The world's leading gospel reggae DJ, Mike Francis, gives the lowdown on the 10 greatest Christian reggae albums.
Desmond Decker and the Aces made history on the 16th April 1969 by having the first reggae song at number one in the UK charts, with "The Israelites". 30 plus years later, reggae is still seen as a minority music. Ask any ordinary person on the street to name a reggae artist and you are likely to hear UB40 or Bob Marley. However, as a flourishing underground though, it continues to thrive, its insidious rhythms developing into new forms like ragga and dancehall.
Christian reggae music is relatively new. In the early days of reggae, the churches didn't embrace the genre, calling it "the Devil's music" because of its undeniable association with the religious cult of Rastafarianism. The Church's dismissal of the musical forms of reggae showed the same kind of cultural incomprehension the African American Church showed towards the blues in the '20s and white evangelical churches towards rock 'n' roll in the '50s. Despite this religious prejudice, in the latter half of the 1990s there was an explosion of Christian reggae music. One of the reasons for that is a lot of the dancehall reggae singers became Christians. There was a two year period from 1996 -1998 that six of the top reggae singers in Jamaica got saved: Junior Tucker, Stitchie, Papa San, Carlene Davis, Judy Mowatt and Chevelle Franklin.
Today reggae music is very much an international language and this is reflected in my list of essential albums. They are not in order of preference, but some of these artists have broken down barriers and build bridges for other artists. Here are some of the pioneers of Christian reggae music:
Lester Lei - 'Bible'
Lester Lewis and his wife Rose have been singing reggae gospel for over 20 years. His song "Every Time I Read My Bible" won the Gospel Music Festival competition in 1988. He told me recently that it hasn't always been easy for him, especially in the early days, as the churches didn't welcome his style of music. However because of his music he has travelled to many of the Caribbean Islands, the USA, Africa and the UK. One of the highlights of his career so far is performing in front of thousands of people in the USA; also on the bill was one of the world's best praise and worship leaders Ron Kenoly. Ron was so impressed with Lester that he bought the rights to the songs. Ron sings "Winner Man" at almost all his concerts and has recorded it on one of his CDs. Lester sees himself as a pioneer and has paved a i/ay for many of the gospel reggae singers today.
Christafari - 'Valley Of Decision'
Some people say that the best reggae albums come from Jamaica, but this band from the USA come very close to authentic sound from Jamaica, their second album, 'Valley Of Decision' from 1996, is one of their best to date. Christafari is still going strong, however there was a split in 1998 and some of the original members formed another reggae band called Temple Yard. Christafari are Christian reggae's greatest ambassadors. As well as producing their own albums, they produce and promote other Christian reggae artists from all over the world. Their label Lion Of Zion has released many albums such as Stitchie's 'Real Power', 'Dancehall Baptism' by various artists, and many others. It goes to prove you don't have to be Jamaican to be successful at reggae music. More information on Christafari is available on www.LionofZion.com.
Heaven Bound - 'Reggae To Your Heart'
Back in 1994 who would have thought that a Christian band from Germany would be singing gospel reggae, but that's exactly what Heaven Bound had done and is still doing. The album 'Reggae To Your Heart' was a real eye-opener for me. 12 excellent tracks, which include three dub (instrumental) cuts. The CD could stand up to any gospel reggae album of the day, and even now it is still sounding good. My theme tune for the first two years of my Reggae Time programme on Cross Rhythms radio was "Weeping Dub" from this album. So I have to say 'nuff respect to Heaven Bound, Germany's number one Christian reggae band for setting the standard for others to follow.
DJ Stereoman - 'Dancehall Gospel'
Born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1974, Stereo Man was influenced by Marley, Jimmy Cliff and others from that era. His debut album 'Dancehall Gospel' was the first of its kind. Some definitions of "Dancehall": 1) Dance club, concert hall or venue where reggae music is played or performed in a loud rhythmic manner; 2) Popular Jamaican music developed from reggae and characterised by heavy bass and patois vocals (Jama Creole); 3) Also known as ragga, hardcore, toasting raggamuffin, DJ style, toasting or chatting. Dancehall gospel is all the above, flavored with the word of God, and you have an album of songs that has universal appeal.
Various - 'Dancehall Baptism Chapter 1'
One of the albums on the Lion Of Zion label, this features 11 Christian reggae artists. Some of the artists on the album were new Christians, and instead of forsaking the dancehall after conversion, they were going back to communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the youths of this generation through 'Dancehall Baptism'. This album also highlights the talents of the not so well known artists like Todah & Melchizedek Order, Junior C and KGees.
Tendai - 'Exceedingly Abundantly'
So far I have not mentioned any of our homegrown talent from the UK. In recent years I have seen and heard a few, some good, some not so good. Two albums that I have been impressed with are debut albums. Tendai, based in London, brought out his debut album 'Exceedingly Abundantly' in 1998 (I am still waiting for the follow up). This is one of the best British gospel reggae albums from the '90s. Using some of the popular rhythms of the time, Tendai was a promising UK artist with a lot of potential. Unfortunately we haven't heard much of Tendai recently.
Junior Tucker - 'Brand New'
Junior Tucker, a household name in Jamaica, is one of the many singers in the mid '90s who turned their lives over to the Lord. 'Brand New' is quite an appropriate title for his first gospel album. He was one of Jamaica's favourite singers and after his conversion it was reported that hundreds of his fans also turned their lives to Christ...Halleluiah!
Carlene Davies - 'Jesus Is Only A Prayer Away'
Carlene was born in Jamaica, went to school in Reading in Berkshire, after her school days lived in Canada, and then back to Jamaica. She is well respected in the Christian reggae music industry. 'Jesus Is Only A Prayer Away' from 1988 is one of the few Christian reggae albums of the '80s. At the time of recording this album Carlene wasn't a committed Christian. She put it this way, "I had one foot in and one foot out." But she had to put the saying "Jesus is only a prayer away" to the test years later when she developed breast cancer. A young woman faced with such a life threatening condition, she could only turn to the one who was "only a prayer away". To cut a long story short, Jesus healed her, saved her, and to date she has three gospel reggae albums and one EP.
The Watchman - "Contemporary Christian'
'Contemporary Christian', The Watchman's debut album, also came out in 1998. A very hard hitting, no holds barred lyric that doesn't compromise. His anthem, "Fornication", goes down well every time. Part of the song says, "Fornication can happen right inna the church, you can fornicate without taking off your pants and your shirt." Without doubt The Watchman is the best of the UK reggae artists. Earlier this year he won the Oasis Award for Best Ragga Artist for 2002. He has also just released his second album Tongues Of Fire'.
Donna Marie - 'Now Is The Time'
So far the albums spotlighted are two years old or more. But this current album from Donna Marie is the latest release on the Jet Star/Gospel Times record label. Since the year 2000, Jet Star, Britain's major players in mainstream reggae, have released over 10 gospel reggae albums. As far as I am aware, Donna Marie is not a professed Christian, but she is just one of many singers who are singing gospel reggae in the last few years. This album has 14 tracks that will keep you skanking from the top, to the very last drop. Because Jet Star specialize in reggae music for many years, the music and production is to a very high standard. Now is the time for gospel reggae to take centre stage, the music has grown in popularity, so much so that in the next few years gospel reggae will be alongside praise and worship as the style of music people will want to listen to.