A Message To You, Rudy

If your enjoyment of, and knowledge about, Jamaican musical styles begins and ends with Bob Marley’s Legend, you’ll be surprised to discover an international web of subcultures spanning back to the early sixties, and encompassing everything from American doo-wop to Thatcher-era British politics. To untrained ears it’s hard to distinguish reggae music from third wave ska from rocksteady, but those are all separate subgenres, and honestly, it’s too complicated to get into fully. It is an irony that the way reggae and ska music are perceived by US pop culture – being exemplified by the hyper-commercialized visages of Bob Marley and Gwen Stefani, respectively – is antithetical to the roles they’ve played within their home communities. Outside the insular world of American dorm room culture, reggae and ska have been among the most socially conscious and politically relevant of musical movements. In Jamaica, reggae has long been a tool of political activism, and has seen as a genuine threat to the status quo, to the point that high profile artists have been targeted for assassination (Bob Marley survived an attempt on his life, Peter Tosh did not.) In 1970’s UK, 2 Tone Ska was closely tied to the punk and skinhead movements, and groups like The Specials, Madness, and The Beat saw it as a way to foster racial harmony and make a commentary on the unstable political situation of the time. The songwriter Jerry Dammers founded 2 Tone Records for his band The Specials and later retired from music to pursue political activism full-time. In a period when high economic disparity led to racial tensions and a resurgence of violent nationalism, 2 Tone sought to encourage black and white co-operation (as symbolized by the distinctive checkerboard patterns often sported by musicians and fans) using music as a vehicle for social commentary and protest. The misconception that reggae and ska are merely good time party music stems from a lack of understanding of the socio-political context those styles have traditionally been born from.


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