Jamaica’s Reggae Music enjoys “Protected Status” and the City of Kingston, has been deemed a Creative City, two titles earned by our music, the sojourn into which began inauspiciously enough in July of 1947 when Jamaicans were encouraged to record their voices or instruments at 76 West Street in Kingston, for a small fee. In August of the same year the public was invited to a special Gala at Kingston’s Glass Bucket Club to record their songs backed by the club’s resident Orchestra. The event identified one Byfield Norman Thomas also known as Lord Flea with his Mento rhythms. The success of the abovementioned event led to the Gleaner newspaper leading a campaign for the commercial development of recording on the island. Spurred by this interest, in 1951 Jamaican businessmen (mainly of Middle Eastern descent) took up the challenge and invested their monies in setting up recording operations. Two of the early pioneers were Ken Khouri and Stanley Motta who recorded and released the first 78 RPM discs circa 1951. Motta had recorded Rupert Linley Lyon also known as Lord Fly while Khouri recorded Byfield Norman Thomas (Lord Flea). In the same 1950s period, journalist Vere Everette Johns would enter the picture with his Vere Johns Opportunity Knocks concerts at the Ambassador theatre in the Trench Town area of Kingston. The concerts identified singing talent among the throng of Kingston youths and provided a growing pool of talent for record producers hungry for material to satisfy the shifting taste for the developing sound system movement mushrooming across the island. Taken together, it is inarguable that from both developments was birthed the Jamaican music industry. It had very little structure (if any at all) and in principle, its major players would have been the little man with his god-given singing or otherwise musical talent, and it would remain largely the same even to this very day. That notwithstanding, this setup would result in Jamaica gifting eight genres of music to the world between 1950 and 2000. These genres are: Mento, Nyabinghi, Ska, Rock Steady, Reggae, Dub, DJ, and Dancehall. Of the eight genres, it is important to know that the City of Kingston was responsible for the creation of at least six of those genres. By the mid to late-1960s, Britain became the overseas gateway for the Jamaican music product. Fueled by this accessibility, Jamaican music culture has underpinned the success of Jamaican cultural exports to the point where today, our music has been embraced by almost every country in the world. Jamaica is among a small group of countries that has successfully exported its culture around the globe. Reggae Music is known, played and performed in most countries and its companion Rastafarian culture has grown in lock step with its popularity. Dancehall music and culture is equally big in the Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas and provides a magnetic pull-effect in many tourist markets.
In December of 2015, the United Nations Education and Scientific Council (UNESCO) designated the city of Kingston, Jamaica a “Music City” in the UNESCO Creative Cities Network. At its core, music and other cultural activities are the primary social and economic activity drivers of the city with the largest inventory of recording studios in the world, it is little wonder that the island reports as producing the highest volume of recorded music in the world per capita. Yet, despite this designation, the country does not have a designated space where the music can be freely and publicly performed. This issue became the source of a contentious exchange between Roots Reggae singer Chronixx and then Minister of Culture Lisa Hanna in 2014 as the singer flayed the government for being long on talk but completely empty on action when it came to supporting the (Reggae) music.
No one can realistically argue against the fact that no other aspect of Jamaica’s culture has contributed more to the country in economic and social terms than its music. One would have thought that the UNESCO declaration in November 2018 that “Reggae, the Jamaican music that spread across the world with its calls for social justice, peace and love, to be a global treasure that must be safeguarded,” would have spurred some urgency within the country’s political and economic management realms, to concrete action. According to the UNESCO statement, “Reggae’s contribution to international discourse on issues of injustice, resistance, love and humanity underscores the dynamics of the element as being at once cerebral, socio-political, sensual and spiritual.”
All of this is quite “heady” stuff. Announcements of Protected Status and Creative City status are the kind of stories that provides both great headlines and photo opportunities, but when it is not followed by action, it is meaningless and gives value to Chronixx’s and the arguments of other critics. I believe that much of this inaction comes from the historically held inherent bias from well-to-do Jamaicans and those who control the purse strings of capital to Jamaican music. Perhaps we should take a leaf out of the South Korean government’s treatment of its own K-Pop industry. Here the government treats the music in the same way the Americans treat its automobile and banking industries, providing them with protected status. This includes building massive multi-million-dollar concert auditoriums, refining hologram technology, regulating karaoke bars and protecting the interests of the genre’s stars.
It is disappointing that after 70 years, the same biases still exists and while we in Jamaica are dithering, others in far off lands are enriching themselves off Jamaican music.
About the Author
Richard Hugh Blackford is the host of a 2-hour music-driven internet show Sunday Scoops on yaawdmedia.com each Sunday from 2:00 pm – 4:00 pm. The show focuses on Foundation Jamaican Music and takes its audience on a nostalgic but historical musical journey, peeling back the years of Jamaican musical development as the hosts explore the careers of Jamaican artistes. Sunday Scoops provides interviews with personalities, and discussions on Jamaican music and other topical issues. The show is co-hosted by noted DJ Garth Hendricks.