Karl Allison went to investigate reggae gospel pioneers Ben Okafor, Rupie Edwards, Ann Swinton, Liquid Light, David Smith, The Channels and Dave Armstrong.

There is probably no other style of music which sits as uncomfortably in the mainstream of pop than reggae. It comes with more baggage. It is music that's traditionally tied to the struggles of a race and, for a while at least, came to be one of the most powerful voices representing the black people. It's also music that became tainted in many people's eyes by its close association with the Rastafarian movement and the excesses of ganja.

The result of all this was something of a polarisation - you were either part of the reggae scene or you weren't. There developed a strong sense of the exclusive amongst both artists and fans. Bob Marley And The Wailers reached out beyond this, but the other bands of the '70s like Black Uhuru and Steel Pulse still played to a committed minority and a sceptical public.

But in recent years there have been considerable changes. Reggae somehow got caught up in the crossover of musical styles that just about everyone else was already into. We've seen the emergence of ragga, the heavy use of reggae loops by the new rappers and we've even had a reggae version of "Twist And Shout" lodged at Number 1. The music (and the message it so often contained) has been dubiously sanitised by UB40 and dressed up by Shabba Ranks. As all this was happening, the place of reggae as the musical mouthpiece of black identity was lost to the new breed of militant rappers who replaced traditional reggae themes of harmony and equality with distasteful and distrubing themes of hatred and revenge. Has reggae music grown up or has it lost its soul?

The American CCM scene is currently grooving to a Frontline release of reggae worship by the astonishingly named Christafari (pictured on our cover). One critic was moved to call them "the DC Talk of reggae". But nothing like that is happening in Britain, is it? Prepare yourselves for a surprise. Cross Rhythms didn't have to dig very far below the surface to uncover a whole variety of reggae artists proclaiming Christ in this land of ours, a variety which stylistically embraces everything from John Hott 'lovers rock' style ballads through to street level ragga. Most are only famous in their own High Street and deserve far greater exposure. Here it comes...

Ben Okafor
Ben Okafor

If you ask most Christians about fellow believers playing reggae they'll name Ben Okafor and stop the list there. Ben is the veteran of many Greenbelt festivals, not to mention 'the Flevo festival in Holland and Cornerstone in the States, and is currently touring Britain and the States with his new album 'Generation'. Ben is also a frequent visitor to South Africa, where he recently became one of the first black musicians to sign a deal with a white South African label.

Ben has carried the flag of gospel reggae well, especially when you realise he's the odd man out in having no Jamaican roots!

"I grew up playing reggae music back in Nigeria. All the albums I made there, except for one, were straight-down-the-line roots reggae albums. It was a very lonely spot to be in. Most of my friends in the business were in jazz or soul or rock, so they had lots of other people with common interests; I had nobody."

Ben is quite happy to be described as a reggae artist, although his music is best described as a world music mixture of reggae roots with African rhythms and blues guitar. "I was heavily influenced by reggae artists and I would say that my first love is always reggae music. I was also influenced by a lot of African musicians but when I write songs they always tend to come out as reggae songs. There isn't any real difference in the roots of African music and reggae music - it's all very basic rhythm-determined types of music. If you broke reggae music down you'd end up with African folk rock. I grew up with these two styles in front of me and it was inevitable that I would embrace both.

"When I was growing up, reggae music was IT. Marley And The Wailers were IT, Peter Tosh was IT. These people touched everybody. But reggae music is not just a style of music. It has been one of the means of a struggle for a race of people; people who chose not to pick up guns and knives, but chose rather to write and sing about their struggles. It cannot be taken lightly. It would be really hard for someone who has a comfortable lifestyle to give this form of music its due. Reggae music is the music of the ghetto. You cannot give the music its due if you don't understand difficulty and pain."

Ben is delighted to see the gradual emergence of other Christians playing reggae, but has some words of warning for them, words which should provoke a response from us all. "I think that for a black British person to stay true to the reggae form, they would almost need to stay underground and do very little things, not by choice, but because the system is racist. In some ways, people want to be challenged, but only in their own language, with words they would write themselves. I've seen a lot of people who've had to hang up their reggae guitars and pick up something else. They've gone on to 'bigger things' but I know for them it's been a huge compromise. If you look at the way a lot of black music is sold to the British people, I'd say eight out of 10 times you'll see black musicians playing reggae music with a white vocalist because it's more acceptable to television. For a black person to reach the same level as their white counterpart they need to work five times as hard. That makes it difficult for young black Britons to get out and do something.

"I've always had the opinion that what I say is not popular - mostly amongst Christians - because it is socially aware. But I feel inspired to think about the sociological implications of what Jesus said and did. It's like Jeremiah and Isaiah and Amos who felt the anger that God feels when people are abused. They spoke up!"

Strolling amongst the stalls of Dalston Lane market in North London, I am suddenly able to hear one sound above all the other noises of such a busy street. Piercing through the early evening gloom and drizzle is the sound of a gospel reggae track with a distinctly live-sounding voice singing hallelujahs to whoever happens to be passing by. I walk another 20 yards along the market and come to a permanent shop front stall entitled RE Music. And there are the booming speakers, and there is the large, grinning man to whom the soaring voice belongs.

Rupie Edwards
Rupie Edwards

It takes a moment or two of re-orientation to grasp that I've come face to face with Rupie Edwards. It's his shop and it's his music. Rupie is a one-man music industry; his business card describes him as 'singer-composer-writer-arranger-musician-producer-publisher-promoter-distributor-retailer'. This is the man who had a top 10 hit with 'Ire Feeling' back in 1974; who found the Lord in 1991 and who now sells a remarkable variety of Jamaican and British roots reggae gospel records and says "The Lord bless you" to his every customer. Describing him as larger than life seems hopelessly inadequate.

Rupie Edwards grew up in Jamaica. "I was made to go to church by my parents and I was christened in a big Anglican church. I believed in God, but I didn't know him." By 1962 he was making his own particular style of Jamaican music and began producing other artists in 1968. He quickly established himself as a producer of some reputation, working with artists like Johnny Clark, Dobbie Dobson, Gregory Isaacs and The Ethiopians.