Reggae Aesthetics

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Reggae Aesthetics

Through the concept of reggae aesthetics, as outlined in his work, Natural Mysticism : Towards a New Reggae Aesthetic (1999), Kwame Dawes offers a framework for reading Caribbean literature written since the late 1960s. Dawes is certain that "contained in reggae music are principles of beauty that can help to define the arts that emerge from the world that has shaped reggae" (p. 29). Grounding his exploration of the evolution of Caribbean literature in the region's history of enslavement and colonialism, Dawes speaks to the social and political milieu that provides the context within which literature and the reggae aesthetic must be analyzed. Colonial society, defined by European/British cultural hegemony, perpetuated a system by which the elites oppressed the working class and denied them access to their own history and culture, while elevating the history and culture of the colonizer. Such a system encouraged the working class, descendants of enslaved Africans, to look upon their African past with disdain but to glorify the culture of Europeans/whites. This ensured that emergent Caribbean writing grappled with issues of identity and "almost inevitably wrote in dialogue with the standard Western texts that they learned in school" (p. 46). Furthermore, Caribbean literature was often steeped in a Europe-centered aesthetic and reflected the "peculiarly schizophrenic attitude" of a Caribbean native straddling both worlds (p. 16).

Later works began to defy the rudiments of a Europe-centered aesthetic both stylistically and thematically. Dawes argues that this transition from a literature that reflected an uncertain and insecure Caribbean identity to one that was more self-assured and African-centered was facilitated by the dawn of reggae music. Though the 1950s and 1960s saw the emergence of Wilson Harris and Kamau Brathwaite, who began to usher in a solid "Caribbean literary aesthetic," it was not until reggae surfaced in the late 1960s that Jamaica and the wider Caribbean finally got "an artistic form that has a distinctively postcolonial aesthetic" (p. 17). "Exploring literary connections with reggae," Dawes argues, is critical to the project of understanding Caribbean literature written since the late 1960s. Dawes maintains that reggae provided the vehicle through which Caribbean writing moved from a colonial to a postcolonial posture. He encourages critics of Caribbean writing to use reggae as an analytical tool, maintaining that reggae has given impetus to a paradigm shift in the Caribbean literary world. Reggae, according to Dawes, through its "language," "themes," "form," and "overarching ideology," offers a model for the expression of a confident and multifaceted Caribbean identity (p. 94). This model, he contends, has impacted and is evident in the writing of authors such as Lorna Goodison and Robert Lee (p. 242).

Dawes argues that reggae is able to provide this model because it is "grounded in the history of working-class black Jamaican ideologies that have carried across the centuries from Africa through the complicated cauldron of Caribbean society" (p. 96). The relationship between reggae and black working-class Jamaican ideologies emanates from reggae's "inextricable connection with Rastafarian discourse" (p. 99). Rasta's focus on "history and race" is important to the reggae aesthetic, as Rasta beckons to Jamaicans to remember their African roots and their history. Rasta's firm rejection of a European-centered aesthetic is crucial to reggae. There is no doubt that Rastafarianism "abolished the white world or at least cast it into the outer darkness" (p. 65) and that the most famous ambassador of both Rasta and reggae, Bob Marley, was unflinching in his "embrace of African culture" (p. 54). In addition, Rastafari's subversion of colonial sensibilities through language has resulted in the creation of a Rastafarian lexicon, which provides insight into the Rastafarian critique of European cultural hegemony. The wholesale adoption of this lexicon into reggae lyrics demands that reggae and Rasta be considered in tandem, and supports Dawes's assertion that "Rastafarian ideology provided a clear and appealing cosmology for the reggae artist" (p. 100). Rasta gives reggae an ideological base, which gives Caribbean writers a postcolonial scaffold upon which they can freely hang the themes they seek to probe. The example of reggae, Dawes maintains, has given contemporary Caribbean writers a template, enabling them to depart from the Europe-centered standards that define the traditional Anglophone canon.

The reggae aesthetic boasts an accommodative framework, which allows authors to explore not only issues of race and history but also issues of sexuality and gender. In a conservative society like Jamaica, where a pervasive Protestant ethic serves to dichotomize sexuality and piety, Dawes argues that early writing has reflected the repression that characterizes such a society. Reggae, through its unapologetic treatment of sexuality, sexual pleasure, courtship, and love, has initiated a dialogue about such issues that rivals the closed space of the Protestant ethic. Dawes admits that his analysis of exactly how the reggae aesthetic allows literature to handle issues of misogyny (which is also present in reggae) and sexuality is partial, and that future works that will build on the groundbreaking scholarship of Carolyn Cooper will be well served by the reggae aesthetic.

Dawes presents reggae as a uniquely Jamaican phenomenon that is applicable to the wider Caribbean and beyond. As seen by Dawes, reggae is both local and global, and its proven international appeal demonstrates that "it is possible for a particular genre of music, emerging from a small locale, to have an international impact" (p. 31). It is precisely reggae's ability to adapt to different environments and circumstances while maintaining its uniqueness that provides the "most telling argument for the existence of a reggae aesthetic" (p. 103). Importantly, Dawes is not arguing that the reggae aesthetic is the only prism through which all contemporary Caribbean literature should be read. Instead, he contends that the aesthetic is one of the lenses through which contemporary Caribbean writing should be analyzed.

Dawes urges critics of Caribbean writing to acknowledge a link between reggae music and Caribbean writing of the last three decades. Through an analysis of the components of reggae, that is, lyrics, form, and performance, Dawes shows reggae's entrenchment in an uninhibited and unique Caribbean culture. This, he argues, has influenced how authors perceive of Caribbean identity, as well as the topics they examine in their works. Reggae has aided Caribbean writers in their departure from the limits of a colonial discourse.

See also Caribbean/North American Writers (Contemporary); Literature of the English-Speaking Caribbean; Rastafarianism; Reggae


Cooper, Carolyn. Noises in the Blood: Orality, Gender, and the Vulgar Body of Jamaican Popular Culture. London: Macmillan Caribbean, 1993.

Cooper, Carolyn. Sound Clash: Jamaican Dancehall Culture at Large. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Dawes, Kwame. Natural Mysticism: Towards a New Reggae Aesthetic. Leeds, England: Peepal Tree Press, 1999.

monique bedasse-samuda (2005)

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Reggae Aesthetics

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