The Recording Academy, which presents the prestigious Grammy music awards, has named some of the women who were instrumental in shaping the sounds of reggae and dancehall music. Most people think of Bob Marley when they think of reggae, but women have had an integral role in building much of the music scene in Jamaica from its beginnings in the 1960s. In honor of Women’s History Month, the Academy highlighted four of the women it identified as foundational to the development of reggae and dancehall.
Sonia Eloise Pottinger, the first woman Jamaican record producer and OD recipient, created her own role in the early days of the island’s music industry. She is considered one of the greatest of Jamaica’s record producers, working with ska and rocksteady musicians who preceded reggae, as well as gospel artists from the mid 1960s to mid 1980s through her record labels Gay Feet, Excel, Pep, High Note, and Glory. She and her husband Lindon Pottinger founded several labels, a shop, and studio that recorded seminal artists. She was the first woman to be the co-owner of the first music facility in Jamaica that was owned and operated by a Black individual. After her friend producer Arthur “Duke” Reid died, she inherited the catalog of his Treasure Isle Records and its recording studio, bringing in notable performers like Marcia Griffiths and Beres Hammond and licensing Treasure Isle tracks to companies overseas, including Trojan Records. Her business skills, vision, and ear for music contributed to the worldwide influence of reggae music. Pottinger died in 2010, but her legacy lives on.
Patricia Chin, 83, has run VP Records for more than 40 years. The legendary distributor, shop, and record label is dedicated to dancehall and reggae. Chin and her husband Vincent “Randy” Chin left the political violence of Kingston behind and moved to Queens, New York, where they founded VP Records in 1979. VP Records is the largest independent recording label, distributor, and publisher of reggae and dancehall music in the world. It has over 25,000 song titles, and the company is woman-owned and operated. In 2015, Chin became the first woman to be presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Association of Independent Music. The label has helped to launch the careers of artists like Lady Saw, Maxi Priest, Bounty Killer, and Beenie Man. In Kingston, the Chins operated Randy’s Records, a distribution and recording studio that began in the late 1950s and produced sessions with Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer and others working at the intersection of ska, rocksteady, and reggae. She pioneered the compilation album format at a time when the market favored singles. DJ Kool Herc, the founder of hip-hop, said that “What “What Berry Gordy was to Motown, Patricia Chin is to VP Records and the reggae industry.”
The legendary Marcia Griffiths has one of the longest careers in reggae, performing since 1964. Her vocals are featured on ska, reggae, rocksteady, and dancehall records. She began singing with Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, and then went on to record duets with artists like Bob Marley for Studio One, the label owned by Coxsone Dodd. She released her first single “Feel Like Jumping” in 1968, and in 1970, came to global fame with her duet with Bob Andy in the reggae cover of “Young, Gifted and Black.” With Rita Marley and Judy Mowatt, Griffiths formed the I-Threes in 1974, backup singers for Bob Marley. The group continued to release music after the death of Marley, and Griffiths continued to produce records as a solo performer. In 1983, her “Electric Boogie” single inspired the dance still popular today. She has more than 15 albums to her name, and in 2014, received he Jamaican Order of Distinction for her contributions to reggae music.
Sister Nancy’s 1982 dancehall recording “Bam Bam” is the most-sampled reggae song in history, but Sister Nancy, born Ophlin Russell, broke through as the first woman dancehall deejay when she was still in her teen years and dominated the previously all-male sound system culture of Kingston. Her debut record “One Two” was recorded in 1982. While its other songs were not popular in Jamaica, “Bam Bam” was a massive hit. Sister Nancy moved to the US in 1996 and worked as an accountant. Despite the popularity of her song, she never received any compensation for it. “Bam Bam” was credited instead to producer Winston Riley. When she heard the song used in a Reebok commercial in 2014, she sued and won, receiving a decade’s worth of royalties, as well as 50-percent rights to the original album and publishing credits. After winning the lawsuit, Sister Nancy left her accounting job and began to perform again around the world.