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Op-Ed: Cultural Appropriation or the Evolution of Music?

Several weeks ago, this article was published in the San Diego City Beat, reporting on the cultural appropriation of modern reggae music. The article has stirred up some controversial discussion within the scene, and as someone who has followed reggae music for over 30 years, I’d like to offer my thoughts on the subject.

For starters, I find the timing of the article puzzling, as if American musicians playing reggae music is something new. Americans have been making reggae music for 25-30 years. San Diego’s own Big Mountain, who is one of the earliest original American reggae acts, was highlighted in the San Diego City Beat article for their 1994 hit cover of Peter Frampton’s “Baby I Love Your Way.” This single was clearly an attempt for the band to gain some mainstream notoriety (which proved to be successful) but it in no way should define decades of meaningful work. Songs like “All the Praise Due,” “Resistance,” “Fruitful Days” and “Peaceful Revolution” are just a few of many examples of songs of substance put out by this hard-working band.

No matter what the genre, music traditionally brings people together, helping them to bond over common ground. The irony is that the City Beat has chosen to manipulate this common ground to create division within a medium typically associated with unifying people. Essentially, this article ignores aspects of the history of reggae music as well as the progressive roots movement simply to make its point. On top of being inaccurate, this approach creates unproductive friction within a community centered on positive consciousness.

Taking a look at the history of the genre, it doesn’t take long to realize that not all classic reggae dealt exclusively with the experience of the sufferah, i.e. singing about oppression and other social and political commentary. Reggae music started branching out way back in the ‘70s, creating adored, long-lasting subgenres like lovers rock, made internationally popular by artists such as Alton Ellis, Beres Hammond and Gregory Isaacs. In fact, it was the love songs of Bob Marley that brought him the greatest worldwide fame. (It’s no coincidence that nearly half the songs on his hallmark Legend compilation are love songs.)

Additionally, after its adoption by the Rastafarian movement in Jamaica, much of roots reggae music became worship music. While the vast majority of the artists did come from the underprivileged ghettos of Trench Town, the music did not always incite revolution, but often embraced a more positive angle, praising Jah and celebrating a spiritual lifestyle.

These days, there are more artists performing reggae music than at any point in the past. It is clear that the genre has attracted a wide diversity of musical talent. The subtitle of the San Diego City Beat article states: “A genre rooted in rebellion and activism is now more about chill vibes and fashion.” Are there artists playing fluff? Sure. Does that make up the majority? Absolutely not.

From the experience of Rootfire, interfacing with reggae artists and documenting their music as the scene has rapidly grown over the past ten years or so, most of the musicians making reggae music today have a deep knowledge and respect for the roots of the genre, which is what inspired them to perform reggae in the first place. Sure, there are plenty of songs that celebrate leisure, but much of the music contains political and social commentary true to its origin, or speaks of something even more universal – the human experience. Songs about love, loss, joy, pain and spirituality have created strong connections between the fans, artists and music, as evidenced by the daily activity in the online fan groups of the progressive roots bands.

Speaking of the fans, reggae has enjoyed more widespread recognition and acclaim than ever before. This means there are growing amounts of new devotees who know little to nothing of the roots of the music. While this is a shame, many artists do take moments during their live performances to acknowledge the origins of the music. Likewise, as a voice in the industry, part of our mission at Rootfire is to educate people about the rich history of this special music.

Well-traveled enthusiasts will attest to the fact that reggae music can be heard in just about every country in the world. It’s timeless and humanistic themes coupled with its positive and unifying messages resonate with people from all cultures and walks of life. Given the widespread growth over the decades, reggae has inevitably been emulated, tweaked, borrowed from, synthesized into subgenres and inspired new genres altogether. Is this cultural appropriation, or just simply the evolution of the music?

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Ever since becoming deeply moved and then essentially obsessed with reggae music as a teenager, Dave has always strove to learn as much as possible about the history and culture of reggae music, Jamaica and Rastafari, the ideology and lifestyle intertwined with reggae. 

Over the years, he has interviewed many personalities throughout the reggae world including Ziggy Marley, Burning Spear, Lucky Dube, Bradley Nowell and many artists in the progressive roots scene.

Dave has also written and published a novel, “The Cosmic Burrito,” a tale of two friends who drive across the USA in search of the ultimate burrito. He plays ice hockey weekly for a recreational team he founded and manages, Team Rasta.

Reggae music has filled his life with a richness for which he will forever be grateful, and he gives thanks to musicians far and wide, past and present, whether they perform roots, dub, dancehall, skinhead, rocksteady or ska, whether their tools are analog or digital, as well as the producers, promoters, soundsystems, selectors and the reggae massive at large who comprise the international reggae community.

You can follow Dave on Instagram at @rootsdude and Twitter at @ElCosmicBurrito.

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