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Equal Rights: Reggae and Social Change - Exploring Revolution though Cover Art

Members of the Blue Glaze Mento Band

The Jamaica Music Museum opened its first major exhibition Equal Rights: Reggae and Social Change at its interim home at the Water Lane exhibition space, Institute of Jamaica, Downtown Kingston, on Sunday August 12, 2012. With Reggae as one of Jamaica’s greatest achievements, it is significant that the museum finally has a home, during the commemoration of Jamaica 50, even if its a tiny one.

The exhibition has travelled a long road between its first installation in 2006 in New England, in the United States and Jamaica but JMM Director and exhibition curator, Herbie Miller notes that despite the struggles to get the exhibition shown in Jamaica, its arrival is timely. He explained that 2012 provided the intersection of Jamaica 50 and Marcus Garvey’s 125th birthday, which is a great moment to explore the issue.   Additionally, this year Reggae legend Peter Tosh, from whom the exhibition borrows a part of its name, is finally being awarded a posthumous Order of Merit. Tosh whose controversial and outspoken stance which seemed to make him the physical manifestation of the stepping razor, was adamant that equality must be accompanied by justice for all.

Herbie Miller, Director/Curator Jamaica Music MuseumThe opening took place in two parts. The first phase, the formalities, took place in the Institute of Jamaica’s lecture hall and was hosted by Ambassador Burchell Whiteman, Chairman of the Council of the IOJ. Dr. Omar Davies, Minister Transport, Works and Housing and an avid Reggae scholar attempted to contextualize the exhibition by pointing to explanations for Reggae’s global impact.  

Dr Davies argued, that along with the “thumping baseline” which cannot be ignored, the music’s concern with global affairs is a part of the reason for its appeal. He explained that Reggae’s birth coincided with both the rise of the singer/songwriter and a growing global concern by popular artists with social commentary. He also ascribed Reggae’s interest in social commentary as a part of the African influence wherein music is a part of daily life and is used to reflect the world view.

Dr. Davies also argued that exhibition was an important step toward having more Jamaicans telling reggae’s history. He noted that while much research and documentaries existed on the subject, most of it came from outside. “We must develop the culture of putting our own stories on record,” Dr. Davies urged. “This exhibition represents a step in that direction. It is one step in our telling our stories.” Of course, Equal Rights was only realized through external support, including that of Reggae scholar Joshua Chamberlain who helped Miller source the initial funding to stage the exhibition in the United States.

At the end of the formalities, the audience was led pied piper like by Miller and a saxophonist, from the lecture hall,  down East Street and left on to Water Lane to the exhibition’s humble home. Dr. Omar Davies, Min of Transport, Housing and Works

Equal Rights: Reggae and Social Change uses album cover art from Jamaica’s music history to explore the music’s development, and in particular its concern with being a catalyst for social change. The exhibition has album art from folk music, mento, through to ska, rocksteady, and reggae, interspersed with a few musical artefacts.

The exhibition provides an interesting perspective from which to explore Reggae and the revolutionary impetus that has been an integral part of the music. The opening also highlighted the breadth and diversity of the music through performances from The Blue Glaze Mento Band, violinist Naomi Reitzi, Ska Rebirth and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari. Yet, it is clearly the tip of the iceberg of what a Jamaican Music Museum can offer. But Reggae is no stranger to humble beginnings and as Dr. Davies had remarked, it is a step in the right direction, and it is a step that is long overdue.