10 Iconic Female Reggae Singers of All Time
Search up a list of the best reggae musicians of all time, and you’ll often find rankings dominated by male artists. Whether you’re new to reggae or a longtime fan of the genre, you may only be able to name a handful of female reggae singers.
Maybe it’s because the poster child of reggae music—Bob Marley, that is—is a man. Or maybe it’s because there are fewer women standing front and center in the scene.
No matter the reason, one thing is certain: if you’re not listening to female-fronted reggae, you’re missing out. To that end, we’ve listed ten iconic female reggae singers (in no particular order) to introduce you to a whole world in the genre and helped shape other subgenres of reggae.
#1 Judy Mowatt
Between her solo works and her time playing with Bob Marley, Judy Mowatt has earned her place as a member of reggae royalty. Born in Jamaica—where she is now an Officer of the Order of Distinction for her services to music—Mowatt’s first taste of stardom was as a member of Bob Marley’s backup singers (better known as The I-Threes).
Mowatt’s later career as a solo artist led to success after success, including Working Wonders in 1985, which earned a Grammy nomination for best reggae album.1 This list may not be in order, but Judy Mowatt should feel right at home as number one. She has certainly earned her place as one of the top international female artists.
If you have forty-two and a half minutes to spare, Judy Mowatt’s seminal album Black Woman is worth a listen in its entirety. For a quick sample of her music, dive headfirst into songs like:
- King of Kings
- Concrete Jungle
- Black Woman
- Sister’s Chant
#2 Tanya Stephens
Taking cues from the early reggae artists of the 60s and 70s, Tanya Stephens is an icon of Jamaican music. Releasing nine-hit reggae, dancehall, and pop albums over 20 years, Stephens was one of the biggest names in the game throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.
To this day, Tanya Stephens continues to perform.
Her most recent album (2013’s Guilty) may not have charted like some of her previous records, but her contribution to the genre is undeniable. Between her crystal-clear voice and her potent lyricism, Stephens is more than deserving of a spot on this list.
To hear a sample of the best reggae from the late 90s and early 2000s, throw on some of Tanya Stephens’ top songs:
- Yuh Nuh Ready Fi Dis Yet
- Freaky Type
- It’s a Pity
- Mi and Mi God
#3 Marcia Griffiths
With a career spanning 50 years, this female singer is a reggae pioneer in her own right. Griffiths was a superstar solo singer, holding her own on songs with influential reggae artists like:
- Bob Marley
- Lloyd Charmers
- Bob Andy
Even when she wasn’t center stage, Griffiths was a force to be reckoned with. She performed as a member of The I-Threes for almost a decade, singing backup for Bob Marley and his band on their worldwide tours. Known for her smooth-as-silk vocals, her lasting presence as a reggae singer is well-earned.
For a taste of Marcia Griffiths’ smooth voice, take these tunes for a spin:
- Electric Boogie
- Feel Like Jumping
- Steppin’ Out a Babylon
#4 Lady Saw
Born Marion Hall, Lady Saw became known for her fiery, in-your-face style. Starting in the late 1980s, she quickly gained traction on Jamaican radio—and later all around the world—with a string of singles and albums.
Casual fans of the genre may recognize Lady Saw from her collaboration with No Doubt, titled “Underneath It All.” The song earned her a Grammy, gold certification from the RIAA and more recognition than ever.2
Now a gospel singer retired from reggae, her more explicit days might be behind her. Still, Lady Saw’s contributions to the dancehall genre won’t soon be forgotten.
For an overview of Lady Saw’s decade-spanning career, start with the following songs:
- If Him Lef
- Sycamore Tree
- Man is the Least
- Chat to Mi Back
- Underneath It All (with No Doubt)
#5 Rita Marley
No list of female reggae singers in the history of reggae would be complete without Bob Marley’s other half. This reggae artist is the third and final member of The I-Threes to make our list. Outside of the vocal trio, she also recorded as a solo artist with decent success.
As one of the three voices of The I-Threes, Marley’s powerful voice is on some of the most recognizable reggae tunes of all time. Listen closely to “Three Little Birds,” “Buffalo Soldier,” or “Redemption Song,” and you’ll hear her shine through.
While her husband’s name may be attached to some of the most well-known songs in reggae, Rita Marley isn’t without hits of her own. Spin The Lioness Of Reggae to hear them back-to-back, or start with standout tracks like:
- A Jah Jah
- I’m Still Waiting
- One Draw
#6 Sister Nancy
One of the most iconic female dancehall performers of all time, Sister Nancy (born Ophlin Russell) is a star in every sense of the term. As one of the first solo women to break out into the dancehall scene, she paved the way for aspiring female reggae artists everywhere.
With only two classic albums under her belt (and a third from 2001), this female artist's contribution to the genre was more about quality than quantity. Sit down in any reggae bar for long enough, and you’re bound to hear the opening bars of one of her songs.
Even before Kanye West sampled “Bam Bam” on his 2015 track “Famous,” Sister Nancy’s music was known the world over. Her album One, Two is chock-full of dancehall must-hears, including:
- Bam Bam
- Ain’t No Stopping Nancy
- Roof Over Mi Head
- One Two
- Transport Connection
#7 Phyllis Dillon
Easily one of the best female reggae singers, Phyllis Dillon showcases a level of vocal control that would make trained opera singers swoon. Starting in the 1960s, she recorded dozens of now-classic rocksteady and reggae songs. On each of them, her high, clear voice is instantly recognizable.
After her passing in 2004, she was honored by the Jamaican government with an Order of Distinction for her musical contributions. Her legacy continues to live on on-air; several of her songs are reggae radio staples.
Between original songs and reimaginings of classics, Phyllis Dillon’s discography is full of treasures. If you’re looking to dip your toes in, try starting with:
#8 Queen Ifrica
Born Ventrice Morgan, Queen Ifrica is a reggae singer, DJ, and philanthropist whose two 21st century albums have landed in the reggae scene with a splash.
Like many reggae artists, Queen Ifrica has penned songs with messages of social justice and peace. But unlike her peers, she tends to sing in a deeper voice. While many famous female reggae singers croon in the upper octave, Queen Ifrica’s lower register gives her songs a smooth, sultry quality.
Queen Ifrica’s debut album Montego Bay is an ode to her hometown, full of unforgettable songs like:
- Lioness on the Rise
- Far Away
- Welcome to Montego Bay
#9 Lila Iké
This list may be full of legends from times gone by, but reggae music is alive and well today. For a modern taste of reggae and dancehall, look no further than Lila Iké. Her updated take on Jamaican music is representative of the new wave of reggae-inspired beats.
After signing a record deal in 2017, she’s since toured the world and amassed a sizable following. Her debut album—2020’s The ExPerience—received critical acclaim upon release. If you want to see where the future of reggae is headed, it’s a worthwhile listen.
Iké’s career is still in its early stages, but some of her instant classics include:
- Forget Me
- Where I’m Coming From
- Stars Align
Performing under the stage name Etana, Jamaican singer Shauna Mackenzie is a vocal powerhouse and another fantastic example of modern reggae. Long before her debut album in 2008, she was a known singer in the reggae scene, performing as a vocalist for other acts.
Eventually, after striking out on her own, she found success with early singles and an initial album, titled The Strong One. Her blend of diverse musical influences seems to have caught the ears of many, and she continues to find success today. Almost 15 years later, Etana is still making inspiring reggae music, with her most recent album coming out in 2021.
To hear Etana at her best, give her chart-topping 2018 album Reggae Forever a listen, or play much-loved hits like:
- Richest Girl
- Weakness in Me
- Love Song
Revamp Your Reggae Record Collection
There’s something about the laid-back sound of reggae and dancehall that lends itself to the vinyl format. So pick up a new reggae record or two from the Victrola record store, dim the lights, and let the (female-fronted) music take you away.
To keep learning about reggae, we encourage you to read about the origins of the genre and the different types of reggae music. Hopefully, this list of reggae icons gave you enough listening material for an entire week.
- Grammy Awards. Judy Mowatt. https://www.grammy.com/artists/judy-mowatt/4766
- Dancehall Mag. Minister Marion Hall Says She Lost Grammy Plaque For ‘Underneath It All’. https://www.dancehallmag.com/2021/11/11/news/minister-marion-hall-says-she-lost-grammy-plaque-for-underneath-it-all.html