Reggae Frame of Mind
A genre’s racially charged history
Canada, especially Toronto, can deliver stunning blows to reggae performers — particularly up-and-coming artists. The country’s music industry is relatively small, mainstream producers are hard to come by, and you can forget about so-called big radio playing your songs. It’s even harder if you happen to be black. Jason Wilson presents first-hand testimonies to these struggles, and more, in King Alpha’s Song in a Strange Land: The Roots and Routes of Canadian Reggae.
Wilson, a Scottish Canadian who grew up among Jamaicans, is a seasoned performer in his own right, having earned two Juno nominations and a Canadian Reggae Music Award. His book offers a history of reggae music and takes readers blow by blow through the hardships post-war Jamaicans faced in immigrating to a strange and lonely Canada. I’ve felt those blows myself. I moved from Grenada to Toronto in 1989 with big musical dreams. I have realized some of them: making it as a professional singer and recording artist, winning back-to-back People’s Choice titles at the city’s Caribana festival, and becoming the Calypso Monarch — among the genre’s most prestigious honours — in 2009. But I have also faced institutional and racial barriers along the way.
Jamaican reggae, as it came to be known, originated in the 1960s. It had a hodgepodge of influences: west and central African folk music, European ballads, and sea shanties, among others. Wilson focuses on the European thread, arguing that the “signifiers” it encrypted into reggae, such as its distinct melodies, were familiar to non-Jamaicans and at least partially responsible for its popularity abroad, including in Canada.
A less musical consideration — the growth of labour migration — helped too. Before 1962, the year of Jamaica’s independence from the United Kingdom, black Jamaicans had a hard time entering the True North. Ottawa set draconian policies to disqualify them —“some transparent, some opaque,” Wilson notes — including the “biological” justification that Canada’s climate was simply too cold for them. The road to get here was a rocky one for these immigrants, and they and their children faced teasing and mocking, often racially charged, once they arrived.
Pressure from Britain forced changes to Canadian immigration policy. Until Jamaica became independent, the U.K. could not refuse entry to its residents (they were British, after all). As a result, Britain received some 60,000 West Indian immigrants in 1960 alone. U.K. authorities implored Canada to open its doors; Canada obliged. The White Paper on Immigration, which was tabled in 1966, helped too. Its expansionist policies focused, in part, on the recruitment of skilled immigrants. Jean Marchand, the minister of manpower and immigration, said it promised “a new balance between the claims of family relationship and the economic interest of Canadians as a whole.” These relaxations in the rigid system meant that from the 1960s through the 1980s, Jamaicans accounted for almost 40 percent of the country’s black immigrants. Many arrived with small collections of reggae records. They were eager to keep their culture alive; the music put them in a “reggae frame of mind.”
Wilson intersperses this history with interviews, where he questions migrant musicians, promoters, record executives, and fans. Many of their testimonies reinforce an old saying we have in the music business: “Until you make it, keep your day job.” But many also emphasize the power of reggae to build bridges between cultures. “Everything was fun,” says Earle Heedram, better known as the Mighty Pope, the famed singer and sex symbol of the 1970s. “I integrated quite easily. It was a party atmosphere.” Heedram explains how all sorts of people “were brought together by music.” The drummer Sunray Grennan concurs: “Music was that bridge — in terms of culture — for me to merge with other cultures.”
The cultural exchange worked both ways. Reggae’s sounds bled into rap, hip hop, punk, and ska. In 1985, the genre received its own category at the Juno Awards — the only ethnic music so recognized. Non-Jamaicans grew dreadlocks; some even embraced the Rastafarian religion, which became intimately connected with the genre thanks, in large part, to Bob Marley’s transcendent popularity. (Although, as Wilson points out, there aren’t actually many Rastafarians in Jamaica. As of 2011, they made up less than 1 percent of the population.)
In Toronto, the nightclubs on Queen Street West became the “central nerve” of reggae culture. Credit is due to one venue especially: the Bamboo Club operated from 1983 until 2002. It showcased reggae-friendly radio stations, like CIUT, CHRY, and CHIN, and its performers inspired famous musicians across different genres, such as Bruce Cockburn. That crossover appeal was important, since popular DJs often refused to play homegrown reggae music. On that point, Canada’s grand old man of reggae, Leroy Sibbles, became frustrated to the point of saying that moving here “was the worst thing that I ever did, because I just went so far and couldn’t go no further.”
The country’s “golden age” of reggae ended in 1990. It never rivalled the booming British scene either financially or creatively; it too often imitated that arena rather than innovated. And it had no equivalent to London’s Chips Richard, a Trojan Records executive whose fierce tactics, which included literally pushing open doors, brought U.K. reggae to mainstream media outlets like the BBC. Still, a select batch of Canadian artists carved their names into the history books. These include the Sattalites and Messenjah, who both signed with major record labels, and stalwarts like Carlene Davis and the late Jackie Mittoo. But the labels never figured out how to market them, or the genre, abroad. So a consensus grew among journalists that “real” reggae, along with “the depth of relationships forged in the urban centres of Britain,” could not be made in Canada.
In other ways, the end of the golden age was the fault of the reggae fraternity itself. Grassroots promoters were disorganized; big Jamaican acts often dropped out of bills at the last minute. Concert headliners sometimes didn’t take the stage until two or three in the morning. Carrie Mullings, the host of Rebel Vibez, a reggae show on Toronto’s VIBE 105, summarizes the problems well: “Too much ego and not enough hard-working people.”
That said, Canadian reggae isn’t going away any time soon. Exco Levi, Nana McLean, Jay Douglas, and others still sell out venues. A recent “Jamaica to Toronto” album series, issued by the label Light in the Attic, received national coverage and led to several performances, including one before an audience of over 6,000 people. (My YouTube channel, Cherry Hill Music, is also going strong.) King Alpha’s Song in a Strange Land is an informative history of a genre, but, more than that, it is a testament to what can happen when folks let things slide in one direction, when biases remain unconfronted. Its message is clear: nothing worthwhile ever comes easy.