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Is Reggae Dead?

Is Reggae Dead?

Is Reggae Dead?

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Does reggae need a revival? Leading figures in the reggae industry share their views on the current state of the genre and what its future may hold, Davina Morris reports

REGGAE FANS needn’t get outraged. This isn’t your run of the mill article, which hopes to bury reggae six feet under and merrily dance on its grave.

We’re all too familiar with the battering that the genre has received in recent years from numerous media outlets who, for the most part, spared little or no column inches to highlight long-serving or emerging talent from the reggae scene– yet seemed well-versed in all things reggae when it came to announcing all of the genre’s ills. (Homophobic lyrics, the incitement of violence and so forth…)

But since the hullabaloo that put reggae in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons, what has happened to put the much-loved music in the headlines on a more positive basis? While some within the reggae fraternity have dubbed this year “two thousand and great,” is there really much to celebrate?

Granted, last month was deemed Reggae Month in Jamaica and recent years have seen the emergence of celebrated acts like Tarrus Riley, Gyptian, Chuck Fenda and Mavado.

But are there any acts with the potential to pick up the baton where Sean Paul left it and enjoy global stardom? Has the rise of self-proclaimed ‘gangster for life’ Mavado only served to further attribute reggae with violence? Did the dancehall fraternity become so focused on the Beenie Man/ Bounty Killer/ D’Angel love triangle that they forgot to concentrate on the music?

Are the labels to blame for not promoting reggae artists so they can enjoy success on the same level as R’n’B and hip-hop stars? Or do the artists need to think beyond Jamaica (where many of them are deemed superstars) and aim for success on a more international level?

Whatever the answers, there is no doubt that there has been a sense amongst many in the reggae world that the industry is in somewhat of a malaise. 24/7 decided to explore the issue by talking to a number of respected figures in the reggae industry about what many are calling a ‘decline in dancehall.’

Veteran DJ David Rodigan can see why some are no longer celebrating the genre.

I think there are essentially two problems,” he says. “In Jamaica in the last two or three years, young producers– Freddie McGregor's son [Stephen] is just one example– have started to create beats that aren't traditionally reggae, but are instead a fusion of different genres. For some, this is an exciting development. But for those who believe that reggae is a one-drop structure, this is a dramatic change of form, which has not been welcomed with positive reaction.”

He continues: “The other thing that concerns me is the negative lyrics that are coming from some of the new artists. I think that the glorification of thug violence is tragic. Yes, we live in a world that is, in many ways, miserable and yes, negative things should be commented on. But they should never be glorified. I am bewildered by the negativity and resentment and rivalry and anger that exists in some of the music. Reggae music has traditionally lifted people's souls. But a lot of the music that is coming out now does nothing to uplift mankind.”

The negative associations with dancehall have certainly impacted on reggae promoters like Bagga John. The respected promoter who has put on reggae concerts for over 20 years, says that he has definitely seen a change in the industry.

I have experienced a decline in both shows and audiences,” he says. “From the audience’s perspective, I think there is sometimes a concern that the artist won't turn up. I think there is also a fear amongst some, that the shows will bring trouble.”
There tends to be a lot of negative propaganda associated with reggae and that's done the music a lot of harm. The homophobia debate caused a lot of damage, because whenever pressure groups come out to protest against a show, they make it very difficult for shows to go ahead. If we could eliminate the negative perception that is associated with the genre, we might be able to enjoy more success.”

Perhaps the answer is a return to 2004’s ‘dancing’ era of reggae, which had audiences of all ages and races enjoying the fun-loving element of the music. (I recall going to Sean Paul’s concert at Wembley Arena that year and seeing teenage white girls wearing T-shirts featuring the Jamaican flag and knowing exactly how to ‘signal the plane’ along to the music!)

At this time, the music transcended the reggae fraternity in such a way, that US artists like Fat Joe, Usher and Lil Jon were showcasing Jamaican dances in their videos.

One artist well-known for spearheading the party element of the genre is Elephant Man. Could his forthcoming album be what the genre is in need of?

The happy music is what people are missing,” says Ele. “I think the dancehall has become too serious and I think people wanna dance again and have fun. We need to take it back to the happy side, because whenever dancehall is happy, that’s when our music goes places.”

There was a time when if you watched MTV or BET, you’d be able to see how our culture was taking off internationally. People loved that party mood. Clubs were banging, liquor was selling, selectors were enjoying themselves– it was a great time. That’s what we need again. If we make the dancehall get too shady, it’s not gonna last. We can’t take any more negative press. We need to have fun.”

Indeed, the saying that ‘all press is good press’ hasn’t been true for reggae. But with many non-reggae artists being surrounded by negative media and still enjoying success, Choice FM’s Daddy Ernie feels that the mainstream should be more open-minded to embracing reggae acts, just as they do other artists.

I don't think we should have to bow to the mainstream, he says. “Reggae music is the people’s music– it’s a rebellious music. Consequently, the mainstream can’t control it and that’s why they’d rather paint it with a negative brush. People are quick to pounce on reggae artists whose lyrics aren’t necessarily ‘positive’ but these artists are only sharing their reality. Black artists face so much of a struggle, yet you have an artist like Amy Winehouse singing about “what kind of f*ckries is this?” and she's a star. I don't see why our culture isn't embraced in the same way.”

There’s no denying that reggae is by no means considered a priority by mainstream media. Regarded by many as a ‘seasonal’ music, it can often only enjoy airplay on commercial radio stations whenever carnival rolls around. But are there any emerging reggae talents who genuinely have the potential to enjoy international stardom? 1Xtra’s Robbo Ranx thinks that it’s the record labels that have a lot to answer for.

I think record labels have become blinkered and think they can sell audiences any rubbish. They put compilation albums together with no regard for real quality. And there’s no drive to make real stars out of these artists. People might hear Tarrus Riley’s tunes on the radio and even buy his album. But how can people get to know more about him? He hasn’t done any international promo tours, there was no push on his video, young people can’t get posters of him– that’s no good!

When Beyoncé releases an album, you know she’s releasing an album. But if you wanna a buy a reggae album, a lot of the time, you don’t know where to find it, you sometimes don’t even know whether or not it’s out, then when you find it, you don’t know whether it’s old or new; if it’s a compilation album, you might have two good tunes and the rest of it is rubbish… There are so many aspects of the industry that need to step up. The artists also need to think globally and not just consign themselves to being stars in their home towns. My listenership has continued to go up so there definitely is a demand for the music. It’s the industry– both artists and labels– who need to step up their game.”

Radio One’s Chris Goldfinger mirrors these sentiments.

Lack of promotion has a lot to do with he fact that dancehall isn't enjoying mainstream success. Us DJ's playing the songs on the radio is good, but people aren’t getting to see these artists because very rarely do you see dancehall videos playing on music channels. Tarrus Riley had a massive hit with She's Royal but nobody has seen the video. I recently did the show DJ Takeover for MTV, but every time I talked about an artist there was no video to show! Most of these songs do have good quality videos to accompany them, but they’re not being shown on music channels and so people aren’t getting to see them.”

Clearly, the reggae industry does not operate as other genres do. And while reggae’s unique and “rebellious” spirit is, in many ways, what makes the genre exciting (some of my best interviews have been with reggae acts, who often have little regard for PR protocol), it seems to also be doing no favours for the music’s potential to enjoy wider success.

Olivier Chastan, Head of Global Marketing at leading reggae label VP Records, feels that the reputation the music has outside of the reggae industry needs to be improved.

The perception from concert promoters, non-reggae record labels, media supporters, sponsors, and other key sections of the music business is that reggae artists are not reliable. Unfortunately, this perception is partially justified by artists who do not show up at concerts for example.”

Some Jamaican artists need to get better organized and think about their long-term career. Morgan Heritage is a good example of what artists need to do. They tour relentlessly all year long but they are one of the few reggae bands that can tour territories like Brazil and Australia, where few reggae bands can go. Working that way pays off in the long run and helps the genre as a whole.”

One person who may be able to whip up a greater sense of professionalism within the genre is Cristy Barber, who recently returned to VP Records, after seven years of working with the Marleys at their label Tuff Gong. Now the Vice President of Marketing and Promotions at VP (who have now practically cornered the reggae market, following their takeover of Greensleeves), Barber said:

Unless we educate ourselves on what is going on in the overall music industry, reggae as a genre will not survive. We need to start putting together well-built albums and stop compiling artist albums as if they were riddim albums. People are still thirsty for the music, but the only albums they will buy are well put together albums. That's why people like Amy Winehouse sell records; because her album is fresh, well put together and just overall brilliant!

Long-serving reggae journalist John Masouri shares similar thoughts:

Reggae has always suffered from inadequate exposure, and as long as it’s unable to match the success enjoyed by comparable genres like R’n’B and hip-hop, it’ll never attract skilled professionals capable of taking the music forwards.”

Despite its common roots with reggae, hip-hop has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry that’s given rise to a succession of artists, producers, actors, and even filmmakers of international repute. People involved with reggae need to look at how all of this was achieved, and learn from their counterparts in these other genres.”

One thing that all agree on is that there is no lack of talent coming from the genre. Artists like Collie Buddz, Pressure, Tarrus Riley, Cherine Anderson, Busy Signal, Etana, Duane Stephenson and Demarco and producers like Don Corleon and Stephen McGregor are just a few of the names that were called as ‘ones to watch’ this year and beyond. So while the industry has its challenges, the music is still thriving.

There is most definitely hope for the future,” says David Rodigan. “It’s not over. It’s never going to be over.”


Collage: Nicolas Cap

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