jamaican-born, Black empowerment proponent and intellectual Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), was in his time a relatively early advocate of the shortening of the standard work week to 40 hours (then close to 50), meaning more free time, and representing a quite progressive step for the time.

For the remainder of this post, I will continue more or less with a related, though more modern Jamaican topic. Namely, the discussion of “employment/labour relations”-related issues in lyrics of Jamaican Reggae music. This last theme happens to be a topic I have gained a lot of knowledge about in the course of time.


In some sense, slavery is to work what rape is to sex. It problematizes and dehumanizes what should not be, causing disharmony and insecurity within humans: the result of psychological traumas. Of course, the history of African-Jamaicans is one with slavery, explaining their very presence in Jamaica, after brutal and forced transports from Africa. Racially based social injustice continued after slavery was abolished in 1848, with a structurally, disadvantaged position of Afro-Jamaicans, meant to remain on the lower orders of society, excluded from higher classes, or at most working for them in a dependent position.

From this perspective, after the abolition of slavery, “work” or “employment” remained heavily problematic for Afro-Jamaicans, even if necessary for income and to pay the costs. Among poorer classes, unemployment was high, meaning for many ghetto dwellers a recurring battle for survival in poverty, sometimes trying different things, legal or illegal..just to get by. Some chose a life of crime.

Formal unemployment rates among Jamaican poor people often rose to majoritarian percentages (around or above 50%), even if not taking into account the common informal, unregistered jobs and income sources. Still, unemployment was high and problematic – and unequally spread - as in other developing countries, and explaining of course much of the poverty.


The Rastafari movement arose among poor Afro-Jamaican people since the 1930s, and alongside certain Africa-oriented social and spiritual ideas, also strove to self-sufficiency from the oppressive system, to thus be also more independent, e.g. with own agricultural endeavors.

This whole context, the Rastafari movement, and other social movements in Jamaica, influenced many Reggae lyrics. There is a strong Rastafari influence on not all, but many Reggae lyrics, especially increasing since the Roots Reggae era began in the early 1970s. Social criticism is part of this, but was there even before the 1970s in Jamaican popular music lyrics. Themes like poverty, oppression, living in the ghetto, and violence and hardship recur in Reggae lyrics, as many readers may know. I discussed such lyrical themes in earlier posts on this blog.

What I set out to do here, however, is to focus on how regular “jobs”, or employment as such, are discussed in reggae lyrics. The ordinary 40-hours work week jobs as e.g. worker, tradesman, at an office, in a factory, on the land or otherwise “on the grind”.

Reggae musicians are by definition active in the music “industry”, which for most of them is also a “job” providing needed income. Music as a way out of the ghetto. This might be a known fact. The for a long time quite exploitative practice of parts of the Jamaican music industry, plus difficulties of reaching a large audience, caused, however, that many Jamaican musical artists could not live off their music alone. This was to differing degrees even the case regarding quite well-known names, selling and touring in Europe and elswhere, such as Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, Toots & the Maytals, Burning Spear and others. Music was an important source of income for them, but did not make them comfortably rich, far from it. Many therefore invested their time in music in different ways (recording others, own sound system, own studio etcetera), looking at possibilities in the extensive Jamaican music industry. Just as many, though, had other (non-music) jobs besides their musical activities, if they could find it. If not, they were essentially poor, mainly jobless people with only a meagre income through music, helping them just to get by, on a day-to-day basis.

Due to these characteristics, one should, I think, not assume that Jamaican musicians or artists are detached from the reality of most labourers that work in other, non-creative 9 to 5 (office/factory) jobs to maintain families. Reggae, as other Black music genres, are in that sense different from the “detached artiste” in the European Classical tradition.

Jamaican musicians, like other artists, may try to make a living out of what they like and inspires them (make music, derived from their own culture), but due to circumstances they can have no “spoiled”, or “lazy” life in Jamaica, with total freedom, and little structural effort or demands. They can, but would have too little income.

Partly for that reason, themes like laziness, regular jobs, vacancy, (un)employment, low-paying (factory or other) jobs, conflicts with bosses, a.o. recur in Reggae lyrics as well, and not just lyrics about conflicts with others within the music industry itself. Besides this, even if the income from music would be sufficient, many reggae artists still remember “where they came from”, i.e. from among the poor people.


As poverty is a recurring theme in Reggae, so are other social problems, such as criminality and violence, as found in the ghetto, and in disadvantaged parts of Jamaica. Evidently, there is a direct link with employment: not able to find regular jobs easily. Not enough jobs created in different sectors. As in other developing countries, many rural dwellers move to the big city, Kingston, hoping for economic improvement from underdeveloped rural areas, some seeking employment in specific sectors. The North Coast of Jamaica also has developed a tourism industry that employed Jamaicans from the entire island.

The workings of the Jamaican economy must hereby be understood. To this day, race continues to play a role in social inequality, interlinked with class. This of course is a heritage of the colonial and slavery history. As elsewhere, family connections, or “people you know”, are influential too. Blacks remain at the bottom of the ladder: even when the majority of the Jamaican population. Unfortunately it still applies: the whiter, the more European the better. White Jamaicans, but also “Brown” people, with visible European and African ancestors (estimated at about 15% of the Jamaican poulation), therefore tend to have more favourable positions, better, higher jobs than more Black people (of mainly African descent) in Jamaica. So do minorities of Arab, Chinese or other descent. These in turn seek to procure this position within their family, thus continuing their socioeconomic advantage. That’s the way of the world, one cynically (if realistically) can say. Black Jamaican ghetto residents may try to find a job in certain companies owned by these powerful families and groups. Discrimination even based on the place of residence (downtown, ghetto areas) is however common during these job application procedures.


Examples abound within reggae lyrics, maybe too numerous too mention. I can, however, give some representative examples, or describe common threads. Not unlike I have done on other blog posts. My previous one – on the use of the güiro instrument in reggae – also provided much more examples as I could give, for instance. Either way, I will focus a bit on Roots Reggae from the 1970s onward, especially because the lyrics tended to be more socially critical.

The song ‘Unemployment’ (1984) by the Twinkle Brothers is I think interesting. The lyrics state: ”5 out of 10 nah (don’t) work..”. This is a higher percentage than the “One in Ten” that the British reggae band UB40 once sang about (song from 1981). I am not a big fan of UB40 per se, but I found their song ‘One in Ten’ okay.. Still.. 10% unemployment rate in Britain, say Birmingham, where UB40 is from, is not that much compared to for instance Jamaica, as the Twinkle Brothers’s song lyrics also illustrate. Even within Europe there are countries with higher unemployment rates. At present EU members Greece and Spain, for instance, have formal unemplyment rates of about 40%. Youth unemployment is even higher.

The song ‘Vacancy’ (1978) by Culture discusses the problematical search for work. Interestingly, Culture in other lyrics points at the need to “Do Something For Yourself”, thus keep “poverty” away through more own initiatives. This speaks of an optimistic and maintained ambiton, but also of disappointment in the Jamaican labour market.

It is this disappointment that recurs throughout reggae lyrics, dealing with the “Boss Man”, being for instance too greedy, or too exploitative. The same Twinkle Brothers síng on ‘Since I Throw The Comb Away’ (1980) that becoming a Dreadlock Rasta caused the singer to lose his job. This type of discrimination is of course also discussed in other reggae lyrics, also more recent ones. Instances where the tide seems to have turned also got attention. On ‘Dreadlocks Time’ (1979) by the Mighty Diamonds, the lyrics describe how after a period of exclusion and discrimination, “Natty Dread” could now be seen in jobs like truck driver or construction worker.. as a positive development.

The “democratic socialist” focus of the Left-wing PNP political party in the 1970s in Jamaica, alligning with many common folks and progressive social movements, got popular with many poor Jamaicans, even gaining support among some Rastafari adherents, normally (not without reason) sceptical about politicians and their promises (“politricks”). An example is Max Romeo. Some Rastafari adherents felt supported in this process, as they now could participate more in society, and “had to hide less”.

Unfortunately, this in time also resulted in disappointment, and PNP leader Michael Manley – once using Rastafari terminology to appeal to voters -, in a later interview said that he could understand that certain employers did not hire people with dreadlocks.. because of their “dramatic” appearance.

Overall, the historical record shows that with the PNP under Michael Manley there were some improvements, for poor Jamaicans and Rastafari adherents, though not as much, or as lasting, as hoped.

Most Rastafari adherents remained critical of politicians and the Jamaican political system, as showed in many lyrics since the 1960s. “Promises” made by politicians are mistrusted, and these promises included of course jobs, or economic improvement.

The Rastafari movement kept keeping the option of repatriation to Africa open and alive, to this day. In the meanwhile, some strive for self-sufficiency, also a commonly adhered to goal among the Rastafari.

On a quite recent song, ‘Wan Fi Go’ (2005), Michael Rose sings about the jobs needed when going back to Africa. An earlier song, by Burning Spear, ‘Repatriation’ (1983) has for instance the same theme, also referring to jobs needed in Africa (builders, plumbers, carpenters, engineers a.o.). Marcus Garvey likewise often had a practical, organizational focus in preparing for Black peoples’ return to the African motherland. Most practical for the few parts of Africa that were at that point independent, such as Liberia. Ethiopia was also considered in this way. Some Rastafari-inspired lyrics pointed out that being evil/wicked, criminal, but neither being “lazy” would be accepted in Zion (Ethiopia).

Culture (with as singer Joseph Hill) tended to have in its lyrics, besides e.g. spiritual themes, also “the ears to the street”, discussing many social aspects from daily life. This included “lazy” people, such as on the song ‘Mr Sluggard’ (1996): “Tell me where you get your bread..Mr Sluggard..”.

So, overall, laziness is not celebrated, while being a good worker/skilled professional is. This is of course similar to other cultures. The song ‘Tradesman’ (1982) by Ijahman Levi being an example. “Working” in a general sense, being industrious, is celebrated in songs by Culture (‘Work On Natty’, 1978), Bob Marley & the Wailers (‘Work’, 1980). On Horace Andy’s ‘Skylarking’ (1972), a hit in its time, he urges the youths to stop lazing or hanging around (“skylarking”), and instead “get a little job and earn their bread honestly”..

A more recent song from 2014 (New Roots) by Loyal Flames also applauds ‘Working’, if necessary in different kind of jobs..

Those “different kind of jobs” are also an interesting subtheme. This beyond the main problem of being able to find a job, ..any job. Some sing defiantly they refuse to be a slave of the system in working for e.g. a bank (Kabaka Pyramid’s 2014 ‘Never Gonna Be A Slave’),.. Others sing that they prefer to work in the music industry, instead of being an accountant or something else (Pablo Moses’s 1980 song ‘Music Is My Desire’), also to spread Jah message.

At the same time, those industrious ghetto people taking on low-paying, hard jobs to feed their family are praised and respected. In difficult circumstances, principles must be tempered with. Not ideal, but unavoidable for survival. Besides, it is of course preferred, considered morally better than robbing or stealing. As I stated before, unlike in some Gangsta Rap in the US, there are hardly lyrics in Reggae, not even in current “hardcore” Dancehall, that really “openly” glorify a life of crime, or doing crimes, though “Gangsta” or being “bad” is used positively in some lyrics from the likes of Vybz Kartel and others.

An interesting comment is found in Dr. Alimantado’s ‘Just The Other Day’ (1977), offering a perceptive insight on the wider economy. Wherein no one wants to be a farmer anymore, but instead doctors or lawyers, causing grocery prices in the city to go up. I find interesting about such lyrics, that it questions middle-class values, now taken for granted and quite ingrained,..by using deeper wisdom.

That the low-wage labourers have no power in their places of work is a common problem world wide. In some countries a semblance of democratization regarding this has meanwhile taken place. In many contexts, however, the boss is undisputedly the boss, not really owing any consideration to workers (beyond legally obliged wages). This still seems the case in Jamaica. Testament to this are several lyrics in Reggae about the “Boss man”, “greedy bosses” not paying what is due, or about distant bosses who decide everything, but that the worker can not even talk to, or discuss grievances with. The latter representative of a wider dehumanization. The Mighty Diamonds’ ‘Want To Know The Boss’ (1983) is an example, as is Gregory Isaacs’ ‘Poor and Clean’ (1980). The latter is a beautiful song about a humble worker in a factory.

Just as common, as already said, in reggae lyrics is the problem of not finding work. The fact that he “can’t find no job to get bread”, made Bob Andy “want to go home”, which can be understood as ancestral Africa. More directly it is said to be Africa on Ronnie Davis’s ‘Got To Go Home’ (1977), in which he laments that there are no (job) vacancies for him, as well as, also, the distant, unapproachable boss, and other problems.


Equally interesting is the relationship to education, as expressed in reggae lyrics. Going to school is by itself presented as positive, although there is critique of pro-European subject matter in schools, especially by Rastafari-adherents. The responsibility of a child to get an education is however stressed, also as better than just hanging about idly, or get involved in crime. “To learn the golden rule” is a recurring phrase in lyrics (probably partly because it rhymes with “school”), but sometimes the link of education with achieving something, getting a job is mentioned. At least it offers more options, but also here there is disappointment: Israel Vibration sings on their song ‘Racial Discrimination’ (1991): “we share the same vocabulary. Went to your high school, university. But in society there is no equality”.

In Jamaica, a subtle and complex class-race system operates excluding and discriminating Black ghetto residents from poor backgrounds, This I already mentioned, and is furthermore quite known from current sociological studies. Somewhat more education not necessarily overcomes that, that would be a naïve thought. The current “formal” unemployment figures of Jamaica lie (“only”) around 16%. This might be skewed, but what is sure that these unemployment figures are higher in poor, disadvantaged parts of Jamaica: the ghettos of downtown Kingston for instance.

As is known, it is in these Kingston ghettos that reggae music mostly developed, and where music became a wanted, but also a needed, way out of dire economic circumstances. With also limited and problematic other job options for poor people, beyond the ganja trade, not even talking about robbery, violent gang crime and cocaine-related crime, normally much more violent than the ganja (marijuana) trade that has a longer history in Jamaica. Even simple jobs in factories, as mechanics, as clerks, muscle for warehouses, or cleaning, are often difficult to achieve, or offer hardly a secure - or a too low income. Furthermore, there is relatively little legal protection for employers, and thus often little job and income security. This points at a sharp class distinction favouring exploitation of the have-nots. A sharper class distinction than in many European countries, probably, although there seem to be historical British antecedents. Important to point out, once again, that this is intertwined with racial prejudice in Jamaica.


Many Rastafari-adherents prefer not to work for businesses part of the wider, oppressive (Western) system, which they call Babylon system. Ideally, Rastafari strive to achieve self-sufficiency, or, alternatively, working for the community, not for some rich boss or company. Some, also Rastas, nonetheless take on different jobs when necessary, but often face discrimination and disappointment. Several reggae lyrics attest to this, as I have explained. Jamaican society has maybe some old-fashioned, conservative all-too class-conscious characteristics, but also in more modernized labour markets, such as in Northern or Western Europe, a “representative” appearance does not include long dreadlocks, even if a common sight in the societies.

I therefore argue that the causal relation between Rastas’s anti-systemic views – including the common labour market in a country like Jamaica - is not just one-way. Not that Rasafari despised this labour market on forehand, not in all cases at least. An increased realization of exclusion and discrimination from this labour market in turn shaped a certain focus among Rastafari adherents. From a human perspective, this is quite understandable.

Interestingly, there is a parallel her with one of the Jamaican inspirators of the Rastafari movement, the already mentioned Marcus Garvey. Looking at Garvey’s biography one finds that he first felt more or less proud to be a British subject, in a Jamaica that was then still a British colony. He sang along with the British national anthem. Maybe in some way he hoped that he could participate in education and work as an equal under the British Crown. Soon he found out about and faced racism within Jamaican society, present a bit more subtly than in the US, but still there. His travels throughout Central America, the Caribbean, and the US, further taught him how this was part of a wider, international problem, as economies kept Black people oppressed and in the lower orders, dependent on other races. This, Garvey eventually developed into his focus on Africa, as ancestral motherland to where Black people should repatriate, to build their own future with their own race and people, not dependent on other nations and races. That by that time most of Africa was colonized by European powers was unfortunate, but that does not make Garvey’s call any less sensible.

On a smaller scale, and returning to labour issues, Garvey’s biography tells how he was fired from one of his first job (at a printer) for supporting a strike of the workers, and furthermore was progressive regarding workers’protection (think about his supporting of the shorter, 40-hours work week). He did on the other hand not really support Communism though, considering it a “white man’s solution to white man (created) problems”. He favoured business ventures within and for the community: Black-owned businesses, trying to set these up himself. This would create economic and ultimately political power, he argued. This is in line with the “self-sufficiency” espoused by many Rastafari-adherents, albeit applying often on a local, smaller scale . Some lyrics, however, also recent ones, discuss needed work, jobs, and skills needed when repatriating to Africa, which remains among many Rastafari-adherents an ideal. Improvement of life and possibilities, of course, but crucially also connected to one’s own cultural identity, family and roots, historically. This makes work more meaningful for oneself. Garvey understood this extra psychological reason of repatriation to Africa well.

That a person in the place of birth/residence has no steady and secure job, let alone a comfortable social position, to lose when repatriating/migrating, further at least partly explains why this ultimate goal of “repatriation” and starting anew is still appealing. Or perhaps even necessary..