The 2020 best reggae album Grammy nominations speak to a few trends for the genre and the Recording Academy: independent labels issue the most favored releases, veterans receive greater attention than newcomers and roots reggae has broader recognition than its dancehall descendant… at least, except for one Jamaican teen sensation.
Legendary bands are well represented among this year’s contenders. In May 2019, Steel Pulse — nine-time Grammy nominees and 1987 winners for Babylon The Bandit — released Mass Manipulation, their first new album in 15 years, on the not-for-profit Rootfire Cooperative. Topically focused, politically outspoken and musically riveting, Mass Manipulation marks a stunning return to classic form for the band founded in 1975 in Birmingham, England, led by singer/songwriter/guitarist David Hinds.
Jamaica’s Third World, currently celebrating their 47th anniversary, snagged their ninth Grammy nod with More Work To Be Done, a beautifully constructed update of their signature R&B-tinged reggae sound, featuring collaborations with younger Jamaican practitioners including Chronixx and Damian Marley. Damian produced More Work to Be Done, released on Ghetto Youths International, the label he co-owns with his older brothers Stephen and Julian Marley.
Singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Julian Marley, previously nominated for Awake in 2009, received his second Grammy acknowledgement for As I Am, which skillfully segues between roots reggae, rock and ska. In the course of making the album, Julian suffered the loss of his maternal grandmother and his daughter. “The emotional and spiritual depth on this album is like the rock of Jah, it can’t be moved,” Julian told Billboard on brother Damian’s Welcome to Jamrock Reggae Cruise. “It feels good to be acknowledged by the industry, but we’d be making the same great music even without the Grammys,” states Julian (whose As I Am is the second nomination for Ghetto Youths International in this year’s reggae category). “It’s great to see Ghetto Youths and other independents get this recognition. For As I Am, we teamed up with Zojak World Wide distribution so it’s the combined efforts of independents; the big labels have joined together so we as independent youths have to come together and strengthen each other in the business.”
“Many independent companies strongly believe in reggae but some of these projects wouldn’t have been picked up by majors who would ask how they will sell in the marketplace,” observes Sly Dunbar of Sly and Robbie. Also nominated is Sly and Robbie vs. Roots Radics: The Final Battle, which is a friendly skirmish between two powerhouse Jamaican bands, featuring Roots Radics’ sole surviving founding member, bassist Errol “Flabba” Holt. Produced by Argentinian percussionist Hernan Sforzini, The Final Battle is the premier release by Controlled Substance Sound Labs (CSSL) founded by brothers Jon and Matt Phillips of Silverback Management, whose clients include popular (American) reggae/ska/hip-hop outifit Slightly Stoopid; it’s also the first joint venture between CSSL and DubShot Records, a 10-year-old reggae influenced label/distributorship, founded by industry veteran Christoffer Mannix Schlarb.
In an interview with Billboard at his Kingston studio, Sly offered his opinion on reggae’s trajectory, informed by a career that includes opening for the Rolling Stones as the backing band for Peter Tosh; producing records for Joe Cocker, Bob Dylan, Grace Jones and No Doubt; and ushering in a visionary rock-tinged reggae sonic in the early ’80s as the rhythm section/producers of the influential Black Uhuru (winners of the first best reggae album Grammy in 1985 for Anthem). “After playing stadiums with the Stones, Robbie and I wondered, ‘How can we get reggae in that big market?’ So we changed our sound; it was reggae but with more power behind it,” Sly explained. “Touring reggae artists don’t perform to those size crowds today. We can get back there but, as Jamaicans, we can’t take reggae for granted — we have serious work to do and teamwork is the key to greater success.”
Jamaican music’s biggest success story currently is 19-year-old Koffee, whose dancehall-pop hit “Toast” spent 18 weeks atop Billboard’s Reggae Digital Sales Chart and surpassed 97 million YouTube views. Koffee’s five-track EP Rapture (RCA), the only major label release among the best reggae album nominees, makes her, incredibly, just the sixth female solo artist to be so recognized within the category; Jamaican singer Etana’s Reggae Forever, nominated in 2019, broke a 21-year span without female inclusion, and a woman has never taken home the award. Koffee’s nomination caps a year that includes the use of “Toast” in Jordan Peele’s Us and her feature alongside Chronixx on the remix of Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber’s “I Don’t Care.” “This nomination means that with continuous hard work, I can only reap more success and make more of a positive impact on the world,” Koffee, born Mikayla Simpson, told Billboard on the phone from Lagos, Nigeria, where she performed at the Rhythm Unplugged concert in late December. “I am very proud to be a part of the progress of the young females and males in the reggae industry,” Koffee continued. “As youths, we are inspiring other youths with what we’ve accomplished this year and that’s having a meaningful impact on society.”
On Dec. 17, 2019, at the Grammy Museum Experience in Newark, NJ, Third World were featured in an intimate conversation with Mark Conklin, the museum’s director of artist relations & programming. Prior to the event, guitarist Stephen “Cat” Coore told Billboard that Koffee’s phenomenal breakthrough highlights a lack of recognition for successful Jamaican songs in other Grammy categories. “Reggae has been boxed in; ‘Toast’ should have gotten a nomination as best pop single, too, but if you’re from Jamaica, you still get nominated solely as a reggae artist.” “Reggae is not American music, although there are many successful American reggae bands now, so the people who could help elevate it are kind of indifferent towards it,” adds Third World’s lead singer AJ Brown.
David Hinds hopes to see more bands coming from Jamaica, cultivating distinctive aural identities. “California reggae has become so successful because the bands work as self-contained units, not as solo acts with backing bands,” Hinds told Billboard ahead of Steel Pulse’s first performance in Jamaica in 10 years, at the annual reggae concert extravaganza Rebel Salute, held Jan. 17-18. Hinds also believes reggae must continue to rally against injustices and provide a voice for the oppressed, as it did when it was introduced to the world by Jimmy Cliff, The Wailers, Burning Spear, Third World and Steel Pulse. “Whoever wins the reggae Grammy, it’s important that the music has substance and people can act upon the messages. For over 40 years Steel Pulse has represented an ideology of people’s power to galvanize and become physically active in making changes; that’s what’s needed to move the genre and the people forward.”