Reciprocity Runs in Riddims

The following is a guest blog post by Larisa Kingston Mann, author of Rude Citizenship: Jamaican Popular Music, Copyright, and the Reverberations of Colonial Power.

In this deep dive into the Jamaican music world filled with the voices of creators, producers, and consumers, Larisa Kingston Mann—DJ, media law expert, and ethnographer—identifies how a culture of collaboration lies at the heart of Jamaican creative practices and legal personhood. In street dances, recording sessions, and global genres such as the riddim, notions of originality include reliance on shared knowledge and authorship as an interactive practice. In this context, musicians, music producers, and audiences are often resistant to conventional copyright practices. And this resistance, Mann shows, goes beyond cultural concerns.

Because many working-class and poor people are cut off from the full benefits of citizenship on the basis of race, class, and geography, Jamaican music spaces are an important site of social commentary and political action in the face of the state’s limited reach and neglect of social services and infrastructure. Music makers organize performance and commerce in ways that defy, though not without danger, state ordinances and intellectual property law and provide poor Jamaicans avenues for self-expression and self-definition that are closed off to them in the wider society. In a world shaped by coloniality, how creators relate to copyright reveals how people will play outside, within, and through the limits of their marginalization.

Happy Book Birthday to Rude Citizenship: Jamaican Popular Music, Copyright, and the Reverberations of Colonial Power, officially on sale today!


Earlier this year, Nippon.com posted the most in-depth history available so far of Hiroko Okuda, a Japanese woman who is behind one of the most influential sonic signatures in Jamaican popular music. The story reveals important things about Jamaican musical creativity in global circulation, and how its clash with copyright law reveals alternate pleasures, traditions and values.

Okuda composed a preset musical sequence for the Casiotone MT-40, an affordable synthesizer available worldwide by 1981. The Casiotone reached the hands of producer Wayne Smith in Jamaica at a time when the music scene was exploding with creativity. Reggae was a global phenomenon and a new style was emerging: called dancehall, it was influenced by US hip-hop (extending the cycle of influence that put Jamaican djs at the origins of hip-hop). At the time, dj culture was the primary way that Jamaican audiences encountered music: at street parties, clubs, and lawns, DJs would play records hot off the presses for dancing crowds. Jamaican producers had innovated the “riddim,” a musical building block consisting of the instrumental version of a song (with vocals stripped away) over which different vocalists could perform. Riddims create recognizable sonic frameworks against which vocalists -and dancers- can innovate. This kind of musical reuse has been central to Jamaican musical creativity. Copyright enforcement there would have shut down that creativity, since reusing recordings requires permission first. Instead in Jamaica a musical economy developed based on reputation and circulation, rather than permission: artists made their name “riding the riddim” and were paid for performances, and producers gained reputation for crafting popular riddims that were widely reused. Incentives and innovation did not rely on the ownership structure that Jamaican copyright law (designed by British colonizers) was designed around. Through the early 1980s, in Jamaica, rotating casts of musicians played the instrumental live in studio, and were paid for their time, while vocalists would voice their versions over recordings after the fact. But Okuda’s composition would change that.

Sometime after the MT-40 hit the market, Wayne Smith recorded a song with producer King Jammy for his label (Jammys) using Okuda’s preset sequence as the foundation: the song was “Under Mi Sleng Teng” and the instrumental became known as the “sleng teng riddim.”  Sleng Teng is recognized as the first electronically generated riddim, and its influence swept across dancehall music, changing its sonic character to one where electronic riddims are much more common.

Nowadays, hundreds of songs exist on the sleng teng riddim, on a variety of labels, featuring a range of artists and producers (https://youtu.be/vIfzt7mtFyI). As dancehall spread globally and influenced other genres, slengteng definitely rode along. But until recently few knew or credited the creator of the bassline at its heart: a Japanese woman working for Casio. More recently her story has begun to be told (I included her in my post about Black, Brown Asian, and Indigenous women innovators of electronic music), but the Nippon.com article gave her the most space to speak her own words. 

What struck me first is how her story further illustrates the circulatory power of musical influence: she had been a reggae fan and written her thesis in music school about reggae. Although she doesn’t root her composition in reggae specifically, she affirms its importance to her life. This influence, and how much she values it, leads to further divergence from the values enshrined in copyright law: fixed, individual ownership, exclusive control, and originality defined as divergence from (rather than riffing on) the familiar.

The article attests “some people thought Okuda & Casio should sue for infringement of their copyright.” But Casio was more interested in building a global reputation, while “Okuda.. hoped the keyboards would make it easier for people to make their own recordings.” These interests in flourishing culture did not depend on permission or exclusive control of recorded sounds. Moreover, Okuda shared a perspective reflecting different values than the individualistic and exclusive ones that copyright law is most suited to preserve:  “If I can give back even a little bit of what reggae has given me over the years, nothing could make me happier.” This focus on reciprocity warmed my heart! Opting into another set of values than copyright, she enters a global musical conversation, not based only on taking, but on mutuality. I like that Okuda recognizes artists deserve resources with which to create, but also that she has a specific relationship to Jamaica. While owing Jamaica no specific legal debt, Okuda recognizes the Jamaica’s significance for her as something that deserves some giving back, and she affirms a way she can participate in that. The question of what is owed Jamaica goes far beyond musical debts (to reparations, for a start), but looking carefully at these musical histories we can see some values that point towards a less colonial recognition of our mutual obligations.

This playlist shows just some of the hundreds of reuses of the sleng teng riddim throughout several decades, and across the globe. There are many more out there! Some are on commercial compilations, some are reuses by people quite removed from Jamaican communities, others are from diasporic and/or hybrid communities, and some are from right in the heart of Jamaica. We can enjoy them and also think about the different dynamics at play in the different reuses: what kinds of reciprocity are important, and how poorly does copyright law help people allocate who can or SHOULD profit, in what way, from the song, what other values are there or should be there?


Larisa Kingston Mann, assistant professor of media studies and production at Temple University, has worked as a performing DJ and event organizer for more than twenty years.