“Every dime I had was spent on two things—books and records,” said Sharon Gordon, founder of the nonprofit organization Coalition to Preserve Reggae Music. “I would take my little savings and buy my 45s. We didn’t have iPods then, we had component sets, and they looked like little suitcases with turntables inside.”
Growing up in Jamaica, Gordon explained that she was raised in a musical family. At school, she was a star dancer who constantly performed and participated in cultural events hosted by a woman known as “Ms. Lou.”
“Louise Bennett is seen as the queen of Jamaican comedy,” said Gordon. “But she’s more than that. She’s the queen of Jamaican folklore.” Gordon explained that Bennett was a key player in normalizing patois and advocating for Jamaicans to speak in their natural tongue. “Ms. Lou taught us to be proud of our folklore and our culture,” she said. “I grew up with this genre.”
By the time Gordon was brought to America in 1979, everything she did was about Jamaica—the culture, the music, her people. “No matter what I did, my culture exuded from me, it’s part of my identity, and people have always identified me with pride.”
Gordon has spent most of her life dedicated to making sure this particular part of her identity was shared with the world. Established in 2005, CPR’s goal has been uniting reggae lovers to work together in preserving the traditional message of healing and unity in reggae music.
“In the late ‘90s, early 2000s, you saw a shift happening,” said Gordon. “[Reggae] was going into a very negative space.” She explained that instead of spreading peace and love, which is the message of traditional roots and reggae music, the newer style of Dancehall was portraying Jamaica as homophobic, violent and misogynistic.
“And I don’t like using the word ‘dancehall’ to describe this current sound,” said Gordon. “There was a place called the dancehall where [reggae] was actually played. When you talk about dancehall, you’re talking old school—Super Cat, Brigadier Jerry.”
The current ‘Dancehall’ music is a new sound and a new movement with a very different message. “And I’m not anti-dancehall,” said Gordon, who believes that the new sound itself is creative and has its own place. “I just don’t want a steady diet of those type of negative lyrics.” Gordon recognizes that these themes and ideas have always existed, but that the main problem is how normalized the vulgarity of the music has become.
“They have made it normal to turn on your radio or just drive around and hear the most vulgar and violent lyrics being spewed at you, as if it’s OK,” she said. But what worries Gordon the most is that there is no inoculation against the impact of this constant negativity.
“It has become celebratory now to talk about shooting a man in his head or shooting a lady in her belly with her baby—what is that celebrating?” Gordon asked, waving her hands in frustration. “There’s nothing to celebrate there. How is that moving people forward?”
Gordon sees a direct connection to the breakdown of the education system in Jamaica and the current trends in Jamaican music. She explains that if the Jamaican education system were to be strengthened and improved, then the country could begin getting back to the basics: educating its youth and teaching them how to think critically and lyrically.
“If we could get them back to reading and writing, then they will come up with better lyrics,” said Gordon. “There would be a better sense of appreciation and a better understanding that we shouldn’t throw out people like Bob Marley, Toots and the Maytals, Joseph Hill.”
A troubled look stretched across Gordon’s face as she sat back in her chair. She explains that people often defend dancehall for its global reach and popularity, claiming that Marley’s music wasn’t played on the radio. “Of course it wasn’t played on the radio, the music industry knew that type of music was going to empower us,” she said.
Gordon claims that the situation is no different here in America, referring to the negativity and gun lyrics of mainstream hip-hop music. She explained that both dancehall and rap feed off one another in an endless and repetitive cycle, but that neither is celebrating anything positive. “It’s not about us and understanding who we are as a people and where we stand in the struggle,” said Gordon.
Aug. 2, the 75th anniversary of the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie, who was constantly referenced and an inspiration to reggae music, CPR held its first ever Reggae Culture Salute as a direct way to combat the negative shift in Jamaican culture. “It was a huge success,” beamed Gordon. “And the rest is history!”
This year will mark the 10th annual Reggae Culture Salute, continuing Gordon’s goals of preserving her reggae roots and providing a platform where individuals can connect the dots of Jamaica’s history.
“Roots and reggae culture music is an uplifting music. It’s a prescriptive music; it is prescribing for us how we should be, how we should live,” said Gordon. “It’s the ‘one love’ philosophy that brought people to Jamaica; the drum and bass hooked them and then the lyrics were sweet.”
For more information about CPR and the Reggae Culture Salute, visit www.cprreggae.org.