A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.
Reggae is a form of music that evolved out of Ska and Rocksteady in Jamaica during the 1960's and 70's and was produced predominantly by the islands marginalized Afro-Caribbean population as a political and spiritual response to economic poverty after decades of oppression following the slave trade and other First World corporate imperialist schemes. The music was heavily rooted within the doctrine of Rastafari, the teachings of Marcus Garvey, and the divinity of Emperor Haile Selassie. It emerged shortly after Jamaican independence, speaking out against the colonial forces that continued to oppress many Jamaican people despite independence, while also emphasizing a message of black consciousness, empowerment, and social justice (Chang, 1997).
In the 1970’s, reggae gained worldwide recognition thanks to the help of legendary musicians Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, and Peter Tosh, also known as Bob Marley and The Wailers, though that is not to discredit a handful of other musicians, bands, and producers crucial to reggae’s explosion (i.e. Jimmy Cliff, Burning Spear, Toots & The Maytals, Christopher Blackwell). Toward the late 1970's, Bob Marley and The Wailers had toured all over the world, popularizing the music, and sparking a global movement that demanded human rights, social equality, and racial unity with reggae music and the teachings of Rastafari lying at the foundation.
In 1979, Bob Marley and The Wailers reached the Pacific for their first and what would be their only tour in the region. They performed for a crowd of over 20,000 at Westeren Springs in Auckland, Aotearoa (New Zealand) on April 16th followed by several stops in Australia before finally playing in front of 6,000 at the Waikīkī Shell in Honolulu, Hawai’i on May 6th (Midnightraver, 2012). In the bands wake evolved thriving reggae scenes on islands throughout the Pacific, where still today the sounds can be heard from Guam to Rapa Nui and just about every island in between. Whether he knew it or not, the music that Bob played would end up planting the musical seeds and a message of hope that would one day grow into what is now Hawaiian reggae.
By the time reggae reached Hawaiʻi, Native Hawaiians had already spent decades battling against becoming a minority within their own land and dealing with an overwhelming amount of social and cultural issues. Hot topics like "The bombing of Kaho‘olawe, Native Hawaiian fishing and gathering rights, the water issues of taro farmers of Waiahole and Waikane, and the Big Island geothermal controversy" were the beginning of a long list of controversy that had surfaced (Kamakahi, 2012).
In response, a movement to re-center Native Hawaiian people and ways of life that would become known as the Hawaiian Renaissance ignited during the 70's and 80's. Music played an integral role. These social circumstances strongly resembled those in Jamaica during the same period of time and thus what we see is the common bond that gives reggae its initial foundation and bridge to be embraced here in Hawaiʻi (ho’omanawanui, 2006).
Into the 80's the first wave of local artists started experimenting with reggae. Many of them rather than imitate what was already being played, added their own twist as they brought the music into the Hawaiian context. The sounds created were at that period of time referred to as "Jawaiian," a slang term mixing Jamaica and Hawaiʻi together that encompassed the mixing of African diaspora musics such as reggae, rap, and hip hop with contemporary and traditional Hawaiian music (I highly recommend learning more about the history of Jawaiian music in kuʻualoha hoʻomanawanuiʻs essay: From Ocean to O-Shen: Reggae, Rap, and Hip Hop in Hawai'i).
Reggae was quickly gaining traction in the islands while carving its role within the local culture. The music also seemed to go hand in hand with the resurgence of political music that came out of the Hawaiian renaissance movement since both shared themes of social justice and cultural empowerment. Songs like "Hawaiian Lands" by Bruddah Waltah would help contribute to the evolving soundtrack of the Hawaiian Renaissance movement. At the same time, "songs about food, surfing and love of the land that reflects traditional Hawaiian themes continued to be popular in all genres of contemporary Hawaiian music because of the cultural relationship between the Hawaiian people and their environment" (hoʻomanawanui, 2006). Thus, the music would also tell the tales of love with tracks like "Guava Jelly" by Kaʻau Crater Boys, island life with songs like "Wave Rider" by Butch Helemano, and ʻono food with "Fish & Poi" by Sean Naʻauao.
The 90's transitioned into a second wave of musicians and saw the highly successful careers take off for artists like Fiji, The Manaʻo Company, and Natural Vibrations, while radio stations like KCCN FM 100 were sprouting up that catered strictly to reggae and "Island Style" or "Jawaiian" music. It also saw the rise of popular "crossover artists" like legendary Israel Kamakawiwoʻole who played both contemporary Hawaiian music and reggae. Much of the music also continued to stay political and support social movements of the previous decades as seen in tracks like "EA" by Sudden Rush, another crossover artist who fused Hawaiian and reggae, but this time with hip hop. Annual concert events such as "Birthday Bash" held at the Waikīkī Shell would see the first years of their twenty year life span and local venues throughout the islands would host artists from home and abroad to play the music. Steadily, reggae and Hawaiian reggae started to flourish and was becoming a main musical staple throughout the islands.
Into the new millennium, reggae in Hawaiʻi had established itself as a dominant musical force as well as a popular international reggae destination for outside acts in the genre. Hawaiʻi wasn't the only location outside of Jamaica that had adopted the music. Places like the United Kingdom, Virgin Islands, and New Zealand were overflowing with their own reggae artists, many of which were becoming popular here in Hawaiʻi (Dreisinger, 2011). Because of reggae's prominent exposure and interconnectedness with the international reggae scene during this time period in Hawaiʻi, it became a stepping stone for outside reggae acts to slingshot into the mainstream as seen with American reggae bands SOJA and Groundation as well as other Pacific Island artists like Katchafire. Hawaiʻi's strong connection to the music even inspired tracks such as Ziggy Marley's "Beach In Hawaiʻi" and films like SOJA's "Live In Hawaiʻi."
By this point, the music being produced locally had branched off into several different styles where some stayed true to reggae's "roots" with bands like Inna Vision and Dubkonscious, others like Pepper were influenced by the new school rock/ska infused reggae pioneered by artists like Sublime. The previous Jawaiian style of music also remained popular where songs like "Cherry Bomb" by Nuff Sedd and "Don't Stop" by BET received plenty of airplay. Popular local reggae bands such as Ooklah The Moc drew large crowds and opened for international touring acts like The Wailers, Steel Pulse, and Bambu Station while Jawaiian style artists were still abundant on radio waves and the concert bills of local festivals. Artists from the previous decades also continued to refine their craft and grow with the scene where even today artists like Fiji and Natural Vibrations continue to produce new music and tour.
Within the past 5 years, the music has pushed the boundaries more than ever before on what seems like the steep ascent of an exponential growth curve. These years saw the rise of the first mainstream Hawaiian reggae artists like The Green and J-Boog who blazed the way for local reggae bands to tour nationally and internationally. There has been an influx of female artists such as Anuhea & Kimie who have also toured extensively. Albums like "Hawaiʻi '13" by The Green and "Born & Raised II" from Fiji broke records as they made their way into number one spots on the Itunes reggae and Billboard charts and even reached the Billboard Top 100 mainstream charts, sitting next to musical acts like Jay Z, Lady Gaga, and Maroon 5. Artists such as The Steppas, Anuhea, The Green, Irie Love, Maoli, J Boog, Hot Rain, Kimie, Fiji, Rebel Souljahz, Eli Mac, Kolohe Kai, Inna Vision, Mike Love, and Paula Fuga have all been touring in the US mainland and some even reaching international destinations like Japan, Canada, New Zealand, Kenya, Jamaica, Dubai, and Germany. Facebook followers alone for these 15 artists totals over 1.2 million that come from as far as places like Brazil and Russia.
Reggae has come a long way in Hawaiʻi. From backyard jam sessions and vinyl singles to genres dedicated to the music, billboard charting albums, sold out amphitheaters, and millions of followers. The music descends from a powerful musical lineage that has always played a core role in Hawaiian culture. More importantly, even generations after being introduced to the islands, it continues to be connected to the original social movements that helped it first become established as exemplified in contemporary tracks like "Never" by The Green or "Country Road" by Paula Fuga. Who knows where itʻs headed or what it will sound like in 10 years, but but as long as there continues to be a struggle for issues like race and economic equality, I imagine the music will continue to be a significant part of Hawaiʻi's music-scape. For more on Hawaiʻi's musical history, I also recommend checking out the publication "Aural History: How Music Shaped the Culture of Hawai‘i" sponsored by Hawaiʻi Council For The Humanities.