Reggae rooted in suffering of the oppressed


You gave I King James Version, King James was a White man

You built I dangerous weapon, to kill I own Black man

You sold the land God gave I and taught I to be covetous

What other wicked things have you got in mind?

Tell me, what are you gonna do to stop these daily crimes?

Bring back Macabee Version that God gave to Black man

Give back King James Version that belongs to the White man

Black man get up, stand up, find your foot and give Black God the glory

Black man, get up, stand up find your foot and give Black God the glory, yeah!

You suffer I and you rob I, you starve I, then you kill I

But what are you gonna do now that your sword have turn against you?

Excerpt from ‘Macabee Version’ by Maxwell Livingston Smith (Max Romeo), released in 1967.

‘Macabee Version’ was a popular reggae tune in Guyana during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Sung by Jamaican reggae artist and Rastafarian, Maxwell Livingston Smith (Max Romeo), the song was probably popular throughout the Caribbean, where the descendants of enslaved Africans, for the most part, continued to be the “sufferers”, even in their newly independent countries.

The lyrics refer to books omitted from the Bible about the Macabee family who reportedly led a successful rebellion against the Greek Syrian Seleucid Empire, beginning in 167 BCE. The Jews of Judea had been colonized by the Greeks, who prevented them from practicing their religion. The Macabees declared war to regain their religious freedom and political independence.

The books of Macabees were at one time included in the ancient Bible but were omitted in the King James Version of the Bible. This omission apparently convinced similarly oppressed Africans that there was a sinister reason for the omission; perhaps the oppressors were hiding something that would free the oppressed.

The lyrics of ‘Macabee Version’ also address the brutal mistreatment that enslaved Africans suffered at the hands of White enslavers. As a member of Rastafari, Max Romeo refers to a Black God as preached by Marcus Mosiah Garvey, whose philosophy greatly influences Rastafari belief. The Rastafari movement is one of continuing the struggle and resistance to oppression, which began during slavery.

Guyanese historian, Walter Rodney, noted in Groundings with My Brothers that Rastafari were: “the leading force of the expression of Black consciousness in the Caribbean”. In Chanting Down Babylon, Nathaniel Samuel Murrell writes: “Rastafari is more than a religion. It is a cultural movement, a system of beliefs and a state of consciousness, that advances a view of economic survival and political organization and structure that challenges the dominant cultural political narrative (ideology) in the ‘politics of Babylon'”.

Reggae music, which became popular with the rise of Rastafari, is a revolutionary music rooted in the suffering of the oppressed. As recently as the 1980s, Rastafari were the target of police harassment and public condemnation.

Murrell also observes in Chanting Down Babylon: “All the brethren wanted local recognition and freedom of movement and speech, which are essential human rights. All wanted an end of persecution by government and police”.

In the early days of Rastafari and the music that became associated with it, reggae was no more welcome than the Rastafari movement. In Reggae, Rastafari, and the Rhetoric of Social Control, Stephen A. King notes: “From 1959 to 1971, Jamaica’s popular music became identified with the Rastafarians, a social movement that gave voice to the country’s poor Black communities. In response to this challenge, the Jamaican government banned politically controversial reggae songs from the airwaves and jailed or deported Rastafarian leaders”.

King also commented on the new reality of reggae music since it was made popular by world famous Rastafarians like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. “Now the music is a marketing tool, and the Rastafarians are no longer a ‘violent counterculture’ but an important symbol of Jamaica’s new cultural heritage”.

Reggae music is so popular that it is being appropriated by White singers who have no connection to Rastafari. How ironic that this genre that came out of the struggle and resistance of African people to White oppression is being appropriated by White people.

It was a bit disconcerting watching a video and listening to a White man born in New Orleans singing about being searched by “Babylon” as he tries to move “the herb” while desperately and unsuccessfully trying to imitate a Jamaican accent.

He is not the first White man to try and fail in this endeavour. There was a White Canadian pretender in the early 1990s whose almost incomprehensible lyrics could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be mistaken for any kind of Jamaican accent; he has thankfully sunk into oblivion.

More recently, the work of a White American born in White Plains, New York, has been hailed in some quarters as the new sound of reggae. His attempt at imitating the Jamaican accent would be comical if the continued appropriation was not a serious matter. These men could not possibly identify with Bob Marley’s heartfelt lament in ‘Redemption Song:’

Old pirates yes they rob I

Sold I to the merchant ships

Minutes after they took I

From the bottomless pit

But my hand was made strong

By the hand of the almighty

We forward in this generation


Since reggae is the music identified with Rastafari, a movement that came out of the struggle of oppressed Africans, the descendants of enslaved Africans, how could anyone rationalize White men identifying with that struggle? Even empathy is a stretch unless they are engaged in work to address the continued inequities.

With nothing to prove that these pretenders are interested in recognizing that these inequities exist, never mind doing anything constructive to address them, they are only continuing the work of their ancestors; making money off Africans.

The continued appropriation of African culture – in this case, music that came out of an historic struggle – is definitely not irie, more like eerie.

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