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What UNESCO’s World Heritage Status Means For Reggae Music And Nigeria



Last week, everyone received the news that Jamaica’s reggae music has been inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. This week, VICTOR OKEKE looks at the implications of this for reggae and other heritage sites in Nigeria.

Nigeria has two world heritage sites and 12 on the tentative list. The Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove was designated a world heritage in 2005 while the Sukur Cultural Landscape in Mandara Mountains in Madageli, Adamawa State was branded in 1999.


Sites on the tentative list are Benin Iya/ Sungbo’ s Eredo (1995), Old Oyo (1995), Kwiambana and/or Ningi (1995), Oban Hills / Korup (1995), Niger Delta Mangroves (1995), Gashaki-Gumpti National Park (1995), Oke Idanre (Idanre Hill) (2007), Arochkwu Long Juju Slave Route (Cave Temple Complex) (2007), Ancient Kano City Walls and Associated Sites (2007), Surame Cultural Landscape (2007), Alok Ikom Stone Monoliths (2007) and the Ogbunike Caves (2007) in Anambra State.

But Italy has the most World Heritage sites (50), followed by China (47), Spain (44) and France and Germany (both 39). The UK currently has 28 sites; the USA has 22.

Becoming a United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage site is not easy. “The application process can be long and arduous,” says Kishore Rao, director of the World Heritage Committee. “Sites must be recognised as being of outstanding universal value, and must meet at least one of 10 criteria.” So, why do so many places put themselves forwards?

According to UNESCO, once a country signs the World Heritage Convention, and has sites inscribed on the World Heritage List, the resulting prestige often helps raise awareness among citizens and governments for heritage preservation.

Greater awareness leads to a general rise in the level of the protection and conservation given to heritage properties. A country may also receive financial assistance and expert advice from the World Heritage Committee to support activities for the preservation of its sites.

To be included on the World Heritage List, sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of 10 selection criteria.

These criteria, besides the text of the convention, are the main working tools on World Heritage. The criteria are regularly revised by the committee to reflect the evolution of the World Heritage concept itself.

Until the end of 2004, World Heritage sites were selected on the basis of six cultural and four natural criteria. With the adoption of the revised Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention, only one set of 10 criteria exists.

Accordingly, for a site to be recognised, it must (i) represent a masterpiece of human creative genius; (ii) exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design; (iii) bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilisation which is living or which has disappeared; (iv) be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates significant stage(s) in human history; (v) be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change.

Again, such a site must (vi) be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance; (vii) contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance; (viii) be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features; (ix) be outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals; and (x) to contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation.

The protection, management, authenticity and integrity of properties are also important considerations. Since 1992, significant interactions between people and the natural environment have been recognised as cultural landscapes.

So, when UNESCO announced that “the reggae music of Jamaica” had been added to its list of cultural products considered worthy of recognition, it was a reflection on the fact that reggae, which grew from its roots in the backstreets and dance halls of Jamaica, is more than just popular music, but an important social and political phenomenon.

Jamaica’s application to the committee mentioned a number of artists from Bob Marley and Peter Tosh to Chronixx and the Zinc Fence Band. Not only is social commentary “an integral part of the music”, the application argued, but reggae has also made significant “contribution to international discourse concerning issues of injustice, resistance, love, and humanity”.

Reggae has “provided a voice for maligned groups, the unemployed and risk groups and provided a vehicle for social commentary and expression where no other outlet existed or was afforded”. It has also “provided a means of praising and communicating with God”.

According to Christopher Partridge, a professor of Religious Studies at the Lancaster University, aside its musical contribution, reggae has not forgotten its roots. Not only does it comment on current political events and social problems, but it also provides a multi-layered introduction to the history, religion and culture of what music historian, Paul Gilroy called “the Black Atlantic”. While some reggae cannot, of course, be considered religious or political – “lovers rock” for example, focuses on romantic relationships – much of it is.

A key moment in Jamaican political history (as well as the story of reggae) happened on April 22 1978 at the One Love Concert hosted by Bob Marley at The National Stadium in Kingston. Marley famously called bitter political rivals, Michael Manley and Edward Seaga to the stage and persuaded them to join hands. Few other people could have done this. “Although the concert did not bring an end to the turmoil in Jamaica, it did showcase the significance of reggae as a political and cultural force,” Professor Partridge said.

It is of particular significance that reggae is inextricably related to the religion of Rastafari, which emerged as a direct response to oppression within Jamaican colonial society. Often articulating the ideas of Jamaican political activist, Marcus Garvey, who is understood by Rastafarians to be a prophet, Rasta musicians such as Marley and Burning Spear developed roots reggae as a vehicle for their religio-political messages.

Even if some musicians are not committed Rastafarians, they typically identify with the movement’s ideas and culture. In particular, many wear dreadlocks, consider smoking “the herb” (cannabis) to be a sacrament, and reference the religio-political dualism of Zion and Babylon (the social systems of the righteous and the unrighteous). There is a hope often articulated within reggae of a better world following Armageddon and the fall of Babylon. “Babylon your throne gone down”, declared Marley in his 1973 song, Rasta Man Chant. These biblical ideas are also creatively applied to a range of political issues, from local injustices to climate change and the nuclear arms race.

So what does a UNESCO Heritage status mean for reggae music and the Nigeria heritage sites in particular?

Analysts say listed places receive extra media attention and tourists. That brings extra money in addition to cash from UNESCO’s preservation fund.

For examples, two 150ft statues of Buddha carved into a mountain in the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan in the 6th century, and which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, have received more than $4m from UNESCO to help with the re-sculpting of the damaged stones.

However, on the downside, listed places receive extra media attention and tourists. The higher profile that listing brings can draw an influx of visitors that poorer countries cannot handle. For example, the Angkor Wat temples in Cambodia, the Galapagos Islands and Machu Picchu in Peru have all seen massive increases in tourism. Sometimes listing does more harm than good and upsets the delicate balance between promoting places and preserving them.

But things like this don’t bother Nigeria as a country. The country is too engrossed in the politics of sharing oil rents to remember hospitality.


In fact, the Nigerian Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) charged with the statutory obligation of maintaining the World Heritage Sites is perhaps an agency that only employs Nigerians to reduce the unemployment burden in the country. A news report by Business Day said the commission barely has funding to maintain the sites or execute projects and that is why the guesthouse in Sukur is still abandoned.


This has implications for Nigeria as UNESCO can strip sites of their World Heritage status over a state party’s actions and inactions. For example, Oman’s Arabian Oryx Sanctuary was delisted in 2007 after poaching and habitat degradation nearly wiped out the oryx population and Germany’s Dresden Elbe Valley was removed when the Waldschlösschen Bridge was built, bisecting the valley.


So, what does being a UNESCO site really mean? More tourists? Probably. More funding and recognition? Possibly. Better protection, enforced by a committee that promotes responsible tourism? Definitely.





Reggae has provided a voice for maligned groups, the unemployed and risk groups and provided a vehicle for social commentary and expression where no other outlet existed or was afforded. It has also provided a means of praising and communicating with God.



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