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

Laura Snapes

Appeared on Thu 29 Nov 2018, on  theguardian.com


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.”


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.