Implicit lessons in SOJA’s Reggae Grammy win

Grammy winners, SOjA
Grammy winners, SOjA (Photo credit: Twitter (@SOJALive))    

Sunday 3 April 2022, the American-based National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences presented the Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album to SOJA, an almost all-white Reggae band based in Arlington, Virginia. For Jamaicans at home and within the Diaspora, the “skies fell”. At least, that is what the noise seemed to suggest. Every lickle barefoot man, woman, and child –most of whom had never heard of SOJA, nor had purchased a download or a physical copy of a record produced by a Jamaican artiste in years, howled their protests for any and everyone who could hear. It did not matter that the current state of Jamaica does not actually support music as a serious economic undertaking. It mattered not, either, that the size of Jamaica’s record buying public at home cannot sustain that industry. Perhaps it never occurred to the protesters that music is now a highly technological product, marketed in a highly technology-centred environment, one in which Jamaica is not prepared to operate.

In today’s music market the lion’s share of purchases are made online and requires possession of a US dollar credit/debit card and access to reliable internet. Both conditions displace most Jamaican consumers. Worse, despite the abundance of talent existing in the Jamaican space, whatever quality music being put out by these artistes is not being played on the radio stations at home. In the Diaspora, the grimness of the situation is that Jamaicans are simply not buying Jamaican music. Further, much of what is being marketed as reggae and dancehall by these artistes and their handlers is nothing but watered-down R&B, and hip-hop that beyond accumulating views and likes on social media, does not translate into record sales. 

Industry analysts have been stating, for some time now, that despite the plethora of topics that makes our music not only unique, but applicable to overseas markets – topics like oppression, social and economic inequality, lack of access to effective education and health resources, the teachings of Rastafari, truths-and-rights, and basic up-ful Jamaican livity, have all but disappeared from the lexicons of most of these artistes. Even worse, the artistes who put out songs with such messaging never get them played on air as most of these artistes are unable to join the payola line.

The truth be told, Jamaica has been marginalizing the development of its music industry from the inception. Unlike tourism or manufacturing which have lobbyists and connected persons to ensure that policy papers are authored to make these industries bankable, supported by tax holidays and incentives to provide for their growth and sustainability. Not so for Jamaican music. The result is that the Jamaican music sector has remained an unstructured ‘cottage industry’ for its entire existence. Under the circumstances, we should not be surprised at the results that are now being obtained for Jamaican music. The island not being on the Grammy winning podium this year should have come as no surprise because Jamaica does not support its own music and even at the artiste level, most are trying to sound anything but Jamaican.

For those who may not have been aware, the Grammy Awards are determined by a peer voting system, so members of the music fraternity must be registered and paid up to vote. The Grammys are not awarded based on the sales of records but an artiste with a consistent catalog of work will be more easily recognizable and is usually who the voters will defer to when there is a tussle between choices. Also, the Reggae Grammy is a music category not a category based on country of origin and is presented to the recording artiste or artistes for quality works in the reggae music genre. The Grammy honors “artistic achievement, technical proficiency and overall excellence in the recording industry, without regard to album sales or chart position”. Jamaica’s own Black Uhuru copped that inaugural Grammy in 1985, starting the dominance by Jamaican acts in the Reggae section for 36 out of the 37 years of its existence and since Black Uhuru’s win. The British based reggae group Steel Pulse was the only non-Jamaican winner, and this was back in 1997, for their album Rage and Fury.   

It is important to understand the significance of Black Uhuru’s win as it provided a major accomplishment for Jamaica’s music as well as an acknowledgement by the American music industry and its associates that Jamaica’s reggae music had not only earned its stripes but demonstrated that the music belonged in the global music sphere. The accomplishment was a fitting reward for the groundwork established by the likes of Prince Buster, Millie Small, Desmond Dekker, and reggae’s global hero Robert Nesta Marley, all of whom had spent the better part of their adult lives taking Jamaica’s music around the globe. It is also significant that the Reggae Grammy Award served to underscore the creative value of the island’s capital city, Kingston, and the importance of the its role in creating a world-music, even if that same music was being treated with slight and disdain by the owners of capital, and the framers of the island’s economic development policies.

It is a pity that those now charged with the responsibility of defending that legacy are still without the policy support necessary to accomplish the job of maintaining and defending not only the music’s authenticity, but also its potency as a messaging vessel for uplifting the downtrodden and dispossessed. It is a pity, too, that they have dropped the ball but that isn’t the reason why SOJA won. SOJA won because they have been consistent in their approach. In their 25 years they have steadfastly pursued a path of embracing reggae music and the 200,000 albums sold to date is a demonstration that their fans love what they do.

How many Jamaican artistes outside of Shaggy, Sean Paul or Koffee come even remotely close?

Richard Hugh Blackford is a Jamaican creative artist residing in the United States.

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *