Reggae gets a righteous new message: Herald

1998 article.

Reggae gets a righteous new message
Gospel message blends with sound of the streets

Herald Arts Writer

The grooves and the words sound familiar -- but not these grooves with quite these words.

Even the term -- reggae gospel -- sparks seemingly incongruous associations: Jamaican ghetto ne'er-do-wells at Sunday morning service?

But reggae, though often rooted in social and political issues, is also a music long permeated by religious beliefs and devout attitudes -- and people are listening.

Musically, reggae gospel is the latest example of reggae's resilience and flexibility. This is a music that, in less than 30 years since its emergence from Kingston's ghettos, has continuously absorbed influences, sometimes across profound cultural divides, retaining its essence while becoming a global language. The results are not only evident in its evolving synthesis with rock, funk and jazz, but in the defining role of dancehall, in which DJs speak over pre-existing reggae tracks, in the creation of rap. Reggae's impact has been felt nearly everywhere, from Nigeria and South Africa to Japan, Argentina and Israel.

Reggae gospel's growing profile is no doubt in part due to established Jamaican artists such as reggae singers Judy Mowatt and Carlene Davis and popular, sharp-tongued DJs such as Ninjaman (reborn as Brother Desmond), Papa San and Lt. Stitchie.

But the reggae and gospel traditions are intertwined musically. Reggae emerged out of the tough slums of 1960s Kingston, Jamaica, a mix of indigenous styles and Afro-American R&B, the secular counterpart of gospel. (The connections are not only musical, but in fact, many R&B stars were schooled in church choirs.) In a country as deeply religious as Jamaica, the question then is not how reggae could blend with gospel, but why it took so long.

"Most gospel groups shied away from [reggae] because it was made popular by secular groups," says Noel Willis, the founder and lone original member of the 27-year-old Jamaican gospel group The Grace Thrillers. "[But] as we see it, we use the culture of the country to spread the gospel."

For Papa San, who says he turned to Christianity after years of living with violence, the emergence of reggae gospel is simply "part of the Lord's work."

"[God has] always used different kinds of gospel styles: You have country and western gospel, hip-hop gospel, R&B gospel, so why not reggae? It's just another way of delivering the good news."

The Grace Thrillers and Papa San, along with Judy Mowatt, appear at Reggae Night on Thursday, part of the MIDEM Latin American & Caribbean Music Market convention in Miami Beach. (The great South African singer Lucky Dube, a terrific exponent of African reggae, and Third World from Jamaica, are also performing at MIDEM [a French acronym for International Market of Record and Music Publishing]. For full lineup of MIDEM showcases, see Page 3I.)

Gospel's changing image

Reggae gospel arrives on the musical scene at an intriguing time.

Old, established notions of Christian music have been exploded in recent years to include not only stirring church choirs and earnest balladeers but speed metal and rap bands. Fueled in part by these changes, gospel music's growth is reflected not only in ticket and CD sales, but in serious investment by major music conglomerates and increasing exposure on television and radio.

Reggae has powerful ties to Christianity. For much of its existence, it has been imbued by Rastafarianism, a part religious, part black-consciousness movement with a strong biblical foundation (see timeline at right).

Rasta theology is rooted in certain verses of Scripture from both the Old and New Testament; in fact, some scholars note that by the mid '50s Rastas used European church hymns at their meetings. Also, Rastas, who see themselves as Israelites, espouse the idea of returning to Africa, the true, lost home of the black man.

Rastafarianism was particularly popular with Jamaica's poor and disenfranchised; its religious and sociopolitical overtones would infuse much of reggae's lyrics and artists.

Father to son

The continued presence of gospel in reggae is perhaps best symbolized by the unbroken thread between the work of reggae star Bob Marley, who, critics say, was influenced by his mother's gospel singing, to that of his son Ky-Mani Marley, who recently recorded a collaboration with The Grace Thrillers.

"The gospel has been part of Rastafarian music from the beginning," says Clint O'Neil, host of 91.3 FM WLRN's Public Radio Overnight and Sounds of the Caribbean. "If I play you one of Bob Marley's early tracks, you will hear about the Gospel, love, politics."

Raphael "Rae" Barrett, CEO of Radobar, the company that produces Reggae Sunsplash, the premiere reggae festival in Jamaica, sees gospel as a natural extension of the reggae tradition.

"Reggae is message music and I don't care if the message is social, political or whatever," he says. "And gospel music is about carrying a message. [Reggae gospel night at this year's Sunsplash] was the liveliest audience of the entire four nights. We had over 10,000 people and the show ran over three hours. People wouldn't leave.

"This music has been here for a while," he says. Reggae gospel night "brought in the open the extent and depth of what was there."

Datu Faison, Billboard magazine chart manager for R&B, gospel and reggae, cautiously calls reggae gospel "the beginning of a trend" and puts its emergence into a larger social context.

"After so much written about [music lyrics' focus on] guns and money, there is a movement in reggae toward a certain righteousness in the lyrics," he says. "Even artists like Buju Banton [a dancehall artist who has been chastised for his violent lyrics] has been moving in that direction and getting a very good response."

O'Neil, too, speculates that the pendulum in reggae may be swinging back because "maybe dancehall took it all too far -- too violent, too much [about] drugs and sex and money -- and everybody gave up on it."

O'Neil says the interest in reggae gospel is tangible and that it may be only a matter of time before it translates into sales numbers. Last week, six of his Top 10 hits, which he compiles from the number of requests he receives and consultation with local record stores, "could be considered gospel or gospel-related songs, and that would not have happened a year ago."

Reaching a new audience

Despite its current promise, reggae gospel was not readily embraced. The Grace Thrillers, which began as a conventional gospel ensemble, didn't start experimenting with reggae until 1983. Its first album featuring reggae gospel, He's Alive, was released in 1987.

The move, Willis says, "was very controversial."

"We had people in church saying we were switching over [to the secular side], and we had a big problem with the talk shows and newspapers," recalls Willis, who commutes between a home in North Miami and Jamaica.

"But now [the church] realizes this has taken the message to young people. You have to take the Gospel to where the people are, and the people we are trying to reach are not coming to church."

Barrett, of Sunsplash, recalls that when he announced he was dedicating a night to reggae gospel, "The Christian side was saying, 'Hold on a minute -- Reggae Sunsplash is associated with Rastafarianism, Bob Marley. What are you doing?' Then you had Rastafarians saying, 'You are polluting our music, bringing this kind of thing over.' "

In fact both reggae and gospel might get yet a new audience.

Most credit born-again, high-profile secular artists for raising reggae gospel's visibility.

Mowatt, who started her career as a member of the I-Threes, Marley's backup vocal group, says she is "proud to have been associated with [reggae] songs ... and the Rastafarian doctrine. But my spirit yearned for something more."

She says that in 1994, after a series of personal trials, including the jailing of a close family member, she became involved with her local church.

"I was not really embraced by the people I was expecting to help me in my time of need," she says softly. "But members from the church rallied around me and were there to see me through. I saw that as a message."

Another story

Papa San has a somewhat similar story.

"I lost my brother in a gunfight in 1994; I lost my cousin the year after; I myself got hurt by a firearm; I lost my sister; it goes on and on and on," he says. "Then I realized the gun won't help; money won't help. I had to find God."

For Mowatt, their experiences are "part of a change."

"God has been calling a number of reggae singers and players into gospel," she says. "We are not going to change the style of music. It's going to be reggae, but it's going to be different. We're not going to be exalting ourselves, but exalting Jesus Christ."

With Marley, "we brought about a consciousness revolution," she says. "But now it's time for a righteous revolution."


Reggae gospel is so new that there aren't many CDs to sample. Try The Grace Thrillers' He's Alive and Judy Mowatt's Love Is Overdue.

Classic reggae albums, however, are plentiful. We asked Clint O'Neil, host of 91.3 FM WLRN's Public Radio Overnight (2 a.m.-6 a.m. Tuesday and 12 a.m.-6 a.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday) and Sounds of the Caribbean ( 2 a.m.-7 a.m. Saturday and Sunday), for a list of essential recordings. Sitting at his console and in between smoothly shuffling discs, answering calls, and cooing his distinct "good morning" to his listeners, he rattled off his favorites.

He conceded a distinct bias upfront: "I love live records," he said. With that in mind and in no particular order:

Bob Marley & The Wailers, Babylon By Bus (Island)

Bob Marley & The Wailers, Natural Mystic (Island)

Black Uhuru, Red (Mango)

Aswad, Live and Direct (Island)

Ziggy Marley & The Melody Makers, Marley Magic (Tuff Gong)

Steel Pulse, True Democracy (EMI)

Peter Tosh, Equal Rights (Columbia)

Lucky Dube, Prisoner (Shanachie)

Jimmy Cliff, The Harder They Come (Mango)

Third World, Soundtrack of Third World Movie (Mango)

Burning Spear, Marcus Garvey (Mango)

Bunny Wailer, Retrospective (Shanachie)

Herald arts writer Fernando Gonzalez can be reached at


Reggae, descended from the mento dance music of Jamaica's countryside and influenced by American R&B, took root in Jamaica, then expanded to Europe, the United States, Africa and South America. Its many permutations include ska, rocksteady, dub, dancehall and ragga.

1930s: Rastafarians, followers of Ras Tafari Makonnen (who would later be known as Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia), emerge from the ghettos of Kingston with a philosophy based on Jamaican history, Marcus Garvey's back-to-Africa movement and the Bible.

1950s: Influenced by R&B broadcasts from radio stations based in the southern United States, Jamaican entrepreneurs like Coxsone Dodd, Duke Reid and Prince Buster take amplified records to the streets in a sort of mobile dance party. By the late 1950s these and others started to produce their own recordings.

1960: Oh Carolina, by Rastafarian elder Count Ossie, is cut at Prince Buster's first-ever recording session at radio station RJR's studios in Kingston.

1962: Jamaica becomes an independent nation belonging to the Commonwealth of Nations -- some say the ska dance music craze is born of independence. Ska is heavy on drums and bass, rhythm guitar, horns and sometimes farfisa, or organ.

Toots and the Maytals begin recording at Coxsone Dodd's Studio One organization.

Chris Blackwell establishes Island Records in London.

1963: The Wailers form, with core members Bob (Robert Nesta) Marley, Peter Tosh (Winston Hubert McIntosh) and Bunny Wailer (Neville O'Reilly Livingston).

1964: Millie (Millicent Small) records My Boy Lollipop for Chris Blackwell. Considered the first crossover Jamaican record, it sells seven million records worldwide.

Produced by Coxsone Dodd, The Wailers' first single, Simmer Down, is a Jamaican hit.

1966: Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie visits Jamaica. Considered messianic and divine by Rastafarians, he is believed to be descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. His visit has a profound impact on Rastafarians, Jamaican politics and artists.

1967: Rocksteady is ska's smoother, more soulful permutation, with a greater emphasis on lyrics; it acknowledges young people's loss of optimism, the lack of jobs.

1968: Reggae, with a rhythm that is faster, tighter and heavier on the funk, takes form.

Israelites!, by Desmond Dekker and the Aces, is a club hit, and often credited for introducing reggae to American audiences.

Jimmy Cliff represents Jamaica in the International Song Festival in Brazil; his song Waterfall earns him a large following in South America -- which endures today.

1969: Jimmy Cliff records Vietnam, which Bob Dylan called the "best protest song ever written."

Burning Spear's (Winston Rodney) career takes off after Marley arranges an audition with Coxsone Dodd.

1969-71: By now committed to Rastafarianism, the Wailers begin work with producer Lee Perry on their newly created label Tuff Gong.

1971: Perry Henzell makes the seminal and gritty movie, The Harder They Come. Released in the states in 1973, it stars Jimmy Cliff and tells the story of a reggae singer from the country who is destroyed by urban Kingston in his quest to succeed in the music business. The film's musical score fuels international interest in reggae.

1972: Blackwell signs the Wailers to Island.

1973: Island, with global distribution, releases the album Catch a Fire, propelling the Wailers to international fame.

1974: Tosh and Wailer leave the Wailers to start solo careers. The band is renamed Bob Marley and the Wailers.

Eric Clapton turns Bob Marley's I Shot the Sheriff into a top rock hit.

Dub becomes the popular form of reggae; the melody is stripped down, leaving drum and bass music with hints of other instruments, often with layers of echo.

1975: Marley replaces the missing harmonies of Wailer and Tosh with the female trio of the I-Threes, made up of his wife Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt and Marcia Griffiths.

Steel Pulse forms in Birmingham, England.

1976: Marley's Rastaman Vibration becomes the first reggae album to reach the Top 10 on the American pop charts.

Underscoring Marley's increasing relevance in Jamaican politics, an assassination attempt is made on his life at his compound. His wife Rita and several others are wounded by gunfire. Marley escapes with a flesh wound.

1978: Marley unites Prime Minister Michael Manley and opposition leader Edward Seaga onstage at the "One Love, One Peace" concert in Jamaica -- this in a time of bloody street fighting between supporters of the two.

1980: Bob Marley and the Wailers, at the official government's invitation, play on Independence Day in the newly liberated republic Zimbabwe (the former Rhodesia).

Black Uhuru joins with the legendary rhythm section of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare on their Taxi label.

Rockers, a highly rated film about a rasta drummer who becomes a record distributor and encounters complications from the criminal element, showcases just about everyone who is anyone in reggae (except Marley).

1981: The group Blondie has an international hit with The Tide is High, the remake of the 1966 hit of the classic reggae vocal group the Paragons.

May 11, 1981: Robert Nesta Marley dies of cancer at 36 at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Miami.

1982: Acts like Yellowman and Barrington Levy emerge performing dancehall, a form of reggae in which a DJ plays a previously recorded tune and talks or sings over it. Dancehall lyrics and messages would become cruder; some consider it the precursor to rap.

1986-89: The early years of ragga (or raggamuffin) distinguishes itself from the similar dancehall with an amalgam of rapping, hip-hop and electronic beat. Reggae's "digital" era begins.

1987: Peter Tosh is murdered, shot in the back of the head by gunmen demanding money as he lay on the floor of his home in Kingston.

1989: Chris Blackwell sells Island Records to Polygram for a reported $300 million.

1993: DJ reggae star Shabba Ranks' album X-tra Naked wins a Grammy, making him the first DJ artist to win two consecutive Grammy awards (he won in '92 for As Raw As Ever).

Researched and written by Herald Researcher Gay Nemeti

Posted: Fri - February 7, 2003 at 01:27 PM