One love, one heart
Sacramento reggae-rock bands embrace diversity and dreadlocks
As someone who often found himself described with the pejorative term “mixed-race,” Bob Marley decried racism. Moreover, the son of a white Jamaican father of English descent and a black Jamaican mother of West African descent spoke of how even the mere idea of “race” should be destroyed, expressed in his first-ever recording, “Judge Not,” and his use of a Haile Selassie quote in the song “War”:
“Until … basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race … the dream of lasting peace, world citizenship and the rule of international morality will remain but a fleeting illusion, to be pursued but never attained.”
Marley’s “Judge Not” ethos echoed through my brain while Volkswagen’s “Get Happy” commercial aired during Super Bowl XLVII earlier this year. The ad depicted a white Minnesotan speaking in a Jamaican accent. Media commentators, including a New York Times columnist, quickly denounced the advertisement as “racist.”
If that were the case, then it would seem strange that from June 7, to June 9, Sacramento-area reggae-rock bands, including Arden Park Roots, Element of Soul and Massive Delicious are set to share the stage with bona fide Jamaican reggae artists Capleton, Ky-Mani Marley and Inner Circle at the Reggae in the Hills music festival.
Indeed, the diverseness of this lineup suggests a certain level of international and cross-cultural camaraderie within reggae. But, still: Is The New York Times columnist right? Are Sacramento’s reggae musicians—with their culturally co-opted dreadlocks; red, green and yellow wristbands; and references to Babylon—racist?
I decided to investigate. And to determine if these reggae rockers fit the Sublime-, marijuana- and skateboard-loving stereotype.
It turns out, some of them are uncomfortable with borrowing Jamaican culture themselves.
“There are a lot of [musicians] who aren’t—outside of their band—into Rastafarianism, but when they get on stage, they speak in [Jamaican] patois ... and talk about Jah, Babylon, burnin’ ’em down,” says Dylan Crawford of Sacramento reggae-funk band Massive Delicious. “I don’t know how I feel about that, dude.”
Crawford, whose dark-blond dreadlocks hide under a knit cap, has invited me into his Rosemont-area home on a recent weekday afternoon. He hands me a cup of tea and a list of local reggae-influenced bands he currently listens to: Element of Soul, Storytellers, Zuhg, Jamhead, Arden Park Roots, Island of Black and White, and Dogfood.
After growing up in Southern California and Idaho, Crawford relocated to Boston to study jazz and funk guitar at Berklee College of Music. There, he started Massive Delicious with a pair of classmates. The trio moved to Sacramento in 2011, and that’s when they soon realized how much less competitive and more friendly the music scene is in Sacramento than Boston, he says.
That’s a sentiment many of Sacramento’s reggae-rock musicians share.
“A lot of bands kind of came up at the same time, and we’ve all kind of tried to stick together and help each other out,” says Arden Park Roots’ lead singer Tyler Campbell.
This attitude and desire to help the scene succeed—along with constant networking and numerous gigs at music festivals with other California reggae-rock bands—has helped propel Arden Park Roots’ success (its latest album Pipe Dreams reached No. 2 on the iTunes reggae chart). In addition to Reggae in the Hills next month, the group performs this weekend at the California Roots Music & Arts Festival in Monterey (featuring headliners Rebelution, Matisyahu and Slightly Stoopid).
Campbell admits that he too would be irked by American reggae rockers if he were Jamaican. Still, he says, response to his band has been largely positive.
“I’ve experienced a band from Jamaica before [that has] not been real cool with [us], like, ’What are these white boys doing playing this reggae music? This is bullshit. This is [supposed to be] from Jamaica,’” says Campbell. “I’ve encountered that one time ever.”
On the other hand, Campbell has performed with and then hosted Alex Marley, cousin of the late Bob Marley, for a week in his Sacramento home last summer. Although Marley has already spent a significant amount of time in the United States, Campbell says the two discussed at length the differences between their respective cultures. Campbell is quick to make the distinction that reggae rockers play a completely different genre of music than the traditional Jamaican reggae style made popular by Bob Marley.
“Ours draws a lot of inspiration and mannerisms from that style of music, [but] we’ve really taken it and almost corrupted it to the point where it’s getting, like, poppy and mainstream and some shit,” he says. “There’s plenty of room for all these reggae-rock bands sprouting up in California.”
Perhaps there really is room for everyone, especially when these musicians believe that the essence of reggae isn’t really about skin color, slang or precise musical tradition, but a vibe.
“For me, I just like writing the same tunes I always did, but just putting those words and lyrics into a sort of reggae style,” says Crawford. “It’s just a matter of trying to stay true to yourself and put your own perspective into it.”
Many others around the globe have also put their own spin on it.
It’s particularly popular on islands like Hawaii (the Green, Anuhea), New Zealand (Katchafire), Bermuda (Collie Buddz), and even England (Steel Pulse, Maxi Priest). But reggae has long influenced popular American music and blended with genres such as hip-hop (Matisyahu), R&B (Rihanna, Bruno Mars), and punk (Fishbone, Bad Brains).
Sacramento’s reggae scene itself is also genre bending. In addition to hometown groups such as UrbanFire, Street Urchinz and Eazy Dub, Jamaican expats like King Hopeton, Ras D and DJ Hype add an urban Jamaican-dancehall style into the mix.
Reggae in the Hills music producer and Arden Park Roots tour manager Josh Dickel—who’s spent the last several years promoting reggae rock and trying to increase its live audience—describes the scene as somewhat of a clichéd melting pot.
“I think that they all embrace it,” says Dickel, of the California reggae scene’s diversity. “I work with a lot of Polynesian promotional groups and island groups from Hawaii, and we know people in Guam, so my network is multicultural. Because reggae rock is so big here, all the [international] rootsy [reggae] artists want to play in California.”
But what does an actual Jamaican think of California’s reggae rockers?
“I am always happy that reggae music itself is going to the four corners of the world,” says DJ Hype, who was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and moved to Sacramento about 10 years ago. “At the end of the day, reggae and dancehall—a place where people link up for good vibes—is a culture.”