today few reggae records crack the pop charts, and without hits, groups or solo artists don't get much chance to tour. While undiluted reggae hangs onto the periphery of the pop market, reggae-derived hits by such non-Jamaican superstars as Boy George, Tina Turner and Sting get all the glory.
Why such a comedown for an idiom that was touted both as great dance music and as a force for spiritual renewal and political revolt? Music journalist Nelson George blames a fickle white audience for reggae's commercial collapse. George, who is black, says hip young whites have tired of reggae and are looking to ther styles--urban funk, the African pop of such artists as Nigeria's King Sunny Ade--for their fix of black exotica.
There's some truth to George's observation, but he fails to account for the disenchantment of many nontrendy fans. The fact is, reggae has lost its cutting edge: it seems unable to challenge and surprise its listeners. Rather than expand its formal vocabulary, much of the new reggae absorbs, often awkwardly, elements of rock and funk. Although celebrated for its acute social consciousness, 1980s reggae has little on its mind except the familiar Rastafarian moral precepts, not to mention the moon/June cliches of romantic balladry. Rebellion, restless energy and a commitment to truth-telling drew many to reggae, but those qualities are getting harder to find. An unmistakable sign of the music's decline is the success of Yellowman. Currently the hottest thing in reggae, Yellowman is less a singer than a rapper, Jamaican-style, who specializes in smutty, sexist doggerel.
Shortly before his death, in 1981, Bob Marley, the singer-songwriter who was reggae's most gifted and charismatic exponent, was expanding the music's stylistic range and capturing a mass following in America. But it wasn't only the loss of Marley that contributed to reggae's slump. Two other factors must be figured in: the change in Jamaica's political climate signaled by the 1980 election of right-wing Prime Minister Edward Seaga, and the exhaustion of Rastafarianism.
although Marley Seaga, and the exhaustion of Rastafarianism.
Although Marley and most reggae musicians kept their distance from Jamaican politics, it's undeniable that reggae's greatest creative period co-incided with the eight years when Prime Minister Michael Manley and his People's National Party held power. Socialism, anti-imperialism and solidarity with other developing nations dominated Jamaican political discourse in the Manley era, and that climate nurtured the radical ruminations in the best of reggae. Not all Jamaican music was so sober-minded; for every militant reggae broadside there was a sentimental love song or a bawdy novelty tune. But in the mid- to late 1970s reggae so forcefully articulated the restless modd of the island's poor that certain records were banned from the airwaves.
Rastafari, the millennial religious-cultural movement whose followers deify the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and reject "Babylon" (capitalism and its institutions), claimed the allegiance of nearly all reggae artists and much of Jamaica's youth and urban poor. At its peak, Rasta seemed to be pitting its black nationalist, anticapitalist ethos against that of bourgeois Creole society. But Rasta's atavisms--its disdain for politics and collective action, its religious obscurantism and its sometimes virulent sexism--prevented if from becoming the force for radical reform many hoped it would be.
Recent records by two bands steeped in Rastafari reflect reggae's current lassitude and loss of direction. Steel Pulse, a sextet composed of expatriate West Indians living in England, and Black Uhuru, a Kingston-based aggregation, write and play reggae that, like Bob Marley's, celebrates the economic and racial struggles of ordinary folk. But it's a long way down from Tribute to the Martyrs, Steel Pulse's second and best album, to their fifth and latest effort, Earth Crisis (Elektra). What sounded fresh and vibrant on earlier records has turned mechanical. The band plods on, displaying little of the flair for dynamics and exciting rhythmic contrasts that once distinguished their playing. The banal lyrics by lead singer David Hinds tell us that children are the hope of the future, that the bodyguards of dictators are nasty fellows and that humanity is in the midst of an "earth crisis." Hinds brings no special details, no sharp observations to these themes; he simply milks the ready-mades of Rastafarian lore. Worse, the reactionary side of Rasta gets aired in "Wild Goose Chase," with lyrics that condemn contraception and call abortion "legal murder."
The core of Black Uhuru is a vocal trio which is backed by a band comprising some of Jamaica's best studio musicians. The group's songs are more often minor-key chants framed by catchy refrains than conventional pop tunes. Their eerie, sometimes mournful quality suits lead singer Michael Rose's lyrics, which tend to dwell on adversity and struggle. Black Uhuru's approach succeeded brilliantly on their 1981 album, Red. Alas, the follow-up was the desultory Chill Out and now, after a lengthy silence, the group has released Anthem (Island), a mixed bag indeed.
The album's sound, harder and more angular than the "spongy reggae" (Rose's term) of previous records, relies heavily on synthesizers and electronically distorted vocals and on straightforward rock backbeats in addition to the familiar reggae syncopations. The results are occasionally exhilarating, but more often these touches prove gimmicky rather than innovative. For the first time Michael Rose hasn't written all the songs; backup vocalist Duckie Simpson has contributed several of his unremarkable compositions. (Puma Jones, the third singer and one of the few women prominent in reggae, has yet to write for the group.) Although there's no shortage of good riffs and insinuating, melodic hooks here, the lyrics are vague, insubstantial and sometimes embarrassingly trite. (The best number, "Solidarity," was written by Steve Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen's former E Street Band Compere.) Anthem finds Black Uhuru coasting on tired formulas.
Linton Kwesi Johnson, an expatriate Jamaican poet who doesn't even consider himself a reggae artist, spends much of his time doing political work in London's black communities. Every few years, in defiance of the recording industry's constant demand for new "product," he makes an album of his poetry set to reggae music. Making History (Mango) is his first release in four years, but it was worth the wait. Johnson's record was easily the best reggae album of 1984, maybe the best since Black Uhuru's Red.
Not a singer, Johnson declaims his verse in cadences that ride the surging reggae rhythms. Since he uses the patois of working-class West Indians, one must listen closely to grasp the words. "The notes on the album jacket provide some assistance.) Johnson comes across as a sophisticated black Marxist who hasn't lost touch with the streets. He has no use for Rasta religiosity; on an earlier album he gently trashed the sect's penchant for foggy mysticism and its obsession with a mythical African paradise that supposedly existed before the white man arrived.
Making History is antiracist, proletarian reggae that you can dance to. "Wat About di Workin' Claas," Johnson's critique of Soviet-style socialism and Western capitalism ("di two a' dem di workers do contest") is set to a swinging, jazz-reggae arrangement spiced by blustery trombone and fluent guitar. "Di Great Insohreckshan," a salute to the 1981 uprising of blacks and some white youth in Brixton, a poor section of London, has a compulsive rhythm of the sort Jamaican musicians like to call "sticky." The stunning title track expresses Johnson's unsentimental faith in the ability of working-class people to transform their lives. The superb band, led by veteran reggae musician and producer Dennis Bovell, churns out a pumping rhythm punctuated by martial-sounding horns. The inexorable momentum of the performance evokes insurrection more powerfully than anything else in reggae or, for that matter, in rock or folkie protest music. When Johnson defiantly declares, "Now tell me something, mister right-wing mon!" he's chilling. When on other tracks he eulogizes his father, who died poor in Jamaica, or mourns the assassinated West Indian radical Walter Rodney, he's terribly moving.
Drawing upon the political and social struggles of his community--an extended one, to be sure--and portraying them with critical intelligence and passion, Linton Kwesi Johnson shows one way out of the reggae cul-de-sac. He says, enough of Sunday-school moralizing, enough of nostalgia for dead emperors, enough of abstract, unfocused protest. Let's talk about our lives now, what we need and how we're going to get it. No need to make self-deluding myths when we could be making history.