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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

What Happened To Reggae?

Believe it or not, this year mark’s the late Bob Marley’s 65th birthday. That’s right. Arguably the most socially significant musician of the 20th century would’ve been eligible for Medicare. Let’s all take a moment to let that sink in.

But while the commemorative articles and concert events have already begun unfurling around the world, everyone seems to be ignoring the enormous dreadlocked elephant in the room—namely, the fact that contemporary reggae is on life support.

I, for one, think it’s beyond tragic.

How bad have things gotten? The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences is reportedly considering removing the reggae category from the Grammys. The last genre that got axed by the Academy? Polka.

The Academy’s reasoning (which seems sort of legit at face value) is that the award suffers from a lack of competition, as evidenced by the Marley family domination over the past few years. Two Marleys, Stephen and Ziggy, were nominated this year, and the laws of probability favored the clan once again, as Stephen came home with the gold.

But is it reggae that’s thin on competition, or is reggae just underrepresented in Grammy voting?

Cristy Barber, formerly of the label VP Records in New York, thinks it’s the latter, and has launched a campaign to raise awareness among Caribbean voters who are eligible, but usually don’t vote due to deadline barriers that render it virtually impossible—or, at the very least, inconvenient—to send in a ballot to Los Angeles.

Grammys, for whatever reason, just don’t carry the same weight in Jamaica and the Caribbean that they do in the US, and the rest of the world. Eligible voters, then, have grown somewhat apathetic, and, as a result, much of the world remains in the dark about contemporary reggae and dancehall altogether.

And that, I think, is the biggest squandering of Marley’s legacy from which the genre could suffer.

The adjective “universal” gets thrown around way too much in music circles nowadays. But Bob Marley straight up defined universal music. His work spoke with equal power to disgruntled stoners in suburbia and emaciated emigrants in Ethiopia. Others achieved the same global appeal, but without the same sense of social consciousness and political passion that fueled the Original Rude Bwoy.

Now, sadly, reggae has become nothing more than a niche.

So is there any good reggae today? I sure as hell think so—but I’m definitely biased. I’ve long adored the genre, and continue to follow it religiously. I love the raw simplicity that others deem “boring.” And even though I’m staunchly committed to stripped down, roots reggae, I still enjoy hearing it evolve and weave hip-hop and more contemporary dance tropes into its ever expanding tapestry.

Unfortunately, the only reggae headlines you’ll read nowadays are probably negative. Buju Banton’s cocaine trial, Capleton’s homophobic lyrics, Sizzla’s run-ins with the law--you name the brand of bad publicity, and reggae’s brightest stars have likely attained it.

While everyone is talking about admittedly important, but definitively non-musical stories, Damian Marley is about to release what I think will be a groundbreaking collaborative album with Nas. A hot new artist named Alborosie is starting to garner worthy critical acclaim in the UK. But you won’t hear about either of them, because the dark clouds cast by their higher-profile counterparts stamp out every glimmer of innovative brightness elsewhere.

So don’t give up on reggae. It hasn’t been able to reach the same heights of cultural relevance it did when Marley, Peter Tosh, and Jimmy Cliff were recording and skanking. But trying to fill those shoes was a daunting task for anyone—including Marley’s own, wildly talented offspring.

So as the world looks back on Robert Nesta Marley’s legacy, we shouldn’t forget to look forward, as well. He may have popularized the genre to unforeseen heights, and he may have changed music. But just because there isn’t another Bob Marley on the horizon doesn’t mean we should pull the plug on it just yet. There will never be another Bob. But there will still be reggae--and there will still be reggae worth listening to.

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