UN adds reggae music to list of international cultural treasures

Jamaica’s distinctive beat has furthered ‘international discourse on injustice’, says Unesco – while devotees praise it for breaking down colonial race barriers

The UN has added reggae music to its list of international cultural treasures worthy of protection and promotion.

Jamaica applied for recognition of its musical tradition at a meeting of the UN in Mauritius this year. “It is a music that we have created that has penetrated all corners of the world,” said the country’s culture minister Olivia Grange.

BBC Radio 1Xtra presenter Dave Rodigan said: “The Unesco announcement is fantastic news for reggae, which has traditionally spoken out for the underprivileged whilst offering hope for a world in which love and respect is paramount.”

To mark reggae’s inscription into the representative list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity, Unesco – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation – said: “[Reggae’s] contribution to international discourse on issues of injustice, resistance, love and humanity underscores the dynamics of the element as being at once cerebral, sociopolitical, sensual and spiritual.”

The function of the music “as a vehicle for social commentary, a cathartic practice and a means for praising God” had not changed since its emergence from the Caribbean in the late 1960s, said Unesco.

Reggae artist Hollie Cook said that politicians could take a leaf out of reggae’s “strong message of peace, love and unity”, and described its cultural impact as “a great example of how immigration has a great and positive effect in our society. Maybe some of our country’s leaders can put down their pens, stop fear-mongering and blast out some Aswad to relax.”

Hollie Cook performing at the 2012 Womad festival.
Hollie Cook performing at the 2012 Womad festival. Photograph: C Brandon/Redferns via Getty Images

Postwar immigration from Jamaica led to the genre flourishing in the UK: this year, the famed British reggae label Trojan celebrated its 50th anniversary. Laurence Cane-Honeysett, author of The Trojan Records Story, described the UN’s recognition as an “amazingly positive” move. “The impact and influence of the genre globally has long been overlooked.

“It has contributed significantly to the development of multiculturalism, with the ska, rock steady and reggae of the 1960s and early 70s having a notably positive effect in the breaking down of social barriers by bringing together people of all colours, particularly in Britain.”

BBC Radio 6 Music presenter Don Letts told the Guardian of reggae’s enduring significance: “If you look at a map of the world, Jamaica’s a tiny island that spent hundreds of years under colonial rule. Ironically, in the 21st century, it has culturally colonised the planet.

“The island’s culture as typified by its art, language, dance and attitude continues to capture the imagination of people globally. The sonic experiments created in Jamaican studios are now part of the fabric of contemporary music. Jamaica is a testament to the power of culture to act as a tool for social change, albeit at a grassroots level.”

Letts said that reggae “can take care of itself”, but added: “There’s no doubt that Jamaica’s not reaped the financial rewards of its cultural impact, and that’s what the island really needs. If the UN can sort that, go for it.”

Unesco’s list began in 2008, following an international convention to safeguard intangible cultural heritage. It defines this as “the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognise as part of their cultural heritage”.

The purposes of the convention are to safeguard, ensure respect, raise awareness and provide for international cooperation and assistance. Other traditions inscribed to this year’s list include the art of dry stone walling, Slovenian bobbin lacemaking, Georgian chidaoba wrestling, the Irish sport of hurling, Poland’s szopka nativity scene tradition and the traditional spring festive rites of Kazakh horse breeders.

It is distinct from the world heritage list, which designates important physical sites including the Giza pyramids and the Cornish mining landscape.


Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Reggae is Jamaica’s rebel music – it doesn’t need establishment approval | Dotun Adebayo
This music has no time for government and global power , says Dotun Adebayo

Dotun Adebayo

01, Dec, 2018 @10:00 AM

Article image
Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, visionary master of reggae, dies aged 85
Producer and performer who worked with Bob Marley and pioneered both dub and roots reggae styles dies in hospital in Jamaica

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

29, Aug, 2021 @3:31 PM

Article image
What links baguettes, bees and bear hunts? All join Unesco ‘human treasures’ list
French delegates at Unesco conference greet announcement with delight, brandishing bread sticks aloft

Jon Henley Europe correspondent

30, Nov, 2022 @1:20 PM

Article image
Bobby Digital: Jamaican reggae producer dies aged 59
Producer who worked with artists such as Shabba Ranks, Garnett Silk and Morgan Heritage was a maverick of the dancehall era

David Katz

26, May, 2020 @2:34 PM

Article image
Jamaican reggae vocalist Bob Andy dies aged 75
Socially conscious singer’s hit version of Young, Gifted and Black reached No 5 in the UK charts with duo Bob and Marcia

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

27, Mar, 2020 @5:28 PM

Article image
Toots Hibbert, pioneering reggae star, dies aged 77
Frontman of Toots and the Maytals helped make reggae globally famous

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

12, Sep, 2020 @7:40 AM

Article image
'Every black man have to fight': Buju Banton on prison and liberation
Jamaica’s reggae megastar received a hero’s welcome when he came home after seven years in a US jail. ‘No guts, no glory – that’s my genesis,’ he says in a rare interview

Lloyd Bradley

02, Jul, 2020 @11:47 AM

Article image
Bunny 'Striker' Lee, Jamaican reggae producer, dies aged 79
Prolific reggae and dub pioneer worked with decades of stars from John Holt and Slim Smith to Beenie Man and Buju Banton

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

07, Oct, 2020 @2:17 PM

Article image
‘The time is right’: reggae colossus Burning Spear on racism, rebellion and returning to Britain
He is the Jamaican legend who liberated reggae, taking it out of Kingston, drenching it in horns – and giving it a joyous, spiritual kick. As Burning Spear hits the road, he looks back on his astonishing life

Lloyd Bradley

08, Aug, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
'Original raggamuffin' Jah Stitch, pioneering reggae vocalist, dies aged 69
Sound system toaster, DJ and selector, known for his understated delivery and immaculate dress died in Kingston

David Katz

02, May, 2019 @2:03 PM