Equal Rights: Reggae and Social Change

February 9th, 2006 by Adam

An exhibition at Plymouth State University presents social history through Jamaican art and music as a way to engage intellectual and community discourse on culture and social change.

Equal Rights: Reggae and Social Change is funded in part by the New Hampshire Humanities Council and was organized by Catherine Amidon, Herbie Miller and Josh Chamberlain.

Using record album covers, supported by explanatory text panels, film and sound clips, the exhibition documents how these arts, grounded in the Afro-Carribean roots of the island’s inhabitants, have addressed social and political issues in America and internationally.

Equal Rights: Reggae and Social Change, riffs and rips off reggae artist and freedom advocate Peter Tosh’s 1977 album Equal Rights. “People speak for themselves, through the music, through all its forms and permutations. Cover art speaks visually, giving sight to the cultural information contained in the music. This exhibition displays album covers and posters that incorporate influences shared by Jamaican visual artists since the advent of international modernism and the concurrent recognition of ‘Intuitive’ works,” says Miller.

As folk recordings captured indigenous Jamaican music, more internationally influenced groups were redefining it in ways that would set the stage for reggae. Prior to the 1960s, the idea of adding an authentic visual representation of the music to the cover art was almost nonexistent. Late 1950s record covers depicted prejudicial colonial views of what constituted Jamaicanness, on the one hand, and notions of tropical paradise and hedonism on the other.

By 1962, bands such as The Skatalites began to address the socio-political issues, aligning visionary musical concepts and strong national ideals in a new musical concept they called “ska.” Instrumentalists mixed mambo and calypso elements with jazz and blues and displayed a Caribbeanness informed by their Jamaican roots. Their music reflected the concerns of Afro Jamaicans and foreshadowed the conscious lyrics of reggae-era singers. Skatalites’ songs like “Freedom Sound” and “Malcolm X” were precursors to 1960s black consciousness and brought increasing political sensibility to the music.

“Concept” albums allowed musicians the opportunity to strengthen their message by aligning lyrics and song choices with the choice of cover art. Through the concept album, reggae became Jamaica’s expression of popular culture, absent the prejudicial views, and expressed that culture throughout the international mainstream.

An art form dominated by males, reggae nonetheless boasts a cadre of influential women or “oman.” Reggae’s female performers learned from matriarchs like Nanny, Una Marson and Louise Bennett to express their independence, confidence, craft and artistic prowess and to portray the dignity of the Jamaican woman. The Jamaican women featured in Equal Rights: Reggae and Social Change, consciously present themselves as black women, with a culturally elevated sense of dignity.

Reggae lyrics continue to upset the status quo. In the United States, immigrants interacted with the broader international society, especially in the South Bronx of New York, to create new forms born out of Jamaican sound-system culture and rhythms. It is out of this interaction that hip hop and rap emerged.

Equal Rights: Reggae and Social Change highlights the freedom struggle of Jamaicans and the world’s dispossessed peoples, and celebrates the visual arts of album covers and music by artists who continued the legacy of the slaves who fought for freedom. Music was the rallying voice for events from the formation of the two major political parties to the realization of universal suffrage and a vision for Jamaica’s political independence. Jamaican musicians, from those on slave plantations to folk song troubadours, from ska innovators to dance hall disc jockeys, were national builders and artists who understood the power of the arts for communicating and energizing resistance. In this exhibition, Miller, Amidon and Chamberlain posit that they still are.

Herbie Miller has coordinated tours and produced more than 30 records and videos. He lectures extensively and is an inductee to the Jamaican Jazz Hall of Fame. Josh Chamberlain produced The History of Reggae Music: 1958 to 1966, a retrospective on how current events influenced Jamaican popular music. A retrospective covering the years 1967 to 1972 is in production. Chamberlain is a reggae disc jockey and produces and hosts the weekly “Mad Lion Reggae Show” for WUNH radio 91.3 FM in Durham. Catherine Amidon is director of the exhibitions program at Plymouth State University and has more than 20 years experience as a curator. She has presented exhibitions on Jamaican art in New York, wrote materials for the first Jamaican Pavilion at the Biennale de Venezia in 2002 and was head of the exhibitions committee for Jamaica Artists Alliance in Washington D.C. from 2000 – 2003.

The exhibition runs March 1 – April 9 at the Silver Center for the Arts on Main Street in Plymouth.

Exhibition viewing hours at the Silver Center are noon – 6 p.m. on weekends, 8 a.m. – 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, and during performances. During PSU Spring Break March 20 – 24, the Silver Center will be closed on Monday, and open Tuesday – Friday from 8 a.m. – 4 p.m.

For information call the Karl Drerup Art Gallery at (603) 535-2614 or logon to www.plymouth.edu/gallery .

All exhibitions are open to the public, free of charge.