Reggae music, whose chill, lilting grooves won international fame thanks to artists like Bob Marley, on Thursday secured a coveted spot on the United Nations’ list of global cultural treasures.
UNESCO, the world body’s cultural and scientific agency, added the genre that originated in Jamaica to its collection of “intangible cultural heritage” deemed worthy of protection and promotion.
“This is a historic day. We are very, very happy,” enthused Jamaica’s Culture Minister Olivia Grange, speaking by phone from Mauritius where the listings were announced.
“Anywhere you go and say you’re from Jamaica, they answer ‘Bob Marley,’” said Grange, adding that the distinction “underscores the importance of our culture and our music, whose theme and message is ‘one love, togetherness and peace.’”
UNESCO noted that while reggae started out as “the voice of the marginalised” it was “now played and embraced by a wide cross-section of society, including various genders, ethnic and religious groups.”
Its “contribution to international discourse on issues of injustice, resistance, love and humanity underscores the dynamics of the element as being at once cerebral, socio-political, sensual and spiritual,” Paris-based UNESCO added in a statement.
Reggae joins a list of cultural traditions that includes the horsemanship of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, a Mongolian camel-coaxing ritual and Czech puppetry, among more than 300 other traditional practices.
Jamaica applied for reggae’s inclusion this year at a meeting of the UN agency on the island of Mauritius, where 40 proposals were under consideration.
They included Bahamian strawcraft, South Korean wrestling, the Irish sport of hurling and perfume making in the southern French city of Grasse.
Reggae emerged in the late 1960s out of Jamaica’s ska and rocksteady styles, also drawing influence from American jazz and blues.
It quickly became popular in the United States as well as in Britain, where many Jamaican immigrants had moved in the post-WWII years.
The 1968 single “Do the Reggay” by Toots and the Maytals was the first popular song to use the name.
Marley and his group the Wailers then soared to fame on classic hits such as “No Woman, No Cry” and “Stir It Up.”
The award will help “normalize reggae” which has always been a little marginalised on the world stage because of its “whiff of cannabis and libertarian revolt,” according to Jerome Levasseur, the director of the Bagnols Reggae festival in southern France.
While largely symbolic, inclusion on the UNESCO cultural heritage list can serve to raise the profile of the country and the practice.