Reggae Music 101

From Jamaica to the United States and Beyond

Bob Marley
Bob Marley. Getty Images

While reggae music originated in Kingston, Jamaica, in the early 1960s, its popularity in the U.S. is almost as great as it is in its country of origin. Maybe that's because reggae is also a bit of a melting pot.

The word reggae originates from "rege-rege," a slang word for tattered clothing ("rags") and likely refers to its hodgepodge of influences, 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 could transmit their signals over great distances. As such, several stations from Florida and New Orleans were powerful enough to reach Jamaica, which likely accounts for the R&B influence in reggae. Whatever the mix of genres, the musical style emerged as a distinctive form that would influence many U.S.-based bands.

Characteristics of the "Riddim"

Reggae is characterized by a heavy backbeat rhythm, meaning the emphasis of the beat is on, for example, beats 2 and 4, when the song is in 4/4 time. This backbeat is characteristic of all African-based musical styles 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 and social movement established in Jamaica in the 1930s. It is characterized as an Abrahamic system of belief, in that its adherents claim their faith has it origins in the practices of ancient Israelites, who worshipped the "God of Abraham." 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 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.

As a result, dozens of U.S.-based reggae bands have cropped up over the decades, and there are communities of Rastafarians in almost every large American city.

Marijuana and Reggae

In Rastafarian practices, s 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 the purpose of this sacred ritual as an excuse to overindulge. Not all reggae lyrics contain references to ganja, just as not all reggae musicians are Rastafarians.

Musical Patois

Reggae lyrics are sometimes borderline incomprehensible to Americans, as they are usually sung 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), jam bands (Donna the Buffalo, the String Cheese Incident), and British reggae-based bands like UB40. Also often ignored is reggae's influence on hip-hop and rap music, and a very clear line can be drawn between the two.