When Bob Marley popularized reggae music through his electrifying records and concerts in the 1970s, he was rarely visible without his female backup singers, the I-Threes. Yet years after Marley's death, with reggae transplanted from its Jamaican home to every continent, women reggae performers are still often relegated to the background. Reggae women have been economically exploited by their record companies and musically underappreciated.
But a recent explosion of new CDs by women reggae artists suggests that reggae women might be coming out of the shadows. The last year has seen an unparalleled number of compilations of women vocalists.
The best of the lot is Holding Up Half the Sky - Women in Reggae: Roots Daughters, a compilation on the Shanachie label. The 15 singers showcased range from the internationally heralded I-Threes (Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt, Marcia Griffiths) to lesser-known figures such as Barbara Paige (one of the two US women performers included) and Shan-I Benjamen.
Most of these recordings were originally released in the 1970s, a time when reggae women were making strong political and religious statements about their society by raising their voices in song. Lyrics run the gamut from Benjamen's "Look After Your Structure," a hummable catalog of dietary hints, to Hortense Ellis's "Jah Mysterious Works," a moving, biblically cadenced meditation on God's majesty.
A like diversity marks their singing styles. Mowatt's delivery brings to mind the gospel-colored phrasing of Aretha Franklin, while the duo of Althea & Donna imitates the "singsongy" tones and breathy soprano trills of teenage girl groups.
Like all engaging reggae music, these recordings are rhythmically captivating, evocative of tropical landscapes transformed by accented tidal waves.
What a Bam Bam! - Women in Reggae: Dancehall Queens, also on Shanachie, covers women performers of the '80s and '90s - a time when the music has been less politically engaged, focusing instead upon women asserting their sexual rights as lovers, wives, and mothers. Another change is that the traditional, heartbeat-based rhythmic pulse of reggae has altered. Computerized drum machines substitute often for human drummers, giving reggae a harsher, more urban, beat-driven sound.
A typical example of this new "dancehall" sound is Shelly Thunder's "Kuff," a witty attack on unfaithful boyfriends. The more gently romantic dancehall sound is exemplified by JC Lodge, whose breathy delivery on "Telephone Love" suggests influences ranging from Motown to disco.
Most record producers and labels in Jamaica are owned by men interested primarily in promoting male artists, a reminder of how widespread sexism is in Jamaica's entertainment industry.
The only exception is Sonia Pottinger, a reggae producer whose High Note label has concentrated on recording women, backed by many of the best Jamaican instrumentalists. Reggae Song Birds, a compilation on the Heartbeat label, collects 17 endearing examples from High Note that show why reggae women have long deserved the same spotlight as their male counterparts.
A high point is Judy Mowatt's "I Shall Sing." When Mowatt proclaims, "I shall sing, sing my song ... whether I'm right, whether I'm wrong," you can hear that sinewy strength in her voice suggesting that she's earned the right to make her song right.