Rastafari Themes in Reggae Music

I’m a greater lover of reggae and down-tempo music in general. As a young boy I had the privilege to travel throughout the Caribbean on family vacations and I loved playing music on my parent’s stereo system at home. My first CD’s were probably Ziggy Marley’s “Conscious Party,” and UB40’s “Labor of Love 2”. Going even further back, my earliest music memories include an LP record copy of “Zenyatta Mondatta” by The Police, a ska-punk influenced rock band.

As a supplement to our reading of Soul Rebels by William Lewis, here are the tracks I played in class with my own commentary. Now, of course, there’s more to reggae than just the roots sound I emphasize here. Certainly you can still hear the Rasta influence in the more modern and popular forms like dancehall and ragga. And not all reggae has overt Rasta themes, nor is it necessarily composed by Rasta musicians. This is just a very selective sampling from albums I happen to own.

The Title Track
Soul Rebel. Bob Marley, “Songs of Freedom” (disk 1)

  • Lewis’s book takes its title from an obscure Bob Marley song. My version comes off the first disk of the “Songs of Freedom” compilation. It’s a brilliant compilation album with a lot of very early Bob performances, including a couple from when he was just a teenager. If you’re really into Bob it’s a must have (I was fortunate enough to scan a copy held by a friend) but the other three disks in the set are nothing special. They just reproduce music available elsewhere including his later, more gospel influenced stuff.

The Historical Roots of Reggae Music
Reggae is a syncretic music form that arose in Jamaica from the blending of mento, a folk music style indigenous to Jamaica, and ska, a popular dance music performed by big bands with horns. Reggae is basically ska with the tempo turned way down.

Hill & Gully Ride. Lord Composer, “Mento Madness”

  • Listening to mento music you’re likely to be reminded of soca or calypso. This is good times music. Party music. Whenever I hear it I want to get out the limbo stick.

Phoenix City. The Skatalites, “Original Club Ska”

  • Unlike mento, ska became an international phenomenon. As Jamaican immigrants left for better economic opportunities in Great Britain, they included among their ranks some musicians. Once in England ska became associated with an anti-racist politic as ska bands were some of the first integrated bands to perform with Black and White musicians on stage together. The English would later reinvent ska as ska-punk and important component to the punk rock sound.

Remembering Slavery
A common theme in Rasta influenced reggae music are songs about slavery, in particular recounting Middle Passage, or the journey from Africa to the New World. The story of Middle Passage allows the singer to position Africa as an idealized homeland, Zion, and Jamaica, which served as a way-station for slaves on their journey to the U.S. south (most notably New Orleans), is cast as a prison, or Babylon.

The Rivers of Babylon. The Melodians, “The Harder They Come”

  • This standout track from the soundtrack to the feature film, The Harder They Come is really the only one from that album to have a Rasta connection. I included it on this playlist because the soundtrack is a must-have for any reggae fan, a collection of truly beautiful and inspiring songs. The movie, which stars Jimmy Cliff, might appeal to those who like foreign films. An excellent reissue is out via the Criterion Collection and you can get it through Netflix. Just be sure to watch it with the subtitles on! Although Jamaican patios is merely a dialect of English, the pronunciation is different enough from American English that you will probably have a difficult time understanding what people are saying without the captions.

Slave Driver. Bob Marley, “Catch a Fire”

  • Bob Marley and the Wailers had been making music for years in Jamaica before they became a commercial success in the United States. Their breakout album “Catch a Fire” ran on the strength of their single, Stir It Up. If you get just one Bob Marley album make it this one. This album, along with “The Harder They Come” really marked reggae’s arrival to mainstream American audiences.

400 Years. Peter Tosh, “Catch a Fire”

  • Also on the same album (in fact it follows Slave Driver) is this terrific Peter Tosh song. In the early years of Bob Marley and the Wailers, the band included Peter Tosh in the line up but shortly after the mega-success of “Catch a Fire” Tosh split the group over money and went solo. Together Marley and Tosh were like the Lennon and McCartney of reggae. Solo, Tosh is probably best known for the song “Legalize It”.

Rastafari is a syncretic religion forged by the blending of African traditions with Protestant Christianity. The Rasta borrow freely from Christian imagery and teachings, especially the book of Revelations – the last chapter of the New Testament in the Bible. Revelation deals with, among other things, judgement day or armageddon, the end of the world when the Lord God takes account of all things.

Here Comes the Judge. Peter Tosh, “The Best of Peter Tosh: 20th Century Masters”

  • In this track Tosh imagines God passing judgement on various figures representative of European colonial power. Such heroes of western civilization as Christopher Columbus and David Livingston stand accused of crimes against Africa and “teaching black people to hate themselves.” The punishment, to be hung by the tongue, is especially gruesome.

Two Sevens Clash. Culture, “Two Sevens Clash”

  • For fans of the roots reggae sound, “Two Sevens Clash” is a must own album. The title track refers to the date 1977 when the record was released and the folk belief, prevalent in Jamaica at the time, that the world would end on 7/7/77. This is quite possibly the chillest song you will ever hear about the end of the world.

Black Starliner Must Come. Culture, “Two Sevens Clash”

  • This song makes direct reference to Marcus Garvey’s proposed oceanliner operation, known as the Black Starliner, that would serve to ferry black people from New York and Jamaica back to Africa. The Black Starliner did exist, even if it sailed only once. I’ve included it here because to my ear it is reminiscent of “Swing low sweet chariot/ coming for to carry me home” which is about returning to God at the moment of one’s death.

Oppression and State Violence
Another pervasive theme in reggae music are songs that are protest songs directed against people in positions of authority, in particular the police. In the early days of the Rastafari movement, the religion’s very existence was a scandal and the state sought to violent suppress the Rasta with police force.

Burnin and Lootin. Bob Marley, “Burnin”

  • If you were to have just one Bob Marley album it should be “Catch a Fire,” but if you were to make it two then the second should be “Burnin” which also features Peter Tosh on some songs. This is one of my favorite tracks by Bob and the lyrics seem to document a bread riot. “Give me the food and let me go,” he sings. The Roots have an outstanding cover of this song, too.

About Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is a project cataloger at The Mariners' Museum library. He has a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill and was formerly a professor at ODU. You can find him on Twitter @m4ttTh0mps0n.
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