I like to hit issues in my lyrics. I want people in the Islands to be proud of their cultures and languages and lifestyles.
Reggae specialist Jennifer Cattermole in her thesis exploring reggae in New Zealand states the consumers "have used [reggae] music to position themselves in relation to groups of people located both within and beyond New Zealand’s socially constructed geographical boundaries - to construct “trajectories rather than boundaries across space,” and to “illumine affinities, resemblances, and potentials for alliances among a world population that now must be as dynamic and mobile as the forces of capital (Cattermole, 2004).” Exploring how Pacific Island nations are connected/represented to each other and the outside world through reggae is an important site for examination. Interpreting this concept can help give us a better understanding of the music's impact here in Hawaiʻi as well as the rest of the Pacific.
Typically, reggae has resonated strongly amongst groups of oppressed people throughout the world because of its aspirations for racial equality, social justice, and freedom. Pacific Islanders in general, and Native Hawaiian's in particular would certainly be included into the worlds groups of oppressed peoples due to their long legacy of European colonization that dates back hundreds of years. Most if not all Pacific Island nations can testify to the colonial occupation that is reflected within the reggae that has come out of Jamaica, despite the Pacific Island circumstances having their own unique relationship(s) with colonialism. Arguably more important than identifying with the struggles, Pacific Islanders align with reggae’s resistance to colonization and the music’s values and ambitions that demand the celebration, re-centering, and emancipation of the cultures and peoples that were marginalized as a result of colonization.
Approaching the idea of identity from a region wide standpoint, this is one fundamental reason why the Pacific Islander community as a whole has come to identify with the music. As with Jamaicans and other Caribbean islanders, Pacific Islanders fight a common battle against the Western establishment (otherwise known as Babylon) that to this day continue to dominate the social, cultural, economic, and political spheres of these islands. Thus, perhaps the most core construction of the Pacific Island identity through reggae is to acknowledge Pacific Islanders as groups or a group of oppressed people fighting for self autonomy, equality, and empowerment against Western domination.
This theme is represented in songs "Paradise Lost" by Sudden Rush, “Indigenous Life" by Fiji and “Never” The Green. In Fiji's song “Indigenous Life,” he starts by singing "I come from a part of the world where the royal images are considered a dying breed. Where missionaries flood them with ghost spell, mislead the people and take all the land with greed. Sell them to a different kind of god where their souls can be bought and forget about their history (Fiji, 2008)." Through metaphor and imagery we see indirect references to the overtaking of traditional royal or chiefly systems (ex. the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy in 1893) that have been replaced by Western authorities as well as the damage caused by Christian missionaries degrading native cultures (ex. early missionaries forbidding Hawaiian language and other cultural practices such as Hula), the seizing of native lands (ex. land privatization through laws like "The Great Mahele" that took away the fundamental building block of Hawaiian society, ʻāina) the emplacement of capitalist ideology (ex. plantations, sandalwood trade, and eventually tourism that caters to foreigners and places the value of money over the well-being of the Hawaiian people), and displacement of Pacific pasts (the Christianization/Americanization of Hawaiian people that instilled new sets of values and customs that pushed aside their own). These musical excerpts expose a small window into the sense of oppression felt by Pacific Islanders and more importantly their calls to action that emerge within the music.
However, just as Pacific reggae groups will make their music in the English language rather than indigenous languages to make their music attract a broader audience, they also tend to create lyrical content that invites a wider range of listeners by staying away from narrow subject matter that may exclude people, and thus many times will not directly reference the oppressors they may be drawing the songs inspiration from. An example of this can be seen inside a track titled “Lead Us” from the band Katchafire where vocalist Logan Bell sings in a verse “They try to take our culture, They try to segregate, they try to take away our birth place (Katchafire, 2011).” Although he doesn’t directly state who “they” are, those familiar with the bands background know that he is referring to the Pakeha colonial presence in New Zealand. Because he remains more vague and metaphorical in his language, the message can also be applied to apartheid in South Africa or the Native American tribes in the United States, giving the music a much more universal appeal. Creating a more inclusive message is what helped reggae initially gain such a wide following and what continues to help Oceanic and Hawaiian versions of the music have resonance with other peoples around the earth.
The overall theme of Pacific Islanders uniting amongst the worlds oppressed peoples, even if it's only in this musical space, is important because it shows a global sense of solidarity. “The poverty, oppression, marginalization and discrimination experienced predominantly by postcolonial indigenous and diaspora communities from around the world forms the basis for this collective identity (Cattermole, 2004)”. By Pacific Islanders inducting themselves through reggae into this global community of oppressed peoples, they enhance the cohesion amongst these groups, which in turn instills a sense of empowerment in knowing that there exists other peoples who are collectively struggling alongside themselves that face the same or similar sets of problems and goals. Basically it tells people of the Pacific "hey, we are not the only ones dealing with these issues. We have fellow human beings all over the world in places as far away as Jamaica, Chile, or England who are also experiencing similar problems and who are proactively voicing their resistance through reggae." Furthermore, it gives the overall movement out of oppression more potency. More people equals more power equals more of a voice and thus poses itself as more of a threat to the dominant entities they are working against, especially when we consider that although the groups of oppressed peoples may differ geographically and culturally, many of the groups that withhold the power and are causing the oppression are the same.
Of course, we must also address the elephant in the room which is the fact that it's not just people of Pacific Islander heritage who are listening to and playing reggae in Hawai'i. It's European and African Americans, Japanese, Filipinos, and other ethnicities who embrace and perpetuate the music. Some of which who historically come from lineages of oppressed peoples and others who may even come from the ancestry of the oppressors themselves. However, reggae is not exclusive. Even early reggae was described as "nurturing the consciousness of black people, without denying the humanity of any people (Potash, 1997)". Furthermore, although some may not identify directly with a native Hawaiian sense of oppression, much of the music today speaks more generally to the injustices of our modern day societies. Excellent examples can be heard in the music of Mike Love, one of Hawaii's more popular solo artists whose music doesn't address Native Hawaiian oppression but explores a broader state of consciousness through songs like "No More War" and "Human Race".
It seems that identifying with reggae music has transitioned previously from a generally more race based identification to now being categorized more by world views, shared values, and aspirations of a more humanitarian society. In reggae, associating with the music now comes through being dissatisfied with the rat race of the modern world and more interested in sustainable living. People who seek to live positive lifestyles and disengage with a system that exploits the earth and is catered to benefit less than 1% of the human population. People who find value in loving one another and enjoying everything that life has to offer. These are some of the mentalities that unite people through reggae music today, even if for some it may only be in a small capacity. But don't be fooled. Reggae can be and still is militant. After all, it is revolutionary music, rebel music. As the popular saying goes, "don't mistake Aloha for weakness." The same can be said of reggae music. A music which is not afraid to speak its mind and call out anyone who threatens the well being of humanity. Or as SOJA and J Boog have put it, "Fuck Your System".
People in Hawai'i also identify with reggae because it is “Island Music.” Reggae is strongly influenced and largely the product of its island environment where it has come to be considered the “Island Anthem” as Ikaika Antone of Hawaiian reggae band The Green has put it. Whether Jamaican, Dominican, Hawaiian, Fijian, or Papua New Guinean, there are overwhelming continuities in island cultures. Reggae has firmly established itself as a music that represents these island cultures, where no matter what island you may reside, some form of reggae is usually within earshot. This identification then helps represent people within the Pacific as coming from island cultures and unite them with the vast network of other island cultures that exist around the planet. What's interesting is to note that although the above is true, some of the biggest consumers of Hawaiian reggae come from the continental United States, especially the West Coast. However, this could also be due to the islander diaspora communities, which in a sense, are islands themselves, especially when we consider that currently there are more Native Hawaiians living in the diaspora communities outside of Hawaiʻi than actually living in the islands themselves.
Sometimes the message of the music comes secondary to the actual style of music itself and thus simply by playing reggae, Pacific Islanders are able to associate with other islanders playing and listening to the music, ultimately helping build a bridge from those cultures to their own. The bonds created through reggae are invaluable to these communities because it provides a framework for the unification of Pacific Islanders, which has been identified by Oceania’s top scholars like Epeli Hau'ofa and Albert Wendt as the key to the regions success in the times of modernization. Just read the monumental essays "Our Sea Of Islands" or "Toward A New Oceania" to learn about the progressive thinking of some of the regions greatest intellects and you'll see how many of their theories of Pacific unity and self empowerment are things naturally observed through reggaes influence in the region.
The theme of Pacific Island unity can also be found within the music itself, where again citing Fiji’s track “Indigenous life” as a quick example, we hear him claim Tongan and Fijian ancestry and “recognized the raising of my consciousness when I migrated to the kingdom of Hawai’i. Opened up my mind to the idea of strength and unity from my Samoan Family. Imagine if we ever come together and we praise our roots all the way back to the Māori. Down to the Tokelau Islands, the Marquesas, and even down to Tahiti (FIJI, 2008).” To further exemplify this idea, one of the most popular bands here in Hawai’i is Aotearoa reggae band Katchafire. People in Hawai’i are able to connect to the band and their sound mainly because their style of reggae goes hand in hand with Hawai'i’s own and because the bands music comes out of a similar context, sharing common ancestry and being from Polynesia. Vice versa, in Aotearoa, some of the most popular bands come from Hawai’i, like Kolohe Kai and The Green. The result is that the consumers develop a strong affinity to not only the fellow Pacific Islanders brand of reggae music, but also the peoples themselves, where they are able to forge bonds of kinship because of the ability to relate to each other through the music. This is also reflective in the radio airplay, at least here in Hawaiʻi, where the most played music is almost always from a local band, another Pacific Island group, or more recently from some of the Pacific Islander diaspora communities in the continental US which have made their way into the Pacific reggae music-scapes. Of course, all of this is not to discredit the valuable sense of belonging reggae creates for many people of both islander and non-islander blood through the music and culture.
While representations of the localized forms of reggae carry weight amongst the Pacific Island communities themselves, in my opinion, they have a much greater influence outside of the region. Most people outside of Oceania have minimal interaction with the cultures and consequentially a much more limited perception of the places. Typically, what little they do know is slanted by media and hollywood. A prime example is referring to the song “That’s The Way” by The Green where singer JP Kennedy sings “Honolulu it makes me sick, I never thought that I'd say it, but when I drive right past the city, I just feel shitty (The Green, 2011).” This alternative perspective highly contrasts many people’s fantasized images of Honolulu, where Waikīkī is considered a dream destination to foreign travelers. What’s interesting however, is how the music both perpetuates and deteriorates stereotypes about Pacific Island cultures. On one end, just by playing reggae, many people outside of the Pacific who may be unfamiliar with the genre use these localized forms of the music to associate and confirm their beliefs of the islands as “carefree” slices of “paradise” where worries don’t exist. Contrastingly, the music also has the potential to break through these very same stereotypes where songs of struggle, oppression, and the corruption of island societies are exposed through the music regularly to anyone who takes the time to listen.
People often cite themes like family, love, and respect for homelands as common themes in Pacific and Hawaiian reggae. What we see is the Pacific Islander values then being reflected in the music. This confirms that localized versions of Pacific reggae being consumed outside of the region help represent the Pacific Islander experience. Within this is a taste for the lifestyles, political struggles, cultural practices, and social structures amongst other points of access into Pacific realities. Real Pacific realities expressed by the people themselves, not some other type of media or advertisement that may be attempting to sell something or carry any other type of agenda.
Of course, there are inevitably negative representations that also come with the music, which not only people outside of Pacific Island communities consume, but also Pacific Islanders themselves. One of the biggest points for discussion revolve around the commercialization of reggae music and how many of the distribution channels that reggae flows through supports the very system reggae seeks to dismantle (another topic that could be a whole essay in and of itself). Ironically, one of the common associations that exist, although it pertains mostly to the live musical events, is fighting. On August 12th, 2011 a concert for reggae artist Tarrus Riley at Aloha Tower in Hawai’i with an attendance of 3000 was cut short when violence broke out (article here), which also resulted in an ad campaign from local media to end violence at music events. There are unquestionably other factors that influence this problem, such as "alcohol and testosterone", but live reggae concerts have on occasion been known to be sites for physical altercations. Another common negative representation already mentioned is the attachment of the music to the recreational use of marijuana. While original reggae saw the smoking of marijuana as a highly spiritual act, the assimilation of reggae outside of its Rastafarian context caused the conversion of the sacramental affiliation of marijuana to a more recreational one. Although many people who listen to the music choose not to partake in this activity, it is still a sweeping generalization tied to those who listen to it. A last major negative representation I will include in this essay is the perception of the music that projects Pacific Islanders as having a “carefree” attitude. This is problematic because it minimizes the distress that Pacific Island peoples face on a daily basis, feeding into the “happy native” categorization, and overlooking the vast amounts of content within the music that provides a more accurate portrayal of Pacific Island life, one far from “worry free.”
As a whole, many individuals who identify with Hawaiian and Pacific Island reggae do so for a variety of reasons, some because they align with the message while others, simply because they enjoy the music. For those who do identify with reggae, it can be a space of cultural representation and belonging. For those outside of the region who also like or even love the music, it can provide a better understanding and genuine encounter with Pacific peoples and cultures as well as a common ground to relate on. The truth is, that Pacific Islander reggae, and all music for that matter, is first and foremost internalized at the individual level. Connecting to music is a very intimate bond because everyone relates to it in his or her own unique way. The diverse set of motivations behind what makes any one person identify with reggae vary greatly amongst the individual and can change immensely from one person to the next. Because of this, I would like to share my own personal relationship to the music since I am the only person I feel comfortable representing at the individual level.
For myself, even though I am not of Hawaiian or Pacific Island blood, I identify with the Pacific Island reggae music since it largely represents where I come from and the culture that has shaped me. I have also found it to be a community that includes me, regardless of my genealogy, while giving me a space to learn from, relate to, and connect with the life worlds and experiences of other peoples in Oceania. Pacific Island reggae and my involvement with the music has not only helped me establish bonds of friendship amongst peoples of all ethnicities, but also molded my perceptions of society to resemble the music’s ideological structure, one which at its truest form is a purely humanitarian model. At times the music has represented me as a “stoner,” while at other times, like this one, as a “scholar.” It has been an outlet for my personal expression at points in my life, at others, the music I spent the whole night "skanking" to. My point is that at the individual level, reggae is consumed and represented differently depending on the person, but regardless the reason, has played a significant role in the lives of many.
Upon Bob Marley’s visit to Aotearoa back in 1979, the Māori greeted him with a traditional song and dance ceremony reserved for visiting dignitaries (Click To Watch) that Marley's manager at the time Don Taylor referred to as one of his “most treasured memories of the impact of Bob and reggae music on the world" ("Bob Marley Official Site", 2014).” This welcome symbolizes the open arms many Pacific Islanders had and have to reggae music, resulting in a powerful relationship that has greatly impacted the islands of Oceania and reverberated a new style of the music back around the globe to continue the mission of the music that started on a small island in the middle of the Atlantic ocean.
For many many here in Hawaiʻi, reggae has been used as the voice of the common people, a platform to express themselves to the world around them, and a channel of communication to share their knowledge, feelings, perspectives and so forth to the ears of those that they would have otherwise been unable to reach. Reggae in the Pacific has been a vehicle out of oppression, passed the torch of globalization, carried the pride of being islanders, planted the seeds of unification, and perhaps most importantly provided the strength to continue pursuing the dream of empowerment and equality so many people seek. The power and mystique of reggae is that its main weapon is music.