Listen to the radio-essay here
When we discuss the social and global impacts of both rap and reggae, we are looking at the art forms which share many similarities, but both also possess significant differences.
Initially, both rap and reggae are the productions of Black ghetto life, and are thus, cultural responses to the socio-economic conditions of exclusion, poverty, class oppression, and the de industrialization of the latter 20th and early 21st centuries.
Those similarities are offset by the cultural choices made by many of the early creators and modifiers of these art forms, however.
For while inner city poverty gave birth to a music that spoke to conditions of the Bronx, Brooklyn, and East Coast life in worsening ghettoes, reggae emerged from the slums of Jamaica, where the poor were informed, not only by their poverty, but by the decades long socio-religious movement of Rastafarianism, which, with its return-to-Africa ethos, gave a future vision of hope to people in largely hopeless conditions.
"Religion," Napoleon Bonaparte has opined, "has kept the poor from killing the rich."
It is this quality that distinguishes reggae from its American cousin, rap. For, while rap was born in the ghetto, amidst the most concentrated deprivations in modern American history, it hasn't stayed there. It is, today, a multi-billion dollar industry that sells its products around the world. And while its most recent incarnation may be laden with ghetto centric language and accents, the most successful practitioners live as far from the ghetto as their automobiles can take them. They live the lives of yesteryear's rock stars -of mansions, millions in disposable income, and conspicuous consumption.
Reggae's most successful superstars also made prodigious amounts of money, but many remained in Jamaica, its message of resistance to 'downpression' putting it in the thick of things, both at home and abroad.
In its video portrayals (where, to be honest, rap is preferred over reggae, which is rarely shown on national networks like BET), rap is distinguished from reggae by its choice of love interests (or should we say, 'lust interests?') in its portrayal of the desirable female(s).
In most videos, rap projects very light-skinned Black girls, relatively light-complected Latinas, and sometimes, a girl with Asian features. Brown or Black women (I mean here women of a truly dark complexion) are rarely featured, especially as the central 'lust interest' figure.
Reggae videos tend to take the opposite tack, by portraying black or deep brown women as central 'lust interests', which may be attributable to the influence of the conscious Africanity and nationalism of the Rastafarian movement.
A popular reggae tune goes like this:
la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, - Happy Birthday, African females;
You know I looove you;
You know I neeeed you, gal---;
la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, Happy Birthday, African females!
A rap song featuring such lyrics is improbable (even though rap is widely consumed throughout Africa).
Rap evolved as a strategy not just to make music, but to escape the dangers of the urban ghetto; in a sense, it used ghetto isms to escape the ghetto.
Reggae evolved as a music of the 'downpressed', but exhorted its listeners to heed the message of redemption in Rastafarian beliefs, as well as escape, not the ghetto, but Babylon -- the system.
As such, while the ghetto was a problem, it was not the problem.
The problem was the entire oppressive system, represented by all the governments of the West, and, in the Jamaican sense, independence from England didn't solve that problem, it just added another problem.
Salvation lay in returning to the 'Promised Land' - in Africa.
Rap has no equivalent vision. Indeed, it is a business, like any other, where culture is the commodity; a thing to be made, and sold.
In rap, the 'promised land' is Money. Paper. That's why many of the most successful adherents rap so strongly about acquiring wealth.
It is American capitalism, with a beat.
--(c) '08 maj