On Sound System as tool against oppression

How have the protest anthems of the classic era of reggae been transformed into support for Jamaica’s tourist industry?
Stephen King tackles such general questions of co-optation in his monograph a revision of his dissertation that at times suffers from an overly academic presentation, particularly when he attempts to fit data to the categories of his particular social movement theory.

The study attempts to “comprehensively trace how Jamaica’s protest music has changed both lyrically and musically over a twenty-one year period, and how the Jamaican government has attempted to silence or co-opt these voices of protest”.
King concludes with a look at how Rastafari claims for social justice in reggae have been co-opted first in the service of the island’s emergent nationalism and then to assist Jamaican tourism.

King locates the roots of reggae in ska (1959-65) and rocksteady (1966-67), the two musical forms that preceded it. It was ska, a music that blended mento , the indigenous Jamaican version of calypso, with American jazz and rhythm and blues, that reflected the optimistic mood of the country during the run-up to Jamaican independence.
As economic conditions worsened for the majority of Jamaica’s blacks during the mid-1960s, the more aggressive lyrics of rocksteady gave voice to the frustrations and alienation of the island’s under- and unemployed ghetto dwellers.
And then there was the advent of reggae in the late 1960s and through the 1970s, the period that is remembered as the high- water mark of Rastafari influence on an emergent Jamaican nationalism. Reggae, of course, began as a Rasta-inspired music that not only articulated the pan- African vision of the movement and its demands for social justice, but that celebrated the cultural practices and symbols of Rastafari.

King does a credible job in mapping the general contours and themes of these musical developments against the backdrop of a changing Jamaican society. In the course of this he shows how the roots of Rastafari musical protest are organically intertwined with the development of both preceding forms. While this is hardly newsworthy to many aficionados of Jamaican music, King provides some interesting examples that illustrate how critical commentary and protest themes, however restrained, existed within ska lyrics from the outset.
The occasional presence of Rastafari drumming, biblical references (e.g., River Jordan, Mount Zion), and allusions to repatriation through the idiom of the “promised land” were all important resonances in
this music that portended the development of popular music as an important communicative medium for the Rasta movement.

King describes rocksteady as a music that is more aggressive, that speaks more directly to the collective frustrations and suffering experienced by the island’s lower classes. Frequently, this music celebrates the “Rude Boy” or new male ghetto rebel as he has been memorialized in popular discourse.
Prince Buster’sToo Hot” and Derrick Morgan’s Tougher Than Tough” are both examples of this figure, an individual who sought social and political justice with a ratchet (knife) or a gun.
King points out that rocksteady lyrics tended to condone more aggressive protest against the oppression of the “sufferah” class, while in specific cases evoking linkages with the general Rastafari critique of the “Babylonian” neocolonial system.

Of critical importance to the dissemination and popularization of this music, King notes, were “sound systems” developed to carry high-fidelity playback equipment to rural and urban dances throughout the island.
This portable technology, he argues, enabled the development of a community of dissent by transporting music to sites where “the voice of the poor could be heard without interference by local authorities”, a development that continued from the era of ska through reggae to the present. It is certainly true that
sound systems served to strengthen an already extant discourse of protest, but King fails to recognize that long before sound systems, the Rasta movement itself was about creating alternative spaces for face-to-face communication in which counter-hegemonic discourse was reproduced and disseminated.

Text from:

Author: John P. Homiak
Source: NWIG: New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids, Vol. 79, No. 1/2 (2005)


40 days are gone since the sad news of Lee Scratch Perry leaving this earthly domain.
Lee Scratch Perry was fundamental force in shaping of Ska, Reggae, Dub, Techno, Jungle and essentially every modern genre of music.
His legacy is such that he will never be forgotten.

New York Times:

Rolling Stone:

Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, reggae pioneer who was producer for Bob Marley, dies at 85


Scratch and me: Steve Barker remembers Lee Perry


Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Visionary Reggae Producer, Dies At 85


Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, 1936-2021: eccentric, brilliant dub legend who heard what we couldn’t

Lee Perry@discogs



Roots in Session sound with Lockdown Ska riddim out today!

Check the entire riddim on Soundcloud.



And, of course, there were the clashes with the police. The ganja, and the guns, and the “pressure” produced a steady stream of rude boys desperate to test their strength against the law, and the judges replied with longer and longer sentences. In the words of Michael Thomas (1973), every rudie was “dancing in the dark” with ambitions to be “the coolest Johnny-Too-Bad on Beeston Street”. This was the chaotic period of ska, and Prince Buster lampooned the Bench and sang of “Judge Dread”, who on side one, sentences weeping Rude Boys (“Order! Order! Rude Boys don’t cry!”) to 500 years and 10,000 lashes, and on side two, grants them a pardon, and throws a party to celebrate their release. The dreary mechanics of crime and punishment, of stigmatisation and incorporation, are reproduced endlessly in tragi-comic form on these early records, and the ska classics, like the music of the “burra” which preceded them, were often a simple celebration of deviant and violent behaviour. Sound system rivalries, street fights, sexual encounters, boxing matches, horse races, and experiences in prison, were immediately converted into folk-song and stamped with the ska beat. The disinherited Dukes and Earls, the Popes and Princes of early ska came across as music-hall gangsters and Prince Buster warned in deadly earnest, with a half-smile that “Al Capone’s guns don’t argue”.

But in the world of “007” where the rude boys “loot” and “shoot” and “wail” while “out on probation”, “the policemen get taller”, and “the soldiers get longer” by the hour; and in the final confrontation, the authorities must always triumph. So there is always one more confrontation on the cards, and there is always a higher authority still, and that is where Judgement Day works itself back into Reggae, and the Rastas sing of an end to “sufferation” on the day when Judge Dread will be consumed in his own fire. The Rastafarian influence on reggae had been strong since the earliest days—ever since Don Drummond and Reco Rodriguez had played tunes like Father East, Addis Ababa, Tribute to Marcus Garvey and Reincarnation to a receptive audience. And even Prince Buster, the “Boss,” the Main Man, the individualist par excellence, at the height of the anarchic Rude Boy period, could exhort his followers in Free Love, to “act true”, to “speak true”, to “learn to love each other,” advising the dissident rudies that “truth is our best weapon” and that “our unity will conquer.” In the burlesque Ten Commandments, Prince Buster is typically ambivalent, proselytising, and preaching, and poking fun all at the same time; but the internalisation of God which marks the Rasta Creed is there nonetheless behind all the blustering Chauvinism:

These are the ten commandments of man given to woman by

me, Prince Buster, through the inspiration of I.

As the decade wore on, the music shifted away from America towards Ethiopia, and the rude boys moved with the music. Racial and class loyalties were intensified, and, as the music matured, it made certain crucial breaks with the R. and B. which had provided the original catalyst. It became more ‘ethnic’, less frenzied, more thoughtful, and the political metaphors and dense mythology of the locksmen began to insinuate themselves more obtrusively into the lyrics. Groups like the Wailers, the Upsetters, the Melodians and the Lionaires emerged with new material which was often revolutionary, and always intrinsically Jamaican. Some rude boys began to grow the dreadlocks, and many took to wearing woollen stocking caps, often in the green, gold and red of the Ethiopian flag to proclaim their alienation from the West. This transformation (if such a subtle change of gear deserves such apocalyptic terminology), went beyond style to modify and channel the rude boys’ consciousness of class and colour. Without overstressing the point there was a trend away from the undirected violence, bravado and competitive individualism of the early sixties, towards a more articulate and informed anger; and if crime continued to offer the only solution available, then there were new distinctions to be made. A Rude Boy quoted in Nettleford (1970) exhibits a “higher consciousness” in his comments on violence:

It’s not the suffering brother you should really stick up it is

these big merchants that have all these twelve places… with the

whole heap of different luxurious facilities…, what we really

want is this equal rights and justice. Everyman have a good

living condition, good schooling, and then I feels things will be

much better.”

I would suggest that, as the Rastas themselves began to turn away from violent solutions to direct the new aesthetic, the rude boys, steeped in ska, soon acquired the locksmen’s term of reference, and became the militant arm of the Rasta movement. Thus, as the music evolved and passed into the hands of the locksmen there was an accompanying expansion of class and colour consciousness through the West Indian community. Of course, I would not isolate the emergence of a “higher consciousness” from larger developments in the ghettoes and on the campuses of the United States. Nor would I dismiss the stimulative effect of the Jamaican Black Power movement which, by the late sixties, was being led by middle-class students and was clustered around the University of the West Indies. But I would stress the unique way in which these external developments were mediated to the Rude Boy (in Brixton as well as Back O’Wall), how they were digested, interpreted and reassembled by the omniscient Rasta Logos situated at the heart of reggae music. In spite of Manley and Seaga, reggae remained intact. It was never dirigible, protected, as it was, by language, by colour, and by a culture which had been forced, in its very inception, to cultivate secrecy and to elaborate defences against the intrusions of the Master Class.

Moreover, the form of reggae itself militated against outside interference and guaranteed a certain amount of autonomy. Reggae reversed the established pattern of pop music by dictating a strong repetitive bassline which communicated directly to the body and allowed the singer to “scat” across the undulating surface of the rhythm. The music and the words are synchronised in good reggae and co-ordinated at a level which eludes a fixed interpretation. Linguistic patterns become musical patterns; both merge with the metabolism until sound becomes abstract, meaning non-specific. Thus, on the “heavy” fringes of reggae, beyond the lucid but literal denunciations of the Wailers, Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation of Ras-Tafari condemn the ways of Babylon implicitly, taking reggae right back to Africa, and the rudie dee-jays (like Big Youth, Niney, IRoy and U-Roy) threaten to undermine language itself with syncopated creole scansion and an eye for the inexpressible.

Language abdicates to body-talk, belief and intuition; in form and by definition, reggae resists definition. The form, then, is inherently subversive; and it was in the area of form that the Jamaican street boys made their most important innovations.

From Dick Hebdige: REGGAE, RASTAS & RUDIES, Music and the overthrow of form,
Resistance Through Rituals: Youth subcultures in post-war Britain
Edited by Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson (1975)