As a Jamaican in the United States, I encounter accolades and discussions of the most oft-associated cultural icon as Bob Marley. If Jamaica is known for nothing else in this life, it is known that Jamaica gifted the world with Bob and his music, his wisdom, and his progeny. I don’t think too many people understand that Bob, as gifted and as prolific as he was, was hardly the father of reggae and was simply its first and loudest ambassador to the world.
I mentioned last week that my parents abhorred reggae; especially my father. He would complain loudly when it came over the radio and I would get stern lectures when I played any kind of music that even sounded like reggae. As I got older, he was more inclined to engage in curt discussions as to why he wouldn’t tolerate it and I realised that it was less about the music and more about the people who sang it. Bob, as we all now know, was a Rastafarian. His hair was matted in typical Rastafarian style and he was an open and proud user of marijuana (or, as we know it in Jamaica, ganja). Rastafarianism is a branch of Christianity that reveres His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, crowned emperor of Ethiopia in 1930, as the second coming of Christ whose main purpose in returning was to free and redeem all people of African descent and advocate for their return to the motherland. Well … if you are in any way familiar with Christianity, you immediately see the problem. And so, this issue was the main issue my father had with most reggae artists – they were Rastafarians – blasphemers, abominations.
My mother is a little less black and white and spent many years attempting to tell me that Jimmy Cliff was a far more gifted and educated, and therefore a much better fit as “reggae’s ambassador”. I think she wanted to help me at worst strike a balance between two artists who, at the time, were just as prolific and “famous” and at best “choose anyone other than Bob Marley” as my favourite. Well, I’ll give her the fact that Jimmy Cliff is extremely gifted. He’s got the voice, he’s got the looks, and – to those of my parents’ generation – he looked “fairly clean” unlike Bob. You have to understand that generation … to them, the British ideal of “clean” was the ultimate passport. So to them, it is still a mystery why Bob’s untidy “dreadlocks”, careless dress sense, and complete lack of decorum would have had more success than Jimmy’s obvious refinement.
The thing is … reggae is Jamaica’s very own. There is very little else in this world that Jamaicans can call their own. Reggae is home grown. It’s ours. Many have taken it, improved on it and changed it … but it is still all ours. It has its influences in rhythm and blues as having been born directly out of ska and rock steady, but it still is a very unique musical genre and very much Jamaican. So it doesn’t matter what you want to think of those who represent the genre … you have to be proud of it.
Back on topic though, Jimmy Cliff was Mom’s favourite reggae artist and so I got a lot of exposure to his music. In particular, she liked “The Harder They Come” which, along with most of the rest of the soundtrack for the movie by the same name, was written and performed by Jimmy himself.
Me? I just like his voice and the fact that he actually sings versus rapping or chanting or … whatever it is that dancehall artists do. Yes; I know – my prejudice is showing. No matter … is there anything more lyrical than this: