The chants of “Legalize it!” have grown louder as cannabis activists across the country are emboldened by gains in Colorado, Washington and elsewhere.
But those are the cries of infants next to most reggae artists, who have been advocating for the full legalization of marijuana for decades — albeit in a less legislative way.
Whether it’s for social justice reasons (blacks are four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana, according to the American Civil Liberties Union) or sacramental — given the spiritual importance of cannabis in Rastafarian culture — weed legalization has been linked with reggae for longer than many of its practitioners have been alive.
In honor of reggae great Bob Marley’s birthday on Thursday, Feb. 6 (he would have been 69), and in advance of several local shows celebrating that occasion, we caught up with some local and national reggae bands to ask if Colorado’s legalization has affected their work and art, and what’s next in this new weed reality.
From a visual and olfactory standpoint, at least, the difference has become immediately noticeable in any state with pot laws, according to members of the The Expendables, who hail from Santa Cruz., Calif.
“One of our most popular songs is ‘Bowl For Two,’” said singer-guitarist Geoff Weers, whose band played in Colorado last week. “So when we play that song everyone likes to light up. With legal pot in a growing number of states these days, it means our shows are smokier and smokier.”
Does that make the band more likely to play Colorado?
“No way,” Weers said. “We have been coming to Colorado for years now and we won’t stop. With or without its weed laws, Colorado has been a place we have enjoyed playing. So many places to play, so many cool people out there. I think other bands will get that impression too. Weed laws not required.”
Despite being landlocked and relatively isolated, Colorado is a fertile market for many bands given the geographic logistics of tour routing, which requires them to stop along the Front Range or in the high country to pay for the two-to-three days of travel it takes to get from one major market to the other.
But it’s also a natural choice for reggae bands, considering the state’s relaxed, outdoorsy lifestyle, love of jam bands and, of course, the legal weed. The annual Reggae on the Rocks concert, for example, has been filling Red Rocks Amphitheatre with sticky-sweet smoke since 1988.
“I honestly think there’s less of a tension now that it’s been legalized, whether you’re playing a show or going to see one,” said Dave Halchek, singer-guitarist of the Denver-based Bob Marley cover band Wake Up and Live. “I can’t remember the last time I saw someone get busted in a show for smoking weed. I feel like it’s actually loosened it these days.”
Halchek’s jam-oriented act, which plays Cervantes Other Side on Feb. 6 for Bob Marley’s birthday bash and Boulder’s Fox Theatre on Feb. 8, is like many reggae groups in that it thrives on marijuana for creative purposes and has been unashamed about its use.
“We’re all definitely open about it,” Halchek said of his seven-member band. “There’s maybe one person that doesn’t smoke anymore, but the rest of us are at the same level in that it allows you to approach music differently, especially in the improvisational side of things — as clichéd as that may sound.”
Saying that cannabis is intrinsic to reggae culture is like saying sunlight is intrinsic to photosynthesis. It’s just part of the deal. Weed catalyzes creativity in ways that reggae artists have advocated and praised for decades.
“Smoking and creating go hand in hand for me,” said the Expendables’ Weers. “I’m usually high when I come up with song ideas.”
In other words: if you’re not into cannabis, reggae may not be the genre for you.
“It’s hard to separate the culture of weed with being in a reggae band, especially in Denver,” said Jason Wright, drummer for the Desciples, which plays at Herman’s Hideaway on Feb. 8 for the venue’s ninth annual Bob Marley Birthday Bash. “People just kind of assume that’s what you’re doing, so I don’t think it’s insulting at all.”
Wright, who has been drumming in Denver reggae bands for eight years, doesn’t think Amendment 64′s recreational legalization has fundamentally changed the field for reggae bands, mostly because they’ve been ahead of the weed curve all along.
“We’re not just starting to talk about it or deal with it, we’ve been doing it this whole time,” he said. “It’s nice, but I don’t think it’s affected our personality [as a band] at all.”
Of course, the argument over what constitutes “real” reggae these days is fraught with complications. Dubstep, reggaeton and similar offshoots have gone mainstream, but classic reggae is a dying art form, according to some artists.
“I think it’s been dwindling in general the past three years because the generation of people who grew up with certain bands are growing out of music,” said Wright, 32. “Some bands are getting big in the genre, but there are less of them.”
“Heritage” reggae acts such as Burning Spear, the Wailers and Steel Pulse (which plays Colorado March 20-21), tend to look like the college dorm-poster visions of reggae: ecstatic black dudes with long dreads, giant tri-color knitted rasta hats (or “tams”) and a loose but enthusiastic stage presence.
However, many of the most popular reggae bands of recent years, including Tribal Seeds, Groundation and Souljah, are composed of either all-white musicians or a mix of black, white and Latino artists, which Wake Up and Live’s Halchek says is still consistent with classic reggae’s welcoming vibe.
“If you listen to a lot of [Bob Marley’s] as well as other reggae musicians lyrics, they discuss racial equality and I believe that goes both ways,” said Halchek, who is white and hails from New Jersey. “A lot of what is discussed in reggae music I, as a white guy, cannot relate to and would never pretend to. However when it comes down to playing and writing reggae music, I think it’s just what comes from the musician. It doesn’t matter your skin color, background, whatever. It’s what you as a musician feel and connect to and therefore portray with your art.”
For the time being, that portrayal shows no signs of excluding marijuana in the lyrics, imagery and on- and off-stage practices of reggae. But as a victory for both common sense and social justice, the legalization of cannabis hasn’t had quite the splash in reggae one might expect.
“I definitely think there’s some vindication,” said the Desciples’ Wright. “But we’re not too political and try to keep to the mostly positive stuff, so it’s not an in-your-face vindication.”