A CURSORY glance at Jamaican popular music can easily mark it as a long-player of rebellion or even revolution. With Bob Marley as its poster boy, reggae in particular wears this label well and the music of Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff and others has given reggae music the reputation of popular music without the pop.
As such, many critics see the arrival of dancehall as the end of the revolution when bling replaced substance. Those who know better, however, realised that dancehall carried within it the seed of social criticism. It was simply gyrating to a different beat and sometimes its visceral growl made it seem too dangerous for one to look it directly in the eye. It was too hungry, with razor-like claws which cut through pretensions of decency, forcing the middle class to deal with the society's underbelly as it boomed from their CD players and gained international acceptance.
However, toward the end of the 20th century it seemed that dancehall was no longer interested in anything but dancing and having a good time. With a lisp and a leather outfit, Elephant Man declared that "dancehall nice again!" and it seemed to some that the dancing fever had gone to our heads and sent us crazy.
Arguably, the revolutionary impetus on which Jamaica prided itself had been lost. Having spent too much time dancing in sheep's clothing it seemed we had forgotten that we are really wolves. The cries of 'we want justice', the plea that 'poor people fed up' fell on deaf ears. Someone needed to call the hearse; like so many other innocent bystanders, the social conscience expressed in the arts appeared to have been gunned down by indifference.
Of course the greatest indication that Jamaica may no longer be as politically conscious as it used to be may have come not in the form of bling culture, which so often gets the blame, but through the lead of The Gleaner two Mondays ago, which was a warning from the Leader of the Opposition to the Prime Minister.
"With Venezuela bidding for a seat on the United Nations (U.N.) Security Council, Opposition Leader, Bruce Golding, is warning the Government of consequences for Jamaica in its relationship with the United States," read the opening paragraph of that story. The warning essentially declares that Eric Williams was wrong, Massa day is far from dead as we have to be careful not to anger Massa (or Uncle) Sam. Golding's argument is that we should ignore any strength we may gain by looking at other developing countries because Team USA takes world domination seriously.
Golding's warning is not that we remember the 1970s, but that we remember what happened after when, with guns blazing, we were helped into progress and the morass of debt in which we continue to sink. The warning comes at a time when popular music seems to be intent on only having a good time and theatre could be accused of only catering to those who need a belly laugh.
So the question is whether our artists and artistes, those who should be the voice of the people allowing us to reflect amidst the maddening crowd, have thrown in the towel and rather than inspiration have decided to give the people what they want distraction.
Amina Blackwood Meeks disagrees with this notion somewhat. "I think we expect too much of our creative artistes. I think we romanticised the past," she said. "Some of us are radicalised and some of us are not." While admitting that Jamaica does have a culture of resistance that does not appear to be as evident now, she does not believe it has quite disappeared. "I don't know if people have given up. Maybe people are in self-protection mode," she said. She also noted that maybe the nature of resistance has simply changed rather than disappeared.
Indeed, some of the accusations about the lack of resistance may be deemed overreaction. Tanya Stephens' Gangsta Blues and, more recently, Junior Gong's Welcome to Jamrock provide great evidence of that as the album manages to walk in a militant tradition set by roots, reggae and dancehall. Indeed dancehall's reputation for merely being about sex and violence has always been a near-sighted label pinned on by those who were unable to see anything other than the rabble being aroused by a wicked bassline.
Additionally, though theatre has often been accused of plumbing too hard for laughter, that has not been all it has done. Time and time again playwright and producer, Basil Dawkins, has explained that audiences have claimed disaffection with drama and wish only to laugh. Yet his productions continue to attempt to marry drama and comedy and deal seriously.
Laughter does not mean being silly and being silly does not mean not being serious. So Aston Cooke's Jamaica to Rahtid managed to deliver not just laughter, but satire. Many small productions steer clear of the need just laughter and attempt to deliver straight drama.
According to Dr. Clinton Hutton, lecturer at the University of the West Indies, a part of the problem has to do with the media. Hutton argues that many entertainment reporters are "kass kass journalists" who merely focus on events, productions and artistes who are 'passa passa' worthy. He argues that this situation is further problematised by the lack of criticism, compounded by journalists' ignorance of Jamaican cultural aesthetic in which to contextualise and accurately comment on current culture and art.
Yet, the bling culture does exist and even some artistes believe that dancehall ought to be merely an expression of fun. At the launch of Donna Hope's book Inna Di Dancehall, Macka Diamond declared that Hope had seen the point dancehall is just "a fun ting".
Hutton argues, however, that a part of the emergence of bling dominance has come from a sense of alienation that currently grips the population. He explains that this alienation can be seen in the phrases 'born fi dead', 'mi cyan dead anytime' and 'mi done dead a'ready' as the society has come to a stage where in some communities a 25-year-old is seen as "an elder".
Interestingly, this trend was explored in Owen 'Blakka' Ellis' poetic play Tick Tock, which explores the relationship between concepts of violence and sex in contemporary Jamaica and its relationship to history and culture. Hutton further explains that this concept has fostered the idea that life would be short and without hope. "Their life is not valued by the state because the state dispatches them via the police," he says.
He explains that many Jamaicans in inner-city communities, from which most of the artistes in dancehall come, have therefore attempted to simply get all they can as quickly as they can.
"It is a period in which people's hope is almost reduced to nothing," Hutton says. This lack of hope is then reflected in lives that move too fast and too furiously. Of course, talk of revolution and rebellion generally feeds on adversity and thus one can question why the current state of Jamaican society has not produced another Marley.
Hutton argues that the difference is the lack of hope. He argues that movements like Rastafari and the emergence of the NDTC were expressions of hope for change as mediated in Derek Morgan's Forward March. He argues that despite the turmoil of the early to mid-20th century, a feeling of optimism endured, which allowed for the creation of freedom songs.
"The level of hope that I saw growing up as a boy does not exist anymore," he said. Now pessimism about economics, leadership and how we relate to each other has set in. However, Hutton has not lost all hope and he argues that all Jamaica has not lost it either. "I don't think all is lost or was ever lost," he said.
However, our vision may have well been blurred, which would explain why Mr. Golding could boldly warn us to tuck our tails and not incur Massa's wrath and no one seemed to notice how incongruous this is to a nation whose identity surrounds a revolutionary history, which has been expressed in much of our culture and even the jokes which suggest even hell itself cannot contain us.
Of course, as we give over more of ourselves to the mesmerising pull of Americanisation, maybe we can send an email to Batman, who can call Anansi and tell him that we're sorry, we didn't mean to desert him and we'd like him back.