Socialist Worker

Roots reggae and resistance from Jamaica to Brixton

The rerelease of a range of roots reggae albums exposes the music’s hidden political history, writes Ken Olende

Issue No. 1965

Peter Tosh in revolutionary mode with his gun guitar

Peter Tosh in revolutionary mode with his gun guitar

Once feared by the authorities and celebrated by rebels from Notting Hill to Zimbabwe, roots reggae has been sanitised. Bob Marley is presented as simply uplifting summer music. But a series 1970s reggae reissues is making it possible to see how innovative, influential and politically aware it was.

Jamaican music developed dynamically through the sixties. Brass-led ska shifted into the more vocal oriented rocksteady, which saw the introduction of overtly political lyrics. In turn this evolved into slowed down, electric bass driven reggae. Another major change was in the influence Rastafarianism.

Jamaica has an explosive history. Slave revolts had been followed by protests against colonialism. By the 1950s there was a ferment against imperialism. Jamaica gained independence in 1962, but found itself on the front line of the cold war - the island is 90 miles from Cuba.

Anger at poverty and corruption encouraged the development and growth of groups such as the Rastafarians, who preached a mix of Marcus Garvey's back-to-Africa black nationalism and Biblical righteousness. Crudely put, the west was Babylon and the righteous living in dread of god would inherit the earth. Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie was seen as a living embodiment of god. Politically it was significant that Ethiopia had never been colonised. The movement was inspired by the anti-colonial struggles that were still continuing from Vietnam to Zimbabwe at the time. It is almost certain that photos of the defiant Kenyan Mau Mau fighters inspired rastas to wear dreadlocks.


Roots reggae developed under the influence of Rastafarianism. Artists who were not converts still identified with its stance against oppression and imperialism, and its call for justice and equality.

The music was also influenced by the distinctive sound systems, where DJs toured the ghettoes with enormous speaker systems that were cheaper to hire than the live bands used elsewhere.

Toasting - rhythmically talking over the music - started out as praise for the DJ and the sound system or the local crowd. It became a musical style where the DJ vocalist dominated, and as such prefigured rap.

Trojan Records started issuing instrumental versions of tracks for DJs to toast over. This encouraged the development of dub music where an instrumental version of the original track was stretched and retextured, changing the mood and feel of the sound.

Reggae was brought to a wider worldwide audience after the success of the powerful 1972 film, The Harder they Come, starring reggae musician Jimmy Cliff. The following year Bob Marley and the Wailers made an international breakthrough with the album Catch a Fire.

In the early 1970s reggae singers such as Marley, Burning Spear and Big Youth began to wear dreadlocks to show a rejection of mainstream society and identification with Rastafari.

Already established groups, like the gospel influenced Toots and the Maytals, included political tracks in their repertoire. '54-46 That's My Number' is a righteous protestation of innocence - referring to Toots' own prison number.

A high point of the music is Peter Tosh's track Get Up, Stand Up which mixes religious language with a demand for change now:


'Cause you know most people think
A great God will come from the skies
And take away every little thing
And left everybody dry
But if you know what life is worth
Then you would look for yours right here on earth
And now we see the light
We gonna stand up for our rights'.


Self respect

To young West Indians in Britain who suffered discrimination at school and work and were targeted by the police with the notorious sus - stop and search - laws, Rastafari offered an oppositional culture, giving a sense of self respect and identity which could be compared to that gained by young Muslims today who see their faith as the best way to challenge racism.

Young blacks in British inner city areas were not simply absorbing the music of the Caribbean. As an established community they made their own music, reflecting life in Britain. Bands such as Aswad, Matumbi and Steel Pulse reflected this experience.

The Notting Hill Carnival in West London saw both the biggest expression of Jamaican influenced music and sound systems in the UK and confrontation with the institutionally racist police.

The first Rock against Racism (RAR) carnival in 1978 featured both Steel Pulse and Misty in Roots. For the musical direction in Britain the creation of RAR, the anti-fascist struggle and the coming together of punk and reggae as anti-establishment allies was a major breakthrough. An early Rock Against Racism statement ran: 'We want Rebel music, street music. Music that breaks down people's fear of one another. Crisis music. Now music. Music that knows who the real enemy is. Rock against Racism. Love Music Hate Racism.'

In this period British based poet Linton Kwesi Johnson mixed heavy dubs with militant politics, attacking the sus laws, racism and apathy. There was a development of female artists such as Ranking Ann and Puma Jones from Black Uhuru.

For the most part the politics was dropped from reggae in the 1980s, but dub sounds developed to influence the likes of Massive Attack and the Orb, and much modern dance music.

Though the roots reggae sound was superseded by lovers rock and the faster ragga and dancehall styles, toasting was highly influential on both the rap and hip-hop scenes. Lee Perry's 1973 Cow Thief Skank is a remarkable early stab towards hip-hop.

Roots music's original strength came not from any one part of what made it up, but from voicing the outrage of a worldwide struggle against oppression. The new struggles that have emerged in the past few years will hopefully develop their own music across the world.

Recommended albums include Equal Rights by Peter Tosh, Marcus Garvey by Burning Spear, Super Ape by Lee Perry and the Upsetters, and Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Forces of Victory.

The Trojan reggae label has recently released a Roots & Culture box set as one of its many compilations. Go to

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Sat 27 Aug 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1965
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