Originally a voice for the marginalized members of Jamaican society in the 1960s, reggae music has evolved into a symbol of Jamaican culture, enjoyed throughout the world.
This evolution has been recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), resulting in the musical genre’s inclusion on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity on November 29, 2018.
This list, which was started in 2008, stems from the UN’s 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, and is comprised of “those intangible heritage elements that help demonstrate the diversity of this heritage and raise awareness about its importance”. The list aims to ensure respect for communities, groups and individuals involved in the listed activity, to raise awareness and encourage appreciation of those activities nationally and internationally.
Born of a counterculture, reggae music was popularized by the likes of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff. UNESCO describes reggae as “…an amalgam of numerous musical influences, including earlier Jamaican forms as well as the Caribbean, North American and Latin strains. In time, Neo-African styles, soul and rhythm and blues from North America were incorporated into the element, gradually transforming Ska into Rock Steady and then into Reggae”. It thrived in the Jamaican diaspora in the United Kingdom and the United States and has since been heavily sampled in other genres by mainstream artists.
Jamaica had applied for reggae’s inclusion as “intangible cultural heritage” last year at a meeting of the UN agency on the island of Mauritius. “Reggae is uniquely Jamaican,” said Olivia Grange, Jamaica’s Minister of Culture. “It is a music that we have created that has penetrated all corners of the world.” On the inclusion of reggae music, UNESCO has stated that
“Its contribution to the international discourse on issues of injustice, resistance, love and humanity underscores the dynamics of the element as being at once cerebral, socio-political, sensual and spiritual. The basic social functions of the music – as a vehicle for social commentary, a cathartic practice, and a means of praising God – have not changed, and the music continues to act as a voice for all.”
A symbolic gesture on UNESCO’s part, this inclusion may serve to build awareness of Jamaica and reggae music and push it further into mainstream pop culture.