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Reggae Music Added to UNESCO’s Intangible Heritage List

Reggae music, a genre from Jamaica that was made popular internationally by artists such as Bob Marley, has been added to the 2018 Intangible Cultural Heritage list of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Reggae is a music style that emerged in the late 1960s, influenced by the local ska and rocksteady styles and also American jazz and blues. According to Musicologist Shari Williams, “Reggae music follows in the tradition of popular folk music that came before it.”

Bob Marley is one of the most popular reggae singers and is credited for exposing the music to a mainstream audience outside of Jamaica. Photo:  Reggaeville .

Bob Marley is one of the most popular reggae singers and is credited for exposing the music to a mainstream audience outside of Jamaica. Photo: Reggaeville.

Bob Marley is one of the most popular reggae singers and is credited for exposing the music to a mainstream audience outside of Jamaica. Photo: Reggaeville.

One of the first documented reggae songs is the 1968 song “Do The Reggae” by Toots and the Maytals. The crossover of reggae into the mainstream is credited to Jamaicans who migrated to the US and Britain after World War II.

Bob Marley and The Wailers, who would be known internationally as the pioneers of reggae, released their first single “Simmer Down” in 1964 and continued to be active with a changing lineup of performers until the early 1980s.

Bob Marley became a solo artist, releasing songs such as “Buffalo Soldier,” “No Woman No Cry,” and “Stir it Up” and toured in Europe, the US, and Africa.

The lyrical content of reggae music “speaks to all the beautiful and negative things that existed in people’s lives that they wanted to express” stated Olivia Grange, Jamaica’s minister for culture.

In a statement by UNESCO, reggae was added to the list because of its “contribution to international discourse on issues of injustice, resistance, love and humanity” and its characteristics of “being at once cerebral, socio-political, sensual and spiritual."

The addition to the Intangible Heritage List is largely symbolic, but according to Jamaica’s minister for culture Olivia Grange, the action gives reggae music a “seal of approval.” According to the New York Times, the country will take initiatives to further promote the genre, such as “radio stations centered around reggae, as well as public exhibitions in museums and Reggae Month, which will take place in February, the birth month of Bob Marley.” According to UNESCO, in Jamaica, “Students are taught how to play [reggae] in schools from early childhood to the tertiary level, and Reggae festivals and concerts such as Reggae Sumfest and Reggae Salute provide annual outlets, as well as an opportunity for understudy and transmission for upcoming artists, musicians and other practitioners.”

The widespread influence of reggae music on popular culture can be seen with its subsequent subgenres. One such subgenre is dancehall, which has been popularized by artists such as Sean Paul. Another popular subgenre is reggaeton, a blend of music that originated from Puerto Rico and mixes Caribbean beats with Spanish and Latin American hip-hop.

In Jamaica, new reggae artists are continually active in the creative industry. “Every week or every month or every year I hear about five or six or seven or or eight or ten more acts,” stated musicologist Garth White.

“As a core part of Jamaica’s creative industries, which contribute 4.8 percent of GDP, music is one of country’s most valuable assets… The economic, social, cultural and environmental value of Jamaica’s music has strengthened Jamaica’s brand value significantly and continues to add resonance to its brand internationally,” stated Andrea Davis, the organizer of International Reggae Day.