Jamaica Sees Resurgence of Marley-Era Political Reggae: AP


Jamaica Sees Resurgence of Marley-Era Political Reggae

KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) -- Two decades after Bob Marley and Peter Tosh ruled Jamaica's airwaves, their political reggae is booming again -- thanks to a national reexamination of a bloody era.

The late greats penned lyrics that documented the political struggles and state-sponsored political violence of the 1970s, a period when Jamaica's politicians used street gangs to sway voters.

Over time, that violence became less political. Warring gangs created by Jamaica's political parties turned to drug trafficking and fighting over turf. And reggae's reign eventually gave way to dancehall, a reggae-rap hybrid.

That is changing. A wave of soul-searching began when former Defense Minister Dudley Thompson apologized in August for his statements in 1978 belittling an army ambush of gang members allied with an opposition party.

At the time, Thompson said five gang members killed in the ambush were "no angels." No one was convicted in the episode, which became a symbol of repression.

Shortly thereafter, Prime Minister Michael Manley's government banned a song about the incident by a band called Big Youth. "This time we won't forgive them," its lyrics declared. "This time say it's murder."

Thompson's apology has unleashed a torrent of mea culpas from past and present political leaders and raised demands -- so far rejected by Prime Minister P.J. Patterson -- for a truth and reconciliation commission.

"If we are going to talk about the cleansing the society we have to open up," said Pearnel Charles, a former government minister. "I have been involved in the corruption of the politics ... and I am not proud of it."

As talk of the issue intensified, radio stations followed suit. Deejays and a new generation of listeners have turned to the near-documentary lyrics of Marley and other reggae pioneers to hear the tale of a poor nation struggling to build a democracy after centuries of slavery and British colonialism.

"The artists sang about what was happening, even more so than what was documented in newspaper articles," said Barry Gordon, a popular disc jockey who has spearheaded the reggae revival.

Like Marley, who grew up in Trench Town, a People's National Party garrison, most reggae singers were raised in neighborhoods caught up in the political violence.

Under pressure to choose between Manley's People's National Party and former Prime Minister Edward Seaga's Jamaica Labor Party, most reggae stars remained neutral. They moved among Kingston's chessboard of warring communities and chronicled the suffering.

Following the 1978 ambush, almost all of Jamaica's reggae stars took the stage at a Kingston concert to support peace. Its highlight: Marley made Seaga and Manley clasp hands over his head and promise an end to the violence.

It didn't, and Jamaica saw years more of political violence.

"Singers like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh were describing what was perceived on the street as the hypocrisy of the ruling class," said Roger Stefans, a reggae historian. "Jamaica isn't a bookish country. The newspapers ... didn't capture the feeling on the street the same" as reggae, Stefans said.

Gordon said he has pushed the period's political songs in recent weeks "to teach younger people .. what happened."

Richard Burgess, a disc jockey at a rival station, also reported a "swell of interest" that caused him to up the reggae content by more than half.

At Nuff Music in Kingston, which specializes in "vintage reggae," owner Neville Lewis said sales are up more than 40 percent. A younger generation is buying reggae, he said.

"Most of the time it's just people like me, who grew up with all the trouble," said Lewis, 45. "It's nice to see the young people taking an interest. This music is where their dancehall comes from, and they might learn a little."

While dancehall has its own politically charged songs, critics say misogynistic lyrics and a celebration of violence have cheapened its message.

"When you think of dancehall you think of half-naked women. It's not a voice for the frustrations of poor and downtrodden," Stefans said.

Owen Campbell, 17, found that voice in Tosh, who was shot and killed at his Kingston home in 1987.

Marley died of cancer in 1981.

"He's got this song, 'Peace Treaty,' about a gang truce that happened in 1978 but didn't last," Campbell said as he rifled through old records at a makeshift Kingston market.

Copyright 1999 The Associated Press.

Posted: Fri - February 7, 2003 at 12:23 PM