It invades your senses. Its syncopated rhythm creeps into your system, awakening your mind and filling your chest with its slow, steady pulse. Its blissful-yet-somber lyrics glide over the beat, leaving a bittersweet taste in your mouth. Its melody punches throughout the rest of your body, enticing you to sway side-to-side. It’s exultant. It’s jovial and defiant at the same time. It’s solid. It’s strong. It’s reggae.
While the Caribbean-style expression originating in Jamaica has sparked interest throughout the rest of the world, MSU’s miniscule community of Jamaican natives and reggae fans have attempted to raise awareness of reggae music among the local population. Taking pride in their culture and music of choice, especially throughout the final weeks of Black History Month, they have encouraged other MSU students to recognize the true meaning of reggae beyond its happy rhythms and sweet-sounding tunes.
[regg1] A style of music typically described as a blend of blues, calypso and rock ‘n’ roll, reggae is known for its messages of rebellion, protest and the search for solutions to oppression. Music professor Dr. Isaac Kalumbu first became interested in reggae as a teenager when he saw Bob Marley perform for the first time in his native country of Zimbabwe. While reggae wasn’t allowed there because of its social and political liberation messages, Kalumbu said he was surprised to see Marley was across the globe already singing about it, since Zimbabwe had just gained liberation in 1980.
“When [reggae] came on, it was a real watershed message,” Kalumbu said. “Here are people halfway across the world expressing the same ideas and views about the black experience, history and rights. It was placing value on black culture and black heroes who had been, in the past, denigrated.”
Kalumbu also said reggae brings a connection to the environment, encouraging appreciation of the natural elements of life, including basic things like water, the sun and the air we breathe.
Sociology doctoral student Cedric Taylor, a native of Jamaica who transferred to MSU from the University of the West Indies, said reggae could spark the interest of anyone willing to give it a chance.
“There’s something to be said about the music itself,” Taylor said. “Reggae has an infectious rhythm. It can most easily break down boundaries because people identify music with Jamaica already.”
[regg2] Taylor, who grew up in a middle-class background in St. Andrews, Jamaica, said although he came from a Christian family, he was still a fan of reggae as opposed to hip-hop and other forms of music.
“I like North American music as well, but there are some things I can’t identify with,” Taylor said. “It’s not about me. With reggae, it’s almost as if it’s a part of me.”
Also describing “dancehall,” with its fierce lyrics and even further upbeat style, Taylor said the raw, in-your-face branch of music was an amplification of Jamaican culture.
“Dancehall really is a subculture in and of itself,” he said. “Even though it’s the voice of the lower-class and poor, it has gotten across Jamaican society and is much more accepted than it used to be.”
From culture reggae to dancehall, reggae music has been considered a type of therapy for listeners. Human nutrition graduate student and Jamaican native Shanna Ashley, a DJ for The Impact, hosts Reggae Sunsplash, airing Sunday afternoons. Ashley said she uses the show as a way of educating listeners about the role reggae has played in her culture.
[regg3] “I’ve gotten really deep into reggae since I’ve been doing [the show],” Ashley said. “Sometimes I would sit and just listen to some of the lyrics. It causes you to think at a time in your life when you’re thinking, ‘Why me?’ You listen to these songs and you realize there’s somebody out in the world having it a lot rougher than you.”
“Reggae is something that’s kind of therapeutic,” Taylor agreed, referring to the music’s lyrics. “Whether I’m in an anti-establishment or ‘anti-Babylon mood,’ or if I’m sitting with a girl, it’s a way of both escape and expression.”
Kalumbu, who teaches an Integrative Arts and Humanities course focusing on reggae, Rastafari and Dubb poetry, also described reggae as being therapeutic. Using the stage name “King Isaac,” a name suggested to him when recording with one of Bob Marley’s protégés, Kalumbu has recorded songs in both Zimbabwe and the United States.
“I was searching,” Kalumbu said, “looking to find an outlet for my writing and singing. Reggae was so real, it represented real truth, so for me it would be a vehicle of expression.”
The professor has also led a study abroad program in Jamaica, where he taught the importance of reggae and the history of the African Diaspora in the Caribbean. Visiting places such as Accompong, a mountainous area of the island where the Maroon Society lived after fleeing slavery, and St. Elizabeth, where the annual Calabash Literary Festival was held, Kalumbu provided the group with an in-depth look at Jamaican culture and the roots of reggae.
[regg4] Keina Staley, a former history graduate student who participated in the study abroad program, developed a strong interest in reggae throughout her early college years and said her trip to Jamaica solidified her attraction to reggae and Rastafarianism in general.
“It was good going on field trips to Morant Bay and Garvey’s Memorial Park after reading about Caribbean history and things like the Morant Bay Rebellion,” Staley said. “It was pretty much like a reaffirmation of what I already knew. If anything, it gave me a personal visualization. It was all the things I love amplified.”
In describing reggae, Staley said she has come to appreciate the music form and described her translation of the various messages it has attempted to spread.
“It’s almost like gospel music,” Staley said. “It’s peaceful and uplifting. You can sing praise to God and at the same time sing about making love to a woman. It can make you want to protest or rebel, or marry a black man and have a family. [Reggae] brings so many different cultures and ethnic backgrounds together – African, Caribbean, American – it’s more like a ‘story of my life’ kind of thing.”
While the problem of promoting and marketing reggae has left a number of artists shadowed by the infamous Bob Marley, Ashley, who is friends with reggae artist Capelton, said it was unfortunate so many other artists have seemed to go unnoticed by the international community.
“A lot of times, I ask people if they know anything about reggae, and they say, ‘Yeah, I know this Bob Marley song,’” Ashley said. “That’s why we have to present what’s out there. When people get the chance to see the new Elephant Man or Sean Paul, they see that Bob Marley’s not the only artist that’s bringing it.”
[regg5] “There has been this constant maybe exploitation or over-exaltation of Bob,” Kalumbu added. “The market has latched onto him as the reggae ambassador. Money has been spent on Bob’s legacy and nobody else. This is a great disservice to reggae artists.”
“You talk about people like Peter Tosh, Buddy Wailer, Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown,” he added. “There are many other artists who are excellent in their own right, but the money has been put on Bob. Where reggae is well-known, that is not a problem.”
Taylor said he thought foreigners were able to relate to the “King of Reggae” since his messages were based on more of a wide-ranging, international level. “Bob Marley’s message was part of the appeal, because he wasn’t just about the black agenda,” Taylor said. “He had more people who could relate to his message. We can all just hope that Bob Marley is a gateway so that if people are interested, they can take a step further.”
In an effort to open others’ minds to the style of music, Taylor said he has made reggae mix CDs for friends he meets.
“I want people to know about Jamaica,” Taylor said. “Not just the white, sandy beaches or Bob Marley; there’s so much more.”
“I hope that they’ll eventually start listening to the lyrics, get more curious about the culture and maybe be more sensitive to what it’s like to live in a third-world country.”
[regg6] Ashley added she hoped for awareness to be raised through Reggae Sunsplash and the promotion of Jamaican culture. “Through the music, I am able to advertise my culture to Lansing,” the Impact DJ said. “Every time I play a block of songs, I talk about it. It’s like, I am here, but it also keeps me up-to-date in Jamaica.”
Kalumbu, who is also far from his homeland but has attempted to stay connected by spreading the knowledge of African culture and its music, said he hoped people would come to recognize and understand the basic messages of reggae that have continued to permeate throughout the years.
“A lot of what’s known as roots reggae is music that is ultimately about doing the right thing,” he said. “It’s music that’s about respect for all of humanity, fighting for the rights of the downtrodden and trying to impress people at a mental level. Suppression is not always physical. Forces can be ideational. Reggae is a process through which people can begin the journey of mental liberation.”
“There’s a message in reggae for every person on Earth,” he added. “It’s the only form out there with that universal message. It has the ability to unite the world.”
If you are interested in hearing more, tune in to The Impact to hear Shanna Ashley host Reggae Sunsplash on Sundays from 2 – 6 p.m.
If you would like to check out Dr. Kalumbu’s albums, “It’s All About Love,” “King Isaac” and “Munokokwa Mese,” they are currently available at Schuler Books.
Other recommended reggae artists: Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Gregory Isaacs, Beres Hammond, Burning Spear, Richie Spice, Sizzla Kolongi, Capelton.