That is good, because it is necessary. Most musical genres, after all, pop, folk genres and classical ones, tend to focus lyrically too dominantly on what is known as “romantic love”. That has become a safe, accepted theme, even among the mainstream and cultural “gatekeepers” in many societies. Reason enough to mistrust it..
Romantic love is a “safe” theme also politically of course, as in dictatorships and similar political systems with censorship, such romantic love themes are personal, small-scale human trivialities, not impacting upon the status-quo or affecting power relations. It is therefore stimulated. As an “opium for the people”, so to speak, not unlike big sports, or the “bread and games” of Ancient Rome.
It passes censorship in dictatorships or authoritarian societies, yet also in formally democratic societies, like in North America and Europe, there is an overall greater acceptance and support in popular music for romantic love lyrics. It is certainly more (potentially) commercially successful. It is in that sense also safe, but also recognizable/relatable for/by many people, as a pleasant, diversionary, and light theme, thus avoiding heavy themes like social inequality, poverty, exploitative bosses, corruption, etcetera etcetera.
Reggae, with its rich legacy of socially conscious lyrics, clearly counters that.
Even the internationally most famous Reggae artist, Bob Marley, continued with socially conscious lyrics, even at the height of his international/crossover fame. I always admired that. It is simply hard to accuse Bob Marley of being a sell-out. Adaptive maybe, but never really selling out. Songs like Is This Love or Waiting In Vain are indeed about safe, “romantic love”. Did Bob have a broader audience in mind? Maybe a bit, but not so much.
When Bob Marley’s album Kaya was released, it got criticized by many for having too much “lovey dovey” lyrics: where was the social rebellion of previous albums? Also the non-love songs on that album were mostly about marijuana (like the title track) or other light themes as music and dancing itself (Easy Skankin’). Bob defended this as a needed break from the militant vibe, toward mellower vibes. Again: difficult to simply characterize as “selling out”, or just thinking commercially. There is some genuineness there.
Public reception is another thing, though. Songs of Bob that were love songs, Is This Love or Waiting In Vain, were among his biggest hits internationally, as was No Woman No Cry, which “seems” a love song lyrically. Granted, protest songs like Get Up Stand Up are well-known too, but a bit less, it seems.
What I like about Bob’s songwriting, though, is how it had a versatility lyrically: No Woman No Cry as well as another big hit, Could You Be Loved, seem superficially love songs, but in fact contain social criticism when you listen to the entire lyrics.
This all raises a question I find interesting: to what degree represents the “romantic love” theme in Reggae lyrics a diversion from the “social protest” or “spiritual norms”? Equally interesting: is romantic love discussed differently in Reggae lyrics, compared to other genres?
Being a Reggae fan over 30 years now, I should have some ideas and knowledge about that.
WHAT KIND OF LOVE?
A distinction is first in order. Notably between “love” and “romantic love”. The latter referring more to personal relationship issues between a man and a woman, the former more to a basic human need and desire, or connection between people, besides just “lovey dovey” hugging and kissing of those in love.
This last aspect is also found in Reggae, of course. Despite my slightly ironic phrasing I do not think there is something wrong with that, per se. It is a part of all our lives, we fall in love with some persons, have romantic relationships etcetera. It’s nice when someone describes eloquently passionate or lonesome feelings we also seem to recognize in ourselves. It can be a pleasant recognition I myself also found in Reggae love lyrics. Johnny Clarke’s I Wish It Could Go On was such a song I enjoyed especially when I myself felt in love with someone, once in a time. Also “heart break” or lost love songs I recognized and “felt”, such as the almost too beautiful “Closer To You” by Ijahman Levi. Gregory Isaacs – who had also “lonely lover” as a nickname – had also nice lyrics in this regard.
Also these lyrics (song One Who Loves You) by Everton Blender I related to, when I heard them: in my life then I had the dubious honour of being the good male friend a woman (actually a few women) talked to about problems with other men, only without the intimate advantages she or they allowed these other men, apparently.
The other “love”, though, is more about human unity in the world, or within the Black community, or among different races, which is more part of social issues, albeit with less “militancy”. This love is also a "higher" love, one can say, often also connected to spirituality or divinity (Jah/God). Seemingly less militant, believing in this higher love can be actually quite rebellious in many social contexts. That is also alluded to in many Reggae lyrics: Freddie McGregor’s song self-explanatorily titled We Need More Love In the Ghetto, or Israel Vibration’s Live In Jah Love, Culture’s Peace and Love (in the Dancehall), or Dennis Brown’s Love and Hate (can never be friends) etcetera. And of course Bob Marley’s One Love: a song of Bob I hear too much, when compared to others of him.
Current New Roots by people like Protoje, Chronixx, Lutan Fyah, Iba Mahr, Queen Ifrica, Sizzla Kalonji, Buju Banton, Morgan Heritage, Luciano, Richie Spice, and others, continue this “love as social rebellion” strain in some of their lyrics, usually interchanged with more militant lyrics, spiritual lyrics, and, yes, on occasion also lyrics on “romantic love”, also by these artists. Also part of human life, of course.
I like that Reggae lyrics are about everything in life: Rastafari, social conditions, injustice, but also human relationships: backstabbing friends, betrayal, parasitic behavior, fake people, and also romantic relationships that offered some relief from the struggles, or that ended, unluckily for the lover still in love.. Reggae lyrics have the whole versatile “pallet” of human life and needs, you can say.
More specialized within reggae is the subgenre of Lovers Rock. This especially became strong in especially British Reggae around the 1980s, for some reason. Well.. “for some reason..”, some sociological explanations have been given for this. The different lives and economic situations of Caribbean migrants in Britain, when compared to Jamaican ghetto or “poor rural” life, with an almost inevitable adaptation of British Jamaicans to the, one might say, “bourgeois” lifestyles of white people in the Western world: working to pay the bills, settle down in an own house with a loved one, etcetera etcetera.
This does not explain all of this popularity of Lovers Rock in Britain, though. Being Black and of Jamaican descent in a “White man country” like Britain is not easy. Britain seems open, modern, multicultural, and democratic, but the racial discrimination and exclusionary mechanisms are likewise there, only more hidden and perhaps confusing. British Reggae acts like Steel Pulse and Misty In Roots therefore have mainly socially critical and Rastafari-inspired lyrics, and to a lesser degree also Aswad (whose band names means after all “Black” in Arab). The biggest hit in the “mainstream” of Aswad was, predictably, a (romantic) love song: Don’t Turn Around.. An “okay” song, certainly better than much that was high in the pop hit parades, but hardly their best song.
The origins of Lovers Rock, however, are rather Jamaican, showing how the “romantic love” theme has never been neglected, sidelined but never abandoned, in Jamaican music. Not even with the rise of Rastafari-inspired Roots Reggae, since around 1973. Gregory Isaacs, is more or less seen as the originator of Lovers Rock as such, although Alton Ellis, Freddie McGregor, Ijahman Levi, and Dennis Brown also influenced it.
Many Reggae artists, like Freddie McGregor, Half Pint, Cornell Campbell, Ijahman Levi, Don Carlos, Horace Andy, the Mighty Diamonds, and Ini Kamoze have quite some love lyrics – about love relationships -, as do later artists like Chronixx, Junior Kelly, Tarrus Riley, Romain Virgo, Bushman, Sizzla, Jah Mason, or Lutan Fyah. Even as these do not “specialize” in them as such (as e.g. Beres Hammond).
More “Rootical” or spiritual artists like Burning Spear, the Abyssinians, the Congos, the Wailing Souls, the Gladiators, or Culture, are less known for such romantic love lyrics, but even of these there are some (exceptional) examples, on some of their albums.
This brings me back to what I mainly want to discuss in this particular post. “How” are the romantic love lyrics in Reggae discussed, especially when compared to other music genres world wide?
I have a Spanish-speaking background (Spanish mother), and understand Spanish since I was a child (in fact before I learned Dutch, even if born and grown in the Netherlands). For that reason I can compare with lyrics in Spanish pop (Julio Iglesias for instance) or folk genres like Flamenco music, having a rich poetic legacy. Moreover, I understand lyrics in Latin American and Spanish Caribbean genres too: Cuban music, Merengue, Salsa, Colombian cumbia and other genres.
This knowledge of languages – I also understand many Italian, French, and Portuguese lyrics for instance – gives me more “material” to compare with. This besides the fact that have been listening to varied Reggae music (old and new) since my early teenager years, and already knew English quite well then.
Well, romantic love lyrics tend to be more commercial, better for crossing over to other audiences, or the main stream. Reggae artists experienced this, although not always due to a conscious, commercial strategy. Rastafari and socially rebellious lyrics of Dennis Brown or Gregory Isaacs – of which there are many examples too, of course – never became (relatively) big hits for them like Brown’s Money In My Pocket (his biggest hit, overall, commercially, ranking e.g. high in British charts), or Isaacs’ Night Nurse. The same applies to an artist like Ras Shiloh, whose biggest hit up to now is still Are You Satisfied, while he arguably has better (but more conscious) songs.
I consider myself more or less a Gregory Isaacs fan, but admit that I by now have heard Night Nurse too much; I grew tired of it. Its lyrics are perhaps more sexual than “romantic love”, but either way not “conscious”’.
With romantic love you reach the mainstream, because supposedly is more recognizable by “others”, outside the musical culture or scenes. They seemingly represent universal, human traits beyond a specific culture (like in this case Jamaica’s..).. or does it?
To a degree, I think, yes. Being in love is being in love universally, a largely biological, human need and behavior, with similar effects across cultures and races.
There are, however, cultural specifics that I find must be emphasized. There are many cultures in the world where “boy meets girl in a social setting, flirting, and eyes meet etcetera” is not the norm. Arranged marriages through parents are there the norm, leaving actual “love feelings” to the hidden, clandestine areas. In the more strict Hinduist and Islamic interpretations this is still the case. Earlier in history also in Europe: my mother told me a story about (landowning) parents in her village of birth in South West Spain, objecting to and trying to keep their son from having a love affair with a very poor, peasant girl in the same village.
Also “macho” cultural norms and historical male privileges in culture and society can disturb such “love relationships”, as certain insecure men actually expect women to be more their servants or concubines, rather than another equal person that you have warm feelings for, and share minds and hearts with, on the basis of equality.
Most Jamaicans are of sub-Saharan African descent, a cultural heritage inevitably mixed with slavery and colonialism with European culture, mostly of the Anglo-Saxon type in Jamaica.
The cultures and areas where enslaved Africans were taken from to Jamaica, relatively many from the Ghana, Nigeria, and Congo areas, had historically no lesser place for women than in Europe of the time. In some areas, African women even had more rights, up to around the 19th c., than in countries like Britain at the time, with a Protestant rigidity, or Spain and Portugal, where Catholicism combined with remnants of an Islamic past to keep women as subservient to and dependent on men in society and families, resulting in a “machismo” cult.
I think a reason why this “backward” myth of African gender roles still persists, is the place of “polygamy” in African societies. This tended historically to be formally rejected in Christian Europe (but hiddenly practiced, and more or less accepted if by men, a bit more openly in the “Latino” countries), while it was more openly present and accepted in African societies, in the same period (around the 18th c. AD). In many cultures, such as in Ghana before Christianity really became influential there, and in the area of Nigeria and Congo too, men and women of mature ages tended to live apart in their own, separate dwellings, occasionally “visiting” male or female partners for amorous encounters: mostly “visiting” several women (and men!) in the same life period. Among the more isolated (African-descended) Maroon communities in Suriname this practice is still maintained up to the present, by the way.
There is however a strong Christian influence in Jamaica too, so these remnants of this variant of “equal” polygamy – differing from the male-directed one in Islam – are discarded for single partners, marriages, exclusive relationships, etcetera, i.e. family values from European Christianity.
Womanizing or polygamous tendencies are certainly strong in Jamaica, to be sure, fathering children with several women in fact quite common, for example. These are however influenced also by the slavery past, when White slave-owners tended to have (then mostly forced) sexual relationships with several female slaves, even when having a wife at home (many slave-owners were single men, other had wives in England). A bad example on the former slaves, so to speak.
All this somehow shapes the “romantic love” lyrics in Jamaican Reggae, partly having similar “tropes” as in Anglo-Saxon or many Latin “pop” love songs (do you love me, give me love, please be faithful, and I saw you with another man). There are for that reason similarities between such romantic love lyrics, in content, between Reggae artists, and those in quite other genres, such as Spanish crooner Julio Iglesias, French “chansons” like of Jacques Brel, or songs by artists like Van Morrison, songs in Salsa, Merengue, Bossa Nova, Rock or Blues, or even of Country artists. There are different accents per genre, that is true, but also similarities in treating themes like being in love, wanting someone, heart break, breaking up, cheating, lost love, etcetera.
If you would translate lyrics by, e.g. Latin crooners like, for instance, Juan Luis Guerra (Dominican Republic), Julio Iglesias (Spain), or his son Enrique, from Spanish to English, some lyrics would resemble superficially some of those you hear in Reggae “you don’t love me and I know..”, “what I won’t do for your love”, “for the love of a woman”, “don’t be afraid of my love”..such themes. So do, of course, many Soul music lyrics since the Motown days, even influencing some Reggae artists.
On the other hand, some themes recurring in Reggae love lyrics are more unique to the genre though, and there it becomes interesting..
PRINCESSES AND EMPRESSES
After comparing, there is one aspect of male-female relationships that are more common in Reggae than in other genres. One is the referring to women as “African Princess” “(African) Empress”, “Lioness”, or “Roots daughter”, as part of the Africa-centered movement, that Rastafari is. There are love lyrics praising a loved woman with proper Rastafari values, or those lamenting women lacking them.
This was all there since the 1970, way before Tarrus Riley had his big hit She’s Royal, with such respectful lyrics. Another song that is fine, but I have heard too much by now..
“Gold diggers”, or women seeking money through relationships with men, are very common too. Several Reggae lyrics lament women only wanting or faking love to get money from them as men, thus playing games. These exist in Reggae already since around the 1970s. Understandable, perhaps, in a socioeconomic context with much poverty as Jamaica’s. Women in such contexts search ways to “hustle” too (like men), to get by, using like other skilled hustlers weak spots, such as those of men. Such opportunistic behavior got and gets quite some attention in Reggae lyrics. It is not the only genre where one finds this, it is also heard in Hip-hop. The term “Gold Digger” from Hip-hop also reached Jamaican lyrics in more recent times.
Some lyrics can be categorized under “romantic love lyrics”, but are rather more “lewd” or sexual and sensual in main focus. This cheeky “double entendre” has quite a tradition in some Caribbean genres (calypso, mento a.o.), including in Cuban or Dominican music. Of course there is an obvious interrelation as love can be expressed sexually in healthy, or more meaningful relationships, but some songs – also in Reggae – focus more on the sensual/sexual part. In Dancehall this is often more “slackness”: explicit (more “pornographic”) lyrics, more sex-focussed, and often degrading to women or consisting of empty “machismo” boasting. Literal references to body parts, i.e. genitalia, tend to recur there too. Shabba Ranks’ (in my opinion mediocre) dancehall hit song Bed Room Bully, that for some reason is lately played a lot in clubs here in the Netherlands, is one such song.
In Reggae and Lovers Rock, lyrics are less explicit and more sensual, especially Gregory Isaacs was good with that. Often it combines with humour. Night Nurse is best known, but there are several other examples among his songs: sexual, but not cynical: Soon Forward, the self-explanatory If You Feeling Hot, I Will Cool You, Private Beach Party, the funny Bang Belly, Welcome To My Room, Rosie, etcetera, etcetera.
Other old and new Roots Reggae artists on occasion also make a “lewd”, sensual song to interchange the more conscious or social lyrics. Hugh Mundell, Jacob Miller, Junior Delgado, the Twinkle Brothers (It Was A Vision I Had), Junior Reid, Romain Virgo, Lee Perry, Sizzla, Buju Banton (Batty Rider, for example), and others.
Then there are more Lovers Rock reggae artists, both in Jamaica and Britain, whose lyrics became mainly about romantic love, with an occasional conscious tune. So, they became specialized in romantic love, lyrically. The other way around from other (Rootsy) Reggae artists, let’s say. Beres Hammond being a main example, Jah Cure another, or Tanya Stephens, and to a lesser degree also artists like Glen Washington, Sugar Minott, Etana, Sanchez, Gyptian, or Busy Signal.
Humour or explicitness is sometimes there, when these Reggae artists have romantic love lyrics, but seldom cynicism. Rarely are they also degrading to women: degrading in whatever sense: as a “religious” keeping down of female freedoms or denying their rights when compared to men, or the other sense: as treating women like primarily sex objects or pieces of meat.
In Dancehall Reggae this is more often the case, though often more “close to it”, because the women’s equality in the whole is seldom denied. Stupid or aggressive macho boasting, perhaps, but glorifying forced sex or rape is hardly there, even in the “slackest” Dancehall lyrics.
As an universal and biological human need, feelings of romantic love and male-female relationships, have much in common. Being in love is not stimulated in all cultures in this world, but remain inevitable, or – more poetically put – indestructible. So are longing for a significant other, sensual feelings, missing a partner, or having a heart broken and being left alone, after strong feelings developed.
For that reason, many lyrics on this theme of “romantic love” in Reggae, and its precursors Ska and Rocksteady, from the 1960s to the present, share tropes or emotions with many other genres: Do you really love me? Don’t leave me for another.. I am glad I met you.. and other such themes.
In Roots Reggae, such love lyrics tend to be sidelined relative to conscious and spiritual lyrics, but still recur, with some artists more than others.
The male-centeredness of Christian-influenced Rastafari, but also of the reggae music scene (as other pop music genres), might have caused a male bias, or a mysoginist tendency. Luckily, this is not really there in Reggae. Here and there one notices disdain of (too) independent women in some Reggae lyrics, but the same (and worse) can be heard in, e.g. Country or Bachata lyrics.
Lyrics tend to be sensitive, and present the women as equal, not as uppity slaves or disobedient children, as would do men who see women as unequal beings. Sex and love are after all a thing between adult and equal people. The critique of female gold diggers is more from a “male” perspective, but understandable. Of course, it can be vice versa too, occurring in the Caribbean too: local “good time guys” on beaches starting hot affairs with female tourists from wealthy countries, often at the same time having another Jamaican (or Cuban, Barbadian, or Bahamian etc.) girlfriend. Those are gold digging men, one might say.
That’s a positive thing in Reggae lyrics: the equality between sexes is mostly respected. Another positive thing, at least in my opinion, is that love lyrics overall are not overly “prudish” in Reggae. Sensuality is openly discussed, and playfully so, avoiding the “heavy sacredness” some main religions (Christianity, Islam a.o.) claim to propagate. Hypocritically, often. There is room for “lewd” and sensual lyrics in Reggae.
Furthermore, there are many nice “romantic love” lyrics in Reggae, with recognizable, eloquent lyrics for many people, even able to support or console people listening with similar feelings. By Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown, Ijahman Levi, the Mighty Diamonds, the Gladiators, Beres Hammond, Glen Washington, Half Pint, and, more recently, Jah Cure, Chronixx, Fantan Mojah, and many, many others. Too many to mention, simply.
Enough, but luckily not eclipsing the important conscious and “message” strain within Reggae, at least not among real Reggae fans..
I made a mix of Reggae songs I played as (vinyl) selecta with such romantic love lyrics, from somewhat earlier artists (around the 1980s), but this is just one of the mixes/selections that can be made, based on my taste and collection, of course..