When Unesco said Jamaica's reggae music had been added to its list of cultural products considered worthy of recognition, it reflected reggae's role as an important social and political phenomenon.

Jamaica's application to the committee mentioned a number of artists from Bob Marley and Peter Tosh to Chronixx and the Zinc Fence Band.

Some observers may wonder whether such musicians are enough reason to include reggae on this prestigious list.

But reggae is far more significant than its musicians. Not only is social commentary "an integral part of the music", the application argued, but reggae has also made a significant "contribution to international discourse concerning issues of injustice, resistance, love, and humanity".


Reggae has "provided a voice for maligned groups, the unemployed and at-risk groups and provided a vehicle for social commentary and expression where no other outlet existed or was afforded".

It has also "provided a means of praising and communicating with God".

Deep roots
Culturally, politically, religiously and musically, reggae has done much heavy lifting. Born in the back streets of Kingston in the 1950s, it is proudly Jamaican. Raised in difficult circumstances, it has matured into a friendly and generous music that travels well and warmly embraces other cultures and music.

Hybridisation is part of reggae's genetic makeup. Its DNA can be traced back to West Africa and into the world of popular music. It came into being through mento (a form of Jamaican folk music), ska and rock steady, absorbing influences from the Caribbean (especially calypso), rhythm and blues, rock, and jazz.

As reggae has embraced other musical styles and ideas it has influenced them and given birth to new sub-genres.

The innovative recording techniques of Jamaican producers such as King Tubby, Lee "Scratch" Perry, and Bunny Lee - what became known as "dub reggae" - has inspired generations of artists and producers around the world.

Politics of resistance
But reggae hasn't forgotten its roots. Not only does it comment on current political events and social problems, but it also gives a multi-layered introduction to the history, religion and culture of what music historian Paul Gilroy called "the Black Atlantic".

A key moment in Jamaican political history (as well as the story of reggae) happened on April 22, 1978 at the One Love Concert hosted by Bob Marley at Kingston's National Stadium.


Marley famously called bitter political rivals Michael Manley and Edward Seaga to the stage and persuaded them to join hands. Few other people could have done this. Although the concert did not bring an end to the turmoil in Jamaica, it did showcase the significance of reggae as a political and cultural force.

Reggae is inextricably related to the religion of Rastafari, which emerged as a direct response to oppression within Jamaican colonial society.

Often articulating the ideas of Jamaican political activist Marcus Garvey, seen as a prophet, Rasta musicians such as Marley and Burning Spear developed roots reggae as a vehicle for their religio-political messages.

Even if some musicians are not committed Rastafarians, they typically identify with the movement's ideas and culture.

Many wear dreadlocks, consider smoking "the herb" (cannabis) to be a sacrament, and reference the religio-political dualism of Zion and Babylon (the social systems of the righteous and the unrighteous). Hope is often expressed of a better world after Armageddon and the fall of Babylon.

These biblical ideas are also creatively applied to a range of political issues, from local injustices to climate change and the nuclear arms race.

After violent confrontations with the police during the 1940s and 1950s, Rasta elders - particularly Mortimer Planno - appealed to Jamaican academics to study Rastafari to increase popular understanding and tolerance.

And in 1960 scholars M.G. Smith, Roy Augier and Rex Nettleford published Report on the Rastafarian Movement in Kingston, Jamaica.

For Rastas, the destruction of Babylon is less a violent overthrow of oppressive social structures and more a conversion to new ways of thinking.

From the outset it was "rebel music", a powerful political tool for the peaceful resistance of oppression.

Reggae international
The potency of reggae as an educational and inspirational force became conspicuous soon after its arrival in Britain. In 1976 it was central to the founding of the Rock Against Racism campaign and by the late 1970s, reggae, dub, ska, and the terminology of Rastafari were informing punk culture as part of an emerging "dread culture of resistance".

For example, in 1979, the year of the Southall race riots, during which Kiwi teacher Blair Peach was killed, British punk band The Ruts released their dub reggae influenced single Jah War, on which they sang, "the air was thick with the smell of oppression". They later achieved chart success with Babylon's Burning.

At the same time, Jamaicans who had moved to Britain in their childhood, such as Linton Kwesi Johnson, used a creative blend of poetry and reggae to comment on the injustices they faced.

For these political, religious and cultural reasons, as much as for the music, Unesco was right to finally give reggae the recognition it deserves.

Christopher Partridge is professor of religious studies at Lancaster University.

- The Conversation