Musical genres don’t come much more diverse and internationally recognised than reggae.
Since originating in Jamaica in the late 1960s, it’s become popular the world over for its melodic backdrop to a mixture of euphoric but also often poignant, sociopolitical lyrics.
Reggae music has been and still is largely seen as a force for good and positive change. From holding power to account and highlighting systemic racism and inequality to religion, faith and humanity, reggae is a multifaceted genre covering a broad spectrum of themes and ideas—which means its reach and appeal is vast.
Some of the best reggae artists of all time transcend their music and are instead often viewed as important social and political campaigners, using their platform to incite togetherness and positive action, but doing so in a way that speaks to the masses—or music, to you and me.
In no particular order, here are our picks for the eight best reggae artists of all time.
No list of reggae artists would be complete without the Master himself, would it?
Bob Marley is widely considered one of reggae’s finest sons. A true pioneer of the genre and Rastafari icon even to this day, Marley’s contributions to reggae helped propel the sound from the streets of his native Jamaica to the rest of the world.
Marley’s professional music career began in 1963 in a group first known as The Teenagers, alongside fellow reggae musicians Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. The Teenagers would later become Bob Marley & The Wailers—one of the best and most well-known reggae bands to ever exist.
As well as the distinctive reggae, Marley’s music was also an exciting jumble of elements from other sister genres such as ska and rocksteady. Marley’s unique vocal and songwriting style meant his music was and remains instantly recognisable.
As a lyricist, he certainly wasn’t afraid to speak his mind and stand up for what he believed in. Pan-Africanism, democratic social reforms, and the legalisation of marijuana in Jamaica were all common themes in Marley’s songwriting. But, of course, such outspokenness also often attracted a backlash.
Marley survived an assassination attempt at his home in Jamaica in 1976, which prompted him to relocate to London, where he recorded arguably his best studio album, Exodus, in 1977.
Living in London clearly rubbed off on Marley and his music. Exodus combined influences from classic British rock, soul and blues, and enjoyed worldwide acclaim.
Marley died from cancer in 1981, aged just 36, but his legacy, music and immeasurable cultural impact are still very much alive and felt today.
Bob Marley could palm read.
Burning Spear (Winston Rodney)
Burning Spear (real name: Winston Rodney) was another early pioneer of the reggae movement in Jamaica.
Like Bob Marley, Rodney was born and raised in the Saint Ann district of Jamaica, where he spent his youth absorbing influence from American R&B, soul and jazz on the radio.
In 1969, a casual conversation with Bob Marley soon led to Rodney seeking a record label. Burning Spear first began as a duo act with Rodney and bass singer Rupert Willington before the likes of Delroy Hinds and Jack Ruby joined as the group grew.
Rodney was a huge supporter of Jamaican political activist Marcus Garvey, especially on themes such as Pan-Africanism and self-determination. Rodney’s third studio album as Burning Spear, titled Marcus Garvey, was released in 1975, opening with a track of the same name and propelling the group further into the international spotlight.
However, the group split shortly after in 1976, but Rodney kept the name and went on to release solo material as Burning Spear. By now, he’d built up a sizeable fanbase, including here in the UK.
Rodney spent the following few decades touring extensively and recording several successful live albums. He received his first Grammy Award in 2000 for his 1999 studio album, Calling Rastafari, and in 2002, he launched the label Burning Music Records with his wife, Sonia, who was already a music producer with experience working on a handful of Spear’s records.
His retirement from music in 2016 marked the end of an era for one of the best reggae artists of all time, but Rodney is still very much a face on the international reggae scene. In fact, he’s due to perform at the Rototom Sunsplash Festival in Benicàssim, Spain, in 2022 (at the time of writing).
Winston Rodney was awarded the Order of Distinction in the rank of Officer in 2007.
Dennis Brown’s prolific reggae career began in the late 1960s when he was just 11-years-old.
He went on to record more than 75 (yes, seventy-five) albums over the following three decades while cementing his position as one of the original trailblazers of lovers rock—a subgenre of reggae noted for its particularly romantic sound and lyrics.
Of course, love songs and love-inspired lyrics had already long been an important part of reggae music, but it wasn’t until the emergence of artists like Brown that this would gain recognition in its own right.
Lovers rock reggae suited the genre’s direction, particularly in the transition years of the early 1970s. As such, Brown was a huge influence on the several generations of reggae that would follow.
Brown was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1957 and so was just a young boy when reggae music as we know it first began to build its initial momentum.
As a child, Brown enjoyed listening to Nat King Cole and American ballad singers like Frank Sinatra, although it was older reggae-style singers such as Delroy Wilson and Errol Dunkley, whom he stated as some of the main influences on his particular singing style.
Brown had achieved international stardom by the time the mid-70s arrived, despite still only being a teenager. He was often described as the ‘Boy Wonder of Jamaica’ and was voted the nation’s best male vocalist in 1973.
He died in 1999, aged just 42.
Bob Marley stated Dennis Brown as his favourite singer, dubbing him the ‘The Crown Prince of Reggae’.
Peter Tosh (real name: Winston Hubert McIntosh) was one of the core members of legendary reggae group The Wailers, alongside Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer. That alone means he surely must go down as one of the best reggae artists of all time.
While having singing lessons from a young age, Tosh also taught himself to play both the guitar and keyboard after relocating to Trenchtown, Jamaica, from his birthplace of Westmoreland.
Tosh’s innate ability to play the guitar was integral to the early formation of the group that would later become the Wailers. In fact, Bunny Wailer claims that he, Bob Marley, and other group members were all first taught to play instruments by Tosh.
After leaving the Wailers, Tosh embarked on an impressive solo career, recording seven studio albums. He was a huge advocate for the legalisation of cannabis in Jamaica, particularly for medicinal purposes. His song ‘Legalize It’ was banned in Jamaica following its first release in 1975, but further attempts to suppress it failed, leading to its overwhelming success.
At Bob Marley’s free One Love Peace Concert at Jamaica’s National Stadium in 1978, Tosh lit a spliff on stage and began lecturing the crowd about legalising the drug, calling out several politicians in attendance at the gig for their failure to do so at what he saw as previous opportunities.
Tosh was murdered at his home in 1987. To this day, his family maintain a monument memorial for him in Negril, Jamaica, where his birthday (19 October) is also still celebrated each year with live reggae music.
The ‘Man in Business Suit Levitating’ Noto emoji is based on a photograph of Peter Tosh taken in 1964.
Frederick Hibbert earned his affectionate nickname ‘Toots’ thanks to his role as lead vocalist for the legendary ska and reggae band, Toots and the Maytals.
A true reggae pioneer, Hibbert’s musical career spanned six decades and helped shape the genre as we know and love it today. His 1968 hit ‘Do the Reggay’ is widely credited as the origin of the term ‘reggae’ itself. This was the first time the word had ever been used in a song.
Hibbert’s vocal style is perhaps best described as ‘soulful’. So much so that it often saw him compared to Otis Redding, widely considered one of the greatest singers of all time.
Although, of course, a predominant singer, Hibbert was also a highly-talented multi-instrumentalist and could, in fact, play every instrument used by Toots and the Maytals.
Hibbert served 18 months in prison in 1966 for the possession of marijuana—an experience out of which was born inspiration for one of his group’s most well-known songs, ’54-46 That’s My Number’. Hibbert was, of course, referring to his prison number.
He’s, without doubt, one of the most influential artists to ever grace the stage, not just in reggae but in multiple other genres, too. His influence spans from Jimmy Cliff and Ziggy Marley to Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and beyond.
In 2010, Hibbert was ranked 71st in Rolling Stone’s ‘100 Greatest Singers of All Time’ list. He died in 2020, aged 77.
Hibbert met future bandmates Raleigh Gordon and Jerry Matthias while working at a barbershop in Trenchtown, Jamaica as a youngster.
Desmond Dekker’s religious upbringing meant much of his early years were spent in church practising hymns. He began working life as an apprentice tailor and then a welder in Kingston, where his workplace singing prompted encouragement from colleagues to pursue a career in music instead.
Dekker attended several professional auditions in the early 1960s but would have to persevere and wait—first for a record deal and then an actual record.
That he indeed did, however, becoming one of Jamaica’s first major reggae recording superstars in the process, gracing the UK charts an impressive seven times between 1967 and 1975.
Along with his backing group, The Aces, he sang on one of the earliest international reggae hits—Israelites—in 1968, which arguably changed the face and sound of pop music forever.
Israelites became the first Jamaican-produced song to top the UK charts in spring 1969, helping pave the way for the subsequent generations of reggae artists we now know—many of whom also feature in this blog. Israelites also peaked in the top 10 of the US Billboard Hot 100 in 1969.
In 1975, by which time Dekker was a permanent resident of the UK, Israelites was re-released and entered the UK Top 10 for a second time. Some of Dekker’s other well-known hits include 007 (Shanty Town), It Mek, and You Can Get It If You Really Want.
He’s one of the best reggae artists of all time, for sure.
Dekker is buried at Streatham Park Cemetery in South London.
Reggae fans everywhere have a lot to thank Jimmy Cliff for, that’s for sure.
In 1972, Cliff starred in the landmark reggae film ‘The Harder They Come’, which tells the story of a young man trying to make it in the music and recording business. The film’s reggae soundtrack was a huge success, selling exceptionally worldwide and introducing the genre to an extended international audience.
Though now more than half a century old, The Harder They Come remains one of the most culturally significant films to have ever come out of Jamaica.
Cliff first started writing songs while at school before trying his luck as a musician in the UK. He’s perhaps best known for songs such as Many Rivers to Cross, Reggae Night, and his cover of Johnny Nash’s I Can See Clearly Now, which featured in the classic 1993 film, Cool Runnings.
Many Rivers To Cross, in particular, encapsulates the struggles often faced by young musicians trying to find their way in the industry and has been covered by artists ranging from Cher to John Lennon since it was first released in 1969.
At the time of writing, Cliff is the only current living reggae musician to hold an Order of Merit—an honour granted by the Jamaican government for achievements in the arts and sciences.
Cliff was briefly a member of the Rastafari movement before converting from Christianity to Islam.
If you’ve stayed with us for this entire blog from top to bottom, you’ll have already heard Bunny Wailer’s name mentioned a few times.
Last in our list but by no means least, Wailer was one of the original members of The Wailers alongside Bob Marley and Peter Tosh.
Wailer was a singer-songwriter and percussionist by trade, with a style heavily influenced by early gospel and soul music from the likes of Curtis Mayfield.
Though Wailer enjoyed great success with The Wailers, he called time on his stint with the group in 1973 to instead pursue a solo career. He began to adopt the name ‘Bunny’ around this time.
Wailer experimented with various other genres and subgenres of reggae music as a solo artist, achieving acclaim for his disco, pop and dancehall fusion in particular.
Wailer received a Grammy Award for the Best Reggae Album three times: for ‘Time Will Tell: A Tribute to Bob Marley’ (1991), ‘Crucial! Roots Classics’ (1995), and ‘Hall of Fame: A Tribute to Bob Marley’s 50th Anniversary’ (1997).
Like many other reggae greats, Bunny Wailer is sadly no longer with us. He passed away in 2021 at the age of 73. Always remembered.
Wailer and Bob Marley were friends since childhood and later became step-brothers when Wailer’s father entered a relationship with Marley’s mother and had a daughter, Pearl. Other band member Tosh also had a son, Andrew, with Wailer’s sister Shirley—so you could say their music was very much a family affair!
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