“Duppy Conquering”: An Exploration of The Supernatural in Reggae Music

The Caribbean has historically been associated with the supernatural. Tales of Jamaican Maroon leader Nanny’s mystical prowess, the memorable Miss Cleo of Psychic Readers’ Network, and legends of the devouring Bermuda Triangle all envision the Caribbean from inside and out as enchanted. Within the Caribbean, duppies, soucouyants, zombies, rolling calves and jumbies are frequently an element of cultural productions such as songs, poems, novels, and plays. There are also various Caribbean spiritual practices associated with the supernatural such as Voodoo, Obeah, Myalism and Santeria.

Furthermore, some of the slave rebellions that destabilized the colonial project in the West Indies and ultimately contributed to the termination of slavery in the region were closely associated with some form of Afro-Caribbean spiritual practice that helped enable the rebellion. In Haiti, Mackandal, the famed Voodoo priest or hougan, led the 1757 slave revolt. A couple decades later, the 1791 revolt was led by Boukman, another Voodoo priest. In the British West Indies the traditions of Obeah and Myalism operated similarly to Voodoo and played key roles in the 1760 Jamaican revolts led by a reputed Obeah man named Tacky. All these spiritual practices promised slave rebels protection, allowing them to envision the possibility of success in bleak circumstances.

It is no wonder then that reggae songs are filled with an abundance of supernatural entities, haunting and bewitching us from every angle. Bob Marley’s “Duppy Conqueror” is among the most well known of this group and was released in the nineteen-seventies amidst ongoing political and economic upheaval in Jamaica. The song narrates the heroic escape of its protagonist from a metaphoric prison and situates that prison and its underlying political machinery as a “duppy”; hence the hero becomes a triumphant “duppy conqueror.” “The bars could not hold me / floors could not control me, now / they try to keep me down / but God put me around,” sings Marley, designating the oppressive objective of the duppy as containment and restriction. This duppy is further positioned as antithetical to progress because it attempts to disrupt the hero’s “journey to Mount Zion,” a metaphor for heaven—a place of physical and/or mental escape from oppression.

These conditions of imprisonment refer to those range of issues contended with by post-colonial cultures in the Caribbean and elsewhere, issues such as the lack of access to jobs, housing, education, and medical care, which impede individual and communal growth and perpetuate poverty and subjugation. Numerous other songs utilize duppy imagery as Marley does by incorporating a disruptive, and debilitating supernatural force as a representation of an oppressive and often bourgeoisie power structure. Ernie Smith’s “Duppy or a Gunman” equates a duppy and an armed robber, implicating the social and political forces that have created the phenomenon of the Jamaican gunman. Peter Tosh’s “Vampire” like “Duppy Conqueror” refers to those forces that encumber the socio-economic progress of the underclass. Tosh sings, “Oonu old vampires / who don’t like to see youths prosper / only like to see youths suffer / oonu set of vampires…only trod upon creation / with your bloody meditation / Oonu set of vampires.” Tosh’s mention that the “youth’s” access to economic opportunities is being obstructed points a finger at the bourgeoisie and suggests a disparity between those who have surmounted economic barriers and those currently attempting to do so.

Reggae music repeatedly shapes narratives involving supernatural entities and utilizes these narratives to engage the region’s collective social, political and economic nightmares. The “duppy” constructed by these songs is an entity that is subject to the cunning, will, and perseverance of a Caribbean-identified persona. The relation between these songs featuring the supernatural and the slave revolts to which I referred earlier is significant. Just as the legends of Mackandal and Tacky propose a mythology in which spiritual traditions invigorate rebellion against oppressive forces, reggae incorporates the supernatural as a modern form of insurrection. These songs target a range of supernatural entities that represent colonial and post-colonial aggressors that are detrimental to the growth and well-being of the Caribbean. The songs undermine this demonic entity by calling it out, revealing its presence and malicious intentions and often by confronting and defeating this threat, resulting in the “duppy conquering” victory about which Marley sings. 

About the Author:
Andrea Shaw, Ph.D., is assistant director of the Division of Humanities and an assistant professor of English at Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale. She was born in Jamaica and is a creative writer and a scholar of Caribbean and African Diaspora studies. Her book, The Embodiment of Disobedience: Fat Black Women’s Unruly Political Bodies, was published in 2006. Her creative and scholarly writing have been published in numerous journals, including World Literature Today, MaComére, The Caribbean Writer, Crab Orchard Review, Feminist Media Studies, Social Semiotics, and FEMSPEC. She graduated from the University of Miami with a Ph.D. in English and from Florida International University with an M.F.A in Creative Writing.