Reggae And Politics – Strange Bedfellows

BeFunky Collage
(L-R) Sir Alexander Bustamante, Clancy Eccles, Michael Manley, Max Romeo and Bunny Wailer

Two major things are taking place in Jamaica this February: it’s Reggae Month, and the general election is coming up on the 25th. On the surface, these seem like two unrelated things, but even a passing glance at Jamaican cultural history will show that there is a link. Here’s a brief look:

Reggae music originated in the Downtown Kingston region in the late 1960s. Trench Town, a community in the area, was the musical Mecca, where the majority of the pioneering artistes and producers were born and/or raised. Trench Town and the other surrounding communities were and remain poor and under-developed. As such, much of the music produced spoke of the circumstances of the residents of these communities and elsewhere in Jamaica, sometimes calling on political representatives to fulfill the promises made to the people while on the campaign trail, or calling them to the mat for their failure to do so. Other songs spoke of an aversion to things of a political nature, as ‘politricks’ in Jamaica is often marred by deception, ‘downpression,’ and violence – things no conscious reggae artiste would consider aligning himself with, especially if he espouses a Rastafarian lifestyle.

On the other side, politicians have long recognised the deep impact reggae music has on the Jamaican population, and have used songs to drive their campaigns. This practice started in the 1960s when Clancy Eccles’ Freedom was used by Sir Alexander Bustamante, founder of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and Chief Minister at the time, in his fight against the Federation of the West Indies.

In some cases, as with Eccles, politicians have ‘appropriated’ popular songs, which are then forever linked to their campaigns. One such example is Delroy Morgan’s Better Must Come. Wilson wrote the song to express despair at the disparity between his finances and his enormous contributions to the music industry. It captured the hearts of most Jamaicans, including then-Prime Minister Michael Manley, who not only used the song in his 1972 campaign, but made ‘better must come’ the party’s official slogan.

In other cases, songs are written by artistes specifically for their political party or candidate of choice. We again reference Manley, who had a slew of songs written about his exploits and accomplishment by various artistes. Manley was known as ‘Joshua,’ and claimed he received a ‘rod of correction’ from His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie to lead his people into the promised land. Max Romeo based several of his recordings on this theme, both supporting and chastising Manley, including Joshua Row The Boat Ashore, Joshua Gwan and No Joshua No. Other ‘praisesongs’ for Manley and the People’s National Party (PNP) include Eccles’ Rod of CorrectionPower for the People, and the biggest, selling campaign song of the 1970s, The Message by Neville Martin.

The JLP has not had much in the way of rapturous songs written about it or its leaders, but it has frequently made use of songs that, by its lyrical content, seem to decry the politics of its rival, the PNP. Among these songs are: Bill Gentles’ Take the Rod Off Our Back, a reply to Eccles’ Rod of Correction; Bunny Wailer’s Crucial, which pointed to the extreme financial pressures experienced by the masses in the late 70s, as the PNP’s reign was winding down; and Have Mercy Mr Percy by The Termites, which was used as a jab against Prime Minister Percival James Patterson in the late 1990s/early 2000s.

Some songs used on the campaign trail have been questionable, such as Action, Not A Bag A Mouth by Nadine Sutherland and Terror Fabulous (the JLP either missed or chose to ignore the blatant sexual nature of the lyrics), while others have caused worry and stress for the singer/songwriter – Pluto Shervington had to relocate to Florida after his life was threatened following the use of his song, I Man Born Yah by the PNP in 1976.

Nowadays, dancehall music seems to be the preferred choice of politicians seeking to hype up a crowd of supporters while disparaging their rivals. It is quite interesting to note that this genre, which evolved out of reggae in the 1980s, has come under strident criticism for its ‘slack’ or violent lyrical content since day one. Some of the criticism has come from politicians. Dancehall icon Bounty Killer, the ‘Poor People Governor,’ who has made several hits calling out politicians, has famously decried the use of his songs as part of political campaigns. On the other hand, Morgan Heritage produced a dubplate of its megahit Reggae Bring Back Love in support of the JLP’s Audley Shaw in 2013. Interestingly, the group has songs taking lyrical jabs at politics and politicians, including How ComeNothing to Smile About and Politician.

Click here for our reggae and politics playlist.

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