A Lion Awakes: The Roots of the ‘Reggae Revival’
When Bob Marley passed in 1981, he left a vaccuum that would eventually be filled by cocaine-fueled rapid-fire riddims and slack lyrics which glorified guns, drugs, and sex, and worked only to fatten the pockets of the producers, and kill the souls of the people. Jamaica wanted nothing to do with reggae that promoted a positive, or “conscious” message. Names like Shabba Ranks, Yellowman, Ninjaman started appearing on the charts where names like Barrington, Cocoa Tea, Josey Wales once stood. It was the worst that Jamaica had to offer. The worst elements of American hip-hop thrown together in a stew, cooked up like the crack cocaine which was killing the souls of the poor and oppressed, and released with little thought given to quality of product or packaging. The island’s greatest cash crop of the previous 25 years was burned to the ground, drug-fueld violence ensued, tourism declined.
Any artist with a positive message was forced to go outside of Jamiaca and sign with labels like Real Authentic Sound (RAS), one of the few labels who promoted conscious dancehall artists at a time when nobody wanted to see or hear from them. Mega-talents like Charlie Chaplin, Yami Bolo, and Tiger recorded much of their music in Jamaica, but had it released and distributed by RAS in America, Europe, and Asia. In 1993, a new wave of roots-reggae acts emerged from central Jamaica, led by deejay Tony Rebel and singer Garnet Silk from Manchester, and dub poet Yasus Afari. Soon came artists like Everton Blender, Kulcha Knox and Luciano. Even artists who made their name singing slackness in the dancehall took a turn in the mid-nineties and embraced a more positive message. Capleton and Buju Banton embraced the tenets of Rastafari and began to sing conscious lyrics. In fact, it is Banton’s 1995 album ‘Til Shiloh that is arguably the best conscious reggae album of the nineties. Ultimately, there was little demand for a sea change in the music and reggae as message music declined at the turn of the millenium as it morphed into a popular, soulless sound with artists like Shaggy, Sean Paul, and Sean Kingston (ironically, grandson of legendary roots producer Jack Ruby) taking over the airwaves. Conscious roots music was back on life support.
In 2007, a natural mystic was in the air again. Arising from the hills of Nine Mile, it descended upon a small community 8 miles east of Kingston at Bull Bay. If you traced this energy back to where it was transferred from conscious minds and righteous spirits into a music as organic, as authentic as the sounds that emerged from the Kingston ghettos in the late 1960s and early 1970s, you’d find yourself at Jamnesia, a small but flourishing surf camp run by Billy Wilmot AKA Billy Mystic, former front man for the Mystic Revealers. Jamnesia offers a positive experience for disenfranchised youth that is made possible through a grant from the Jamaican government as well as support from industry partners like Red Bull, Insight Surf Clothing, X-Trak surfboard traction pads and surf accessories, Quashi surfboards, and IPath footwear.
It is here at Jamnesia that the “Reggae Revival” is born, a product of late-night jam sessions and impromptu live performances by island youth. During the summer of 2007, From The Deep, a band of roots reggae musicians and surfers like Wilmot’s son Inilek Wilmot, hold impromptu jam sessions which morph into concerts, making the place an ideal hangout for the local youth. It is here, on the same beach where Bob Marley laid his head to “rockstone” as his pillow that this energy gained momentum. This is the birthplace of the “Reggae Revival.”
Dutty Bookman, a self-declared revolutionary and author of the 2011 memoir ‘Tried & True: Revelations of a Rebellious Youth’ is an ambassador for the movement, working dilligently to direct this energy in the right direction.
“Although I use the term ‘Reggae Revival’ to describe this new movement, I am not responsible for the movement. This is a movement that started with musicians and elders. Bob Andy working with Raging Fyah, Earl “Chinna” Smith working with the musicians ‘inna de yard,’ Billy Mystic and his son’s band From The Deep. It is a multi-generational movement championed by the youth with mentoring from the elders.”
Bookman just returned from the largest platform in the world for reggae artists, Rototom Sunsplash held in Benicassim, Spain. For the first time ever, the festival, which celebrated it’s 20th anniversary, held a discussion sponsored by it’s Reggae University focused on the recent groundswell of new-generation conscious acts from Jamaica known as the ‘Reggae Revival’. As Rototom’s artistic director, Sabrina Trovant so eloquently explained “the 20th Rototom Sunsplash will highlight the Reggae Revival, the new cultural movement which is responsible for the recent revitalisation of music and arts in Jamaica.” In addition, festival attendees got their first formal introduction to the artists who define the movement as acts like Protoje, Dubtronic Kru, Kabaka Pyramid, Iba MaHr, and Exco Levi, and performed on two stages throughout the festival.
“In 2009 I was doing publicity work for Protoje. One night he goes to perform at Jamnesia and I was in the crowd. This is really the first time that I’m seeing a crowd’s reaction to him at Jamnesia. I will never forget listening to two individuals in the crowd say ‘this is it…this is what we’ve been looking for!’”
Thirty two-year old Oje Ken Ollivierre, popularly known as Protoje, is a contemporary reggae singer and songwriter from Jamaica. His mother is famous Jamaican singer Lorna Bennett, perhaps best known for her 1972 rendition of ‘Breakfast In Bed.’ In 2011 Protoje released the album ‘The Seven Year Itch,’ produced by his cousin Don Corleone, independently via Don Corleon Records. The album was an immdeiate critical and financial success, reaching Top 10 in three territories representing a rare chart rise by a local act. The album hit #2 in Canada, #3 in the US and #4 in France on the iTunes Reggae Albums chart. It was only fitting that the album launch took place in front of the Bob Marley Museum in Kingston, as ‘The Seven Year Itch’ is now considered the first major release by an artist repping the Reggae Revival movement.
If Protojé is the face of the Reggae Revival, then Chronixx is the firebrand. According to a recent article in Billboard magazine, son of singer Chronicle, Jamar ‘Chronixx’ McNaughton “has emerged as a leading light among an unofficial consortium of young Jamaican Rastafarian acts, being branded as a “Reggae Revival.” These “revivalists,” including Dre Island, Jah Bouks, Jah9, Protoje, Kelissa (the opening act on Chronixx’s US tour) and Kabaka Pyramid, who topped the Next Big Sound chart in early May, play consciousness-raising, spiritually enriching one-drop reggae, evocative of Jamaican music’s (so called) ’70s golden age — yet rife with contemporary influences.”
Many will tell you that there hasn’t been this much hype around a Jamaican artist since Damian Marley emerged on the scene more than a decade ago. Chronixx is a well-rounded artist who is taking Jamaica, and the world, by storm. His recent tour of Europe and the east coast of North America garnered much praise and heightened expectations. As the legendary Jamaican deejay U-Brown told me in a recent interview “[w]atch this kid. I like his style… I like his sound…I like his vibe…trust me on that.”
So how was the energy of this movement harnessed and directed toward the common goal of changing the musical landscape in Jamaica?
Interestingly, it was Dutty Bookman who was silently collaborating with Protoje and several other conscious artists from the movement through Manifesto Jamaica, a non-profit organization launched by several artists and activists working to educate, inspire and empower diverse communities of young people through arts & culture. The organization was launched in order to provide a platform and the resources needed to advance the growth of the arts as a tool for positive change on the individual, community and city level. Other like-minded artists involved in Manifesto include activist and filmmaker Donisha Pendergast, granddaughter of Bob Marley, singer, songwriter and activist, Janine ‘Jah 9′ Cunningham.
Bookman is a revolutionary at heart and recognizes the significance of the Reggae Revival in Jamaica, the place where it was born nearly 50 years ago.
“Whereas European and North American societies have attained some arguable level of maturity, it is more difficult to say so about Jamaican society. In general, it is a young nation but also there is the important factor of destabilization to consider. Economic and political tricks were quite obvious around the time of reggae’s golden era, and the culture suffered a lot as a result. When the dancehall sound came into being, it was almost simultaneously introduced with negative vibrations and messages. For the next three decades, a whole generation of youths grew to adulthood in the violent and superficial pop culture that emerged. So it is not only significant but also remarkable and amazing that my generation is yearning for consciousness again. Not only that, but we are recreating that energy without ever having experienced it firsthand. “
Bookman sees this movement as a purely Jamaican movement, in which the youths, who grew up in an era of dancehall slackness, are taking the music back.
“The Reggae Revival, as we call it, is not necessarily something for USA or Europe. It is for Jamaica itself to wake up and reclaim ourselves, our heritage, our birthright. It is to accelerate our societal maturity and pick up from the point just before we were culturally destabilized. It is for us to be able to quote worthy lyrics and utterances of not only the legendary greats of three decades ago, but to start quoting ourselves because we are saying worthy things again. USA and Europe gets to enjoy that too but there is this much deeper function that the Reggae Revival serves in Jamaica, and perhaps in other more Afrocentric societies.”
Of course, it is not as if conscious roots artists just threw in the towel, going from dread to digital in the early eighties. In fact, there are many who deserve credit for keeping this style of reggae alive throughout the eighties and nineties and even into the new millenium.
Burning Spear, Israel Vibration, The Congos, Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, Black Uhuru, and even edgier roots artists like Anthony B and Sizzla continued the roots tradition during a period when it was not popular. While these Jamaican artists maintain a healthy following even today, there was never a defined, organized, and passionate movement of like-minded youth demanding that the music change. This is where the Reggae Revival comes in. The youths of today, artists and fans alike, are demanding change, and those same artists who kept the roots music on life support throughout the past two decades are more than willing to fight the good fight along with them.
Bookman realizes the significance of their contributions to the music, and the sacrifices made by these artists.
“The elders have seen more than we youths can ever imagine so they are rightfully concerned and many of them help in their own ways. Musically, I know Bob Andy has been a mentor for Raging Fyah, Fatis Burrell inspired Jesse Royal, who I think still works closely with his son, Kareem Burrell, then you have Beres Hammond and Rory Gilligan (of Stone Love) who both played influential roles in Jah9′s career, plus Chronixx’s father is a dancehall deejay by the name of Chronicle, and Protoje’s mother is the legendary Lorna Bennett. She also is his manager. The list goes on. Elise Kelly, Herbie Miller, Dera Tompkins, Sister Mitzie, Mama Farika, Ras Irice, so many elders have conversed with me alone. I cannot imagine all the conversations and advice being given to all the ones rising up consciously today. The thing I am most proud of is that we, the youth, are very humble when the elders speak to us, whether it’s for encouragement or to be scolded. We know what we are doing for the most part but we never interrupt the elders when they decide to share. It is our privilege to have them in our midst or to otherwise have access to them. This is an integral part of the strength of the Revival. Continuity. Revolution never just start.”
Bookman also sees the Reggae Revival as not just a musical movement, but a cultural one that involves a renaissance in all of the fine and performing arts.
“I see a renaissance in the visual arts coming next,” says Bookman.
Donisha Prendergast, granddaughter of Bob Marley and daughter of the Melody Makers’ Sharon Marley, has already ventured into this realm with her acclaimed 2012 film RasTa: A Soul’s Journey. As a visual artist and activist, Prendergast has decided to dedicate her career to forwarding conscious roots reggae and Rastafari just as her mother and late grandfather did.
“I am a filmmaker, but I am also a healer, definitely a dreamer… and a bridge of sorts I believe. I also recognize that because of the platform and avenues that my grandparents have created for me, I have a responsibility to teach and share as I learn and grow. H.I.M. Emperor Haile Selassie I says ‘It is the duty of the educated few to fulfill the legitimate aspirations of the uneducated many.” He also said ‘Each One Teach One’… [I bring] perspectives and insight that I can share through Divine Life experience for my brothers and sisters, and the genuine love I have for the preservation of reggae music and continuing the works of our great leaders.”
Prendergast, who recently participated in a panel discussion centered on the Reggae Revival, sees the Reggae Revival as a necessary movement that is evolving as other social movements throughout the world are evolving – all a result of the same energy.
“The Reggae Revival is a significant and positive development and contribution along with the music my family has contributed to the world. I think the Reggae Revival was necessary, it had to come- it had to. Just like how I guess Syria was having uprisings and Egypt was having uprisings and then you had America that had their Occupy Wall Street. So I guess the Reggae Revival could be paralleled to those things. It’s just that we came out using the tools that we knew, things like music, art…revolution in creative ways. “
While the movement’s modern roots can be traced through the middle class youth to Bull Bay and Jamnesia, the deep roots were planted firmly in Trenchtown 40 years ago by The Wailing Wailers and Pendergast’s legendary grandfather Bob Marley. So how do the two movements relate to each other? Do they relate at all?
“Same Root, different fruit” says Prendergast. “Just like nature, as time passes, nature and her fruit will evolve. But the same blood runs through the veins. I don’t believe that there is…that you can make a comparison between two times because it’s two totally different contexts that defines those times so it really would be unfair to make those comparisons. What I will do is acknowledge it’s presence and say yeah it is valid…It is a continuation of the works they were doing and it can only help to continue and to communicate the message to a different generation who may not have been able to access it from that time.
Some may not agree with the term ‘Reggae Revival’ due to lack of overstanding or mis-judgement. It is a non-exclusive movement of artistes that seek to remember and empower the spirit of reggae, not just through music and videos, but through creating a space where the artist can again become the voice of the community and not just a celebrity on your TV screen.”
There were many who made this piece possible. First, many thanks to Bianca Anderson who told me this was worth writing about. Also many thanks to my friends Dera Tompkins, Dutty Bookman, and Donisha Prendergast for their time and their continued efforts to forward social consciousness and positivity in music. Also, much thanks to U-Brown for a great history lesson. Also, give thanks to Dermot Hussey for his insight and perspective.