Lively up yourself with reggae, an African Internationalist genre!

“Don’t care where you come from, as long as you’re black, you’re an African.”

In How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Walter Rodney writes, “Africa is the continent of drums and percussion. African peoples reached the pinnacle of achievement in that sphere.” The pinnacle of this musical achievement that Rodney speaks of is best exemplified with reggae, the African Internationalist genre.

Reggae is a genre of music that came from Kingston, Jamaica in the late 1960s and gained worldwide popularity in the 1970s. Though reggae was not born in Africa, its main component—the drums—is certainly African. The drums are the very first thing one hears in most reggae songs. That’s for a reason; the drums are the heartbeat of reggae.

Reggae in the ‘60s was known as ska and had a much higher tempo. This was due to the fact that Africans in Jamaica wanted upbeat music that reflected the mood of the country—the mood exemplified by their newfound flag independence.

By the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, however, ska slowed down and became rocksteady. This only lasted for a brief moment, and rocksteady soon slowed down even more to become the reggae more widely recognized today.

The ‘70s, however, was when roots reggae developed as a subgenre of reggae. In its highest expression, roots reggae is a genre that both expresses the conditions that African people across the world face every day, and also calls for revolutionary resistance to overturn those conditions.

Roots reggae is the voice of the oppressed

Roots reggae songs tend to discuss colonial oppression experienced by African people worldwide. The issues that we experience under colonialism such as mass poverty, violence and the general oppression of African people are heavily discussed across reggae as the “Babylonian” agenda and system.

This is what makes reggae different. Reggae was a musical expression of the African working class and its conditions specifically from Jamaica.

Worldwide famous reggae artists that we know today like Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff and many more had their beginnings in the poorest and most downtrodden places in Jamaica. One of the most critical places for reggae and known as reggae’s birthplace—is Trenchtown, located in Jamaica’s capital—Kingston.

Trenchtown was the historic place where Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, and Rita Marley (Bob Marley’s wife) got together to form the band The Wailers. The Wailers would later become the famous band known as Bob Marley & The Wailers. As their fame grew, their music continued to reflect the experiences they had as Africans living under colonial domination.

In their song “Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)” from the album Natty Dread, The Wailers discuss the way that the colonial mode of production keeps the masses hungry, while the bourgeoisie get richer and live off the masses. In “7 Days a Week,” Don Carlos sings about his experiences under capitalism by singing “ every day, just for this little pay” and “working 9 to 5 just to keep my kids alive/freedom is a must, I know.”

Women like Judy Mowatt also contributed to reggae by speaking on the special oppression African women face under colonialism in her song “Black Woman.” She sings, “Black woman I know you’ve struggled long, I feel your afflictions, to you I dedicate my song.”

It is with this African working class perspective that reggae was shaped and formed.

Without this working class perspective, reggae artists wouldn’t have the level of understanding to speak to the masses about the material ways in which the colonial world order affects their day-to-day lives.

The creation of reggae parallels that of African Internationalism, the official theory of the African People’s Socialist Party (APSP), in that they are both made for and by the African class.

Identifying colonialism as the ultimate problem

African Internationalism “recognizes that capitalism, born as a parasitic world economy, has its origin in the assault on Africa and the global trade in African captives as well as the ensuing European onslaught on most of the world.”

It posits that Africans anywhere in the world suffer at the hands of colonialism and regardless of where our country of birth is, we are Africans first and foremost.
Reggae artists may call it “Babylon ” as Bob Marley had in his song “Babylon System,” but much like African Internationalism, reggae identifies this critical objective condition of our oppression to colonialism.

In his song “Marcus Garvey,” the artist Burning Spear (not to be confused with The Burning Spear newspaper, though it is a happy coincidence) laments “can’t get no food to eat, can’t get no money to spend,” acknowledging the blood-sucking system that colonialism is. In this song, Burning Spear invokes Marcus Garvey, the founder and leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in the early 20th century. Garvey’s leadership in that period of history mobilized the masses of the African working class because he understood the importance of class in the struggle to overthrow colonialism.

Name-dropping and saluting African leaders and ancestors is one of the many unique traits of reggae that sets it apart.

There is so much rich history in the simple lyrics packed into many roots reggae songs that it’s hard walking away without learning something.

Even in the early stages of reggae, this class consciousness is hard to miss.

In “The Harder They Come” by Jimmy Cliff, a song featured in the classic of the same name, Cliff communicates the same oppression he faces under colonial capitalism by “They tell me of a pie up in the sky…” yet “They never seem to hear [me] cry,” while simultaneously resisting the “oppressors that try to keep [him] down.”

Reggae is the African Internationalist’s genre

The Africans that made reggae the world-renowned genre that it is today were able to do so because these Africans spoke about the very real and economic conditions they experienced as Africans living under colonial and neocolonial domination in the island of Jamaica.

This experience was profound and universal; Africans in the United Kingdom, in the heart of one of the dominating colonial empires, also dealt with their experiences through the cultural expression that is reggae.

With this shared experience, under the global colonial capitalist system, also came the shedding of whatever false nationality was forced upon them by empires and the identification of ourselves as Africans.

As Peter Tosh proclaimed in his song “African,” don’t “mind your nationality, you have got the identity of an African.” The influence of the Garvey movement in this understanding of our identity cannot be understated.

It is with this African Internationalist understanding, though maybe unbeknownst to the artists, that they were able to speak on the fundamental experiences they faced moving through the world as oppressed working class Africans.

It is with this consciousness, the yearning for freedom from colonial domination that Burning Spear sang “I and I want to be free” in “Free Black People.”

Reggae is one of the most profound forms of cultural expression of African musical history. At its roots, reggae is music made for and by the African working class. In its highest expressions, reggae not only identified our colonial conditions but also called for revolution to overturn them.

In his song “Chant Down Babylon,” Bob Marley opens with, “Come we go burn down Babylon one more time,” Peter Tosh calls for the masses to “Get up and stand up!” for one’s rights, and Steel Pulse urge the masses to “rally around the red, black and green!”

As we continue to combat colonialism, let us move with the knowledge that we are fighting the same fight as working class Africans living under the same system that is colonialism.

Make the Revolution!
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