Reggae music is rarely considered a genre in which artists are afraid to speak truth to power. The music has a storied tradition of rebellious singers, from Bob Marley to Burning Spear to Lucky Dube, who railed against society's ills and often suffered persecution for speaking out on behalf of principles they believed in. It was like that for decades, and that constant preaching of love and spirituality has attracted countless fans from around the world to the genre.
But somewhere along the way some of the consciousness has noticeably fallen out of reggae music. At times, the tunes are more focused on promoting slackness or burning out homosexuality than anything uplifting and positive. That's not all reggae, but true lovers of the genre admit the music has had a period of, shall we say, "unconsciousness" and ignorance in recent years.
Kingston's six-man outfit Rootz Underground is eager to help lead its beloved genre forward, not backward, toward a time of spirituality. The group's music thumps with rebel basslines and thought-provoking lyrics, not just of yesteryear, but rather it transcends time, a key ingredient of the sound they've been creating in the eight years since the band first formed. While Rootz has toiled on the Jamaican underground music scene and cultivated their sound for close to a decade, within the past eight or nine months, their musical grasp and the horizons of the band have been expanding exponentially. At times, just reflecting on the musical seeds that they planted in 2000 and its harvest in 2008 is an overwhelming experience.
"Boy, 2008 has been something else," laughs Stevie Newland, the group's affable and spiritual frontman. "But to tell ya the truth, when you're busy, it's good, for any working man. It's been a little bit of a whirlwind, because we've got a lot going on all of a sudden. In six months, we've launched two videos, done tours throughout the Caribbean, the West Coast, the Midwest. We're doing shows all over, so it's been very busy every day. But it's great. If we weren't busy, that would mean things weren't working out."
The biggest crop that's sprouted for the band is its 19-track opus, Movement, which is as strong a roots-rock album to come out of Jamaica as anything in nearly a decade. The musicianship and production is tight throughout the disc, and the lyrics are clearly penned using high standards. The album is a step beyond "chant down Babylon" music in that, where much of that music focuses on fighting the powers that be, Rootz Underground is offering solutions and trodding on as if Babylon is already falling.
The music is entrenched in Rastafari philosophies, but delve into the songs one by one and it doesn't take long to notice there's nothing specifically religious about them.
"It's not really for me to say I and I are heroes or I and I come to change the world," Newland says, using the complex Rastafarian term I and I in place of himself. "We're a collective. Rootz Underground is the warrior spirit in everyone and the love spirit in everyone. We're just soldiers in Jah's army spreading love through music."
Listening to some of the group's more powerful tracks, like the infectious "In the Jungle" and "Victims of a System," it's obvious they take their responsibility seriously. There's a tangible vibration that can come after repeated spins of Movement — something akin to putting on Bob Marley's Catch a Fire or reading Jack Kerouac's On the Road. The lyrics and words begin to guide your way of thinking, and you might not view the world the same after digesting it all.
What's more, if you catch the band live, the vibration is even stronger. They recently played a raucous show in Austin, Texas, at the South By Southwest music festival, where the audience and band locked in to a groove and proceeded to collectively rock so hard it felt like the club was shaking. But while they can rock a dancehall all night long, they still realize there is a much wider audience they hope to reach.
"I can write a song about a girl in a club," Newland starts, "but there are millions of people who can't afford to ever go into a nightclub. So we choose to keep the music on a level so that people all over the world can connect to it."
While trying to explain where that type of consciousness comes from, the group's guitarist, Charles Lazarus, says it's centered around a deep sense of responsibility, not just to one another, but also to the community at large.
"This band thing, boy I'm just learning it right now, it's so big, and there's so much responsibility to it," Lazarus says. "The gravity of the whole thing, it's like, the more people listen to the album, the more accountability we have for what we said on it."
Not surprisingly, the group took its time developing as musicians, and that accounts for why they're able to introduce themselves to the world now with such a powerful wallop. The group played shows for five years in Jamaica before they ever recorded anything. Once they hit the studio to work on Movement, it took them almost three years to finish it. A lot of personal growth took place for the gang — much of it making them spiritually stronger.
Newland says the band is unapologetic about singing the praises of the Most High. Yet at the same time, their music should probably only be considered reggae gospel if gospel is taken in its literal sense, meaning speaking the truth.
"I'm not really even religious," Newland says with a laugh. "My religion is making music, smoking herbs, playing football, going to the beach, and hanging with my family. I'm not a preacher, and I'm far from a saint. But I'm a Rastaman, and a Rastaman is empowered to speak the truth at all times."