Two weeks ago I was standing in the Jefferson Theater in Charlottesville talking to Lem Oppenheimer about the New York and D.C. reggae scenes in the ‘80s and ‘90s. A few feet in front of us, Seth was celebrating his birthday with his wife Erin, dancing to the music of The Green. SOJA was due on stage next and I was thinking to myself that I was experiencing a history lesson in American reggae, with the scene laid out in front of me on The Jefferson’s sloped floor. There was nothing going on when Lem and I were growing up except the leftover influences of the British ska and punk scenes and the exiled Jamaican reggae musicians who settled down in places like D.C., New York, Miami, and L.A.
Not that that was nothing. It was beautiful and it marked people like Lem and me because it was international music for international cities straight from the true source before anyone talked about globalization and well after white flight had made the cities ghosts of the American Dream. Lem helped to start the American reggae scene when he co-founded Easy Star Records, a passion project that took a decade to turn into a full-time job, and he had a satisfied look on his face watching the show. A band he could have signed that went on to big things and a younger band he did sign ratcheting up through the gears towards stardom.
The guys in SOJA grew up around D.C. a little bit after me, and they’ve paid their dues on stages all over the world before their invitation to the Grammy’s this year, which seemed like an affirmation for the whole reggae scene, a graduation day where the senior class, bands like SOJA and John Brown’s Body, get their due but the talented underclassmen, like The Green, are clapping politely and itching to get their day in the sun. Of course, in the digital age we’re in, it’s hard to make sense of scenes and genres. It’s like everybody’s on stage and seeing who comes out of the woodwork and the dream of belonging to something bigger than you, that connects you, is realized or refuted everyday on Twitter, depending on how you look at things. What is reggae? Or folk? Or rock? Or country? Anyone can play anything if they wear the right costume.
It reminds me of conversations I’ve had recently with Joshua Swain of The Movement. Roots is just a one drop and a Jamaican accent, but reggae can be anything you want it to be. Or the ongoing conversation I have with Semaj Surreal, who sees reggae as a powerful tonic with which to treat the malarial affliction of global inequality and wake suburban America up out of its complacent unreality. Or Thomas Cussins from Ineffable Music, who said reggae is the new EDM, meaning the new language of freedom for young people all over the world who want to dance and feel good and desperately need a reason to turn up the middle finger to the rat race that threatens to keep them in the purgatory of the 9 to 5. And then there’s The Green, coming from the island that created Gabby Pahinui and Bruno Mars, spreading that message of Hawaii to the mainland, equal parts pride, love, and anger.
Life moves fast, like Ferris Bueller said, and we have to slow it down to live it for real and not worrying about catching up. The thing I do worry about is how the wisdom and the power passes on down the line. If one generation stands on its own, aloof from the next and dismissive of the last, we repeat the cycle. Reggae is the same. If I am standing in the back with Lem, and we remember there were others standing behind us, and we are looking at Seth and his crew, and then down at the stage, how do we make a new generation of the music that connects all those experiences, so that reggae is only the new EDM in the way we want it to be and not in the ways we don’t. It still has to carry the same soul signal broadcasting the world-wide struggle against racism, ignorance, and greed by vibrating the ancient rhythms of Mama Africa through every corner of the globe.
Photo Credit: Byron Garrett