There was much fanfare last week after UNESCO (the United Nations’ cultural and scientific agency), added reggae to its “intangible cultural heritage” list, deeming the music “worthy of protection and promotion”.
The announcement was made in Mauritius. Olivia Grange, Jamaica’s culture minister, hailed the decision and called it “a historic day. We are very, very happy.”
One individual who does not share his joy is Dotun Adebayo, a Nigeria-born British journalist who has covered the reggae scene in the United Kingdom for over 35 years. Currently a broadcaster with the BBC, he likened the UNESCO gesture to “turkeys endorsing Christmas”.
For his November 30 column in The Guardian newspaper, captioned ‘Reggae is Jamaica’s rebel music — it doesn’t need establishment approval’, Adebayo said the UNESCO award goes against everything reggae stands for.
“Don’t you just know that UNESCO’s decision to add reggae to its list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity will be the kiss of death for any remaining semblance of ‘rebel music’ in Jamaica? While the island’s delegation at the United Nations was skanking in celebration the other night, there was no corresponding ‘jam out there’ in the streets of Kingston, Spanish Town, Mo’Bay or Ochi. Once upon a time there would have been, but this recognition by the UN is at best too little too late and, at worst, somewhat suspect.”
Adebayo added that, “Suspect? Yes, when the institutions that reggae has been decrying for decades as ‘Babylon’ — the Jamaican Government and global power — are the very ones hailing it as an international cultural treasure worthy of protection and promotion. Turkeys endorsing Christmas come to mind, with the gobblers hatching a cunning plan to turn 25 December vegan. If this gong gives the Jamaican Government the ownership of reggae that it craves, UNESCO may be guilty of endorsing the Caribbean equivalent of John Lydon (once Johnny Rotten) appearing on a television butter advert. That moment whacked the final nail into the coffin of punk and the 1977 anarchy in the UK that roots-reggae went in tandem with back when, if you were fortunate enough to be the white man in the Hammersmith Palais, you got two rebellions for the price of one. Unlike the punk thing, the political potency of reggae has endured for generations. And the Jamaican authorities certainly don’t like that.
“Jamaicans do not need the UN to endorse the soundtrack of their lives. They do not need UNESCO to tell them that reggae is ‘cerebral, sociopolitical, sensual and spiritual’. Jamaicans know that already. They have known for half a century that the reggae beat is their nation’s heartbeat and that its lyrics are the soul and conscience of its people — from Burning Spear’s Slavery Days to Damian Marley’s Welcome To Jamrock.”
Adebayo, 58, has covered the British music beat for the BBC and publications, such as The Voice, The Guardian and The Independent. He took aim at Grange, saying as a long-time music industry insider, she should know better.
“Oh the irony. Grange, a former reggae producer herself, is touting a sanitised vision of the island because that’s where the money is. This was evident from the Bob Marley track her delegation chose to play to celebrate the momentous occasion — One Love, a tune that became a huge posthumous hit for the reggae king, but one that he rarely, if ever, performed live. As subversive a song as it is, its outward sweetness didn’t sit well with the music maker from the ghetto of Trench Town, when he toured the world as a superstar in the late 70s.”
Jamaica applied for reggae’s inclusion on the UNESCO’s list this year at a meeting in Mauritius, where 40 proposals were considered.
The agency granted the proposal, declaring that, “While in its embryonic state reggae music was the voice of the marginalised, the music is now played and embraced by a wide cross section of society, including various genders, ethnic and religious groups.”
There are over 400 titles on the Intangible Cultural Heritage table. They include the Grand Canyon, Great Wall of China, and Old City of Jerusalem.
— Compiled by Jamaica Observer staff from The Guardian newspaper and wire services.