Reggae, Hip Hop, and Black Nationalism

Posted on March 11, 2010 by


The following is a paper I wrote for a class I’m taking on rhetoric and music. It’s very different from most of what you’ve seen on Da What in terms of content, length, and especially style. I decided to share it with you all anyways. It will give you a little bit of a history lesson, as well as some of my own thoughts on the impact and inspiration of early Reggae and Hip Hop artists. Any kind of comments (or questions!) are welcomed! Enjoy!

In the 1960’s and 70’s, civil unrest and political chaos abounded in both Jamaica and the United States. Gaining its independence in 1962, Jamaica soon found itself attempting to crawl out of the imperialist shadow of Britain’s former reign. Lurking in those shadows, Jamaica found racism, social stratification, and an economy on the verge of collapse. The failing plantation economy held on for dear life to the bauxite and tourist industries, which did little to help the Island’s faltering confidence. In place of the British crown and the Jamaican government, an important minority of Jamaican youth turned to the religion of Rastafari. The Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie became their God, and Reggae their church

Meanwhile, north of the island the United States of America was stepping into its post-Civil Rights Era.  One hundred years after the 15th Amendment had prohibited the denial of the right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” African Americans could barely function as legitimate political members of society. Urban Renewal programs pushed numbers of inner-city African Americans, who lacked political representation, out of their homes. City governments attacked blighted areas around the country, including the South Bronx. In 1977, the New York Times reported that “[The Bronx is] as crucial to an understanding of American urban life as a visit to Auschwitz is crucial to an understanding of Nazism” (Cheney, 9). The Bronx is as crucial in an understanding of Hip Hop, just as Jamaica is in an understanding of Reggae.

The technical history of the two genres laid a foundation for the structural changes that would emerge in society. The subgenre of Dub served as an inspiration—as well as a technical means—for sampling and remixing. The use of Dancehalls rather than live bands would set the stage for American DJing, and the repeater drum and Jamaican “DJs” would evolve into New York emcees. In order to understand their cultural impact, we must ask how Hip Hop and Reggae musicians, armed with these technological tools, managed to become powerful leaders for their respective communities. Historian Chris Harman points out that “Slavery is … seen [by many people] as a byproduct of racism,” (Harman, 252) though the reality is opposite. The ideology of racism came out of political structures. Far from seeing racism as innate, law makers saw racial-intermarriage as a legitimate threat to existing political and economic systems.  Jamaica faced a similar situation, having developed out of a plantation economy relying on a subdued labor force. The subjugation that the Reggae and Hip Hop communities faced was both race- and class-based. Reggae and Hip Hop artists became significant community leaders by drawing on Black Nationalist and Diaspora ideologies to attempt to enter the political realm and reverse the repressive nature of their societies.

In Jamaica, Rastafaris saw Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia as a mandate of heaven, proof that celestial powers approved of their rebellion against the government. On April 21, 1966 a plane carrying Selassie descended on Kingston. The moment his feet touched ground, a frenzied throng of Rastafaris knew that their faith in Jah was not unfounded. Government officials stationed for the occasion could not hold back the affected crowd. The Rastafaris responded only to a man named Mortimo Planno, and only then could Selassie pass through the sea of dreadlocked youth. Planno would go on to become most famous for mentoring Bob Marley. These crowds, which almost trampled the official patrolmen, would soon face a government retaliation for their actions. Starting just two months later, the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP) bulldozes the homes of thousands of Rastafaris. Rupert Lewis, a professor at the University of the West Indies, explains that the destruction of homes led to politically affiliated housing projects—similar to the housing projects built by the Bronx’s Urban Renewal program.

Government housing estates would soon demarcate the territories of political gang warfare, but Reggae singing Rastafaris, not politicians, were the warriors. The JLP’s opposing political party, the People’s National Party (PNP), would join in on the land grab, “mark[ing] the transition of party tribalism into its armed phase,”(Lewis, 85). Jamaica had entered a National State of Emergency. Recognizing the leadership skills of Reggae artists, both political parties attempted to leverage their territorial power by aligning themselves with the musicians. As Hip Hop historian Jeff Chang points out, these politicians would soon find that in the dancehalls, the only people with true power were the men wielding instruments or microphones. To these performers and their crowds, the JLP and PNP didn’t practice politics, but “politricks”.

In response to these politricks, the Jamaican members of the African Diaspora drew inspiration from more than just the musical history of their motherland. Ras Negus, the Rastafari activist who drew inspiration from Africans like Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta, expressed his solidarity with Jamaica intellectuals critiquing the government: “We have the brawn, you have the brains; all we need are the guns,” (Lewis, 89). While many politicians saw this as a call to terrorism, the “words bore no relationship to political action and reflected social anger and desperation,” (Lewis, 89) highlighting a complex interaction between Reggae and Black Nationalism. For many people today, Bob Marley represents an ideal of peace. This complexity allowed artists like Marley to represent peace, but still write songs like War, advocating the fight for racial equality. In some circumstances, the militancy called for in their music was literal, but in many it was also symbolic. For Marcus Garvey inspired Reggae artists, images of both peace and militancy acted as political doctrine carrying their messages.

Roughly 1000 miles north, the founders of modern Hip Hop were using the Four Elements of Hip Hop—B-boying, Graffiti, DJing, and MCing—as tools to express their discontent with the government. B-boys—also known as break dancers—showed solidarity with their brothers of the Diaspora by creating their style of dance out of the Brazilian martial art form of Capoeira. Drawing from a martial art also pointed to their emphasis on militancy. Even more political than the art of B-boying, Graffiti played a key role in the political ends of Bronx youth. Hip Hop academics like Chang describe Graffiti as a means to spread ideologies and gain status. With tagging, “you created value by making your mark in the niches or getting into mass production,” (Chang, 118). These artists were intentional in their “reverse colonization,” and their words seemed “a virus spread by the faceless fellow travelers of roaches and rats,” (Chang, 118). The visible faces of DJs and MCs were just as instrumental in Hip Hop’s colonization of inner-city turf.

In the musical realm of Hip Hop, DJs and MCs participated in filling the political void that existed in post-Civil Rights African American enclaves. Politicians rarely touched the Bronx, the same area that the New York Times had likened to an American Auschwitz. The police force stayed out, and the Bronx found itself ruled by the force of gangs like the Savage Nomads, the Ghetto Brothers, and the Black Spades. Many musicians made up the ranks of these gangs, participating in the same “reverse colonization” as the Graffiti artists. Spelman College’s William Jelani Cobb shared Chang’s sentiment. He points out that the drum, “ [was] the one instrument expressly forbidden by the antebellum slavocracy, …[and] the only instrument needed for hip hop,” (Cobb, 29). As illustrated by Cobb, Hip Hop drew on its African roots by making its music more rhythmic, and its culture more oral. Just as the textual tradition of American politics bred laws and constitutions, the oral traditions of the African Diaspora community bred instrumentals and lyrics. Where Hip Hop artists laid down the law in the Bronx, Reggae artists did the same in Jamaica.

By many measures, the president of the Reggae movement was Bob Marley. Today, many people see Marley as the poster child for Peace and One Love, but Marley also fulfilled an important role as a rebel. Before “One Love” and “Three Little Birds”, Marley released songs like “Slave Driver” and “War”. The roots rebel did eventually evolve into a global image of peace and love, but the politics in his message never went away. On December 5, 1976 Marley planned to play a concert called Smile Jamaica. The PNP got word and scheduled elections for the 20th of that month, and sent soldiers to Marley’s house for protection. Marley immediately objected to their presence. On the 3rd, the soldiers were nowhere to be found, and in their place were a number of assassins. Where these assassins came from is unclear, but in an attempt to take Marley’s life they shot him in the arm. His wife, Rita, took a shot to the head, and another five hit his manager. Despite the injuries, on the 5th Marley performed in a wheel chair in front of 80,000 Jamaican citizens. In 1978, Marley would perform in a similar concert for his nation called the “One Love Peace Concert”, a fundraiser for struggling ghettos of both the PNP and the JLP. As the Wailers played “Jamming” in the background, Marley created a “trinity of power, and restored unity to the young nation,” (Chang, 38) bringing the leaders of both parties on stage and holding their hands together in the air for all to see. Hip Hop had it’s own trinity in its founders, made up of Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Kool Herc, and Grandmaster Flash.

Bambaataa, in particular, mimics Marley in the almost religious reverence he received from his community. The aforementioned imagery of a trinity is very important in early Hip Hop. As Cobb illustrates, this trinity of MCs and their peers seemed to take over the traditional role of the African American preacher. Cobb pointed to numerous influential African Americans who had described the power of the Black preacher, including Zora Neale Hurston and W.E.B. Du Bois. Cobb also quoted James Baldwin, who noted, “The Black preacher, since the church was the only Civilized institution that we were permitted—separately—to enter, was our first warrior, terrorist, or guerrilla,” (Cobb, 15). In some instances the reference to a warrior meant a literal manifestation of violence, and other times it meant a figurative one.

Despite religious roles of these artists, the Bronx political nature dictated that some violence was unavoidable. Harman argues that “[r]uling classes inclined towards peace could only survive by becoming militaristic,” (Harman, 256) and if people in power couldn’t avoid militarism, Bronx youth had no chance. Street soldier Afrika Bambaataa took his turn playing both the literal and figurative role of a warrior. Like the other three founders of Hip Hop, Bambaataa drew from a strong Caribbean ancestry, in his case specifically Jamaican. Before Bambaataa became a musical preacher for the Bronx, he was just another member of a gang. Before settling down with the Spades, Bambaataa joined the Black Panther inspired People’s Organization for War and Energetic Revolutionaries, or P.O.W.E.R. After the death of his cousin, Bambaataa would eventually leave the gang life and found the Universal Hip Hop Zulu Nation.

As was true in reggae, even the peaceful movements of Hip Hop had a complex relationship with Black Nationalist movements. Bambaataa’s Zulu Nation drew on the work of people like Louis Farrakhan, Elijah Muhammad, Dr. Malachi Z. York, and Malcolm X. Always picking and choosing the ideas he liked, Bambaataa was inspired by their “evocation of a glorious, original African past, but not their impulse to racial separation,” (Chang, 106). Likewise, Zulus drew from “the Black Panthers’ call for self-defense, but they dropped the programmatic demands for housing and employment, (Chang, 106). While not all Bronx youth supported the Zulu Nation, it was far less controversial than the Black Panthers. Other artists, including both DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash, relied on Bambaataa’s bipartisan power to secure gigs outside of their turf. As he recounted to Chang, Bambaataa knew he held the power: “at a Bambaataa party, everyone at the party is down with Afrika Bambaataa,” (Chang, 103). At the same time, not everybody was down with Bambaataa’s predecessors.

American society has complicated feelings about Malcolm X, possibly because Malcolm X has complicated ideas. Like many other Muslims, Malcolm X’s Hajj was both a spiritual journey and a philosophical transformation. Malcolm was struck by the unity he saw on the Hajj, he had “never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color,” (Haley, 391) as he recounted in a letter he wrote back to the American press. While the history books would largely overlook this letter, he told the press that, “as racism leads America up the suicide path, I do believe… that the whites of the younger generation… will turn to the spiritual path of truth…” (Haley, 392). In this letter, Malcolm moved from his signature militant path, towards his more overlooked spiritual one.

By no coincidence, many of the earliest and most influential Reggae and Hip Hop artists draw comparisons to Malcolm. Marley’s transformation from a rebel to a figure of peace, and Bambaataa’s move from gang life to the Universal Zulu Nation, both mimic the trajectory Malcolm X followed. The development of those musical styles acted as the mechanism to allow the artists’ ideological shift. These artists’ political intent showed in their self-identification with political figures like Malcolm. Public Enemy made the nod to Malcolm when they shot their 1965 music video “Baseheads” at the site of his assassination, Audubon Hall.  Many Hip Hop fans would consider the assassinations of Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. as significant as the Audubon Hall incident. On the other hand, some, like Cobb, would see this as a “[blurring] of celebrity and leadership”, and an indication of “how few imaginative leaders have been cultivated since” Malcolm and King (Cobb, 4-5).  On the other hand, it seems that the imaginative leaders of the post-Civil Rights generations were musicians, and not traditional intellectuals and political figures like X and King.

Being a leader meant taking on a different role than past leaders, but that is not to say that all artists are leaders. As reggae continues to grow in its global reach, it will find itself victim to the same disease plaguing Hip Hop. Both intellectuals like Cobb and musicians like KRS-One make a distinction between two types of artists in Hip Hop: the rapper, and the emcee. As Cobb points out, “rappers exist as living product placements… [tools of] the mad niche-marketers of American hypercapitlaism” but emcees, “the art of hip hop, [have] to be understood as distinct from the cellophane-shrouded rap products sitting in the music bin at Wal-Mart,” (Cobb, 8). The rappers are not the guerilla armies of Malcolm’s ideas, but the employees of corporate America. However, the ideologies of both Bambaataa and Malcolm X live on in the music of artists like KRS-One, Talib Kweli and Nas. Reggae artists like Damian Marley are equivalent to emcees, while others like Bounty Killa are equivalent to rappers. Damian Marley may be an exception, but in most cases “rappers” make significantly greater financial profits than “emcees”. This financial difference suggests that the cultural distinction between the two arises for economic reasons. During the 60’s and 70’s, artists like Bambaataa and Marley entered into the political realm to discuss Black Nationalism with the communities they lead. Today, some Reggae and Hip Hop artists enter this realm, while others stay permanently in the economic realm. Though a need for political artists still exists, we don’t see them in the spotlight, because while Jamaica and the Bronx may find them useful, corporate America does not.


Cobb, William Jelani. To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic. New York: New York University Press, 2007.

Chang, Jeff. Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: a History of the Hip Hop Generation. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005.

Cheney, Charise L. Brothers Gonna Work It Out: Sexual Politics in the Golden Age of Rap Nationalism. New York: New York University Press, 2005.

Haley, Alex and Malcolm X. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Random House Publishing Group, 1964.

Harman, Chris. A People’s History of the World. London: Verso, 2008.

Jagodzinski, Jan. Music in Youth Culture: A Lacanian Approach. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Lewis, Rupert. “Political and Cultural Context of Rasta and Rudeboy in the 1960s.” Bob Marley: the Man and his Music. Ed. Wint Eleanor and Cooper Carolyn. Kingston: Arawak Publications, 2003. 82-100.

Moskowitz, David V. Bob Marley: a Biography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007.

Posted in: History, Tributes