Roots reggae was much more than just music. It was a statement.
It was mind set. It was a mouthpiece for the oppressed. It
was about changing lives. Whether politically charged anthems
smooth lover’s rock, everything from the skank of the rhythm
guitar, to the driving bass lines, to the sincere lyrics had
a specific place and purpose. In short, it wasn’t made
to be listened to, it was made to be felt.
Of the artists who created this sound, it is undisputed that
Bob Marley is the forefather of reggae. Bob Marley’s contributions
to the advancement and acceptance of reggae worldwide are literally
immeasurable, but, respectfully, there were others. And I find
myself becoming annoyed, perhaps in my naivety that not all share
my affinity for reggae, when friends complain that “all
you listen to is Bob Marley” as if Marley were “be
all and end all” of reggae.
In fact, there were many extremely talented and determined
youths whose struggles brought them out of the Jamaican ghettos
reggae music at the same time as Marley. I have compiled a
short list of singers and players of instrument that I feel
define and give an identity to the music that many have come
While he started with Marley, and was one of the founding members
of the Wailers, as in Bob Marley and the Wailers, Bunny Wailer
definitely emerged as one of reggae’s preeminent solo artist.
After leaving the band in 1974 to embark on a solo career, Neville
Livingston (real name) conjured up some of the most enlightened
and uplifting music of the genre. Wailer’s strength and
conviction remain cornerstones of reggae music to this day
and will far into the future.
There may not be and may never be a reggae album to match Wailer’s
first solo release, Blackheart Man (1976). This album embodies
everything that is Rastafarianism and reggae; the struggle, the
oppression, the hope and glory of Jah; it’s all here, mixed
in a beautiful blend of melodies and rhythms. Completely written,
arranged, and produced by Wailer, this album defines the fundamental
nature of roots. “In a family of 10, and raised in the
ghetto/Hustling’s the only education I know/Can’t
grow no crops in this concrete jungle/A situation like this is
getting to tough to handle/To keep battering down sentence/Fighting
against conviction.” (“Fighting Against Conviction,” Blackheart
The rebel spirit and the struggle have always been integral
parts of reggae, and simply put, Peter Tosh was the struggle.
rebel spirit, Tosh was abused and beaten on numerous occasions
by Jamaican authorities for his beliefs, most notably after
his tirade against the Jamaican government at the One Love
Concert, when he was beaten by at least 10 police officers
who only stopped because they thought he was dead. The musical
within the Wailers, Tosh actually taught Marley how to play
the guitar and referred to him as his student early on. Like
Tosh opted for a solo career in 1974. “The time came to
see what was inside of me…I did not come to this Earth
to be a background vocal” (Peter Tosh, www.ptosh.com).
Reggae lost its most fearless freedom fighter on Sept. 11,
1987 when gunmen entered his Kingston, Jamaica home and shot
He was only 43 years old.
Tosh’s first solo album was named for the song he is perhaps
best known for, “Legalize It,” a cry against the
insanity of outlawing marijuana. My favorite, however, is his
sophomore solo effort, Equal Rights. Filled with Tosh’s
strong social and political standpoints, this album takes the
listener on a ride from the fiery “Downpressor Man,” to
the devout “Jah Guide.” For those looking for a
little something extra, I strongly suggest the I Am That I
album: just Tosh, an acoustic guitar, and his thoughts. Few
albums give a more authentic insight to the true essence of
For the last 30 years, Steel Pulse has been “chanting psalms” about
everything from racial injustice to environmental neglect to
political tyrants. The band not only took home a Grammy for
its 1986 release, Babylon The Bandit, but with numerous nominations
including their most recent, African Holocaust, its clear their
message has spread far beyond their African brethren.
Before adopting the more radio-friendly sound that shot them
into superstardom, Steel Pulse, the most popular reggae band
to hail from the U.K, was strictly roots. Handsworth Revolution
(1978) is packed with prophetic social commentary backed by
intense grooves. The ideals of this album are summed up in
a few lines
from the opening title track: “So let’s join hands
my bredren, make the way for our children, and their children,
ensuring that they get their life’s fair share of equality.
Doesn’t justice stand for all mankind?”
Next issue: Israel Vibration, Dennis Brown, and Culture