These songs of freedom ...
It is a universally accepted idea that reggae music is freedom music, that the essence of the genre is founded in our people’s resistance to oppressive empires and colonial ideologies. For some, that idea is a bit restrictive because resistance dates beyond those distinctive drum-and-bass-driven melodies and chants. Truly, Jamaicans have been singing and playing freedom songs for years in dancehall, ska, or slave laments. Whether fighting against political turmoil and subjugation, demanding sexual liberties, or reflecting on our ancestors’ harrowing journey through the Middle Passage, there is an everlasting library of songs across all of Jamaica’s indigenous music genres either referencing, calling for, or celebrating freedom.
Kareem Burrell, son of the late, great Xterminator producer and artiste manager Phillip ‘Fattis’ Burrell, acknowledges that reggae music played a big part in establishing liberated ideals but recalled themes of freedom emerging before the reggae genre was fully realised. The song he referenced to drive the point was Freedom Sounds (1967), performed by The Skatalites and composed by Tommy McCook. “Even without singing, the thought of the people was communicated to be free. It advocated for freedom. There are no lyrics, but they still decided to name it Freedom Sounds,” he said. The young producer was echoed by respected historian, curator at the Institute of Jamaica, Herbie Miller.
“To understand the composition, you have to first understand who Tommy McCook is. What is his worldview? How did he traverse life or understand history and the social implications that came with that? If you understand McCook as being a black nationalist, a Rastafarian, a Garveyist, then you would understand why he would compose a song such as Freedom Sounds,” Miller told The Sunday Gleaner.
He continued: “It captures the idea of freedom so beautifully, without saying it vocally. It’s very easy to appreciate Bob and Peter and Spear because it’s easy to understand what they’re saying. The word is easier understood than the sound of music. But the introduction to Freedom Sounds is a clarion call to attention.” Miller enthusiastically vocalised the opening trumpet sounds before punctuating the phrase with a crash of lips and teeth mimicking the cymbals – ‘pssh!’ “And it repeats it. So you better come to attention when you hear that. You don’t just keep on walking. Something is happening. So you stop and pay attention. A statement is about to be proclaimed.”
This energy carried on from older indigenous music forms into contemporary ones. “Dancehall has a wide amount of arguments in the genre, but there are some songs in the dancehall that speak to freedom,” Burrell said. In the early ’90s, the Department of Trade and Industry in the United Kingdom came down hard on pirate radio stations. In addition to playing hip hop and punk, reggae and dancehall music were illegally in rotation. “The government started to clamp down, lock down on the radio stations. So then there was Pirates Anthem, featuring Cocoa Tea, Home T, and Shabba Ranks. It was a big collab, and you know what the song is about? Trying to tell the government of the United Kingdom to stop fighting out the pirate stations. Freedom is just the mindset of liberated people,” Burrell added.
Bob Marley, as long-standing global ambassador for reggae, is consistently referenced in conversations connecting the idea of freedom and music. But as Burrell and Miller highlight, he was not alone.
“Bob is the best known, and among the most articulate – if not the most articulate – with that message. But it didn’t start with Bob. He exemplifies it. He’s made it something internationally accepted. But, of course, there are artistes such as Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh, The Mighty Diamonds, and even some of the great instrumentalists have blown freedom songs. This is where you have to pay respect to a group like The Skatalites, who made songs like Malcolm X, Fidel Castro, Cuban Blockade … . All those titles are based on liberation and justice,” Miller said.
The historian continued with references to Tosh’s Apartheid – a seminal piece of music in relation to the South African-South West African struggle against white-dominated rulership, and Burning Spear, who prolonged the idea of Garveyism alive in is music. “When you think of people like Judy Mowatt – Black Woman, Slave Queen, Fly African Eagle, Hush Baby Mother. Listen to her body of work. She’s been doing this forever,” Miller said.
New World Order
Though there is a library of freedom songs and sounds of the past to pull from, there has been a shift in the concerns and troubles expressed in contemporary compositions.
“Reggae is not the current, popular form of music in Jamaica. Dancehall is. And I don’t think current reggae music is necessarily songs of freedom. There are a lot much more now – about love and socially what is current. Previously, there were songs of struggle and people, and I don’t think they’re even thought of predominantly in that way anymore. There’s definitely a paradigm shift in terms of the world order and what is facing creators day-to-day,” prolific reggae music producer Gussie Clarke told The Sunday Gleaner.
Major Lazer producer Walshy Fire added his two cents. He expressed the view that people’s preoccupations have shifted to a cry for other types of freedoms – beyond the political. “Freedom doesn’t mean one kind of freedom. There’s sexual freedom, freedom of expression, and that’s dancehall.”
And Miller agreed: “Reggae is most definitely a voice of freedom. It is political, spiritual, and even sometimes religious. And then there is freedom in the expression of the music itself, the freedom of creativity and use that to epitomise political freedom – through music. But it is also sensual and sexual, among other things. You whine you waist, you hug up the girl, you rub-a-dub. And at the same time, you throw your fist up in the air and cry ‘Freedom!’”