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The Evolution of Reggae and Its Impact


Originating in the 1960s, reggae music was a powerful way for Jamaicans to express their discontent towards societal and economic injustices. Reggae’s influence on modern-day music is evident in the sweeping genre of reggaeton, which also incorporates rap and hip hop elements. Considering how much reggae has changed over the decades, it is fascinating to see the world’s tight grip on this beloved genre.

Some of the world’s most famous reggae artists have evolved right alongside it. Take Bob Marley, for example, who started out in a group called the Wailers, whose primary genre was ska/rocksteady. Marley’s huge change in rhythm and instrumentation over the course of his career is a great example of the growth of reggae music.

Ska, which took influence from American blues and jazz, was a music genre popularized in Jamaica in the 1950s, and its own evolution has shaped the modern state of reggae. The transition from ska to rocksteady in 1966 can be characterized by the slowed down beat and repetitive bass, which is also integral to modern reggae. However, reggae differed from both genres in the sense that it eliminated the Western style of singing, again diminished the bass, and adopted a religious connotation to Rastafarian (a religious-political movement originating in Jamaica) beliefs.

One interesting example of reggae’s role in protest is the song “Legalize It” by Peter Tosh. Tosh was also a member of the Wailers, born in 1944 in Western Jamaica. Tired of oppressive colonialist ideas about marijuana being pushed in Jamaica in the 70’s, Tosh wrote this song as an argument towards legalization. Mirroring some Rastafarian principles, Tosh believed that pot could be used as a medicine. Reggae allowed him to vocalize the injustice that was so prevalent in his community.

Although some artists use reggaeton to call out wrongdoing in society, the genre is often criticized for its “shallow” culture and attributes. One of the most recognized reggaeton songs in Western culture was “Despacito” by Daddy Yankee. A song that was so obviously sexualizing women was not what reggae enthusiasts pictured as the new face of the ever-changing genre. 

Despite “Despacito” gaining so much publicity, the song does not authentically represent reggaeton’s message as an entire genre. Some artists still use reggaeton very similarly to how it was started. One song praised in recent difficult times was “Lockdown” by Koffee. A commentary on the pandemic, people felt empowered and connected to what she was singing about, similar to original reggae. 

Although it is ever evolving, the genre of reggae has stayed in the hearts of fans since the mid 60’s. It will forever give a voice to those who need it in this world of injustice.