To cite this article: Sturt-Schmidt, James (2018). Can Reggae music be a means of challenging racism, class and gender?, The Millennial [Online], Available at: (this page URL).
With the advent of reggae in the 1960s, Jamaican music exploded on the international scene (Rhiney and Cruse, 2012; p.4). Many of the lyrics in reggae songs relate to the urban experience and speak of issues pertinent to race, class, poverty, resistance and change (Rhiney and Cruse, 2012). Primarily through the music of Bob Marley, reggae music spread across the globe, becoming popular in the UK as “a result of the encounter between white youth subcultures and the massive black immigrant community from Jamaica” (Sabelli, 2011; p.137). According to Sabelli (2011), “reggae spread from its Caribbean origins, shifting from being the cry for peace and justice of black sufferers in the colonized countries to being the cry for pride and redemption of black immigrants in the overdeveloped countries. […] Subsequently, reggae has attracted a new generation of white European youth inspired by the critical and subversive potential of this musical genre” (p.137). Whilst Reggae possesses the “unique ability to cross the color line and and to connect all the oppressed people on the two sides of the Atlantic, whether black or white” (Sabelli, 2011; p.140), this essay will examine to what extent it can be said to be a means of resistance against the intersecting power relations of gender, race and class.
In the context of 1980s Britain, Henry (2012) suggests that UK sound system deejays used the reggae dancehall as an alternative site for learning, where the disenfranchised Black British youth were exposed to political messages rooted in Rastafari, Garveyism and Pan-African values. He argues that, in a racist society, so called ‘black’ music “often spoke to the lived experiences of the disenfranchised […] and thus furnished a site for various types of inter/intra-cultural exchanges to take place, enabling them to debate and discuss their own ‘problem’ status in a language owned and controlled by them [Jamaican or so-called ‘patois’)” (Henry, 2012; p.355). To contextualise the emerging sound system culture in the UK, Henry (2012) explains, “Britain’s black population was invited to the UK for a particular reason: to help redevelop the country after the Second World War. They were welcomed, however, by all forms of racist practice and assault, both verbal and physical” (p.356). In this context, according to Henry (2012), the black youth found a space to express their worries and engage in political and cultural dialogue without fear of punishment from the state. Furthermore, he argues that the almost uniform treatment of the black youth served to bring them together and unify them in their struggle. Henry (2012) argues, “It led many to embrace Marcus Garvey’s philosophical outlook of a return to Africa through the lens of Rastafari and Reggae music” (p.357). A key early example of reggae’s opposition to racism can be found in Bob Marley’s strong stance against Apartheid in South Africa, for which in 1978 he received the Peace Medal of the Third World from the United Nations, as well as for speaking out against oppression, poverty and human rights violations (Rhiney and Cruse, 2012).
One of the ways in which reggae music has served as a means of resistance against racialised power relations can be found in its ‘conscious’ lyrics and the awareness they spread. According to Henry (2012),
“To physically and psychologically overcome the racialised constructs that compounded subordination, it was first necessary to be aware of their existence. Developing this awareness provided the locus for a collective identity that was used to strengthen resolve when faced with crisis situations. The Reggae dancehall proved perfect for this. First, there was a lack of distance between the audience and the performer; anyone who had something to say could use the dancehall platform to do so. This, in practice, included male and female performers, though – as with many genres of music – the space tended to be male dominated” (p.360-361).
Here, Henry (2012) explains how reggae music – specifically localised, independent production of reggae music through sound systems – made its listeners aware of their own subordination due to institutionalised and widespread racism. It then further facilitated the creation of a group identity, breaking down divisions between the black youth and unifying them in their struggle against racist oppression. In the last sentence, one can see how race and gender intersect when analysing the reggae dancehall as a site of resistance. Although it undoubtedly serves as a site for resistance against racism, it is questionable to what extent it facilitated challenging dominant ideas of gender and resisting patriarchal society, due to the overwhelming male majority in such spaces in both performers and audience (Henry, 2012).
Another element of reggae music that served to challenge racism was the language used, Jamaican language or ‘patois’, which according to Henry (2012) “acted as a mode of response to the imposition of European culture on non-European peoples” (p.363). He further argues that this language use expressed alternative black subjectivity that bridged intergenerational gaps within black communities. For many deejays, according to Henry (2012), the worldview they could express through Standard English made them voiceless, passive victims of a Eurocentric historical bias, whereas combining Jamaican oral culture within their own local dialect allowed them to critique certain dominant ideals, such as poetry as a white domain (p.364). The use of an alternative language in reggae, rather than the language imposed by the colonisers, is a clear example of how reggae music serves as a means of resistance against racist power relations, particularly the power of language.
Perhaps the most important way in which reggae music has been a means of resistance against racism can be found in its diffusion of Rastafari culture and livity (way of life/ life energy). The words of highly influential figures in Rastafari, such as speeches made by Emperor Haile Selassie I or the writings of Marcus Mosiah Garvey, inform the lyrics found in many studio recorded reggae songs and the words chanted by deejays over dubplates in the reggae dancehall. An example of such influence is Garvey’s call for black people to ‘emancipate themselves from mental slavery, this being a major responsibility for themselves and themselves alone’ (Nettleford, 1998), which inspired lyrics in Bob Marley’s Redemption Song and motivated poor, black communities to unite and take action, and not be powerless victims of ‘Babylon system’ (white consumerist society (Sabelli, 2011)). Hagerman (2015) argues that dancehall reggae can be liberating for lower class black subjects by supporting the work of de-colonisation of colonial-derived ideologies that promote Eurocentric values and norms. According to Cooper (1995, cited in Hagerman, 2015), dancehall reggae challenges Eurocentric beauty standards and values by encouraging Afrocentric body-positive ideologies, rooted in a Rasta understanding of Africa as the birthplace of humanity and therefore African features as beautiful, thus serving as a means to challenge and resist against racism.
Regarding the categorisation of music, the categorization of certain styles or forms of music, such as Reggae, as ‘black’ music, is deep rooted in racialised discourses that construct musical categories based on aesthetic criteria. These criteria, According to Haynes (2010), “draw upon binaries of modern/traditional, intellectual/embodied, sophisticated/primitive, and civilized/natural” (p.86), with ‘European’ music usually falling within that which is modern, intellectual, sophisticated and civilised. Haynes (2010) further argues that the idea that every ‘race’ has its own type of musical expression was historically a problematic assumption of ethnomusicology. Drawing upon the idea of differential racialisation, Haynes (2010) explains that in music consumption and production, culture is seen to be the central determinant of difference, which he argues does not preclude race nor biological difference but rather allows scope for complexity. He argues that, given the growing popularity of the terms ethnicity, culture, race and nation, the processes of racialisation present in music categorization are more difficult to identify. It is important to highlight that alongside these processes of racialisation, there are likely numerous intersections with other social divisions such as gender, religion and class. The categorisation of reggae music as ‘black’ music arguably limits its ability to be a means of resistance against racism, as its very categorisation as a musical form is rooted in processes of racialisation. However, this is very much due to the music industry and not the reggae artists, producers or consumers themselves.
In Alvarez’s (2008) article, he examines how reggae music serves as a means of resistance for indigenous communities. He argues that the cultural connections between indigenous reggae artists and their fans form a diaspora, “not based on any single race, ethnic, or place-based identity, but on their shared struggle for dignity in the face of the dehumanizing effects of globalization” (p.575), global capitalism and post-colonial nation-states. Alvarez (2008) explains that the reggae being produced in indigenous communities speaks of local social, political, and economic struggles as well as relating to global issues. This use of reggae music can be seen as resistance against power relations of both class and race. The indigenous communities producing reggae music as a means of resistance are economically disadvantaged in their respective countries and therefore can be understood as forming part of the working class, as well as their class intersecting with processes of racialisation that present the non-white, indigenous subject as an ‘other’. In a study looking at Rastafari popularity in Cuba, Hansing (2001) states that through reggae music, “Rasta offers an alternative view of race, blackness, Africa and cubanidad (Cubanness); one that is pro-Africa, anti-racist, and pan-human” (p.744). The way in which the discourses present in reggae music unite oppressed peoples in their struggles for equal rights and justice is arguably key to its ability to challenge power relations of race, class and gender, and explains the music’s popularity amongst the poor and marginalised peoples of the world.
An interesting case study in the analysis of reggae music as a means to resist racism is Jamaica’s king of dancehall reggae, Winston ‘Yellowman’ Foster, who is a black man with albinism. Through his music, Yellowman challenged the social codes that questioned his blackness and masculinity. According to Hagerman (2015), “through his performance of slack or sexually themed songs, Yellowman contested embedded cultural definitions of the dundus [black man with albinism] as impotent and instead successfully represented the body with albinism as the sexually desirable ‘modern’ body” (p.529). Another way Yellowman challenged racism was through his adoption of what in Jamaica was used as an insult against people with albinism, ‘yellow man’, which was used against him to deny him blackness and ‘Jamaicanness’ (Hagerman, 2015). Hagerman (2015) argues that Yellowman’s reversal of the term’s meaning was a “stunning strategy to nullify the discriminatory power of the racist epithet” (p.534). However, despite resisting both racist discourses against blacks by whites and against people with albinism by blacks, Yellowman’s lyrics often perpetuated dominant discourses about women, as well as white society’s stereotypes of black hypersexuality (Hagerman, 2015). Yellowman was infamous for his slackness, lyrics about hetero-masculine potency, sexist objectification of women and graphic sexual narratives. His lyrics suggest he is in a position of influence over women, or imply power and ownership (Hagerman, 2015). In attempting to reclaim his own masculinity in a machista Jamaican society that saw him as an “impotent albino” (Hagerman, 2015; p.540), Yellowman perpetuated stereotypes of black female sexuality, denying black women sexual agency (Hagerman, 2015).
Examining reggae music as a means of resistance against gender power relations, Sabelli (2011) takes an intersectional approach, connecting race, gender, ethnicity and sexual preferences, to examine the power relations present in the lyrics. She examines the lyrics and performances of black and white, male and female singers, deejays, selectors, sound operators and audiences in two post-colonial settings, the UK and Italy. She argues that building a sound system was to create a space, the dancehall yard, independent of the entertainment industry and its rules and control, and outside of the ‘slavery’ of paid work in a capitalist society. Despite reggae serving as a very powerful means for poor, black subjects to challenge racism and empower themselves and their communities, there has always been a distinct lack of female participation in reggae both in Jamaica and in the global context (Sabelli, 2011). Sabelli (2011) further argues that “until the explosion of the ‘dancehall queens’ in the early 1990s, the role of women has always been misrepresented and undervalued in the history of reggae music, with female voices consigned to the status of one-offs, or relegated in the position of backing vocals for their male counterparts” (p.143). Moreover, the lyrics of reggae songs tend to provide a male-orientated point of view, never questioning compulsory heterosexuality or patriarchal authority (Sabelli, 2011). However, many reggae songs from male and female artists alike do challenge gender inequality. For example, many popular songs immortalise the revolutionary feminine figure of the Nanny of the Maroons, a political organiser and military leader who at the beginning of the eighteenth century lead the Maroons to defeat the British colonisers in numerous battles (Sabelli, 2011). Another female figure present in the discourses of reggae music is Empress Menen, the wife of Emperor Haile Selassie I, who is considered a role model for many Rasta women (and men) (Sabelli, 2011). Empress Menen is often referred to as Queen Omega, meaning ‘Mother of Creation’, which represents one of the limitations of reggae music’s resistance to gender ideologies, as female subjectivity is often identified with motherhood (ibid.). This presentation of women as mothers is present in the reggae of male and female artists alike, for example in the single Woman by Marcia Griffiths and Lady G in which Griffiths refers to women as “mothers of the greatest nation/ teachers of the young generation” (Sabelli, 2011; p.146).
It is impossible to analyse reggae music as a means to challenge gender power relations without paying attention to the homophobia present in (predominantly Jamaican) reggae. Whilst, according to Sabelli (2011), reggae music attributes to women the role of mother or keepers of traditional culture, it in turn provides a gender role for men as defenders of the nation as well as their own family, which should consist of heterosexual couples with their own biological children. Sabelli (2011) argues that the existence of homosexuality challenges the whole ideology of race, gender, nationality and heteronormativity that discourses found in reggae music tend to support. It is important to note, however, that homophobic lyrics are rather characteristic of Jamaican reggae and much less common in reggae produced in other parts of the world. Having said this, the homophobic lyrics of many reggae artists were long tolerated by their listeners in Europe and elsewhere who were decidedly against homophobia, but would justify their heroes because of colonial exploitation and the idea that they are not “’civilized’ enough” (Sabelli, 2011; p.149), which feeds back into power relations rooted in race. A couple of notable reggae songs have directly challenged homophobia, however, namely Tanya Stephens’ Do You Still Care that compares the treatment of homosexuals in Jamaica to the KKK’s treatment of blacks, and Italian reggae band Radici nel Cemento’s Siamo tutti omosessuali (we are all homosexuals) (Sabelli, 2011).
In conclusion, reggae music can be a means of resistance for challenging the power relations of racism, class and gender, to different extents. As a means of resistance against racism, despite its categorisation as a ‘black’ music genre which is rooted in racialised discourses (Haynes, 2010), reggae music uses a non-colonial language (Jamaican) to challenge colonial power over language. It also preaches Rasta, Garveyite, Pan-African ideals through its lyrics, unifying black people in their struggle for equality and justice, as well as promoting African-positive ideology that resists racism by encouraging listeners to be proud of their African features (Cooper, 1995, cited in Hagerman, 2015). Regarding reggae music as a means to resist against class power relations, Campbell (1985; p.149) argues that though Rastafari, through reggae music, “rails against the commodity fetishism of late capitalism […], Rasta ideology has not been able to settle the problems of the relations between classes”. However, it can be argued that by appealing to working class black and white youth alike throughout the world, and encouraging them to ‘escape Babylon system’ through entrepreneurship or instilling them with a sense of community and collective struggle, reggae music does serve as a means to resist class power relations. When looking at gender and sexuality, there are numerous examples of reggae songs that empower women, as well as only two known songs that directly challenge homophobia. In general, reggae music does not serve as a useful means to resist gender power relations due to the perpetuation of the idea of women as mothers (Sabelli, 2011), and of hegemonic masculinity such as the hypersexualised nature of Yellowman’s lyrics (Hagerman, 2015). Furthermore, it can be in no means said to resist against homophobia.
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