Reggae is an important form of music for Jamaica. Culturally, reggae plays many roles and is a way in which many Jamaicans tend to define themselves. The social impact of reggae music has largely impacted life in Jamaica. It has also created an understanding of Jamaican lifestyle and culture for the rest of the world. It is a form of music for the masses in which their word can be heard and spoken. It is a way to celebrate their nationalism and life. “For as long as there's been Jamaican music it's remained inseparable to the people and the environment responsible for it” (Chang and Chen 1998c:6).
Reggae means “regular” in that Jamaicans are regular people who are suffering. These are people who do not have what they want (Davis and Simon 1979). Songs that use to be about love and sex began to change in focus. The songs started to include political, social, and spiritual notions in the lyrics. At this point, the “reggae musicians became Jamaica's prophets, social commentators, and shamans” (Davis and Simon 1979c:17). To the lower social classes, this was a way to get their voice heard, and to be able to express their true feelings about conditions affecting them and the rest of the country.
Music has always played an essential role in the lives of the Jamaican people. This is predominantly true for the poor majority of the country. Before Jamaica began in the recording industry, these Jamaicans were able to maintain their traditions from one generation to the next through music. Music could be heard at funerals, work, religious occasions, and any social events. These folk songs were not recorded, but they have significantly affected the reggae forms heard today (Barrow and Dalton 1997).
Reggae's roots stem from the historical conditions of both Jamaican slavery and colonialism by different nations. Most Jamaicans are descendents from Africa, brought by the English to Jamaica to work as slaves. The plantations on which the slaves worked made Jamaica a valuable colony to conquer. Slavery was eventually abolished in the 1830s, and it wasn't until the 1930s that Jamaicans began to gain some of their own control. The history of Jamaica shows “one long tale of sad intrigue, human suffering, lawlessness, and immoral profit, at the center of which were the African slaves-the ancestors of the present-day Jamaicans” (King et al. 2002c:xii). Reggae has reflected this heritage in their folk music from the beginning. Not only does the music mirror what the people have retained from their homelands in Africa, but the music also reflects the cultural aspects that Jamaicans have learned from the different countries that transcend their history (Barrow and Dalton 1997). The reggae music form deals with the racial and social issues that were encountered during Jamaica's history (Chang and Chen 1998). The music was principally concerned with “truths and rights” and the “legacies of colonialism (Barrow and Dalton).
Jamaican reggae has undergone many transformations, both in style and themes, during its history. Yet, the masses still use the music to express resistance to oppression and poverty. For many Jamaicans, music is one of the few ways in which the poor are able to create a distinct, black, Jamaican identity for themselves. It is through the music that these Jamaicans are able to “vent years of pent-up suffering, dehumanization and frustration under the white man's hegemony” (King et al. 2002c:xiii). Throughout the years, reggae music and lyrics have increased in nature both politically and revolutionary. In the 1970s, reggae was viewed by many as “the very expression of the historical experience of the Jamaican working class, unemployed and peasants” (King et al. 2002c:xiii). Lyrics discussed such themes as oppression, crime, economic shortages, racial discrimination, political violence, and homelessness (Davis and Simon 1979).
The Rastafari influence also contributed to the cultural significance of reggae music. This is the period in which the theme of repatriation to Africa began to be the focus. It was a symbol for both identity and pride among the people. Rastafari's most significant impact was on the narrative personas used by the singers of reggae music. It was apparent in the lives, lyrics, and performances of the musicians (Prahlad 2001). The music became more than just entertainment. It became one the main mediums for political and social remarks. Reggae music became a threat to the Jamaican government (King et al. 2002). This period awakened the Jamaican people to a “new age of consciousness” in which many people would experience “a fundamental transformation of identity” (Prahlad 2001c:6). This period allowed for African Jamaicans to have black pride and to speak out against the injustice in their country. Along with the new identity came a new voice for the masses, new forms of self-presentation, and a new relationship between the African and Jamaican culture (Prahlad 2001). Changes were also made in nature of audiences and the role of music in Jamaican society. Songs continued to discuss the social problems of the country, but the singers would compose the songs to be in the tongue of the ghetto. The music addressed the people living at the lower ends of the social rankings, which included such people as the masses in the ghetto, shantytowns, and even the rural parishes (Prahlad 2001). Many musicians used reggae music as a form of protest music, examining the results of social and political injustices occurring during the time period (King et al. 2002).The Jamaican government has used reggae music to promote their own social and political goals. Many have used this music form during campaign periods and political rallies. The government has also used reggae music to revitalize the dying economy by attracting tourists to Jamaica. Reggae music and the Rastafarian culture have been depicted as the “official culture of the island” (King et al. 2002).