Reggae music began in Jamaica in the late 1960s as an extension of Rastafarian culture. It stylistically originates from mento, traditional Jamaican folk music, American jazz, and rhythm and blues. However, it has grown to encompass several sub-genres of music that typically originate from Jamaica.
This article covers 12 of the greatest and most famous female reggae artists, from genre pioneers like Marcia Griffiths and Hortense Ellis to modern artists like Koffee, who have put their own twist on the genre. Interested? Read on.
1. Sister Nancy
Ophlin Russell-Myers, who is better known as Sister Nancy, is a singer and dancehall DJ from Kingston, the capital of Jamaica. In her teens, she started performing with local sound systems, which, in Jamaica, are a group of DJs that would play ska and reggae music.
However, her career began after DJ Junior Chalice allowed her to perform in one of his sets. The performance garnered little attention but did motivate Russel to hone her craft.
Russell’s work ethic paid off. She went on to create some of her most famous works, such as “Bam Bam” and “Transport Connection,” with legendary reggae producers like Riley Winston.
Russell was the first female DJ in Jamaica, and her ambition opened the door to the music industry for numerous female artists, including Sister Carol and Lady G.
2. Sister Carol
Born Carol Theresa East in the Denham District of West Kingston, Sister Carol, like Sister Nancy, was one of the few successful female DJ singers of early dancehall in Jamaica.
At an early age, she was exposed to the music industry by her father, who was a senior engineer for Radio Jamaica.
After moving to New York in 1973, East began to follow her mentor, DJ Brigadier Jerry, and in 1983, she released her first album, Liberation for Africa.
In 1984, East released her second album, Black Cinderella, whose title track, “Oh Jah (Mi Ready),” became her most popular song. The album launched East’s international career.
As her popularity continued to grow, so too did East’s music career as she went on to form her own label that shares the name of her breakthrough EP.
3. Hortense Ellis
Born to a working-class family in Trenchtown, Kingston, Hortense Ellis was a child of exceptional talent. She surprised judges on Vere Johns Opportunity Hour, a show dedicated to discovering young Jamaican talent, with her singing.
As an artist, Ellis was well-known in her home country, but she did not receive international recognition until the release of “Unexpected Places.” Like many reggae songs, this record was marketed to an international audience through Britain’s music industry.
Domestic and child-rearing duties prevented Ellis from touring, but this did not stop her from recording music. In the 1970s and 1980s, Ellis recorded a selection of hit covers and singles with legendary recording studio StudioOne.
4. Phyllis Dillon
Reggae and rocksteady singer Phyllis Dillon hailed from Linstead, St. Catherine. At a performance in Kingston, rocksteady pioneer Lynn Taitt discovered Dillon and connected her with Duke Reid. He was a DJ, producer, and owner of the legendary Treasure Isle label.
Dillon’s first record with Reid was the soulful “Don’t Stay Away.” This cemented the artist as one of Jamaica’s greatest talents.
Dillon’s popularity was relatively moderate until she covered “Perfidia,” a song popularized in America by US-based surf-rock band the Ventures.
However, reggae stardom did not prevent Dillon from pursuing a banking career in America. Despite that, Dillion intermittently traveled to Jamaica to record for Treasure Isle.
5. Millie Small
Millicent Dolly May Small, who went by the stage name Millie Small or Millie, was commonly referred to as Jamaica’s first international pop star.
Like Ellis, Small won the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour contest. Small’s contest win motivated her to move to Love Lane, Kingston, where she pursued a career in music. After connecting with StudioOne producer Coxsone Dodd, she began recording with Owen Gray, a pioneer in the genres of ska, reggae, and rocksteady.
Small eventually caught the attention of Chris Blackwell, a businessman and record producer, who is credited with launching the young artist’s international career. She then released “My Boy Lollipop,” which peaked at #2 in UK charts.
Although Small’s sound is a divergence from the traditional reggae sound, her music played an important role in bringing Jamaican music, including reggae, to an international audience.
6. Dawn Penn
Our next singer, Dawn Penn, is from Kingston. Like some artists, she struggled to find success in her early career. In the late 1960s, Penn recorded various singles, but she failed to break the international market.
In 1970, she gave up music for a life in the Virgin Islands. However, in 1992, legendary StudioOne held an anniversary show where Penn performed her original rocksteady tune “You Don’t Love Me,” signaling her return to music.
Her successful performance led to a re-recording of “You Don’t Love Me” and renewed interest in her career. The song itself became one of the most popular of the 1990s, peaking charts in Jamaica and reaching #3 in the UK.
7. Marcia Griffiths
Hailing from West Kingston, Marcia Llyneth Griffiths began her singing career in 1964 with Byron Lee and the Dragonaires. She is perhaps best known for her involvement with I Threes, a legendary group that supported Bob Marley and the Wailers.
In 1983, Griffiths released a re-recording of Bunny Wailer’s “Electric Boogie” that would elevate her career. While it was not an international super hit, it played an important role in popularizing the electric slide.
Even though the electric slide is no longer popular, the song and dance are both highly regarded in the history of reggae music.
Born Mikayla Victoria Simpson, Koffee is a reggae, pop, and dancehall artist from Spanish Town, Jamaica. At a young age, she sang in the church choir and began writing lyrics.
Her career began in 2017 when she released a tribute song to Olympian Usain Bolt titled “Legend.” It went viral on Instagram following Bolt’s repost of the song, which helped Simpson reach an international audience.
In 2019, after signing with Columbia Records UK, she released Rapture, which garnered her a Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album. Koffee is currently the youngest and only female reggae artist to receive the award.
Following in the footsteps of artists like Sister Nancy and Sister Carol, Simpson remains true to the political and social timber that characterized early reggae.
9. Lady G
Born Janice Fyffe, Lady G is another reggae and dancehall singer from Spanish Town. After finishing secondary and technical school, Fyffe began working with famous dancehall reggae DJ Lord Sassafrass.
Her career gained momentum in the late 1980s as a result of her entertaining performances at the Sting Stage show in Jamaica.
In 1988, Fyffe made the jump from local artist to international star with the release of “Nuff Respect,” arguably her most popular record. She followed this with “Breeze Off.”
After the success of the two songs, Fyffe cofounded the production company G-String. Her career and impact on the reggae genre have been acknowledged by the Jamaica Reggae Industry Association.
10. Judy Mowatt
Judith Veronica Mowatt, better known as Judy Mowatt, was born in Gordon Town, Jamaica. Like Marcia Griffiths, she was a member of the I Threes.
Her success with the group set the stage for the release of her album Black Woman. It was the first female-led reggae album made by an artist who was her own producer.
As with Ophlin Russell-Myers and Carol East, Mowatt made a point to uphold the morality of Rastafarianism in her music. A late conversion to Christianity did little to diminish the positive, uplifting tone of her subsequent work.
In 1985, Mowatt became the first woman to receive a Grammy nomination in the reggae category.
Our penultimate singer is HoodCelebrityy, born Tina Pinnock in Portmore, Jamaica. In many ways, Pinnock represents the future of female reggae artists.
Like Koffee, Pinnock is a part of a new generation of reggae music that blends genres such as pop and rap with more traditional blues and ska influences.
Pinnock released the albums Can’t Believe It’s Just a Girl and Trap Vs. Reggae before releasing her hit 2017 single “Walking Trophy.” That track made Pinnock a household name in The Bronx, her second home.
12. Rita Marley
Ending this list is the widow of the late reggae legend Bob Marley. Alpharita Constantia Anderson, otherwise known as Rita Marley, was born in Cuba in 1946 but was raised in Jamaica.
Rita began her career as a singer in the mid-1960s with the group the Soulettes, later renamed the I Threes. The group was known for its soulful harmonies and added a distinctive flavor to many of Bob Marley’s hits.
However, Rita’s rise to fame was not merely as a backup vocalist for her husband. She carved her niche as a solo artist as well. Her first solo album, Who Feels It Knows It (1980) was a critical success and featured hit tracks like “One Draw” and “Play Play.”
She received the Order of Distinction from the Jamaican government in 1996 and an Honorary Doctorate from the University of the West Indies for her contributions to Jamaican culture and reggae music, respectively.
Summing Up Our List Of The Greatest Female Reggae Singers
That about wraps up our article on the women singers of reggae. We hope you enjoyed reading it as much as we enjoyed researching and writing it.
As you can see from the list above, reggae isn’t just a man’s world, and these women are a testament to that. Each of these women have shared the rich culture of reggae music with a global audience in their own unique way.
But there are many more amazing women in Reggae that we haven’t listed in this post. Who did we miss? Let us know, and we’ll add them when we update this article!