In my experience the best time to write about something is the moment you notice that you’ve been noticing it. Take for example those ever proliferating rickshaw/bicycle taxis in that congregate outside Broadway theaters in Times Square awaiting tourists actually crazy enough pay money for a ride in them. Predator-like, one way the rickshaw drivers attract your attention–besides seizing on even your briefest glance in their direction–is to pimp out their rides with cushioned seats, colored lights, and, most importantly, booming music courtesy of giant bass bins installed beneath the seat. Music: the great sonic seducer.
For many months now I’ve noticed myself noticing that one of the rickshaw “theme songs” as it were–the song that I hear more than any other–is Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours” (2008). Do you know this song? You probably do. It’s a relaxed reggae-infused, feel-good folk-pop tune that spent over a year on the Billboard charts, has been downloaded over five million times on iTunes, and watched a staggering 114 million times on YouTube. Here’s the song:
One of the things I think about whenever I hear this song is the awesome stylistic reach of reggae. Mraz, of course, is no reggae artist, but he draws on the idiom’s off-beat rhythmic feel in this song. The off beats are those spaces between the main pulses–the “ands” between beats 1,2,3 and 4 of each bar of music: 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and. Mraz strums these off beats on his guitar throughout the entire song. It’s really just a four- chord song at a medium slow tempo with a patter-like sweet vocal melody (and even sweeter lyrics), but the constant off beat guitar strums gives the music life through a reggae lilt.
It’s amazing how influential reggae has been. The term first appeared in 1968 with the rocksteady hit “Do the Reggay” by The Maytals:
Reggae grew out of rocksteady (and before that, ska) and into its own by the 1970s, especially through the work of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. Here is Marley singing “Stir It Up”:
And the off-beat groove can certainly be traced back further. My friend the percussionist Junior Wedderburn tells me that the off-beat in reggae and rocksteady and ska has affinities with Burru, a Rastafarian drumming tradition with roots in West African drumming. In Burru music, the lead drummer plays a drum called a kete or “repeater.” The kete drummer’s two-note pattern–”–dum-dum–dum-dum–”–repeats heartbeat-like on the off-beats and is the basis for the guitar or keyboard parts in reggae.
You can hear this off-beat/heartbeat-like drumming pattern on this piece by Count Ossie:
The off-beat aesthetic serves both musical and social agendas. Musically, off-beat patterns are an effective way to create a steady and repeating sense of unresolved tension that keeps things interesting and kinetic. This, by the way, partly explains what went wrong (if you ask me) with the advent of (white) rock and roll: the syncopation died (or was driven elsewhere, eventually re-surfacing in hip hop and electronic dance musics . . .). But back to off-beats. By keeping a sense of rhythmic drama in the music, off-beats also supported lyrical agendas–especially in classic reggae music. As Junior keeps reminding me whenever I pick his brain about such things, the guiding spirit in this music has always been what he calls “protest and resistance.” In the service of resisting injustice and colonization, off-beats assume a greater urgency than they may first seem to have. In this sense, we can think of the Burru-Ska-Rocksteady-Reggae contiuum as music that resists by refusing to settle by choosing the path of off-beats instead of marching in step to the (European) on-beat.
And so it’s funny how today it’s easy to think of reggae music as “laid back” due to its easy tempo, effortless groove, and sense of cool. Perhaps it’s this laid back cool that Mraz chose to gesture with in his hit song? In this sense, “I’m Yours” can be read as submitting to reggae’s deep comforting reach, with or without really knowing–let alone engaging with–the extent of its struggles. Also significant here is how Mraz’s video effectively erases the song’s reggae debts. It was shot on location in Hawaii (not Jamaica) and depicts the singer and a group of friends hanging out on the beach, at a waterfall, and curiously, at a skate park. (They may as well be in California.) In depicting the young tourists cavorting on their own about an exotic locale to the song’s soundtrack, the video is a fair representation of the cultural tourism going on the song itself.
But having said all this, I like the song!
And the song continues to circulate too. Here’s a reggae version of “I’m Yours” by Carlton Hylton (aka “Ghost”). Hylton probably isn’t paying royalties to Mraz, but then Mraz doesn’t pay royalties to reggae either, right?