In defense of reggae's overworked themes and topics
by Norm Dixon, Green Left Weekly
A couple of years ago, Green Left Weekly sent out a call on the internet for "Artists, bands and record labels with progressive views or perform `neglected' music (but avoid sexism and homophobia)" to send their CDs to be reviewed. The vast majority of performers that have responded to date have been reggae artists. Socially conscious performers, it seems, continue to be drawn to the reggae genre.
One of the latest is It's a New Day (Confrontation Muzik - www.psalmrecords.com) by a band from Ontario, Canada, called Confrontation. The band is three expatriate Jamaicans: Ken Ferguson, Garvin McLean and Garnett (Bobby) Pottinger. On the album they are joined by some of the leading lights of the seemingly vibrant Canadian reggae scene.
It is always a buzz to receive a CD that reveals musically talented and politically progressive people are continuing to swim against the stream. The dominant attitude held by the powerbrokers of the music industry and the mainstream media is that it is not a wise career move for a band or performer to use their music as a means of expressing political ideas or criticizing social ills.
This view is summed up well in an otherwise positive review of Confrontation's It's A New Day carried in a Canadian newspaper: "The Toronto group rehashes all the societal and worldly ills that -- since time immemorial -- have been the sources of inspiration for reggae artists. Here we have songs that draw attention to love, unfaithfulness, inequality, injustice and corruption ... Nevertheless, Confrontation brings a sort of freshness to these overworked themes and topics."
When was the last time you read a mainstream review that complained about pop music's "overworked themes and topics" of lurv, lurv and more bloody lurv? Music that "rehashes all the societal and worldly ills" is virtually banned by the major record labels and is consistently shit-canned -- or, most often, simply ignored -- by the self-appointed taste arbiters of the capitalist media. That's why bands like Confrontation who buck this strict censorship need to be welcomed, encouraged and championed.
Confrontation delivers excellent roots reggae with a minimum of the dreaded synthesizers and drum machines that plague many independent reggae recordings. Pottinger's lead guitar is a highlight, while Ferguson's unpolished yet distinctive voice quickly grows on you.
The opening track, "Go Down", could be directed at the record industry barons and their hired scribes: "Go down you back-biters, Go down you backsliders, Go down and stay down!".
In "Never Give Up The Right", Ferguson defiantly sings: "We know we're not free/Got no chains around my feet, but we're bound by poverty/And so my struggle goes on and on/I will not give up my rights, I will never give up my fight".
"Take Me Away" recounts the history of slavery in the Americas and reminds listeners that its legacy lives on. The poppy "Richmann Dubb" warns that "the fool with all his money" will be "conquered one of these days, no matter how you are running away/You are going to have to pay".
Confrontation, like many progressive reggae artists, is a member of an organization known as Reggae Ambassadors Worldwide (www.reggaeambassadors.org). RAW was established in 1992 out of frustration at the music industry's neglect and exploitation of reggae music.
RAW brings together artists, DJs, fans, writers, promoters and small labels in a cooperative, non-commercial network to "serve the best interests of the singers and players, as well as the reggae industry as a whole, and act as a vehicle to move reggae music to higher heights of popularity" and "spread the positive vibe of reggae music".
"In a money-hungry society, a world where the mighty dollar speaks loudest, RAW succeeds at being a decidedly un-money thing", notes an editorial in Dub Missive magazine. "This spirit of collective work toward a common goal represents a phenomenon too seldom seen in this modern world, where it is money money money money."
RAW has more than 1000 members in 53 countries. A CD collection published by thte organization called RAW 2000 (Ruff Stuff Records) has 74 minutes and 20 tracks that include bands from Ethiopia, Germany, Norway, Canada, Holland, Nigeria and England, as well as the Caribbean and the US. Isaac Haile Selassie (Ethiopia) calls for people to unite to solve the world's problems, Nasio Fontaine (Dominica) attacks militarism, the Reggae Cowboys (Canada) call for the tearing down of borders and "peace and justice from coast to coast", Rising Lion (USA) condemns the use of landmines as "murder in the first degree" and Norway's Ras Nas issues a timely warning about AIDS.
The diversity of reggae today is also on show, ranging from the wacky ska-jazz-blues dub of Doctor Ring Ding, HP Setter and Ice Melter (Germany), the countrified reggae of the Reggae Cowboys, the hip hop/soul reggae of Whispering Lion (USA), to Isaac Miller and Solid Earth's (USA) bubblegum reggae, Irie Time's (USA) Spanish-language Latin reggae, Jerri Jheto's (Nigeria) African reggae and the captivating Middle Eastern reggae of Dub Factory (England). There is not a dud track to be found.
Yours for the revolution,
Learn more about RAW: www.reggaeambassadors.org
This article originally appeared in Green Left Weekly (www.greenleft.org.au), "Australia's radical newspaper."