Although the most known Jamaican artists sing reggae, the famous island’s art scene encompasses much more than this.
As mentioned in previous articles, Jamaica has a grim history: Slavery, murders, and inhuman treatments have been practiced a few years ago. The unfortunate and unfair treatments Jamaican have been subjected to deeply affected them as a people, but not in the way we’d expect.
After all, they are among the friendliest people in the world.
History and art theory taught us that pain, suffering, heartbreak, and art are intertwined. Although most Jamaican artists nowadays focus on the bright side of life, melancholic notes can clearly be heard and seen throughout Jamaican art.
Famous or Underappreciated Jamaican Artists
Although prolific, the Marleys are not the only Jamaican artists that deserve our attention. The international music and visual arts scene has been influenced by the small island in more ways than we’d imagine and continues to do so today.
Jamaican Music Artists
Reggae is by far the most popular Jamaican music genre, but it is far from the only one. To accurately portray the evolution of modern Jamaican music and its artists, we are going to take the chronological approach.
It’s important to note that few artists contained themselves to a single music genre. In fact, the artists we are going to talk about in a few moments helped shape Jamaican music – even though not all of them still get the credit they deserve.
Jamaican Folk Artists
Folk music can be traced back to hundreds of years ago. Even an untrained ear can note the African and European influences while still recognizing its many particularities. Mento is another subdivision of folk music, an unpretentious and enjoyable genre that is a continuous inspiration for modern-day artists.
Few genres are as soothing and upbeat as Jamaican folk music. Together with Calypso, it was made worldwide famous by the now 89-year-old Jamaican music artist Harry Belafonte with songs like Day-O (Banana Boat Song), Jump in the Line, Island in the Sun or Jamaica Farewell.Jamaican Ska Artists
Mento, Calypso, Jazz, Rhythm, and Blues all contributed to the famous Ska genre. It can be easily identified by the walking bass line and off-beat rhythms and by the fact that you just can’t sit down while a Ska song is playing. Even though modern Ska has a faster tempo and diverse influences, it also kept its basic features: Strong bass lines, upbeat and exciting rhythm, and positive messages.
Ska was the most famous music genre in Jamaica in the ‘60s. Made popular by Prince Buster, Clement Dodd, and Duke Reid, the genre also helped develop current Jamaican music. Other noteworthy Ska Jamaican artists include Desmond Dekker, Toots and the Maytals, the Skatalites, Jimmy Cliff, or Derrick Morgan.
Jamaican Rocksteady Artists
Inspired by R&B, Jazz, Ska, Latin American and African drumming, and many others, rocksteady is another Jamaican music genre that put the island on the map for many listeners. The Gaylads, the Maytals, the Paragons, or the Heptones are the most known rocksteady Jamaican artists.
Jamaican Reggae Artists
Developed in the 1960s, reggae is naturally associated with Jamaica. The genre was first named by the Toots and the Maytals in their famous Do the Reggay and grew in popularity ever since. It is influenced by mento, jazz, R&B, ska, rocksteady, calypso, and African beats.
Famous reggae music artists include Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Gregory Isaacs, Tanya Stephens, or Culture. The Marley family has a particular significance to the reggae genre, other reggae stars related to Bob Marley being Damien Marley, Rita Marley, or Ziggy Marley.
World-known reggae artist Robert Nesta (Bob) Marley formed the Bob Marley and the Wailers together with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer in 1963. Even though the band dissolved after the tragic death of Bob Marley in 1981 at only 36 years old, they only grew in popularity ever since. Skip and Daniel Bambaata Marley, Bob’s grandsons, prove that Marleys are here to stay in the music industry. Other current Jamaican artists that play reggae music are Beenie Man, Bounty Killer, or Shaggy – to name a few.
Jamaican Dub Artists
Although dub was initially considered by many a sub-genre of reggae, it grew and became too complex to remain under its wing. As the name suggests, this musical art form
Dub helped music artists shape the modern jungle drum & bass dubstep, being the main influence of this genre. If we listen closely, we can also observe dub influences in multiple punk subgenres, pop, hip hop, disco, or house techno.
Jamaican Dancehall Artists
Dancehall originated in the ‘70s as a variation of reggae music with a quicker tempo. Jamaican artists that made dancehall famous in its early years are Yellowman, Eek-a-Mouse, or Moti Giat. However, the genre quickly separated from reggae starting with the mid-’80s, when digital dancehall, also known as ragga, further increased the tempo.
Famous 21st-century Jamaican artists that took a liking to ragga are Sean Paul, Elephant Man (O’Neil Bryan), Bounty Killer, or Buju Banton. Alkaline Jamaican artist is particularly appreciated for his dancehall tunes, and so is Spice.
Jamaican Visual Artists
Even though music is the most known Jamaican art form, the island is a place where all arts thrive.
Kenneth Abendana Spencer
Ken Spencer was a self-taught painter who used his talent to make some extra pocket money as a child. After moving to the United Kingdom for a few years and experiencing the European art scene without taking any art lessons, he finally returned to his homeland. The years spent in the UK gave him insight and helped him understand the simplicity and individuality of the Jamaican way of life.
Ras Daniel Heartman
Born Lloyd George Roberts in Kingston, Heartman is one of the most known Jamaican artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Being a Rastafarian religious leader, Ras Daniel Heartman had the chance to experience, understand, and contribute to the Jamaican lifestyle reggae music portrays. Looking at his art, it might seem like it was inspired by reggae music – but it actually predates this music genre.
The artwork of Ras Daniel Hartman was used as album covers and distributed over and over again worldwide. However, the underappreciated Jamaican artist never gained substantial amounts from his art; In fact, he spent a part of his life on the streets – but never gave up drawing. Heartman spent his last years in Tanzania, as the Rastafari religion emphasizes the connection with the African continent.
Barrington Watson is one of the few Jamaican artists that got the credit he deserved during his lifetime. His art is inspired by the day-to-day Jamaican life but has modern influences as well. After all, the artist followed the Royal College of Art in the United Kingdom. After traveling the world, Watson finally returned to Jamaica where he continued to work on his art.
Special mention: Wilfred Limonious
Wilfred Limonious is the most popular and appreciated Jamaican album illustrator. He emerged in the ‘80s as a Sonic Sounds illustrator but quickly parted ways from the label. His amusing and unconventional style for that time was the perfect fit for the emerging Dancehall music genre. In hindsight, Limonious played his part in accurately portraying multiple Jamaican music genres and artists.
The international art scene would definitely be different today without the influence of Jamaican artists. We hope our article clears up some misconceptions about Jamaican music and visual arts and sheds some light on the real contributors to the Jamaican and international art scenes.