Ahead of his new BBC doc Roots, Reggae, Rebellion, the rapper and poet considers the genre’s political history and thrilling rebirth, Akala writes for London's Guardian.
Making my documentary Roots, Reggae, Rebellion was partly a journey of discovery for me, and partly about telling people why I love this music so much. Travelling as a person of Jamaican heritage, you notice the impact that this tiny island’s music has had on the entire planet, and reggae has been such an integral part of my life and upbringing. It was there at every family function, every christening, every wedding, every birthday. But only as I got older have I fully realised the impact it’s had on shaping my worldview, my life and my politics.
People forget that reggae was truly subversive music. Growing up, it didn’t make sense to me that these songs predominantly about love and peace and self-respect came from what was almost a war zone in Trenchtown; 800 murders in an election year, that’s a civil war. Most of it is about uplifting your people and then, if necessary, rebellion; but it had multiple political messages. Pan-Africanism was dominant, this imagining of a mythical African homeland and this Garvey-ite black nationalist consciousness.
But reggae was also about class politics. One of the most famous Rasta sayings is “death to black and white oppressors”: the message of anti-oppression, environmentalism and trying to establish a better society resonates around the planet to this day. In our increasingly divided world, it says a lot about the state of our culture as human beings that the idea of loving the planet and loving other human beings is considered idealistic and stupid. The sad thing is there’s a lot of money in death, profit to be made in hatred. Just look at the persecution the reggae artists faced. Bob Marley – one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century, full stop – tried to unite the two political parties of the Caribbean and he ended up shot.
Because Jamaicans had been taught to be ashamed of their African ancestry, Rastas were persecuted; even until recently they were seen as social outcasts. In the past 10 or 15 years, that’s changed; Rasta ideals seem to have firmly embedded themselves in mainstream Jamaican culture, from street level to university, and with a new generation of artists such as Chronixx, Jah9, Kabaka Pyramid and Protoje there’s a return to the energy of the 70s after a period of dancehall dominance. Reggae didn’t die with Bob Marley, it was just submerged for a while and these artists are the logical rebirth.
It does Jamaica and the world a service to have artists who question power, critique the hypocrisy of society and make great music that makes people want to dance and sing, love and have sex and do all the good things humans want to do. You can’t be unhappy listening to most reggae. It’s sunshine in a chord.
Roots, Reggae, Rebellion is on Friday 11 November, 9pm, BBC4