Reggae music originated in Jamaica in the late 1960s and has since become popular around the world. Reggae shares its roots with jazz and rhythm and blues music, and has been hugely influential in the evolution of many modern genres including dub, hip hop, and drum and bass. Here are seven of the best reggae artists of all-time, each of them having helped to define and popularise the genre around the globe.
7) Burning Spear
Burning Spear, also known as Winston Rodney, is no doubt one of the most enduring reggae artists of all time. He is still recording and giggling today, over 40 years on. Burning Spear’s first landmark album was 1975’s ‘Marcus Garvey’, which extolled the politics of the activist of the same name, and which became known as the beginnings of dread roots reggae. The album includes both the title track as well as another underground hit, ‘Slavery Days‘, two of Burning Spear’s most popular hits of all time which still get regular airplay on the radio.
6) Steel Pulse
Steel Pulse formed in Birmingham in 1975. They are a roots reggae band whose songs often focused on themes of social injustice and racism. Despite rising popularity in the UK, Steel Pulse were often banned from playing live gigs in the UK due to their controversial Rastafarian beliefs, and yet they still rocketed to international fame and became the first reggae band to ever play on The Tonight Show in the US. They also became the first non-Jamaican band to win a Grammy award for the Best Reggae Album, with their landmark album ‘Babylon the Bandit’ in 1987.
5) Peter Tosh
Peter Tosh was one of the original members of Bob Marley’s Wailers, but he went on to have a successful solo career after his time with the Wailers. Peter Tosh exemplified reggae culture, as a proud Rastafarian with strong ties to Jamaica. One of his biggest hits was the song ‘Legalize It’, which was all about legalizing marijuana. Unfortunately, Peter Tosh was murdered in an armed robbery in 1987.
Born in Kingston in 1976, Sizzla has brought reggae into the 21st century. He’s released a whopping 56 albums to date, with some of the most important being 1997’s ‘Praise Ye Jah’ and 2013’s ‘The Messiah’, which brought Sizzla his first Grammy nomination. Some of his most loved tracks include ‘Thank U Mamma’ and ‘I’m Living‘. No other contemporary artist has managed to recreate the popularity of reggae throughout the 70s and 80s as Sizzla has today.
3) Toots and the Maytals
Toots and the Maytals, who first got together in 1962, deserve a special nod since their 1968 single ‘Do they Reggay’ was actually the first popular song to use the word ‘reggae’, and likely gave the genre its name. Toots and the Maytals managed to bag several Grammy award nominations throughout their career, and were once described as ‘The Beatles to the Wailer’s Rolling Stones’. One of the groups’ biggest chart successes was the hit song ‘Louie Louie‘, taken from their milestone album ‘Funky Kingston’.
2) Desmond Dekker
One of the earliest reggae hitmakers was Desmond Dekker, who sang in his authentic Jamaican dialect on a number of reggae classics such as ‘Israelites‘ and ‘It Miek’. Dekker introduced the UK to Jamaican rude boy culture and paved the way for the likes of Bob Marley with his songs about the daily struggles of Jamaican people. Dekker recorded his most famous hits with Leslie Kong, who produced his music from 1963 on. Together, they recorded some of his most seminal albums including ‘007 Shanty Town’ and ‘Action!’, both of which paved the way for reggae music both in the UK and abroad.
The legendary Bob Marley during his 1979 Babylon by Bus tour / Image: Bill Fairs, Unsplash.
1) Bob Marley
No list of reggae artists would be complete without Bob Marley in the top spot. Bob Marley rose to fame with his backing band, The Wailers, starting in 1963. Bob Marley’s songs sounded peaceful but were often political, with popular themes of love, redemption, and struggle. Bob Marley released countless timeless singles including ‘I Shot the Sheriff’, ‘Redemption Song’, and ‘No Woman No Cry’. Perhaps the most iconic Bob Marley album is ‘Exodus’, released during the birth of punk in 1977; the album contains some of his biggest hits including ‘Three Little Birds’, and ‘One Love’.
Bob Marley and the Wailers also held one of the most legendary reggae concerts in history in the One Love Peace Concert, which took place in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1978, with the goal of ending war between Kingston’s rival gangs. The concert featured some of the biggest names in reggae at the height of the genre’s popularity, including Culture and Dennis Brown.