Reggae Britannia: the roots of a musical movement

BBC4’s Reggae Britannia shows how Jamaican music provided a joyous soundtrack to political rebellion.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater
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Britain is a nation exceedingly proud of its diversity. Yet many of us remain largely unaware of the movements which insisted upon the spirit of integration we hold so dear. Reggae Britannia, a new BBC Four documentary airing today, succeeds not only in faithfully charting the development of a vibrant musical genre, but also illuminates the role this music has played in shaping our cultural identity.

Reggae emerged in the Sixties, and is in many ways the lost genre of the decade. The dissident tradition of popular music is often ascribed to the likes of John Lennon or Bob Dylan, but Reggae Britannia insists that reggae as well as rock changed the world. In the opening frames, images of moustachioed, dazed hippies are displaced by the joyous sound of Desmond Dekker’s ‘Israelites’, unearthing reggae from beneath the clichéd image of Sixties rebellion.

This documentary reminds us of the role reggae played in British politics, youth culture, and music from the Sixties to the mid-Eighties, yet manages to avoid the pitfalls of a rose-tinted portrayal. Instead of connecting the various manifestations of the genre into one succinct timeline, Reggae Britannia provides a meticulous and ambivalent reflection on its subject.

In a concise 90 minutes, we are taken from reggae’s origins in Jamaican roots music, through to its dissemination into pop, and at every turn the programme maintains objectivity. Even when it comes to the seminal Bob Marley, one of the few reggae artists who attained global superstar status, he is given no more screen time than Boy George.

Reggae’s inception came at a time of strict racial division. For young, black British youth, it provided a link to their heritage and a voice to scream with. Reggae Britannia nevertheless insists it is a rebellious, not simply black, music. Whereas reggae began as a fun-loving, apolitical movement, in the Seventies it started to comment on the ills of society and, in particular, racism. Songs such as Steel Pulse’s ‘Ku Klux Klan’ were a call to arms for British youth to stand up against the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Enoch Powell and the far right. Its mere presence in the charts, and the diversity of the reggae audience, was a revelation, representing a people refusing the divisions society imposed. Clearly, the genre played a crucial role in normalising blackness and kicking against oppression.

The assimilation of a British consciousness into a Jamaican musical form has led to countless concoctions and appropriations of the reggae sound, but this is explored in the documentary as a process of evolution, not bastardisation. The way in which the raw sound of Jamaican roots music was reinterpreted through the British inner-city experience enabled it to fuel social upheaval and react against the government policies of the 1980s.

Bands like The Specials and The Selecter, emanating out of the Coventry ska revival, reinvigorated the form, combining it with the ferocity of punk to kick against Thatcher’s Britain. Mass unemployment and the deconstruction of British industry were tearing communities apart, and songs like The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’ – an elegy to a town decimated by poverty – became the anthem for a whole new generation of reggae rebels.

This documentary is incredibly ambitious in its scope: its exploration of seemingly all of reggae’s manifestations at times borders on the pedantic, yet this also creates a faithful portrayal of the movement. While the film necessarily insists upon the genre’s political potency, the infectiousness and pure joy of the music is far from ignored.

Recent electoral successes for the far-right British National Party and the emergence of the anti-Islamic English Defence League have reminded us that the battle against racism is by no means over in Britain. More than ever, it seems, we must celebrate and examine the different cultural forces that have shaped our national identity. Reggae Britannia immortalises a kind of unique and deeply British phenomenon that cultural history has neglected. Reggae was a movement that was about having a good time as well as changing the world, and it certainly left behind some truly timeless music.

Tom Slater is a writer and a graduate of the Young Journalists’ Academy.

Reggae Britannia, broadcast tonight, is the first in a series of four programmes about reggae being broadcast on BBC4 during February.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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