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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Jah will forgive you, Mr Independent man!

A truly weird piece in tonight's Evening Standard, so odd you wonder what the hidden agenda might be. Ostensibly it's a brief lament by Amol Rajan, the editor of The Independent (a Standard stablemate) - bemoaning the lack of decent reggae nights in London these days.

First reaction - yes, agree - you get much better reggae nights in Leeds, or Brighton, or Dusseldorf, or Osaka these days. So much as I sympathize, it just seems odd - and pretty damn obvious. Reggae as we knew and loved it , roots rock reggae -  peaked in the mid-1970s with artists like Marley, Toots, Culture, Burning Spear, and their many many friends, followers, and copiers.
Rastafarianism was at the heart of much of the best Jamaican reggae music of the 1970s - such as Burning Spear's Social Living

Some would put the golden age even earlier, with the Studio One recordings of the late 1960s or with Joe Gibbs, King Tubby, etc, and then Lee Perry's Ark.

So the best reggae is already around 40 years old, the music of a generation who are now pensioners. Why would there be great reggae nights in London? It is a reivivalist thing, just like 60s pop and prog and punk and 80s and disco. But roots rock reggae has yet to have that sort of revival in London. "Cool" young Londoners seem to prefer cheesier stuff,  music they can get ironic about, tacky things that have kitsch value.

But, stranger still, Mr Rajan goes on to berate the new generation of London MCs for pumping  out too much rastafarian propaganda and being rather too, well, anti-establishment.

At one point at a Shoreditch nightclub he says he was almost moved to get up on stage to defend the capitalist system.

As the great Joseph Hill of Culture laugh-shouts on "Two Sevens Clash", "he said wha-a-a-at?"

If he doesn't like the rebellious bit, or the spiritual bit, what on earth is it about reggae that this fellow liked so much 15 years ago? Take way the Rastas, the roots, take away the rebellion, and you take away about three-quarters of the good stuff. You're left with a bit of dear old Greg Isaacs when he got all smoochy and sexy, the lover's rock people, and dancehall.

No doubt many of the tenets of Rastafarianism do seem a bit dotty to sophisticated north London secularists of 2013, but without it you'd not have some of the most beautiful, powerful songs of that era. The Congos, War in a Babylon, Exodus, Do you remember the Days of Slavery, Do not forget Old Marcus Garvey, the Twinkle Brothers' Since I threw the Comb Away etc etc etc etc ad infinitum, all the way to Armagiddeon Time itself!

When reggae did break away from the rastas, from its roots and its consciousness, under commercial and political pressure in the 1980s,  it went pretty bad in place. So bad it was rather good, sometimes, but also pretty horrible in others. Rasta was replaced by sex and crime and violence and boasting and  bling. Dancehall reggae, ragga, all that stuff packed with syn-drum beats and exaggerated bleeps and crude mixes, the big bad trouser mob, MC Hammer etc, the toasting duelling types, you know.

If you reckon a dub-step MC in Shoreditch is getting too rootsy, too damn righteous and religious,  what you be looking for? You want it to snuggle up to the big brands, the big money, the TV ads? Do you want UB40 or do you want reggae?

What did Mr Marley say about hitting  us with music? What was reggae  but rebel music? What did LKJ say about reggae? What did Fela Kuti say about music, being the weapon? There are "conscious" reggae artists around now, including the Marley son Damien, and lots of young people all around the world. Often they try too hard to sound like Bob, and don't really take it any further.

It's difficult to untangle such a universal sound as reggae, which is now used  for so many marketing purposes, a billion miles from the original messages, from the backstreets of Trenchtown, the police, the thieves, and the all-knowing, everlasting mercy of Jah.

Now reggae is just another beat tuned into a billion music apps, the rasta colours just another fashion statement for the likes of Adidas.  Some of the worst offenders should know better: the Marley family themselves, using Bob's inheritance to sell fizzy drinks.

Shame on them all!

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