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Gussie Clarke Says Reggae Spreads A Universal Message

Gussie Clarke has been a leading reggae producer and music publisher since the 1970s.
Courtesy of Neil Williams
Gussie Clarke has been a leading reggae producer and music publisher since the 1970s.

Reggae is known by many as Jamaica's most recognizable and influential musical genre. And now it has been officially recognized by the United Nations.

This past week, reggae earned an entry on UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The list is meant to "enhance the visibility of traditions from various communities without recognizing standards of excellence or exclusivity" as outlined on this year's list.

With the selection, reggae music is joining hundreds of other traditions from around the globe, including embroidery art from Tajikistan, tamboradas drum-playing rituals in Spain and pottery skills of the women of Sejnane in Tunisia. UNESCO dubbed reggae music as a "vehicle for social commentary, a cathartic practice" and "a voice for all." Augustus "Gussie" Clarke, a reggae producer and one of the leading advocates for reggae to be recognized on the list, agrees.

In an interview with NPR's All Things Considered, Clarke spoke with Michel Martin about the significance of the moment.

Interview Highlights

On the importance of UNESCO recognition

As with any innovation, recognition needs to be placed at the head of those who created it. So as a country, we are somewhat of a cultural powerhouse. So we felt that it was appropriate for it to be recognized.

On what makes the genre unique

It tells us about struggle... and you know, love your brother and be a good guy. So it's the message in the music. A lot of people who have learned of reggae just don't even sometimes understand, but it's the beat; it's very infectious and it catches you. I mean, reggae is so much of an individual culture and it can extend to the wider culture. For example, if we have the same set of the musicians today playing the same song and tomorrow they are playing the same song but feel in a different mood, you will get a different song and not the same. So it is subject to the feel, the mood, of the individuals at the time of which they are creating what they are creating.

On reggae entering elite spaces

It just simply means it has crossed borders, boundaries, cultures. There are persons who, for example, extremely well-off, might be one of the richest persons in the world and might not be happy, but they are reggae songs that carry the kind of message that makes them feel good. There might be persons who are pretty poor and reggae gives them the vibe, the feeling to work hard to rise up to the occasion and be better than what they are. So getting to the world front it means that it has crossed so many boundaries of social, economical, cultural, political and it has a space in every different weird lands because it's not a one dimensional message.

Elizabeth Baker and Natalie Winston produced and edited this story for broadcast. Cameron Jenkins adapted it for digital.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.