When Echoes Return: roots, diaspora and possible Africas (a eulogy)
Reggae is mine, reggae is mine, yeah, yeah…Lucky Dubé, Back to My Roots
Reggae is mine, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah…
You have fe dread a yard before you dread abroad…Black Uhuru, Dreadlock Pallbearers
ALL too often, certain genres of black music chart history and signal social transformation through the language of murder. Murder as topic, metaphor, and symbol. Murder also as raw product of the sharply divided and embattled places from which black musical forms inevitably sound. Reggae is no stranger to this mode of historical awareness; in fact, it has arguably been the most prominent form of black music to narrate the postcolonial shift from the rhetoric of revolutionary violence to the “boombastic” language of street-level sectarianism. It told the story of how narco-terrorists and urban “bad-manism” would emerge in the space between political “independence” and socio-economic and cultural freedom. From revolution to murder, one could say, as the politics of pan-African solidarity fragmented into increasingly narrow commitments for generations armed in ways their elders could never have imagined.
Though well known for its commitment to racial solidarity, Jamaican reggae also harbours a not-so-secret history of intra-racial terror, violence, and murder. Songs that memorialize the victims of gunfire are in fact a veritable subgenre. This dark side of reggae is actually captured best in instrumental “dub.” Its swirling echoes are metaphors of loss while the disembodied voices and gunshots mimic the sound of ghosts, the sudden dead. In addition to methods of sound production and a range of story-telling techniques, reggae music has also bequeathed this dark vision of the African Diaspora to its two primary progeny: dancehall and hip-hop.
But now that an African performer of a Jamaican idiom has been canonized by a seemingly authenticating violence, one wonders less about the fate of reggae than about the process by which its attendant concept of black dispersal is appropriated, popularized, and indigenized in Africa.
Lucky Dubé (1964–2007) was a victim of the kind of gun violence that has come to represent notions of black ghetto authenticity and manhood alongside still incomplete notions of national “independence.” His murder reveals a great deal about the legacies of black-on-black transnational politics in sound. This in turn reveals a great deal about the legacies of pan-Africanism and the distinctly modern metaphor called “the Black Diaspora.” In this particular case one must ask: how does pan-African roots music get rooted in the place that it had long mythified as its historical origin and its source of authenticity? The question arises because despite Lucky Dubé’s adoption of Rastafarianism and its “back to Africa” mythos, he and other continental reggae artists struggled for legitimacy largely due to being merely literal Africans.
Regardless of their talent and the depth of their commitments, the primary handicap of African reggae artists is that they are not directly produced by the symbolic gestures and romantic themes of exile and racial trauma that emerged as a result of the Atlantic slave trade. Here it is worth restating that the very notion of Africa is indebted primarily to two things: first, to the colonial vision of a conceptually containable and politically controllable whole; and second, to Black Diaspora resistance movements like Ethiopianism, pan-Africanism, Négritude, Black Power, Civil Rights, Negrismo, and others which erected themselves on that primary colonial symbolic architecture.
These multiple and competitive traditions would all feed into roots reggae’s sound, ideology, and politics. What has not been explored enough is how so many of the central tenets, assumptions, and sensibilities of these movements were technologized, popularized, and globalized by black music. From minstrel coon-songs to gospel, jazz, rumba, calypso, funk, and hip-hop, black recorded sound has helped construct a contemporary cultural landscape so sprawling that it exceeds the very possibility of a categorical Blackness or any easy claims on solidarity.
Reggae has been Africa’s most powerful musical advocate. But reggae has also been most powerful in replacing the Africas of colonialism and independence with a panoply of possible Africas drawn from quite diverse black radical traditions. More so even than earlier sounds, roots reggae always seemed to invite itself directly to Africa, brazenly insisting upon itself as the continent’s primary echo, if not recursive mirror.
The Rastafarian reggae that would inspire Lucky Dubé was itself deliberately structured as a “universal” form, and its construction of Africa was key to an assumed and intended universality. This was due not only to its relationship to pan-Africanism, Ethiopianism, and Civil Rights soul and R&B, but also to the efforts of influential Rastafarian ideologues in the 1960s. There was an intense debate among the grass-roots theologians and organic intellectuals of the movement about the use and meaning of that Africa which had long seeped into the popular music and culture, and which had been taken for granted as a known quantity or knowable object. These intellectuals did not accept the semantic promiscuity of the term—as it roamed from slave Christianity and Ethiopianism through poor and working-class cults, sects, churches, and communities, and into pre-reggae musical forms like mento and calypso. Instead, in the postcolonial period, they attempted to formalize an image of Africa.
Was Africa to be maintained as a literal space, a target for black migration, or should it function primarily as a motivating symbol, imagined origin, and semantic center? In short, was it a place or a world-view? Though the rhetorical traces of the former would continue to motivate roots reggae—grounded in the unshakeable legacy of Garveyism—it was the latter opinion that prevailed and guided the work of everyone from Burning Spear to Bob Marley to Lee Perry and their multitudinous offspring. Africa also became canonized as a specific experience and an orientation to modernity. However, because this deliberately non-literal view did prevail, it remains arguably the most fragile ideological tenet of the movement. This construction of Africa would forever be threatened by not only the messy presence of an actual Africa, but even more so by literal Africans.
In a sense, roots reggae was aware that its order was too tall: in song it demanded blood citizenship, and its right to have a say in continental governance and its processes of postcolonial identity formation. In sound it claimed a remedy for exile, and absolution for the sin of distance. In keeping with its connection to colonialism, poverty, and a fundamentalist sense of manhood, this millenarian and nakedly utopian music also sublimated its fantasies of power and vengeance in its language of justice and liberation
(there is always, after all, an echo of revenge in revolution and of murder in freedom).
These alternate Africas produced in Black Diasporic sound may have been shaped by desire, nostalgia, and trauma, but they were primarily produced and configured by the local politics of America and the Caribbean. And so they have been fraught with ambivalence and fear and have been riven with class and sexual tensions. These darker motivations are as much a part of pan-Africanism, the Black Atlantic, and the Black Diaspora as the celebrated and often exaggerated notions of resistance, subversion, and revolution. And all of the possible Africas proposed by music have been grounded in the authority of the most potent, dangerous, and unstable metaphor known to humanity: the metaphor of roots.
But since black roots music was never a given form for continental Africans such as Lucky Dubé, perhaps in death it can give the kind of authenticity granted those whose artifice outlives crude, simple flesh. Lacking the geographical distance that gives gravity to longing and authority to metaphor, perhaps murder will ultimately guarantee that Lucky Dubé belongs in a Diaspora that often renders Africa secondary to its imaginings of it, its soundings of it, and its representations of itself in relation to it.
In his brief but remarkably productive life, he was more than a little aware of this curious position of being merely, literally African in a relentlessly poeticized Diaspora. He was deeply aware that the Diaspora required the symbolic and moral charge of the continent but would often silence it by subsuming its differential concerns into universalized or transnational metonyms of racial identity. Lucky Dubé showed he understood the curiosity of his position by choosing roots reggae to make his claims on racial justice in an apartheid-ridden South Africa, and to claim his place in a Diaspora that had long announced its politics, intentions, and differential cultural sensibilities in print, on radio, on vinyl, on screen, and eventually on the internet. This issue of choice is important to emphasize: Lucky Dubé’s performance of roots music was strategic; it was not the eruption of a global sense of shared African gnosis as most within the Rastafarian community would have it.
For Lucky Dubé and a generation of musicians from West and South Africa, reggae may have found itself back “home,” but did so as the preeminent form of black popular art to define itself in diasporic, non-African terms. Roots reggae would be chosen for its global pedigree and for what it could offer to an Africa suffering from the legacies of colonialism and apartheid, but also from inter-ethnic tensions exacerbated by those legacies. And Lucky Dubé would also choose it as a native of South Africa—a nation that had erected itself on fantasies of white African authenticity, a fantasy dependent upon a political and historical displacement of blacks from Africa. This internal dispersal did not require their total physical displacement, and so narratives of nostalgia and exile would have to be borrowed. This was an Africa comprised of homelands, black centres scattered by the racist fantasy of a nation that could be “in, but not of,” Africa.
For a music to begin as a statement of Jamaica and become globalized and translated as the sound of the very world itself is perhaps not surprising in a radically mediatized world. But given the fact that roots reggae relentlessly uses Africa as a symbol, how it is appropriated by Africans themselves is only one expression of a largely under-explored and under-theorized current in Black Atlantic thought. To state the problem as forcefully as possible: modern and contemporary Africa is often marginalized by the increasingly dominant diasporic framework. It is relent lessly celebrated for its anteriority yet surpassed by the echoes of its cultural influence; and it is often erased by the cultural power of those who claim it as a sign of their own historical vulnerability. This use and abuse of Africa occurs despite the fact that diasporic influence has precipitated more than one transformative movement on the continent itself: from the arrival of blackface minstrelsy, jazz and rumba, through the influence of Edward Blyden, Marcus Garvey, Négritude, and decolonization, to the contemporary world of an obscenely corporate global hip-hop/sports/media complex with African Americans in the starring roles.
In the face of these ludic images and sounds of black possibility—which emphasize the distance between Africa and its Diaspora—the more liberating legacies of transnational racial solidarity have diminished on the continent. These older legacies have in fact become pastiche, a form of “afro-kitsch” sometimes evoked as performances for black tourists seeking “home,” or used by authoritarian “revolutionary leaders” to maintain power in the name of anti-colonial racial solidarity. On the other hand, contemporary Africa is presented with the seemingly limitless freedom of a hyper- visible Western Blackness that finds its claims to marginalization belied by its ubiquity and subordinated by its own hyperbolic performance codes. This blackness is then consumed by a continent so destabilized by promises of liberation that it has redefined its notion of freedom and solidarity in almost exclusively corporate terms. Lucky Dubé’s music should be heard in this context of a much earlier legacy of pan-Africanism. It must also be heard against this increasingly corporate dispersal of blackness, a blackness that emerged in the ashes of roots reggae’s failure to adapt to the Africa that it helped invent.
Now it might seem obvious that an Africa-obsessed music would find a welcome home in Africa more than other black popular musical forms. Yet the micropolitics of how this happened, and the philosophical implications of why, go far beyond the obvious. They tell a broader story, not just about Africa’s place in the global Black imagination, but more importantly about how people on the continent find their way into conversations being held in their name, but largely without their participation. After all, these sounds and images have provided much to a Diaspora always hungry to orient and define itself against an African modernity. But what these sounds and images have offered back to the continent is still unclear. The career of Lucky Dubé ultimately shows how Africans have to find their way into the conversations of the Black Diaspora by ironically mimicking their assertions of African authenticity or racial utopia.
For a non-Jamaican to proclaim and appropriate that Africa of roots was in fact no mean feat. Throughout Africa, the appropriation of African American and Afro Caribbean styles, attitudes, ideas, and identities has not often been seen as a glorious statement of transnational solidarity. More often, it has been seen as curious, subversive, and dangerously inauthentic by those for whom “tradition” is being assaulted on too many fronts to count and for whom “race” is no guarantor of community or shared origins. To some ears, Lucky Dubé’s rasta-roots performance was a gesture of colonial submission. It signaled the weakening of indigenous African traditions, with Western Blackness merely a mask for imperial intentions masquerading as liberationist possibilities.
This interpretation was warranted on some level: Lucky Dubé’s quasi-orthodox stress on the authenticity of roots was often deployed against local tastes and the new digital authenticities being produced in township musical culture. Take, for example, a song like Back to My Roots, which was a hit in both South Africa and Nigeria and which continues to be taken at face value, without the multiple ironies at work.
Back to My Roots is paradigmatic of the context and issues being explored here, largely due to the irony of its claim on racial authenticity and cultural orthodoxy. This song—as many Jamaican roots tunes have done— lambasted “crackadoo” and “shoo- bee doobee” music, forms that, though popular, were “not good for a Rasta man.” In this particular narrative, it is the presence of these other digital sounds that compels a return to a notion of roots wired in from Jamaica—and its over-determinations of the African continent. Despite the long and rich legacy of anti-colonial nationalism and multiple generations of pan-Africanism on the continent, it is arguably through music that most Africans—the illiterate and barely literate included—have explored, weighed, discussed, or deployed the value of race, a form of solidarity which is normally secondary to Africa’s kaleidoscopic ethnicities.
Though not the first to employ and appropriate reggae music on the continent, Lucky Dubé produced what was arguably the most successful indigenization of it up to that point; he was certainly the one who had most loudly captured the ears of Jamaican reggae musicians, promoters, and international fans. However, beyond the crisis of authenticity, he never fully escaped the sense that his participation in this music was merely “exotic” to Jamaican listeners or to the global market for Jamaican sounds. Few African reggae artists of his generation could escape this, though they were ironically sheltered from it by a white international audience that evaluated their authenticity by quite a different standard. It was telling that his fan-base outside of Africa was less West Indian or African American than it was white—the primary fan base for roots reggae from Bob Marley’s generation to the present. His global popularity emerged not only during the death-throes of apartheid, but also during that moment when roots reggae seemed on the decline in Jamaica and the global audiences for reggae were quite hostile to the digitized dancehall that emerged in the wake of Bob Marley’s death.
Lucky Dubé internationalized roots music as an African during a period when many people heard dancehall and ragga as the sound of Jamaica abandoning its universalizing mythologies. It seemed as though the island was collapsing into its own hermetically-sealed, fully-digitized sound world, locked in the rhythms of an accelerated and increasingly violent capitalism. Although dancehall has today found itself integrated into contemporary African cultures, at the moment of its ascendancy it was in fact heard by the growing continental fan base the same way the global white audience heard it: as dangerously inauthentic. Dancehall became too fiercely protective of its aesthetic and borders to provide a vision of shared cultural origins or utopian possibilities. The music began to abandon the echo production techniques so dear to the generation of dub-roots, so that what was heard was not an open, shared space, but something hard, sharp, crisp, and closed.
Without echo, the metaphor of seamless distance was ruptured by the aesthetic of the machine.
At that moment, an African roots seemed the perfectly hyperbolic, double-dose of the black organic necessary to counter that digital sound. With Trinidad soca and calypso also going digital soon after this, Caribbean sound began to explicitly ally itself with electronic music rather than with the hippie touristic spectatorship and black nationalism represented by analog sound.
Many still say that Lucky Dubé’s indigenizing never quite made the transformation from a heartfelt and impassioned mimicry to the full flowering of something utterly distinct in the way that, say, Jamaican Rhythm and Blues would transcend its complex cross-cultural origins in the unique musical form called ska. In much the same way that the pre-ska, pre-independence generation of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer studied and mimicked the voices, styles, and universalizing gestures of their African American Civil Rights-era heroes (Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Smokey Robinson and most certainly Curtis Mayfield), Lucky Dubé manifested the tendency of African reggae artists to closely mimic either Bob Marley or Peter Tosh.
Prominent examples of this include Nigeria’s Majek Fashek and Victor Essiet, and Ghana’s Rocky Dawuni, though there were and are countless others.
In Lucky Dubé’s case the sound-mask he opted for was Peter Tosh, whose murder strangely prefigured his own and which his death profoundly echoes. It wouldn’t be until Ivoirian Alpha Blondy that a distinctly non-Jamaican voice would emerge in African reggae. However, Alpha Blondy would only play John the Baptist to the magnificent indigenization of Jamaican roots manifest in the contemporary work of his fellow Ivoirian Tiken Jah Fakoly, an artist who has taken on the level of political controversy that no African roots artist has ever had and which no Jamaican artist has had since Bob Marley himself.
It is worth noting that in this Black African micro-political context this indigenization of roots reggae radicalism and confrontational politics was as much a matter of translation as it was one of appropriation. With the Francophone African reggae artists emerging from a largely Islamic context, and the Anglophone ones largely Christian, the former has appropriated the latter’s confrontational stance whereas the latter has been strengthened by the former’s penchant for orthodoxy.
Those critical of Lucky Dubé’s inability to fully indigenize roots reggae remain unaware of the complexity of his very choice of mimicry and the depth of his ability to hold steady to an uninflected performance. For example, very few outside of South Africa knew that he was recognized for and successful in a variety of local indigenous musical styles and idioms all of which had long been fusing in the crucible of apartheid’s intensely creative, competitive, and often violent township culture. He was quite famous as a Zulu musician years before reggae or Rasta or dreadlocks. Lucky Dubé recorded several traditional mbaqanga albums and a Zulu/Afrikaans rap album under the name Oom Hansie before his first reggae album, Rastas Never Die, in 1984 (banned by the South African censors) and before his international breakthrough record Slave in 1987. Even at the height of his popularity as a reggae artist, his local fans continued to complain that this “world” or “Jamaican” music was too far afield for them and that they were eager to hear him return to mbaqanga, which was much more popular and marketable in South Africa at the time. But in Lucky Dubé’s words, “The change was brought about by the fact that I wanted to reach the world. With mbanqanga I would have been seen as a tourist musician.”
Though many outside of South Africa consider that multi-platinum Oom Hansie project as a novelty (titled Help My Krap), it did emerge in the transition from mbaquanga and other township styles to roots reggae. The very fact that roots and hip-hop had come to share cultural space and were both seen as possible options in his quest for a global and trans-ethnic language reminds us that despite the excitement and growing panic concerning hip-hop in Africa today, reggae remains the most popular of the forms on the continent and crucial to the very notion of a trans-ethnic—i.e. “Black”—popular culture. Hip-hop has merely been grafted onto the structures of feeling and expanded sensibilities made possible by reggae. Reggae had been trickling onto the continent from the “blue-beat”/ska era, arriving with West African students and migrants from London, where it was a significant sound in the climate of Black European immigrant culture and provided the sonic remapping of a more expansive black dispersal before, during, and after decolonization. Hip-hop borrows explicitly from the fragile networks of consumption and production that were established by reggae on the continent and which were key to its indigenizing through the construction of local markets and local media, particularly in West and South Africa.
But to return to a choice of racial essence, one expressed in black-on-black masquerade, in his own words, Lucky Dubé switched to reggae because it was not simply a Caribbean or specifically Jamaican music. It had attained status as a global or world cultural form and had carved out a trans-cultural and international space of popular dialogue. More than other popular forms, this music seemed to invite pan-African participation and demand continental echoing precisely due to its relentless references to and imaginings of Africa. These were things that, say, mbaqanga could not do, rooted as it was in Zulu culture and language and in a society that, despite the official racial categories of apartheid, never managed to fully relinquish earlier and possibly stronger inter-ethnic divisions and differences.
For Lucky Dubé and the many musicians and fans on the continent, despite its fundamentalism and deep essentialism, reggae offered not an authentic Africa, but a series of possible Africas. Roots music may have been inspired by a static image of an African past, but when translated, mimicked and appropriated on the continent, it presented a praxis of cross-culturality and visionary possibility. This praxis was invaluable for growing beyond specific ancestral tribal traditions, local identities, or hierarchies, such as those based on age. In short, this Africa—gloriously inauthentic as it was—could only have emerged from outside, where black identities and meanings had to be carefully borrowed and invented, and could never be taken for granted since they were relentlessly embattled. This was the gift of a diaspora not simply defined by geographical sprawl and the epic legacies of racial suffering, but by its deep historical implication and involvement in the technologies of sound recording and the global dispersal of Black New World music during and after colonialism.
It is no secret that the global currency in the popular symbols of racial slavery is in no small part due to roots reggae, which accomplishes in sound what Edward Blyden, Marcus Garvey, W. E. B. Du Bois and generations of Pan-Africanist literature and politics could only dream of. Indeed, as Diaspora pan-Africanism began to fade as an active transnational political movement in the wake of independence, civil rights, and then apartheid, roots reggae maintained the dream of a common context if not a shared politics. And it did so largely through its relentless remembering of slavery.
As if to stress this point, Lucky Dubé’s international breakthrough album, Slave, was a success due in part to his appropriation of that powerful and internationally recognized symbol of racial holocaust which he would superimpose upon the then-crumbling apartheid system. This institutionally divisive system had itself become a metaphor for colonialism’s enduring legacy, hence his consistent name for his touring band: “the Slaves.” But though slavery may have become a symbol of the African Diaspora, it was never a universal racial symbol on a continent where ethnic affiliations differ radically from those of the West and are shaped via distinct and still underexplored processes. So to speak as an African at home and abroad required that Lucky Dubé adopt the language of Africa spoken by Caribbean blacks, whose Africa was radically distinct from his struggles on the streets of Johannesburg, where he confronted pass laws and a social world structured by the infamous Group Areas Act of 1950.
Lest it be suggested here that roots reggae was the first or only form of Black Diaspora consciousness available or present in South Africa, it is true that, like other places on the continent, it had long been appropriating Black Diaspora ideas about race in limited but influential ways.
Before Lucky Dubé, there was Marcus Garvey’s Negro World, and those who imagined African Americans as imminent liberators. There was legendary Steve Biko and his “Black Consciousness Movement,” which was largely influenced by the work of Aimé Cesaire and Frantz Fanon and which was seen as a potent threat by Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC). There was the dynamism of the “Sophiatown renaissance” of the 1950s and its mythology of a transnational South African/African American hybrid culture through the linking of jazz, crime, and style.
This continuum of black-on-black cross-cultural communication is not, however, to suggest that South Africa had not also been producing its own indigenous notions of difference due to the system of apartheid, expressed particularly strongly in township music. Because apartheid was ultimately seen as a structure of binary racial conflict (and because binary racial conflicts are much privileged in the Black Diaspora, so much so that for many the end of apartheid was the end of pan-Africanism), the superimposition of an appropriated Africa on a quite specific South African context was eventually sanctioned. The power of this gesture was and is obvious: it claimed an authenticity broader and more flexible than the specific ethnic traditions that continue to bedevil the ANC.
The acceptance in South Africa of an appropriated myth of Africa was, though, likely due to two more practical factors: first, these imported metaphors and images of Africa were seen by the white power structure as non-indigenous symbols of “outside” and were therefore ultimately non- threatening (there were in fact many whites who found it odd but amusing that he was singing Jamaican songs about Jamaican issues); second, because it was so extremely metaphoric and non-specific, it was thought that few blacks would directly connect it to the social arrangements of apartheid (indeed, roots reggae’s global popularity as a music of rebellion is due precisely to the flexibility of much of its referents and the sometimes hazy universality of its politics). It was due to these factors that Slave and other albums by Lucky Dubé were able to pass by the extremely rigid and intensely paranoid South African censors despite their oppositional sound and confrontational lyrics.
In South Africa, popular song forms exist which are critical of authority, but very few of them are rooted as forms in explicit political protest or outright confrontation—certainly not in racial confrontation. As is well- known, much of the music of the continent ranges widely, from the ritual to the historical to the incantatory, and features many “praise song” forms that are geared primarily towards “bigging up” or legitimizing the status quo. Those forms that turn their tongues to criticism are not themselves oppositional or protest forms, though the public chiding or critiquing of authority has always been a part of their social function. Nor is the singer or poet seen as the kind of radical social outsider that is part and parcel of the roots reggae singer’s persona, one who is as inassimilable as their vision, and who could only be integrated if the system were restructured around utterly different moral, political, and spiritual principles. For this persona to function in African traditional cultural structures which are overwhelmingly organized by consensus and convention and which generally frown on rebellion, a change in the social fabric would have to occur. The presence of roots reggae as a popular form of protest song has thus helped legitimize and strengthen the oppositional gesture in popular African music and culture, particularly for those generations born after decolonization. It has also helped legitimize new forms of social identity and political affiliation, particularly in a context where youth must always defer to age and where the future must often be silent before the past.
During the same period of Lucky Dubé’s ascendancy, Nigeria had established itself as a roots reggae stronghold on the continent with artists such as African China (a.k.a. Chinagoro), Ras Kimono, Victor Essiet and the Mandators, Daddy Showkey, and Majek Fashek “the rainmaker”—to name but a few. Here roots did not need to function in relationship to an explicitly racist power structure coded in black and white. The long era of dictators throughout the 1980s and 1990s—from General Ibrahim Babangida to General Sani Abacha—was perhaps the golden age of reggae in Nigeria.
Abacha was a sworn enemy of a free press who ruthlessly arrested, tortured, and executed dissenters while establishing one of the most feared police states in postcolonial Africa, so the deployment of reggae’s “outside” mythologies and often abstract metaphors of race and freedom no doubt spared many of Nigeria’s reggae artists the kind of treatment faced by the confrontational work of the legendary Fela Kuti. Yet because its listeners were quite attuned to its symbols and icons (whereas the military elite seemed so myopic as to deny the presence of a world outside), they understood Nigerian reggae as music for a community under siege, colonized from within. And for a nation for whom genocide is still a living memory, reggae became the music of a single tribe adrift in Babylon, while still technically imprisoned in the Zion of reggae mythology.
During this long and still scarred period, very few non-Western artists of any sort of music toured Nigeria. This lack of external cultural interaction, coupled with the danger of public protest, forced many Nigerian musicians to reassess and redefine their roots through the already popular form of reggae, its language of exile and protest, and its celebration of a much different Africa than that ground beneath their feet. Though roots reggae still remains popular in Nigeria, two things were detrimental to its growth, suggesting that the impact of the music was largely due to its symbols, its mythology, and its oppositional stance: the freeing of Nelson Mandela in 1990, and then the death of General Sani Abacha in 1997. It was in the space between these two drastic changes that hip-hop, dancehall, and contemporary R&B began to emerge as the dominant forms of new popular music in Nigeria, complete with new mythologies, new political sensibilities, and new orientations to what was beginning to seem, yet again, like a different Africa.
Preceding this, the most important Nigerian musician to help establish and indigenize reggae in the 1970s was the beloved Sonny Okosun, who passed away much more recently than Lucky Dubé. Okosun blended reggae with many Nigerian and Ghanaian popular forms and used it as one of many musical vehicles of social and political criticism. Despite the fact that his music was much more light-hearted than that of Fela and much less dread than those who would become reggae artists in his wake, Okosun would do more to Nigerianize reggae than any of the singers to come after him. The target of his critique was always twofold: first, the local post-independence elite and its status quo, who were founded on the corruption of the “petro-naira”; second, the apartheid system in South Africa, which had itself become a metaphor for the state of the continent, particularly in Nigeria.
But clearly the major precedent for popular and trans-ethnic protest music in Nigeria and therefore Africa is Fela Anikulapo Kuti, whose music, though in no way describable as reggae, shared its pan-Africanism and its “Third World”-centrism and who, in his long, extended instrumental grooves, evoked the subversive psychedelia of dub reggae in an era when the twelve-inch remix and the extended “discomix” were ascendant in global dance music. Though Fela notably despised reggae (feeling deeply threatened by its claim on Africa, its third-worldism and no doubt its rapid success), after Bob Marley’s death he self-consciously embraced the mantle of “Third World” music superstar and popular voice of Africa, if not the African Diaspora.
As is well known, Fela’s Afrocentrism and Pan-Africanism were primarily—though not exclusively—instigated and informed by his experience with members of the Black Panthers (primarily, one Sandra Isidore) in Los Angeles while living and working there in 1969. Some will erroneously claim that it was this experience that encouraged him and his band to begin to incorporate the influences of James Brown, the J.B.s, and the Meters into his nascent “Afro-beat.” In truth, that had already been growing steadily in his music largely due to the impact of and competition with the successful Sierra Leonean bandleader Gerald Pino, “the Nigerian James Brown,” who had been introducing the militant funk styles of black America into West Africa on the eve of the Biafra war and the genocide of the Igbos, and before Fela’s direct experience of James Brown and the J.B.s, who toured Nigeria in 1970.
His experience with a militant African American pan-Africanism (particularly after reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X ), when coupled with the harder new funk styles of the time and their increasing reliance on racial pride, would give his “Afro-beat” music a symbolic charge that was paralleled only by the work of Bob Marley and others of that generation.
What is generally less acknowledged in accounts of these crosscurrents, however, is the significance of Fela and his “Afro-beat” before and after the impact of African American radical politics and before and after the influence of James Brown and the techniques, styles, and cultural politics of black American funk. What is in fact neglected, largely due to the obsessive reduction of the black world to its reactions to colonialism and racism, is his impact on black-on-black cross-culturality in a Nigeria still hemorrhaging from the genocide of Biafra. With his appropriation of an African American invention of Africa, Fela and the innumerable groups that sprung up in a post-Biafra Lagos fomented a pan-ethnic sense of Nigerian community based on what was a new notion of race and solidarity. It was, quite frankly, the sound of an Africa that had never existed but which could be made: one that was neither Yoruba nor Igbo nor Hausa nor Ibibio nor Ijaw nor Edo nor Fulani nor Tiv nor any of the multitudes of ethnic groups in Nigeria—all of whom suffered due to the war.
This new, possible Africa created a climate that welcomed and fed roots reggae and its globalization of black radicalism in a music of popular protest. This was something that the continent would forever have to contend with, because however alien it might have seemed as a concept or value, it ultimately authorized and authenticated itself in sound via the shared image, symbol, and sign of Africa. Roots reggae must also be credited with this authentication of the various cultures, politics, and identities of postcolonial Africa with the myth of a possible Africa. It did not initiate this process, nor is it solely responsible for it—indeed, that process is the Diaspora itself, structured as it is largely by sound and the black engagement with technologies of sound modulation. Considering reggae’s often blithe indifference to contemporary continental realities, it shouldn’t necessarily be praised for it either; for one, Rastafarianism has yet to be taken to task for its support for some of the continent’s most reactionary regimes, most notably in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe.
Perhaps due to its contradictory and sometimes fanciful notions of Black Diasporic anciency, and despite its often spectacular failures in the realm of the literal, Rasta roots did take root on the continent, particularly through a language of race, belonging, and political possibility. It popularized and updated the various legacies of black political radicalism while helping to signal a transformation in how that continent sees itself as a whole and hears itself across a global landscape. It is not an overstatement to say that this landscape continues to prove itself more attuned to speaking about Africa than actually listening to Africa—or multiple Africas—speak. So it is not just sound and music here to be memorialized, nor is it simply the life of a remarkable musician like Lucky Dubé in whose wake new producers of culture and a new generation of politicians redefine Africa in the language of the Black Diaspora. In Lucky Dubé’s murder, what is revealed to be at stake is how the Diaspora hears the sounds of the continent beyond the overwhelming echoes of its own desires and wounds, and beyond the politics of its own dreaming. Herein lies not just centuries of the West’s complex and varied representations of Africa, but also the Black Diaspora’s complicity in this history of projection and construction.
what we call the Black Diaspora is an intimate component of Western modernity.
It is not so much a distinct or necessarily oppositional “counterculture,” as many argue; nor is it a dream of radical innocence predicated by either a philosophical disavowal or a space of ineluctable cultural and political differences. Like the concept of race itself, the Black Diaspora is a constituent element of modernity, as collusive as it is resistant. Because of roots reggae’s language of primal authenticity those Africans who sought entry into the echo chamber of modernity heard in it a language that privileged them. This Africa enabled them to make myth of their own lives and deaths, and speak to an echoic simulacra made resonant by a shared symbol of origins. So performers like Lucky Dubé and Sonny Okosun did not find their roots nor even their past in reggae, especially since so much of those were rooted in ethnically divisive and conservative notions of African “tradition.” What they found was a future, which meant the ability to transform their roots through the authorizing symbol of an Africa they quickly accepted as inevitable.
Originally published in Transition, No. 104, Souls (2011), pp. 76-92
Published by: Indiana University Press on behalf of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University
Re-published here with kind permission of the author.