This story is over 5 years old
Music by VICE

Defending Reggae to White People Who Don’t Like Reggae

To not like reggae based on the five unassailable tenets of Reggae No Thank You is to do the world a disservice. And you've done that enough, Whitey.

by Ben Johnson
Oct 30 2012, 7:30pm

So you've decided you don't like reggae. I can respect this decision. There's some good thinking involved in this decision. Whenever I talk to a fellow white person who has decided they don't like reggae, they usually make the following points: 1. I don't really smoke weed, so it doesn't really do anything for me; 2. I find it repetitive and unvarying, two qualities I don't appreciate in music because see point 1; 3. I am white; 4. people who are "really into reggae," especially white people who are "really into reggae," are annoying little dipshits, and based on social programming, I wish to avoid being seen as an annoying little dipshit; 5. Bob Marley Legends is the fucking WORST.

There is some pretty indisputable logic going on there. There's also some fear of the other, but I can be charitable and call it fear of the self in the form of colonial, self-aggrandizing, condescending racism of appropriation that comes from white people overindulging in "multiculturalism." As far as the cultural achievements of nonwhite people are concerned, white people SHOULD walk a fine line. Appreciate, but don't exploit. I mention all of this because white people who don't like reggae, and they are legion, have usually come to this decision after having made another decision: not to investigate reggae. "It's not for me, best to leave it alone." That's not an ignoble sentiment for a white person to have, especially compared to "Wait, what are you people up to? I WANT IN."

All the above is fine fine fine, except reggae, even at its most rootsy and sacred, is just music. White people, just like all people with all music, are allowed to like it or not like it. And in the case of reggae, its existence and emergence is a feat of impressive enough majesty that it SHOULD be investigated, and appreciated, and extolled, even if you have no interest (and I think you should) in also jamming and/or sexing and/or smoking to it. To not do so based on the five unassailable tenets of Reggae No Thank You as stated above is to do the world a disservice. And you've done that enough, Whitey.

Before delving into a point-by-point dissection of the tenets of Reggae No Thank You, a little casual historical context is in order. I will try not to make it too boring.

First thing's first: Jamaica is a shithole. I know it has nice beaches, and warm weather, and everybody wants to go there to one of the resorts and relax and drink a ton of booze and feel great about life, but imagine if you lived there.  It’s a small island with a small economy.  GDP per capita is below world average.  There are not a lot of career options above subsistence level there, and there probably never will be.  There’s not much in the way of domestic manufacturing, so any luxury goods are going to be imported and therefore expensive and therefore old.  Thanks to the climate, there is enough food for you to avoid starving to death, and it’s nice out, which is good because there’s not much to look forward to for the rest of your entire life.  That’s why everybody seems so relaxed and harmonious.  They’re more or less just sitting around waiting to die like the rest of us, they’re just way more obvious about it because it’s nice out and they’re not starving. That's just the nature of being a small island in the Caribbean: you're going to be a shithole.

As far as the music, here's where I attempt to spare you some of the details and all the ridiculous academia-bourne talk about African polyrhythms, and slave labor, and field songs, and island culture, while still broaching the subject of how reggae was invented. Basically in the 50s Jamaica had its own folk music, relegated to way out in the boonies, it also had its nightclub bands in the resorts playing Glenn Miller big band shit for the tourists, AND most importantly it had a few people in Kingston who played records. First one person, then more people, then it's like every night there were more and more people playing records. Just out, anywhere, playing records, and charging a little dough to come in and dance. This happened all the time, nonstop, which is just what people did for fun because there wasn't any TV or air conditioning and Jamaica is a shithole.  

They called these DJ nights “sound systems,” because that's all they were. Like if you had a stereo and some records that you liked to listen to, instead of just sitting around listening to records you'd haul the setup outside and you'd call it "The Lord King Beebo Sound System."  And you'd get away with this grandiose terminology because Jamaica at the time was such a shithole that you could call yourself whatever you wanted if you were successful enough to afford a fucking STEREO. 

Pretty soon there were enough sound systems competing that some rules popped up. You could be better than other sound systems in one of three ways: being louder than anybody else, having better records than anybody else, and/or fucking shooting at each other and wrecking each others’ equipment. The upshot of both getting better records, and making them louder, is that was the days before Marshall stacks, so these guys would custom build these huge speakers, and then play these rare obscure New Orleans R&B grooves through them, and the loud ass speakers would distort the shit out of Fats Domino. So you'd only hear the bassline, then when the bass dropped out you'd hear a second or two of the treble guitar downstroke, and then bass back up again. It sounded a lot like what was to become reggae. All from the shitty shitty shithole that was Jamaica.

Then somebody developed recording technology. Somebody else decided to get nightclub musicians together to record original stuff so the sound systems could be more responsive to audiences and nobody would have to ship R&B records from New Orleans. It was real hot in the summer of ’67 so people wanted the big bands to slow down so they could dance without their balls floating away on Sweat River. Some of the folksy dudes from the boonies got involved and turned out to be way awesome, some more technicians got together and invented even weirder sound equipment. Some DJ's started rapping at the sound systems. Some British people swooped in and financed some local gang bosses who ran record labels. Political unrest bubbled up to just on the sunny side of all out civil war, nonstop soul crushing poverty continued not to stop. Approximately 17 million metric tons of weed was smoked, etcetera etcetera etcetera. Bob Marley, and reggae became a thing. Out of nothing. Out of shitty ass shithole Jamaica.

I mention all of this not to impress you with how much I know (I’m drowning in oceans of paraphrase of things I’ve read right now, definitely getting a ton wrong, and coming off like a major league asshole to boot, all in the interest of saving time on a subject you, reggae-no-liker, have decided not to care about—you’re welcome), but to impart to you how unlikely it is that anything like reggae would happen. I know this is a condescending white guy sentiment, and it’s the same condescending tone used in any “discussion” (lame) of the blues, or the origins of jazz, or hip hop, or anything that poor people anywhere manage to get themselves up to culturally. “Good for them, they did it even though we all got together and decided to make them poor as fuck all the time.” But: yeah! Fuckin’ right on, good for them. Good for all of us is my point. Reggae being a thing is a human triumph of thingmaking. You don’t have to like it, but you should at least be glad it exists instead of going “ew yuck, that’s the thing with the weed-smoking frat boys and the dreadlocks” every time the subject comes up.

As for why I think you should also actually like it:

1. I don't really smoke weed, so it doesn't really do anything for me.

Okay. You don’t have to smoke weed. I’m not going to make you smoke weed. I don’t really smoke weed myself, so that would be hypocritical of me. But: there goes your whole argument about reggae not doing anything for you BECAUSE you don’t really smoke weed, because it can do something for somebody who doesn’t really smoke weed. What you probably mean to say is: “I have never gotten into either reggae or weed, and the two are very very closely related.” Okay, that’s fine. They are. Rastafarians smoke weed as a sacrament and also play a countrified form of reggae as a sacred music. It’s kind of like hillbillies and moonshine. It’s the drug of choice. 

But people on drugs make good music. That’s just a fact. 

And when you complain about not liking reggae because of not liking weed, you’re really saying “I don’t like reggae because I haven’t heard any reggae I like yet, and since I don’t partake in the drug of choice for reggae fans and musicians, I’m not likely to.” But there’s a thing called the internet now. You don’t have to be high to use it. It helps, but you don’t have to be. Point is, there’s good shit. Like “I can’t believe how good this is” shit, like if you somehow grew to this age without ever having heard “Tutti Frutti” and somebody played it for you for the first time. That’s how good some of this shit is. Even if you’re stone cold sober.

2. I find it repetitive and unvarying, two qualities I don't appreciate in music because see point 1.

Okay, yeah, it is repetitive. And when you’re high you tend to like repetitive things. Because you get all distracted by like a dog or something and forget that you’re listening to music but then you’re like, “Wait, what’s going on with this music? Oh wow, this is still the same! That’s incredible how much it’s the same still! Check out that awesome dog!” Weed is fun sometimes. You should maybe re-evaluate thing one. Just sayin.'

The music itself is repetitive because of weed, yes, but also because reggae musicians in the golden era, mostly thanks to weed but also thanks to being incredible, were able to go deeeeeep into the pocket. That’s where a band hits a groove so hard and so deep you would hear them play just that one thing over and over again all night long. It’s not an obvious feat of musicianship like some soaring solo or some complicated time signature change, but instead it’s an impressive feat of group musicianship, where everybody backs down enough from their own interests just enough to fit perfectly with each other. 

The classic example of the phenomenon is Booker T. & the MG’s. Sure, they’re not doing anything complicated, and you’ve heard “Green Onions” (“The Sandlot,” anyone?) so often it’s kind of an eyeroll to even drop the reference, but keep that puppy going and I challenge you not to feel a tingle in your spine and maybe even a sway in your hip.

I’m not saying that all reggae is as deep in the pocket as Booker T. and the gang from Stax, but I am saying that this is the goal of pretty much all reggae music. It’s repetitive, sure, but the point is it’s aiming for the perfect repetition. And if you listen for it, eventually you’ll hear it, and it’ll be the same thing as the MG’s with the goosebumps and the uncontrollable nodding.

As for unvarying, okay, play something else. Then play some reggae again. Then play something else. What do I have to think of everything for you? Also: what are you talking about, unvarying? Are jazz and shitty pop crooning and nasty dancefloor firesetters and straight-up freakouts and minimal electronic music and a dude inventing rap in 1970 while also syncopating his voice in a way that if you ignore the lyrical content sounds exactly like a totally on-point jazz trumpeter also too unvarying for you? You don’t have to like ‘em all, just don’t tell me those things are all the same.

3. I am white.

Me too, bro. Isn’t it great? Let’s stick to our own predominant culture and be fearful and/or dismissive of all others, that way we’ll always have the wherewithal to stay on top, right? Isn’t that where us white people belong? Reggae is silly. White people: not silly. That’s the way it should be, right bro? Broheim?

Look, we can like things without worrying that we’re going to misappropriate them. Especially reggae. Reggae has just about run its course anyway. Music is globalized, dance music is dance music, digital music is digital music, and in nowadays reggae “revival” outfits ring about as hollow as soul revival outfits do. So you don’t have to worry about liking reggae the wrong way. If you’re just getting into reggae now without having spent your entire life hearing it bleed out of the walls, you’re probably going to spend the rest for your life listening to the reggae equivalent of oldies radio because the shit really was better back then. So you can’t really get it wrong, just like you can’t really be incorrect about Jimi Hendrix. He died 40 years ago and we’re all pretty familiar with his material at this point. Jimi it up. Or don’t. Nobody cares either way.

4. People who are "really into reggae," especially white people who are "really into reggae" are annoying little dipshits, and based on social programming, I wish to avoid being seen as an annoying little dipshit.

So Rastafarianism isn’t for you. Also you’ve discovered a basic human truth about the perils of self-identifying as any one thing.  Congratulations. You hate 17-year olds. Also, come on, you’re allowed to like anything you like. Quit being such an annoying little dipshit and like reggae. 

If you’re really worried about liking reggae too much, the first warning sign is performing reggae. It starts out innocuously enough, either by learning some songs on guitar, or by deciding to “incorporate some elements of reggae” into your regular non-reggae band. But if you ever find yourself wishing you were a member of a full blown reggae band, or God help you, actually being in a real life “we are really trying to play reggae right now and not just because it’s funny” band, seek immediate help. Up until that point it’s just kind of a “try not to be too annoying” thing, A.K.A. the course of everyday life.

5. Bob Marley Legends is the fucking WORST.

You’ll hear no argument from me. Of course it’s also the best, like how Michael Jackson's Thriller is the best, but it’s way more the worst like how you never need to hear “Pretty Young Thing” ever again no matter how catchy those na-na-na-na’s are. Just know that it’s fun and funny if people say they like reggae, and then when you ask them who they like they say Bob Marley. That’s not somebody who likes reggae. That’s somebody who just barely likes music, and needs a Bob Marley to convince them to give the whole music thing a try. Now they’re bragging about it, like scratching the least possible amount off the surface is something to be proud of. I’m a rock fan, I like Elvis Presley. I’m a pop fan, I like the Beatles. I’m a things that suck fan, I like Creed. Those people are kind of great. These are not idiots who are ruining everything, these are idiots who are making life fun for the rest of us because you can make fun of them to their faces and they will never ever know it.

So there you go. You have no reason not to at least try liking reggae. As much as I understand your initial kneejerk revulsion, I understand this a lot better: washing the dishes, and dusting the curtain rods, and scrubbing the bathroom all fucking suck, but eventually you will have to do all of those things if you want to have sex with a person ever again. This fact is as sad and as true as Jamaica being a shithole.  BUT: Reggae is about the only force in this universe that can make the grim “not cleaning things equals no sex” reality bearable for me as I’m there on my hands and knees wondering how a patently clean thing like a bath tub can get so dirty. I highly suggest you give it a try next time you’re down there too. Alright, Brosephine Baker?