What Is Reggae? - Definition, Artists & Instruments

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will define reggae music within the context of 20th century Jamaican music. Important artists, related genres, and periods of development will be explored, with special attention paid to the critical decades of the 1960s and 1970s.

Jamaican Music

The casual observer of popular culture might easily make the mistake of thinking that reggae is just about Bob Marley. This common misconception is, however, a very unfortunate one.

Reggae is the most famous of a whole interconnected family of Jamaican musical genres. The most important of these genres are ska, rocksteady, reggae, dub, and dancehall. There are numerous subgenres and specific eras within these genres, but they should be understood as a family of musical styles that make up the amazing tapestry of Jamaican popular music.

Another important fact to keep in mind is that not all of the important reggae artists lived and played music exclusively in Jamaica. The Jamaican Diaspora, particularly the Jamaican community in England, also played a very important role in the development of reggae music. It is difficult to overstate the importance of reggae and Jamaican music to the development of popular music as we know it.

Why Jamaica? Where Does Reggae Come From?

Jamaica was a British colony until 1962. It is not a coincidence that Jamaican music really started to develop in the early 1960s. The most popular form of Jamaican music during this period was ska, a fast, giddy, dance-friendly form of music that relies heavily on horns, saxophones, and trombones. Like New Orleans jazz before it, ska was the result of local musicians acquiring instruments from military bands and European orchestras.

Taking heavy inspiration from the Motown soul music that was coming out of Detroit in the 1960s, ska bands hybridized traditional musical styles with what they had lying around to produce something really unique. Large ska bands, like the Skatalites, played music that was faster and more jazz influenced than the reggae that would be popular later on but which is still beloved by people around the world today.

Because of its status as a former British colony, many Jamaicans were able to immigrate to the United Kingdom. The Jamaican Diaspora in the United States was also growing in the 1960s, allowing records, instruments, and recording equipment to flow in and out of Jamaica. As the 1960s continued, Jamaican music started to slow down and become more influenced by the rock and soul music that was popular in the U.S. Reggae and rocksteady were born during this period with artists, like Desmond Dekker, Toots and the Maytals, and the Heptones, writing wonderfully catchy, danceable music that won fans in both the Caribbean and the United Kingdom.


Beginning in the mid 1960s, the influence of the Rastafarian religion came to play an important role in the lyrics and themes of Jamaican music, and this shift is crucial to the distinction between reggae and earlier forms of Jamaican music. Rastafarianism was a new religious movement that began in Jamaica in the 1930s. It stress a time of impending change in which the wicked forces of European colonialism will be overthrown and the poor, oppressed children of African will be redeemed.

Rastafarians argued for an anti-technological, traditional way of life, a perspective most visible in the dreadlock hair style popular among Rastafarians. The Old Testament of the Bible is interpreted by Rastafarians as a history of black people, and the then Emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie was seen as the Messiah prophesized in the Book of Revelation.

Most famously, Rastafarians see marijuana as a special sacrament and smoke it with enthusiasm. The influence of marijuana on the sound, tempo, and style of reggae is probably quite significant.

Rastafarian Man

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