Reggae Music 101

Bob Marley. Getty Images

Reggae is a genre that grew out of several other musical styles, including both traditional and contemporary Jamaican music, like ska and mento, as well as American R&B. In the early days of radio, stations were super-high-powered, and several stations from Florida and New Orleans were powerful enough to reach Jamaica, thus the R&B influence. Reggae evolved from these other genres, and really emerged as a unique form in the late 1960s.

Characteristics of the "Riddim"

Reggae is characterized by a heavy backbeated rhythm, meaning the emphasis of the beat is on, for example, beats 2 and 4, when in 4/4 time. This backbeat is characteristic of all African-based musics and is not found in traditional European or Asian music. Reggae drummers also emphasize the third beat when in 4/4 time with a kick to the bass drum.


Rastafarianism is a religion that is very common among Jamaicans of African descent. Many of the world's most famous reggae musicians practice this religion, and therefore many reggae lyrics reflect the beliefs and traditions of Rastafarianism.

Popularity of Reggae in the United States

Bob Marley was reggae's best-known international ambassador. From his early days in a rocksteady band to his later years as a Rastafari convert and political activist, Bob Marley planted himself deeply into the hearts of reggae fans throughout the world.

Artists like Jimmy Cliff and Peter Tosh, among others, were also integral to the spread of the genre.

Marijuana and Reggae

In Rastafarian practices, marijuana is used as a sacrament; the belief is that it brings a person closer to God and makes the mind more open to receiving His testimony. Therefore, cannabis (referred to as "ganja" in Jamaican slang) often features prominently in reggae lyrics.

Unfortunately, a few decades of American teenagers have misinterpreted this sacred ritual and use it as an excuse to partake. Not all reggae lyrics contain references to ganja, just as not all reggae musicians are Rastafarians.

Read More: Why Did Bob Marley Smoke Marijuana?

Reggae Language

Reggae lyrics are sometimes borderline incomprehensible to Americans, as they are usually in an English-based but distinctly Jamaican patois. Many exclusively Jamaican slang terms and alternate verb forms are used, as are frequent references to Rastafarian terms, such as "Jah" (God).

Reggae's Influence

Reggae was a precursor not just to the modern Jamaican style of Dub, but to American Ska (think No Doubt, Sublime, Reel Big Fish), Jambands (Donna the Buffalo, The String Cheese Incident) and British reggae-based bands (UB40). Also often ignored is that reggae is the predecessor to Hip-Hop and Rap music, and a very clear line can be drawn between the two.

Reggae Starter CDs