Wed | Sep 20, 2017

Story of the Song | Africa as reggae art

Published:Sunday | April 2, 2017 | 4:00 AMMel Cooke

Heavily influenced by Rastafari to have a Pan-African ideology, Africa has made its way into Jamaican popular music lyrics at points chronologically far removed as The Skatalites' African Roots and Agent Sasco's Africa on his Theory of Reggaetivity album.

However, in addition to the sound, there is the sight of Africa - and not only in the attire of those performers who choose to dress 'roots' on and, more important, offstage, but in cover art. One of the more unfortunate outcomes of the digital music age is the decline of album covers that you can feel and turn over in your hands. So, although there is room in cyberspace to display more high-definition images than was possible with even a double LP, I believe the value of album cover art has depreciated.

In looking at some of the reggae album covers that reference Africa, I am sticking largely with the literal shape of the continent. Obviously, I do not know all of them, for one, and further, cannot name all of those I am aware of in this limited space.

In 1997, two albums by Sizzla were released, which ensured his immortality in Jamaican popular music. For even if he had not gone on to have a prodigious output, Praise Ye Jah and Black Woman and Child would have kept the name Sizzla alive.

The cover art of Black Woman and Child is an outline of the African continent as the frame of an image of a woman looking lovingly down at a baby who appears to be wailing (or it could have been a yawn). This reflects the title song, which opens the album, in which Sizzla moves easily between portraying Africa as the motherland (which would make him one of her children) and a literal black woman with her child, deejaying at one point "what a lovely day the blessing is so pure/Someone conceive today, of this I am sure".

The cover of Peter Tosh's Mama Africa (1983) also has a woman and a male within an outline of Africa. The woman is used large and the male is Peter Tosh. The relative sizes make Tosh seem like a baby, although he appears appreciably older than the woman. And he hugs her around the neck, the album's title track asking, "Mama Africa, how you doing, Mama?"

Poet Mutabaruka's Outcry (1984) album cover is striking, the poet's head lowered as he looks up directly at the camera. Again, the outline of Africa is the frame, but it seems somewhat fragmented, reflecting the tone of an album that speaks about oppression in tracks like Canaan Lan' and Blacks in America.

 

UNSETTLING IMAGERY

 

Mutabaruka is featured on another album in which the outline of Africa is used, but the image it frames is unsettling - as it is meant to be. Land of Africa, which has a release year of 1985 at www.discogs.com, also had tracks by David Hinds, Freddie McGregor, Gregory Isaacs, Triston Palma, and Edi Fitzroy, among others. The cover also read "proceeds in aid of Ethiopian famine victims".

The arresting image is the face and skull of a harrowed, sorrowful woman in profile.

Chronixx's Dread and Terrible, from all of three years ago, has the EP's name within the outline of Africa, the performer out of the frame as his face is above the top but still connected like he is an outgrowth of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria, maybe. Warrior King uses the Africa outline to frame a portrait of himself on his latest full-length set, The Rootz Warrior.

Bob Marley and the Wailers' classic Survival (1979), with songs like Africa Unite, Zimbabwe and the title track, which identifies those who made it across the Middle Passage as "black survivors", goes one further than the Africa map for its cover as it utilises the flags of the African nations. Making the connection between the continent and its children scattered globally is the diagram of slaves in place below decks, row after row of black bodies with minimal space to move.