The most common themes of Reggae music include poverty, politics and Rastafarianism (which is a set of spiritual and cultural beliefs with wide ranging interpretations). Other subjects like love, sex and socializing also find mention in the lyrics although social criticism is the predominant theme. The music is also known for criticism of materialism, political awareness and rebellion against orthodox religious dogma (Clements).
Reggae as a Vehicle of Political Message:
Clancy Eccles was openly supportive of Michael Manley and his People’s National Party (PNP) during the 1970’s. Manley, the ever shrewd politician, understood the power of Reggae to draw voters. So during the run-up to the elections, he arranged concerts where Eccles’ performed politically loaded numbers. The other Reggae groups that were also supportive of Manley were Dennis Brown, the Chosen Few and The Wailers. Let’s take, for example, Eccles’s “Rod of Correction”. It goes,
I say Hail that man !, a so…
Lot’s wife turned a pillar of salt,
Down in Sodom and Gomorrah.
Father, burn them in Sodom and Gomorrah,
Lot’s wife turned a pillar of salt.
King Pharaoh’s army was drowned,
Down in the bottom of the ocean.
Beat them with the rod of correction, Father.
Lot’s wife turned a pillar of salt (Cooper 1996).
The title of the song is a reference to the staff given to Michael Manley, as a gift, by Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. The Emperor was highly revered across the black diasporas and more so in the Caribbean. The biblical symbolism is noted in how the rod commonly came to be known as “Joshua’s Rod”, whereby making Manley the Joshua – the personification of the “good” according to the Old Testament. And just as Joshua brought down the walls of Jericho and led the Jews to the land of Canaan, Manley was projected to lead his fellow countrymen to peace and prosperity.
There are other symbolic references too. The parable of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the story of the crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites are the other references to the Old Testament. Manley is portrayed as Joshua (the Savior) and his incumbent opponent is taken as the Pharoah. Need less to say, such powerful biblical symbolism made a critical impact on the Jamaican society, which was highly religious, and made Michael Manley the Prime Minister. The people will later be disappointed with Manley and disillusioned of his promises of paradise are quite another story (Cooper 1996).
The Rastafarian tradition in Reggae is followed by mixing important biblical texts and symbols. Some other songs of this period that deserve mention are Max Romeo’s “Let the Power Fall on I”, based on the Revivalist hymn “Let the Power Fall on Me”. Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus’ “Ethiopian National Anthem”, Peter Tosh’s “Rasta Shook Them Up” and “He Who Feels It Knows It” are also notable for their biblical and Rastafarian connotations. Some other songs on a similar theme are “Conquering Lion,” “Deliver Us,” “Rasta Never Fails,” and “Africa is Paradise”. (Cooper 1996)
Another of Eccles’ renditions is the spiritual song “Freedom”. The lines “Before I’d be a slave / I’ll be buried in my grave/ And go home to my Lord and be free” have strong biblical connotations. More specifically the lyric affirms the Rastafarian value of life.
Babylon and Zion in Bob Marley’s Work:
Power of words and symbolism are very cleverly used by Reggae artists to invoke powerful emotions and strong sentiments in their audiences. Consider the Bob Marley song “Chant Down Babylon” from his album Confrontation. We hear the following lines: “Come we go burn down Babylon/One more time/Come we go chant down Babylon one more time/For them soft/Yes them soft.” The reference to Babylon is very common in Reggae. In “Babylon System”, Marley implies that Babylon is a blood thirsty vampire that sucks life out of children every day – “sucking the children day by day/sucking the blood of the sufferers” (Herbold 2007).
On the other hand Zion is a haven of Freedom and equality. It finds mention in “Rasta Man Chant”
“I say fly away to Zion
Fly away home
One bright morning
When my work is over
Man will fly away home” (Herbold 2007)
The reference of Jehovah:
There are more biblical references that give Reggae a powerful and transforming quality. Jehovah or Jah is the Rastafarian God, sometimes also taken for the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie. Jah is a manifestation of power, love and goodness. The following is one of many references to Jah, taken from Bob Marley’s “Duppy Conqueror”: “The bars could not hold me/Force could not control me, now/ They try to keep me down/But Jah put I around.” (Herbold 2007)
Reggae engages the audience at various levels and embodies values that encourage the formation of a black identity and black emancipation. It does this through meaningful and culturally relevant references and symbols in its lyrics. The genre represents an essentialist black identity, especially that of the colonial African diasporas. The moral messages in the lyrics follow the Rastafarian religion in terms of its traditional religious symbolism. This is made possible by easily understandable lyrics that are neatly packaged with clever and catchy music. Bob Marley, one of the chief proponents of the art, explored the themes of a multicultural and its injustices. Thus, while Reggae played a big part in breaking down racial barriers, it is also instrumental in affirming the uniqueness of Black culture and identity (Clements).
Cooper, Carolyn. (Winter 1996)Race and the cultural politics of self-representation: a view from the University of the West Indies.(The “Black Atlantic”). In Research in African Literatures, 27, p97(9).
Herbold, Stacey., “Jamaican Patois and the Power of Language in Reggae Music” <http://watchit.wordpress.com/2007/03/07/jamaican-patois-and-the-power-of-language-in-reggae-music/> retrieved on 16th April 2007.
Clements, Paul., Reggae: The Changing Representations of an Inclusive Musical Form, <www.city.ac.uk/cpmejournal/dps/Paul%20Clerments.pdf> retrieved on 16th april 2007.