KINGSTON – The main event at fight night in Kingston, a popular boxing showcase, was hours away, but the crowd at the National Stadium’s indoor arena, from the young and hip to the elderly, was already pumped.
When reggae artist Tarrus Riley entered the stage, the screams of the full house were deafening, and the fervor persisted throughout his performance.
A musical and social roots movement called “Reggae Revival” is on the rise in Jamaica, where the raunchier dancehall genre has been king for the last two decades. The revival evokes music from reggae’s golden era of the 1970s, dominated by the late, laid-back legend, Bob Marley, who put reggae on the global map with his catchy tunes and spiritual and socially conscious lyrics.
“Reggae is bouncing back,” says Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records who introduced the group Bob Marley and the Wailers to the world. “It got lost somewhat in a negative and violent direction (but) I think it’s finding itself again,” he adds.
The revival of traditional “roots reggae” also stands as “a peaceful revolution in a nation that is often typecast as violent,” says Dutty Bookman, a Jamaican writer who has been documenting the movement that he says goes beyond music, likening it to the Arab Spring.
“Love, unity, positivity, truth-seeking, these things form the basis of the movement,” he says.
Jamaica is the birthplace of reggae, which became an international phenomenon thanks to Marley, who died of cancer in 1981 at age 36.
“Reggae is the heartbeat of Jamaica,” says Ziggy Marley, one of Bob Marley’s reggae-playing sons, currently on tour for his “Fly Rasta” album.
“I think Jamaica misses it,” adds the younger Marley. “In the past years a lot of the younger artists have been trying to move away from it with dancehall, but reggae is something that is needed because music affects our society deeply.”
After its golden age, reggae degenerated as artists moved from marijuana, considered a spiritual drug by Jamaica’s Rastafarian Christian sect, to harder drugs such as cocaine, Herbie Miller, Jamaica Music Museum’s director, says.
“Slackness,” a catch-all term for bad behavior, including explicit sexuality and violence, became the norm, and with it came the rise of dancehall.
Dancehall is an offshoot of reggae with a hyper-energetic sound and often violent, misogynistic as well as sexually explicit lyrics.
In 1991, dancehall artists famously upstaged roots reggae performers at the popular annual Reggae Sunsplash music festival and dancehall artists such as Shabba Ranks, Yellowman, Buju Banton and Ninjaman became all the rage.
Dancehall moved reggae closer to the U.S. gangster-rap scene, led by rappers such as Snoop Dogg.
But dancehall was rocked by a series of scandals involving some of its stars. The Grammy-winning singer Buju Banton was convicted in 2011 on cocaine conspiracy and trafficking charges and is serving a 10-year sentence.
In April, dancehall star Vybz Kartel was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a former associate.
In a sign of the times, Snoop Dogg changed his name in 2012 after a trip to Jamaica and announced a conversion to the Rastafari movement and a new alias, Snoop Lion. His 2013 album, “Reincarnated,” put reggae back on the map, featuring a fusion of reggae and dancehall.
The new crop of artists in the reggae revival include Protoje, Tarrus Riley, Chronixx, Jah9, and Kabaka Pyramid, who all play music with messages rooted in Rastafarianism.
“What you have and how you look and what you don’t have, that’s dancehall,” says Kabaka Pyramid, who was ranked at the top of Billboard’s Next Big Sound chart last year. In the reggae revival, “ego is being taken out of the music,” he says.
The revival is being fostered by Billy Wilmot, a Jamaican surfing legend and the vocalist, guitarist and songwriter for the Mystic Revealers, a Jamaican reggae band that formed in the late 1970s.
His surf camp, Jamnesia, became a seminal place where Reggae Revival artists cut their teeth on live performance.
“Reggae is always socially conscious music and socially relevant,” says Wilmot. “It might not be what you want to hear, but it’s what’s going on in society.”
Roots reggae and dancehall may have very different sounds and messages, but they’re not mutually exclusive. Some reggae artists have incorporated rap elements of dancehall, including Damian Marley and Tanya Stephens.
“Both can exist and live,” says Ziggy Marley. “The roots revival can bring things back into balance without being judgmental of one or the other.”