The word ‘reggae’ was coined around 1960 in Jamaica to identify a ‘ragged’ style of dance music, which has its roots in New Orleans’ RnB music genre.
However, reggae soon acquired the lament-like style of chanting and emphasised the syncopated beat. It also made explicit, the relationship with the underworld of the ‘Rastafarians’, revived Marcus Garvey’s ideology of advocating for a mass emigration back to Africa, both in the lyrics and in the appropriation of the African nyah-bingi drumming style, a style that mimics the heartbeat with its pattern of ‘thump-thump, pause, thump-thump’.
The paradox of reggae is that this music ‘unique to Jamaica’ is actually not Jamaican at all, having its foundations in the USA and Africa.
Reggae became popular in the United Kingdom only when Prince Buster’s Al Capone (1967) started a brief ‘dance craze’.
Jamaican music was much of a ghetto phenomenon, associated with gang-style violence, but Jimmy Cliff’s Wonderful World Beautiful People in 1969 brought the element of ‘peace and love’ philosophy of the hippies, an association that would not die away. Do The Reggay in 1968 by Toots Hibbert And The Maytals was the record that gave the music its name, and led to its acclaim.
However, reggae music was mainly popularised by Bob Marley, first as the co-leader of the Wailers, the band that promoted the image of the urban guerrilla with their 1966 release Rude Boy and that cut the first album of reggae music, Best Of The Wailers in 1970.
Burning Spear unleashed the supercharged Marcus Garvey in 1976, which is still regarded by many as the highest artistic achievements of reggae music. Winston Hubert McIntosh, popularly known as Peter Tosh came up with the hugely successful Legalise in 1976. Other great performers like Gregory Isaacs and Culture have also popularised the sound.
In Africa, perhaps the most popular figure was Lucky Dube who was murdered by thugs in 2007. Before he was killed Dube had released the song Reggae Strong, in which he sang in the opening verse, “They tried to kill it many years ago/ killing the prophets of reggae/ destroying the prophets of reggae”. But it was the chorus that seemed to affirm the track name, when he sang “No body can stop reggae.”
For some staunch reggae lovers, there was no better truth. They seemed justified in their believe of Dube’s lyrics as for more than half a century reggae has been one of the most celebrated sounds around the globe.
Locally Keabetswe ‘Master Dee’ Sesenyi pioneered the route into this territory 20 years ago and after the early years filled with promise, he seems to have given up and has since started the talent search show My Star.
Stepping Razor emerged in the 90s also showing a lot of potential yet it failed to reach its full potential and subsequently went into oblivion. One of its founding members Ras Juda Seomeng went overseas and has since established himself as solo performer.
Meanwhile, another member Ras Jesus tried unsuccessfully to embark on a solo career.
He tried his luck in the last general elections without much success either. However, he still believes he has a future in music.
It would seem the genre has been declining over the years especially in southern Africa.
The death of Lucky Dube seems to have been the last straw that broke the camel’s back.
The demise of the genre’s greats might have spelt doom for the sound as no notable individuals or groups have managed to fill the void left by these iconic figures. However, over the years as reggae was going through the stages, a new sound was born called Raggamuffin made popular by the likes of Chaka Demus and Pliers, Yellow Man and Shaggy.
This sub-genre seems to be the preferred sound by those with an inclination for reggae beats. In Zimbabwe acts likes Winky D, Guspy Warriors and Decibel are on the rise.
These names and many others might be donning the popular black, yellow, green and red colors synonymous with reggae music and the rastafarism movement, but fact remains that theirs is not pure reggae but a hybrid sound deriving some of its characteristics from the mainstream reggae sound. The question is what happened to reggae and can it be revived? Seomeng however, denies that reggae is on a decline let alone that it is dead.
“I have to disagree with your observation. I believe reggae music continues to grow in popularity all over the world. For example in the South Pacific where I have been living for the past ten years, reggae music is extremely popular.
In Europe and America there are several major reggae festivals each year. So reggae music is in fact growing in popularity, not the other way around,” Seomeng told Arts & Culture.
“I am one of the original members of Stepping Razor band. I agree with you that Stepping Razor is a project that has potential for greatness.”
Seomeng feels strongly about reviving reggae music locally and has assured his fans that when Stepping Razor regroups in future his international experience would be reflect in their music. “I assure you when we resume we will make it even bigger. We needed to gain more experience, when we are ready we’ll regroup. I think I have grown a lot musically in the past ten years.
I have gone through formal music studies and gained some qualifications. I also continue to perform and record my music,” he said.
Seomeng will be releasing a new album at the end of March this year and says he will be relocating back to Botswana in the “foreseeable future”.