Apart from its sonic discourse, one of the reasons I love reggae music is because of its poetic style. Indeed good reggae music is pure poetry and nothing beats a good sing-a-long classic like the legendary Bob Marley’s Get up, stand up.
And for those who teach poetry, dancehall crooner Coco Tea’s 18 and over not only personifies the voice of what Kenyans now call “a sponsor” reprimanding a 16-year-old girl to desist from engaging in underage or cross-generational sex, but it’s also a vivid example of rhyme in poetic rendition.
Incidentally, the term reggae only came into use in the late 1960s and has since been variously used to refer to that style of music that originated from the Caribbean Island of Jamaica.
Scholar David Moskowitz reminds us that as a trans-Caribbean genre, reggae is categorised into three subgenres; the roots, dancehall and ragamuffin.
There are many spin-off versions of contemporary dancehall/ ragga as a result of American hip hop merging with reggae leading to contemporary styles such as lover’s rock, reggaeton, rap, fusion riddim and many others. Among the outstanding raga/dance hall artists that Kenyans are familiar with includes Shaggy, Beenie Man, Shabba Ranks and Cocoa Tea, among others.
But for me, the most influential and certainly most poetic, is the traditional roots reggae. Made popular by Robert Nesta Marley, Peter Tosh and The Wailers in the 1970s it was distinct in its use of the ska-style horns, the slow-down beat of rock steady, a bit of shuffle from the American rhythm and blues and African nyabinghi ritual drumming infused with the signature “skanking” rhythm and bass guitars.
TRUE TO ITS LINKS
True to its links, roots reggae was linked to Black social movements of the time. One such phenomenon was the Rastafari, a quasi-religious black consciousness movement linked to Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie.
Its adherents or rastas sport dreadlocks, smoke weed or ganja, which they call the ‘spiritual herb’, and are generally critical to any form of oppression. To the Rastafarian, any oppressor is synonymous to the biblical Babylon the Great and in the Nyabinghi spirit of struggle (Ugandan goddess, ‘who possesses many things’) all must be summoned to bring death to the oppressor.
As a student of Black Aesthetics, many things fascinate me on the link between reggae music, Rastafarianism and ganja smoking. There is transnational connection to how cultures travel across the global space and acquire new meanings.
While ganja smoking in Kenya is generally associated with rugged reggae-loving youths, I recently came face to face with a different concept of it in a European city.
For those not in the know, Amsterdam is widely considered as the “Sin Capital” of Europe with everything on offer from straight sex in the Red Light District, gay sex in Blue Light and Coffee shops offering weed and hash! All these are legal under Dutch law and attract taxes from the government, with over 500 shops throughout the country and 200 in Amsterdam alone.
My chance to sample an Amsterdam coffee shop, which is a licensed seller of cannabis products, came a Friday ago. I was up and about town on my Gazelle (bicycle) as usual, sampling the cultural spaces and theatres of the city.
Suddenly, on Marnixstraat 333, I noticed a conspicuous billboard with a picture of Bob Marley emblazoned on it, complete with the Rastafari colours of red, gold and green. Underneath the reggae legend’s image were the words Funky Munkey Coffee shop.
Obviously, I was intrigued by how a weed-selling joint was brazenly using reggae culture to advertise itself. But hey, it was a warm weekend afternoon, and I was clearly in the mood for some “monkey business”.
I mustered courage, locked my bike outside and sauntered into Funky Munkey with the comportment of a veteran. I am on a queer mission here and I figured its time I cracked this Coffee shop mystic somehow.
Inside, the white man at the counter was friendly enough to exchange pleasantries as he offered the menu and chattily explained how the coffee shop laws work. A typical menu here includes weed and hash in pre-rolled joints or msokoto, “space cakes” and muffins. There are also brownies, cookies and shakes all laced with marijuana. However patrons are warned to avoid the cakes because they are “lethal”.
The potency and prices of products vary, but a gram of cannabis sativa or indica weed goes for up to 13 euros (about Sh1, 500). Funky Munkey menu has funky names like White Widow, Bubble Gum, Amnesia, Silver Haze, Jamaican and Skunk among others.
There are always lots of people here, I learnt. I saw two or three blacks like me, the rest white. There were the happy and sad, jolly and holy. Some were high, others flat stoned. In the background, Marlon Asher’s number Ganja Farmer was cooing invitingly as if to egg on this cultural fusion of reggae music and “free-spirited” ganja imbibers in Europe’s “Sin City”.
Dr Chris Wasike is a visiting research fellow at Amsterdam Institute of Social Science Research, University of Amsterdam. Email: [email protected]