Is there still rebel music?
Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer
"Rebels in the morning
Rebel in the evening
Rebels was from that time
Until this time
I made up my mind
To go on, sing my song
Maybe I will find good round the other side
That's why they call me
Creation Rebel they call me"
- Burning Spear, Creation Rebel
"This is rebel music"
Bob Marley, Rebel Music (Three o'clock Roadblock)
There were cheers from the near full house at the Neville Hall Lecture Theatre, University of the West Indies, Mona campus, on Thursday, June 30, when poet and broadcaster Mutabaruka eyed the more passive stance of reggae artistes today. He was the first speaker at the International Reggae Day Symposium 'Saluting Reggae Vanguards'.
"There is no rebel with no cause anymore. All of the rebel them no have no cause. There is no more apartheid to sing about, but make we examine where black people reach in these times," he said.
There had been cheers when Dr Jimmy Cliff, clad in fiery red, marched stiff-armed the length of the wide stage at Port Kaiser Sports Club, St Elizabeth, for a couple turns while performing Vietnam at Rebel Salute 2005. The huge audience enjoyed the song immensely, but it is doubtful that many would have known - or cared about - its context in the ill-fated United States war in Vietnam, or that Bob Dylan reportedly once called it the best protest song about that war which he had heard.
Similarly, these days Zimbabwe makes the news mostly for allegations of President Robert Mugabe's infringements on the law and human rights. To a lesser extent, reggae aficionados will associate the country with singjay Sizzla, who lived there briefly and has established a studio in the southern Africa country.
Last May, The STAR picked up on a story in Zimbabwe's Sunday Mail newspaper in which Sizzla said "Zimbabwe is home. I have received tremendous welcome. In Zimbabwe, we have already started recording. I am also looking into areas Judgement Yard can invest in for the upliftment of Zimbabwean youths."
Sizzla launched his most recent album, The Scriptures, at King Jammy's studio in Waterhouse, St Andrew, late last month.
However, the strongest musical connection between Zimbabwe and Jamaica is Bob Marley's performance at the former Rhodesia's Independence celebrations April 17, 1980.
The high point of that concert was his performance of Zimbabwe, the song from his Survival album which supported the struggle against insitutionalised racism in the then Rhodesia. In a beautiful use of alliteration, Zimbabwe puts armed resistance in the context of unity:
"So arm in arm with arms, with arms, we'll fight this little struggle"
Apartheid was a favourite resistance topic, Peter Tosh especially strident in Fight Apartheid from his last studio album, the 1987 Fight Apartheid:
"Yu inna me land
Yu inna me land
A dig out mi gold
Digging out my
Yu inna me land
Digging out my uranium
Now we gonna fight, fight, fight
Fight 'gainst apartheid."
He was rebellious, not only on the international level, but also in Jamaica. In addition to his consistent advocacy of marijuana legalisation, Tosh was outspoken on the political situation, notably in a decade where the tensions between the Jamaica Labour Party and People's National Party boiled over into open street war. During an extended speech at the One Love Peace Concert, held at the National Stadium in 1978, he said "I am not a politician, but I suffer the consequences".
The crowd roared.
Also in 1978, after the Green Bay killing of five men by Jamaica Defence Force soldiers, deejay Nigger Kojak announced his opinion over drum and bass - even though the soldiers charged were freed of conspiracy to murder and murder charges in 1981 and 1982. Kojak deejayed:
"Me say Green Bay killing a murder
Because de Babylon no waan put it furda
A Nigger Kojak a put it likkle larger"
Rebel music was not confined to roots reggae, singers or the 1970s. In 1988, deejay Brigadier Jerry did Invasion South Africa:
"We a go free Mandela, free Mandela
Free Mandela from the guy Botha
So me go a England go check Margaret Thatcher
She give me 19 anti-tanker."
While questioning the definition of a rebel in the first place, music and media businessman as well as newspaper columnist Clyde McKenzie put the relative absence of agitation for causes in Jamaican music output in the context of a general state of society. "We have entered into a period of moral uncertainty," McKenzie said.
"The kind of thing where people used to be more concerned about the morality of their practices, I think that era is perhaps going away or has gone. People tend to be a lot more tolerant on a number of issues," he said.
This is coupled with the resolution, even on the surface, of the flashpoint apartheid issue and Mandela's release from jail. McKenzie noted "the absence of these hard issues that really bring people together - independence, granting of apartheid - people were able to find common ground very easily".
Still, McKenzie asked, "Who is really a rebel? ... Is Kartel, the iconoclastic figure that he is, is he a rebel? The society does not seem to be in agreement with a lot of what he does. Does that make him a rebel?"
"Marley defined himself as a soul rebel, a man who was definitely against the status quo and inequalities in the power structure," McKenzie noted, adding that the Gong and artistes of his era "found a certainty in Rastafari. They saw things through that prism and knew what was right and what was wrong".
McKenzie said, "If you are talking about people who speak truth to power in these ways we may have a paucity, who challenge the status quo in any substantial way. Most of these artistes today are more concerned with their financial well-being and will not act in any way to jeopardise that.
"There is this feeling now that everything needs to be 'poppy'. It is like the Bruno Mars syndrome," McKenzie said.
We have entered into a period of moral uncertainty ... The kind of thing where people used to be more concerned about the morality of their practices, I think that era is perhaps going away or has gone. People tend to be a lot more tolerant on a number of issues. - McKenzie