Since its inception in the late 1960s, reggae has found its way into widespread appeal and recognition worldwide; it is even recognized by UNESCO as a part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity for its beauty and power.
It has achieved a level of prominence and influence that few other genres have, while also retaining its cultural roots.
In this piece, we’ll explore some examples of the genre and introduce some notable artists.
Definition: What Is Reggae Music?
Reggae music is one of the most distinctive musical genres out there – while some genres are defined by vague gestures of “a driving beat” or “an acoustic sound,” Reggae has very clear defining characteristics, both musically and historically.
Broadly, the term represents the genre that emerged from Jamaica (particularly Kingston) in the late 1960s—an eclectic sound inspired by jazz, ska, and blues. Reggae also has heavy ties to Rastafari, a religious and sociopolitical movement with origins in Jamaica during the 1930s.
Reggae Music Characteristics
Reggae’s musical characteristics are especially distinctive, including a classic “beat” and specific instruments used in specific ways. That beat is one of the most recognizable aspects of reggae. It typically uses a combination of snare drums, bass, and staccato chords on a keyboard or guitar.
Most reggae tracks are in major keys, despite reggae’s broad emotional spectrum. There are often multiple vocalists who harmonize with each other to weave powerful melodies over the simple, yet effective instrumentation.
The beat is almost always in 4/4 time with a syncopated style that lines up with the offbeat in a noticeable way. This signature rhythm gives it the characteristic groove that listeners often associate with the genre.
There are three main categories of Reggae beat: Rockers, Steppers, and One drop. One drop focuses almost exclusively on the backbeat, while Steppers bring an insistent bass drum to all four beats. Rockers can have a wide variance of syncopation, focusing more on the vibe the beat is creating than a particular pattern within it.
The aforementioned staccato chords are typically known as a skank, which creates the easily recognizable dum-bum-bum, dum-bum sound for which Reggae is well known.
The bass guitar also plays a very prominent role in reggae – typically, musicians will adjust the tone, either within a recording or after, to further accentuate its lower pitch values and percussive potential. This provides for a unique sound expressed through the walking bass lines often associated with reggae music.
Finally, reggae is characterized by lyrics that celebrate and/or criticize – celebrating that which is good and beautiful in life, while criticizing the political systems that oppress marginalized individuals of all varieties. These lyrics tend to be heavily influenced by Jamaican dialects of English such as patois, which blends linguistic elements from creole and West African tongues.
Also, reggae often includes intervals of “chatting,” which are often improvisational (though sometimes prepared) moments of talk-singing where the singer stays primarily on one single note. It’s similar to rap, though rap doesn’t always have the same melodic aspect to it that chatting does.
7 Examples of Reggae Music
Those abstract notes on what Reggae is might be a little hard to understand, especially if you aren’t an expert on music theory. But that’s okay! We have here seven of the greatest reggae songs, so you can further understand what we’re talking about as well as explore your palate for the genre.
The Wailers – “Get Up, Stand Up”
Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, both members of the Wailers, co-wrote this song in 1973. It first appeared on the album they released that year called Burnin’.
The track is structured like a wake-up call that is deeply rooted in Rastafari political theology, criticizing artists and religious people alike who would allow themselves to be placated by the pleasures of this world without being outraged by its injustices.
It follows a Marxist critique of afterlife-focused religion, lamenting people’s complacency with a justice that only comes after death in heaven. Such a belief makes God into something static, forces heaven underground, and dilutes the political power of art and religion into mere escapism.
Further, the power of this song’s critique lies within its context – it does not critique religion from an outside perspective, but rather from within. Get Up, Stand Up is one of the heights of political struggle within Rastafari reggae, and its critique parallels the critiques of afterlife-focused Christianity found within Catholic liberation theology in Latin America.
It is a song that celebrates the Black struggle, and it operates as a call to action to all who would listen: Get up! Stand up!
Toots and the Maytals – “Sweet and Dandy”
While reggae can act as an outlet for militant political struggle, it is just as well-suited for joyous celebration. And that is exactly what Toots and the Maytals bring in Sweet and Dandy – you can hear the sheer delight shining through every word Toots sings throughout the song. It would be very difficult indeed to listen to this track without smiling once.
The song tells the story of a wedding celebration taking place in The Isle of Springs – it explores the hilarity, the beauty, the joy, the love, the arguments, the wonder of it all with such an exulting voice that you’ll want to play it on repeat. It brings the listener close, allowing them to hear the ordinary glories of a community in the Jamaican countryside. Due to its intimacy and delight, some have even named this piece among the best reggae songs that have ever been made.
Deborahe Glasgow – “Champion Lover”
Reggae can also be deeply erotic, overflowing with carnal desire. Glasgow’s Champion Lover exemplifies that aspect well – she primarily operated within the genre of British lovers rock, which drew heavily from reggae but dove deeply into themes of feminine desire and more laid-back musicality.
The lyrics come from the perspective of a woman talking with her lover about how intensely she desires them, and how she plans to overwhelm the lover with the thrill of her desire. The piece is notable not just for its smooth vocals and delightful sexuality, but also for how deeply feminist it is.
Feminists have often criticized how the culture reduces women to sexual objects rather than sexual agents with desires. Glasgow is referring to herself as a Champion Lover – she is the one that has erotic agency, and she is the one who will show her beloved a good time. Such a concept was revolutionary at the time, and Glasgow was rightly praised for it.
Glasgow’s masterpiece here served as the basis for the ultimately more popular, “Mr. Lover Man” by Shabba Ranks, but Glasgow’s powerful vocals and unapologetic femininity led us to choose this version over Ranks’.
Bob Marley & The Wailers – “One Love/People Get Ready”
This is perhaps one of Marley’s best-known hits because it generated, or at the very least popularized, one of the most popular political slogans of its time – “one love”. The Rastafari themes are on prominent display in the track, encouraging listeners to thank and praise the Lord as they attempt to find themselves back to a place of universal love from the beginning of the world.
This likely refers to the Garden of Eden before the Christian/Rastafari concept of the Fall, where evil was introduced to the world. Marley sings that there is no way to hide from the Creator – so why allow our shame to prevent us from loving others? He encourages listeners – to stay dedicated to one love at the center of it all.
The Heptones – “Book of Rules”
Barry Llewellyn of the Heptones wrote “Book of Rules” in 1973, adapting it from the poem “A Bag of Tools” written by U.S. poet R.L. Sharpe in 1890. The song and poem alike reflect on how everyone is given their bag of tools and book of rules, and we make choices throughout our lives to use our bag and our book to either do good for others or do harm to them.
It’s a beautiful tune, notable for how it incorporates American poetic language into the cadence and style of Jamaican reggae. The song is philosophical, reflective, and beautiful – it is well worth a listen!
Judy Mowatt – “Black Woman”
Judy Mowatt’s voice was an important one throughout her whole career, whether as a solo artist or as a supporting voice in Bob Marley’s I-Three or the Gaylettes. She released “Black Woman” in 1980, and it was one of her greatest pieces. The track explores the struggles of slave women, Black women in the contemporary world, and Biblical women, weaving together the stories of all three with an effortless-seeming hopefulness that draws in the listener.
The song is also an early example of womanist theology in music – womanist theology examines sacred texts for what they have to say to and about Black women specifically. While the exploration of this theology is often limited to academia or (less formally) church Bible studies, it is typically not seen in music. But Mowatt does an incredible job at communicating her pride and joy in her ancestors (spiritual or physical) in this way.
Bob Marley & The Wailers – “Redemption Song”
Bob Marley had many unique gifts, and one of them was his capacity to find the universal within the personal. He dived down so deep into himself that you couldn’t help but relate. That may be part of the “One Love” philosophy, but it is also refreshingly and beautifully on display in “Redemption Song.”
This track has the reputation of being Marley’s final one – that isn’t true, but it nonetheless feels to many like his goodbye. The lyrics delight in the enduring power of hope in music – all we ever have, after all, are our songs of freedom. He desperately wants his listener not to submit to a kind of mental subservience where the world keeps them in constant fear of harm, danger, and apocalypse.
No, Bob Marley’s call in Redemption Song is very different: never lose hope. No matter how bad your situation seems, never give in. Instead, turn to your redemption songs, your songs of freedom, to stir up the old flame of hope within you once again.
5 Top Reggae Musicians
Now that you have an idea of what reggae music is, we can dive into the musicians that made it a truly global phenomenon.
There’s no figure like Bob Marley elsewhere in reggae. It would be extremely difficult to understate his influence on the genre and its global reach. He danced through all three genres of early Jamaican popular music, rocksteady, ska, and reggae, and brought a unique style of both voice and writing to his work.
Much of Marley’s work was known in the context of his collaboration with the Wailers, a band formed with Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh in 1963. Their work together became well known throughout the world.
Marley converted to Rastafari early in his career, and brought that spirituality to everything he did, advocating for the religion’s political and ethical ideals of anti-imperialism and universal love. Partially because of this, he was an especially Jamaican symbol throughout the world, as well as a symbol of democratic, Pan-African, and pro-marijuana politics in Jamaica.
By the end of his life, Marley had become one of the best-selling artists of all time, with outlets like Rolling Stone naming him as one of their greatest artists of all time. His impact was immense, and there is a good reason he has the beloved status he does.
Black Uhuru was initially formed in 1972 and has changed several times in the times it has been active (though Derrick “Duckie” Simpson has stayed stably with it through the years). The group is perhaps best known for having won the first Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album for their wildly popular album Anthem in 1985.
Even though the group’s history has been marked with some strife and separation, Black Uhuru has contributed a great deal to the history of the genre. From the grounded sounds of “Solidarity” to the tongue-in-cheek humor of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” Black Uhuru’s music has long been respected in reggae and has brought a new level of beauty to the world in their work.
The group is also one of the few who are still active following having been highly successful in the genre’s international heyday. They have received a great deal of recognition, even beyond their Grammy Award – like receiving the Las Vegas Key to the City.
The late, great Bunny Wailer was one of the major pioneers of reggae, especially through his collaboration with Bob Marley and Peter Tosh as an original member of the Wailers.
He has won three different Grammy Awards in his time, and his work in percussion and experimentation after his time with the Wailers both provided some of the foundations for the genre of reggae and opened it up for further exploration in his experimental dealings with disco and funk.
One of the great women of the genre, Marcia Griffiths has been a mainstay of reggae since it was first being formed. She got her start in music because the Blues Busters’ Phillip James had overheard her singing in her neighborhood and invited her to perform with him. But she soon made her career very much her own, taking part in the I Threes (a vocal backing group that worked very frequently with Bob Marley and the Wailers).
She has published a good deal of work in the genre, but her best-known song is “Electric Boogie,” a cover of a Bunny Wailer song. Her version became immensely internationally popular as it became the origin of the Electric Slide dance craze.
Toots and the Maytals/The Maytals
Toots Hibbert served as the frontman for this classic reggae band since the early 1960s, and his work in pioneering the genre is some of the most influential in its history. Since Hibbert’s death, the group has been known as The Maytals rather than Toots and the Maytals.
They had their first global success in the song “Monkey Man,” which became quite successful in the United Kingdom and has since been covered many times by British artists like Amy Winehouse and The Specials.
The History of Reggae Music
The term reggae was first used in 1968, in the Toots and Maytals song “Do the Reggay.” But the genre’s roots are primarily drawn from two others that were popular in Jamaica before then: ska and rocksteady.
Ska came first, developing in the 1950s as a fusion of U.S. R&B, Jamaican mento, and calypso from Trinidad and Tobago. Rocksteady evolved from ska, focusing on making a much more relaxed version of its driving beats that had a focus on romantic longing.
From those two different genres, reggae was born. It left behind the influence of U.S. R&B into which rocksteady had pressed thoroughly, cleaving closer to the U.S. funk genre and doubling down on dependence on percussion and rhythm instruments.
The emergence of reggae as a genre preceded the Toots and Maytals track that conceived the name – but not by very long. Its first concrete examples were published in the first months of 1968, with songs like the Beltones’ “No More Heartaches” and Larry Marshall’s “Nanny Goat.”
Reggae developed an influence outside of Jamaica very quickly, with “Hold Me Tight” by U.S. musician Johnny Nash bringing it to American audiences and the Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” showcasing its influence – both in 1968.
By the time 1972 rolled around, reggae had climbed its way to the very heights of the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S., with Three Dog Night’s legendary cover of “Bland and White,” “Mother And Child Reunion” by Paul Simon, and “I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash. Reggae had cemented itself as an international phenomenon.
Two more important events took place in the early 1970s that brought reggae swiftly to international audiences: In 1973, a reggae-themed movie called The Harder They Come was released, starring reggae musician Jimmy Cliff and featuring a soundtrack that the world couldn’t get enough of.
Subsequently, In 1974, Eric Clapton recorded a cover of “I Shot the Sheriff,” one of Bob Marley’s masterpieces. Clapton’s cover was one of genuine respect that became an instant hit internationally.
But the international flourishing of Jamaican reggae would prove short-lived. Later in the 1970s, the oil crisis came about and the Jamaican economy began to wither. And reggae record production withered alongside it – not to the point of extinction, but simply to the point of losing momentum. In 1980, the genre’s most prominent representative, Bob Marley, died of cancer, which also hindered its further growth.
Today’s Reggae Scene
Where the particularly Jamaican side of reggae began to slow down, its influences began to speed up. Reggae sounds grew common within UK punk rock, which took some significant influences from the genre.
Further, reggae grew independently within the UK’s multiracial urban environments. Groups like Steel Pulse and UB40 made a new British reggae sound that focused on their cultural struggles and mingled Jamaican and Cockney slangs together.
To this day, reggae is performed inside and outside of Jamaica by many different individuals and groups, including Hempress Sativa, Rory Stone Love, Raging Fyah, and much more.
What Is Reggae Music? Final Thoughts
Reggae music is hard to encapsulate, but beyond the distinctive features of its musical stylings, it is a beautiful experience for the soul.
It is Glasgow’s passionate, untamed desire for her lover, it is Bob Marley’s persistent insistence on love and justice, it is Toots and the Maytals’ joyous celebration of local culture.
It is Jamaican, and it is more than Jamaican.
It is reggae!