What Style of Rock Music Sprang from Political and Social Concerns in Jamaica?

by Patria
Burning Spear

Rock music has always been a genre that reflects the zeitgeist of its time, addressing various political, social, and cultural issues. Among the various styles of rock music, one particular sub-genre stands out for its deep roots in political and social concerns: Reggae. Originating in Jamaica, reggae music has not only been a reflection of the island’s vibrant culture but also a powerful voice against oppression, inequality, and injustice. This article delves into the origins, characteristics, key artists, and the profound impact of reggae music on both Jamaica and the world.

I. Historical Context of Reggae Music

Reggae music emerged in the late 1960s in Jamaica, a period marked by significant political and social turmoil. The country had gained independence from British colonial rule in 1962, but the years that followed were fraught with economic hardship, political corruption, and social unrest. The struggles of the working class, rampant poverty, and the rise of political violence were daily realities for many Jamaicans.

II.The Roots of Reggae

Before reggae, there were several musical styles in Jamaica that laid the groundwork for its development. Ska and rocksteady were two such genres that preceded reggae, each contributing to its unique sound.


Ska originated in the late 1950s and early 1960s, characterized by a fast tempo, offbeat rhythm, and a blend of Caribbean mento, calypso, American jazz, and rhythm and blues. The upbeat and danceable nature of ska made it incredibly popular in Jamaica and laid the foundation for subsequent musical developments.


By the mid-1960s, the tempo of ska music began to slow down, giving rise to rocksteady. This style featured a more relaxed rhythm, a stronger emphasis on basslines, and socially conscious lyrics. Rocksteady served as a bridge between the exuberance of ska and the more profound, spiritually charged reggae.

III. The Emergence of Reggae

Reggae music emerged from the rocksteady era, solidifying its identity with a slower tempo, heavier basslines, and a syncopated rhythm. The term “reggae” itself is believed to have been popularized by Toots and the Maytals’ 1968 hit song “Do the Reggay.”

Musical Characteristics

Reggae is defined by several key musical characteristics:

Rhythm: The offbeat rhythm, also known as the “skank,” is a defining feature of reggae music. This rhythm is typically played by the guitar or keyboard, creating a distinctive “chop” sound.

Bassline: The bass guitar in reggae plays a central role, often carrying the melody and providing a deep, resonant foundation for the music.

Drums: The drum patterns in reggae are characterized by the “one drop” beat, where the emphasis is on the third beat of each measure, creating a laid-back, hypnotic groove.

Lyrics: Reggae lyrics often address themes of social justice, political oppression, spirituality, and the struggles of everyday life. The genre became a voice for the marginalized and a means of protest against societal injustices.

IV. Key Artists in Reggae Music

Several artists have played pivotal roles in the development and popularization of reggae music, each contributing to its political and social messaging.

Bob Marley: Bob Marley is undoubtedly the most iconic figure in reggae music. His songs, such as “Get Up, Stand Up,” “No Woman, No Cry,” and “Redemption Song,” resonated with audiences worldwide, addressing themes of resistance, hope, and unity. Marley’s influence extended beyond music; he became a symbol of the struggle for human rights and social justice.

Peter Tosh: Peter Tosh, a founding member of The Wailers alongside Bob Marley, was another influential figure in reggae. Known for his militant stance and politically charged lyrics, Tosh’s songs like “Equal Rights” and “Get Up, Stand Up” called for justice and equality. His outspoken advocacy for the legalization of marijuana also highlighted the cultural and spiritual significance of the plant in Rastafarianism.

Burning Spear: Burning Spear, born Winston Rodney, is renowned for his deeply spiritual and socially conscious music. His album “Marcus Garvey,” named after the Jamaican political leader and activist, is a seminal work in reggae, emphasizing themes of African identity and empowerment.

Jimmy Cliff: Jimmy Cliff’s contributions to reggae are also significant, particularly through his role in the 1972 film “The Harder They Come.” The film and its soundtrack, featuring songs like “Many Rivers to Cross” and “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” brought reggae music to international audiences and highlighted the struggles of the urban poor in Jamaica.

V. Reggae and Rastafarianism

A critical aspect of reggae music is its deep connection with Rastafarianism, a spiritual and political movement that emerged in Jamaica in the 1930s. Rastafarianism is centered on the worship of Haile Selassie I, the former Emperor of Ethiopia, and the belief in the eventual return to Africa for the descendants of enslaved Africans.

Reggae music often incorporates Rastafarian themes, such as the reverence for Haile Selassie, the importance of spiritual awakening, and the call for social justice. The use of religious imagery and symbols, such as the Lion of Judah and the colors red, gold, and green, further solidifies the bond between reggae and Rastafarianism.

VI. Reggae’s Global Impact

Reggae music’s influence extends far beyond the shores of Jamaica. Its themes of resistance, empowerment, and social justice have resonated with oppressed and marginalized communities worldwide.

The UK and the Caribbean Diaspora

In the United Kingdom, reggae became the soundtrack for the Caribbean diaspora, particularly among Jamaican immigrants who brought their culture and music with them. Reggae’s presence in the UK music scene led to the development of sub-genres like lover’s rock and dub, and influenced British punk and ska bands.


Reggae music also found a strong following in Africa, where its messages of resistance and empowerment resonated deeply. Artists like Lucky Dube from South Africa and Alpha Blondy from Ivory Coast incorporated reggae into their music, using it as a platform to address social and political issues on the continent.

The United States

In the United States, reggae’s impact is evident in the rise of hip-hop and rap music, both of which share reggae’s focus on social commentary and storytelling. American artists like The Fugees and Lauryn Hill have cited reggae as a significant influence on their work.

VII. The Legacy of Reggae

Reggae music’s legacy is one of cultural richness, political activism, and global influence. Its role in giving a voice to the voiceless and its ability to inspire change through music are testaments to its enduring power.

Reggae and Social Change

Reggae has been a tool for social change, challenging oppressive systems and advocating for equality and justice. The genre’s emphasis on collective struggle and resilience has inspired movements for social and political change across the globe.

Recognition and Preservation

In 2018, UNESCO recognized reggae music as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, acknowledging its contribution to international discourse on injustice, resistance, love, and humanity. This recognition underscores the importance of preserving and celebrating reggae’s cultural and historical significance.

See Also: When Did Hard Rock Emerge as a Form of Rock and Roll Music?


Reggae music, born from the political and social concerns of Jamaica, has grown into a global phenomenon with a profound impact on music, culture, and social activism. Its rhythms, melodies, and messages continue to resonate with audiences worldwide, making it a powerful force for change and a testament to the enduring power of music to unite and inspire. Through the contributions of iconic artists and its deep connection to Rastafarianism, reggae remains a vibrant and influential genre, reminding us of the ongoing struggle for justice and equality.

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