There are various theories as to the origins of reggae music. One possibility may be rooted in Jamaica’s earlier musical forms like ska and rock steady which predated it.
After Jamaica gained independence, ska’s upbeat rhythm reflected its new nation’s optimism. Over time, its tempo slowed to produce rock steady music; Toots and the Maytals helped evolve this genre into what would later become reggae music.
Reggae emerged in Jamaica during the mid-1960s from an amalgam of Jamaican culture and music from European and African origin, taking its cue from its predecessors ska and rocksteady. While these styles had inspired Jamaican musicians to begin creating their own sound, reggae emerged nearing the end of this decade to give Jamaican artists their own distinct sound.
Jamaican artists found success with roots reggae, an artist genre that combined social commentary with religious themes. Desmond Dekker’s 1968 hit “Israelites” made reference to black people as being true Israelites trapped in modern-day Babylon and longing for Zion where there would be justice; Rastafari also emerged around this time and heavily influenced reggae’s development.
American jazz music became immensely popular with Jamaicans through radio broadcasts and vinyl records imported from America during this era, inspiring fast beats of ska and rocksteady with rhythmic horns used by jazz artists; similar influences would later emerge with reggae’s dancehall genre with its syncopated bass lines and vocal rhymes in rap style lyricism.
Toots and the Maytals, Bunny Wailer (Bob Marley’s brother Bunny Wailer), Peter Tosh and producer Lee (“Scratch”) Perry helped establish reggae’s early roots in Jamaican society and culture through their music making. Many performers such as Toots were invested both socially and culturally within Jamaica – they used their music as an outlet against injustice such as poverty; many would protest injustice through song.
Reggae music soon spread around the globe, where its sounds and styles gradually began to evolve as its popularity spread. England saw particular innovation within reggae’s popularity through bands like Steel Pulse and Aswad as well as singers Carroll Thompson and Janet Kay popularizing its sounds; its lyrics began to address issues within Britain’s inner cities while Jamaican patois gave way to English slang and Cockney accents.
In South London during the late 1960s, lovers rock, an intimate form of reggae that celebrated sensual love, was developed into “Rub-a-Dub.” This subgenre later led to dub, an influential Jamaican subgenre which later heavily influenced African American hip-hop and dance music.
Reggae emerged after the popularity of ska and rocksteady had declined, becoming more refined and structured as an art form. While maintaining the basic rhythmic structures from these earlier styles (such as syncopated snare drum and hi-hat pulse of ska and guitar and bass interplay of rocksteady), its rhythm became less hectic, making it easier for dancers. Furthermore, its laid back tempo allowed bass lines such as those performed by Alton Ellis or The Techniques to take center stage more prominently.
Lee (Scratch) Perry began to experiment with more complex soundscapes that included vocals, saxophone and harmonica alongside keyboard instruments; this gave rise to dub reggae – still associated with Jamaica today.
Reggae music draws its inspiration from Jamaica itself, and artists often integrate social criticism into its lyrics. Reggae artists have long highlighted the struggles of Jamaican people by criticizing materialism and raising awareness about issues like apartheid and slavery; many also advocated cannabis use (known as herb, ganja or sinsemilla by Rastafari religious movement) as a sacred ritual.
Reggae became immensely popular in the UK during the 1970s due to its large Jamaican population. This led to bands like The Wailers featuring future stars Bob Marley and Peter Tosh as members. Reggae’s Rastafari influence and black nationalism-influenced politics played out through songs such as Peter Tosh’s “400 Years” or the Wailers “Burnin'”.
One of the more notable developments during this era was lovers rock, a genre of reggae that evolved out of rocksteady to focus on love themes. Particularly popular in South London and popularized by artists like Janet Kay, Kofi and Louisa Marks (all part of Reggae Legends), lovers rock helped bring reggae music to wider attention around the globe. Female reggae artists were increasingly common at this time due to Rastafari emphasising gender equality via its Omega Principle which states that men and women are equals (this time period also marked an increase in female reggae artists.)
Reggae was heavily shaped by its mixture of cultures. Jamaica had previously been colonized by Spain and Britain, enslaved Africans brought many elements from Africa with them when enslaved, which later blended with Caribbean influences to produce what would later be known as reggae music characterized by guitars, keyboards, drum machines, melodic singing vocals as well as toasting (a rhythmic spoken-word style resembling rapping).
Ska and rocksteady were significant precursors to reggae music. Once Jamaica achieved independence in the early 1960s, reggae truly began its rise, developing its unique sound by its end of that decade – this was also when Toots & the Maytals, Jimmy Cliff and other artists emerged as pioneers in reggae culture.
Reggae became immensely popular alongside ska and rocksteady during this era, slowing down its beat for easier listening and giving more weight to bass lines in its songs, giving songs a deeper, more distinct sound while giving artists room to incorporate a range of influences like mento (an ecstatic rural folk form that borrowed elements of church hymnody into celebratory rural folk tunes), calypso and traditional Jamaican instruments like the nyahbinghi drum.
As the genre evolved, lyrics became more political and socially aware. Influenced heavily by Rastafarian ideology, lyrics focus on spirituality, love, unity and support of liberation movements in Africa while criticizing political systems such as capitalism or “Babylon.”
Reggae music often features lyrics accompanied by visual imagery to communicate its message, from simple backgrounds of green, black or gold hues all the way through elaborate posters and music videos.
Reggae music has its roots in Jamaica but has evolved into an international movement over time, becoming popular throughout North America, Europe and Asia. Bob Marley remains its greatest ambassador and his songs of peace and love helped inspire an entire generation to discover Jamaican culture through reggae music.
Reggae music first found widespread acceptance with the rise of Jamaica’s Rastafarianism religion, which stood for social justice, equality and celebration of African heritage. Rastafarianism’s spiritual ethos of social justice, equality and celebration also had a powerful effect on its themes and rhythms; its influence extended across Europe, UK and US sound system culture as well. This allowed more listeners to discover this genre that became immensely popular worldwide.
Leading sound systems like Coxsone Dodd’s Downbeat Sound, Duke Reid’s Trojan Records and King Jammy’s provided the platform for musicians to showcase their talents while audiences danced along to the music. Bass guitar was particularly influential during this era of musical innovation – providing a basis for what would later become known as dub.
Early reggae performers, including Bob Marley and percussionists Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, took full advantage of this style, crafting songs which addressed Jamaica’s complicated history with slavery (Tosh’s 1968 album 54-46 is one such work), economic disparity and racism (Burnin’ was one of reggae’s early hits) as well as their belief in Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia who visited Jamaica in 1966.
As Jamaica’s economy faltered and urban ghetto riots broke out, musical activity shifted. Rocksteady emerged as a more relaxing form of music featuring less emphasis on horns and keyboard instruments.
Rocksteady only lasted around two years, yet its slower tempo allowed bass lines to become more distinct and emphasize them more clearly. Furthermore, musicians like Alton Ellis and the Techniques found that its slower pace made its music better suited for dancing than ska.
Dub owes much to drummers like Lee “Scratch” Perry, who utilized a technique known as stepping. Instead of striking his hi-hat cymbals when hitting drums for rock music, instead banging four beats per measure on every four-beat measure until creating a dense rhythm which was later adopted by African American hip hop music.