Ian Boyne, Contributor
Reggae Month cannot end without someone's saying that the dominant trend in dancehall represents a betrayal of reggae; the tragic case of the child doing violence to his mother.
Reggae differed from mere pop music which was for entertainment and frivolity. Reggae was serious without being sombre. What has accounted for reggae having this phenomenal impact on the world is not just its pulsating beat and hypnotic rhythm, which it certainly has. There are other great rhythms which have not had reggae's impact on the world.
Reggae is message music. The classic reggae artistes were acutely aware that there were not just minstrels. Their songs had us singing along and rocking, most definitely. But there was a message, which represented not just 'brawta'; it was its life force. For it came from the bowels of the working class experience with oppression, injustice, dehumanisation and exclusion.
Reggae artistes did not have to read philosophy to carry a strong philosophical message. Their life experience - harsh, brutal, but hopeful - gave them a natural mystic. Reggae could be claimed as a potent source of inspiration by Southern Africans struggling for liberation from apartheid, as well as for middle-class white people in America and Europe because reggae was a universal language understood by all.
Reggae's appeal is its innate humanism and universalism. For in decrying oppression, colonialism, imperialism and injustice, it was saying, forcefully, that these features are alien to our common heritage as human beings. This was not how humans were supposed to live. We were not supposed to be segregated by class, race, gender, religion and nationality.
Bob Marley's astounding appeal to the world cannot be separated from his message. He certainly did not have the finest voice in reggae. His rhythms were not unique. There was - there is - something about Bob Marley which just resonated and still resonates with mankind.
It was not just Bob Marley. Another great artiste who has never received the just recognition he deserves in this country is the great Max Romeo. Max Romeo, Bob Andy, Burning Spear, Joseph Hill, Dennis Brown, the Mighty Diamonds, Half Pint, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, among others, have a timeless appeal.
What is the message of dancehall today in its most dominant trend? It's about the "gal dem business", the objectification and commodification of women, the glorification of promiscuity. It is about power over women's bodies. As Buju Banton has put it:
"Hear weh me tell di girl seh if unnu look good
Hear weh me tell har seh
Gal me serious
Mi haffi get yu tonight
Even by gunpoint"
Rape, in other words. But in the dancehall, women's bodies are not their own. They are merely allowed to beautify them and take care of them for men to use. The dancehall trends have to do with lyrics glorifying dons; glorifying the shottas, bad man; worshipfully describing the various guns with relish and lyrical eloquence. The dancehall has to do with shaming youth and youth who can't "tek it to dem".
So at a time when we need peace in the inner cities; when old people need to sleep peacefully rather than having to risk heart attacks and strokes at night; when children need to study their books so they can leave their lives of wretchedness rather than bawling out for "gunshots!", what we have are communities and corners set ablaze with no encouragement from the music - as the dominant trend - for "the youths dem to 'low' the glock," as Tarrus Riley pleads. The top deejays - the ones currently ruling the dancehall - the Mavados, the Bounty Killers, the Vybz Kartels, the Assassins, the Baby Chams, the Bling Dawgs - are not shouting to the youth "be careful of yu guns and ammunition".
Instead, what we have in the dancehall is the glorification of the gun; the inciting of violence. And when we don't have the vulgarity which is hailed as the expression of 'female liberation' and the gun talk, we have the promotion of bling bling and Western materialistic and hedonistic values - the values of Babylon.
Now, imagine you are a poor ghetto youth struggling to find food to have just one meal a day; struggling to find clothes; struggling to eke out a subsistence under Babylon's oppression to find food for your youth. The music being played all around you is telling you and your neighbours that you are nobody because you don't have certain name-brand things. You have no value because you don't have a certain type of car, can't flash the dollars and can't drink expensive European champagne. You are nothing if you have nothing. You are traced in the lyrics, especially the women.
When the reggae pioneers were saying "Natty never get weary" and to "hold di struggle", these modern-day traitors of the revolution are telling you the opposite: Babylon is really right, uptown is right after all, join the rat race, life is about what you possess, how much money you have in the bank, what you wear, eat, the "stush area" you live in, etc. This is what the music has come to in its dominant form.
And this is what is not being critiqued by the academics at the University of the West Indies who are teaching reggae studies. They are so busy celebrating and bigging up 'ghetto authenticity' that they have failed to grasp how dancehall represents - in its dominant trends - the betrayal reggae.
Now, dancehall defenders say they respect ghetto people. It is people like me who disrespect ghetto youth. Yet, I respect them enough to believe they can do better than just reflect the worst of what they see around them. I believe they have brains which they can use to go in a positive direction. The UWI academics apparently believe that they must mechanistically and deterministically follow their environment. They are Skinnerians (after the famed Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner) with black masks.
Another canard is that people who criticise negative dancehall just despise everything Jamaican and black and display Eurocentric tastes. As someone who is one of the most ardent vintage fanatics in Jamaica and who has attended more stage shows than many 'worldians,' this could not apply to me. I enjoy dancehall music. I totally disagree with those who believe there is no creativity in dancehall music and that it's all monotony. People who say that have a limited exposure to dancehall. The dancehall lyricists - including the negative ones - are some of the most creative pop artistes in the world today.
What I am saying is that we should not uncritically support the music just because it is part of our culture and comes from the inner city. There are some things in the inner city which hold us back and which represent a kind of self-hatred and self-injury. Negative dancehall is in that category. Peace is a public good - it is not just 'Christian fundamentalism,' a term Carolyn Cooper (Professor, pardon me) uses as a conversation-stopper.
Music which lionises shottas and badmen who are a terror to poor people is not good. Music which encourages violence for the slightest dissing; music which preaches a message of death to homosexuals or any group is not a good thing; music which encourages "gal inna bungle" is not a good thing because of its effects on our sisters and even on our brothers. Music which makes poor people feel small because they can't bling out is not good. This has nothing to do with 'middle-class values'.
In fact, the UWI academics and my colleagues at TVJ don't live in the inner cities. They can glorify dancehall music from their ivory towers and television studios but the poor, defenceless ghetto people who have nowhere to hide and no friend in high society have to contend with the gunshots and the mayhem - not created by dancehall but certainly not helped by it. Another blindsiding argument is that the violent lyrics in dancehall represent a kind of cry of the oppressed. Nonsense. The kind of revolutionary lyrics against oppression and 'downpressors' is not the dominant trend in dancehall. Peter Tosh was a rebel and was no pacifist, but Tosh was not talking about blowing out people's marrow because "dem dis him woman". He did not trivialise violence. He took it seriously to be used selectively and strategically.
None of the reggae practitioners did that. Even when Bob did some songs hailing the 'rude boys' of the 1960s - and was rebuked by fellow Trench Town giant (and my rocksteady idol) Alton Ellis in Dance Crasher and Cry Tough - Bob was not glorifying nihilistic violence. The comparisons by the UWI academics are grossly overdrawn.
The UWI academics are guilty of overcompensation. They have seen the music snubbed and scorned in decades past by the middle class and they now feel psychologically and morally obligated to give 'full hundred' endorsement to our indigenous music. But in doing so, they have taken daredevil liberties with intellectual rigour and have done a disservice to reggae.
Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist who may be reached at email@example.com.
The schism between Bob Marley and Mavado
with Charles Campbell
Sunday, February 24, 2008
In his article titled From Bob Marley To Mavado in the In Focus segment of the Sunday Gleaner, February 17, 2008, Ian Boyne certainly threw down the gauntlet to the dancehall academia when he stated that "we need to bring a serious social scientific analysis to the music, rather than the emotionalism and glandular reflexive defence of dancehall against its supposed middle-class despisers". I endorse this call and agree with a lot of what he said in his article concerning dancehall music.
Boyne's essential point is that unlike reggae, dancehall has "lost its revolutionary and transformative force and has become reactionary". Boyne further states that "nobody has the guts to deal with these issues", so during Reggae Month, "we are busy holding concerts, exhibitions and talk shops, without seriously engaging the issue of our music and its impact on socio-economic phenomena".
While this may be true, in regards to dancehall academics - and I have no proof - Ian can rest assured that in some sections of the reggae fraternity, this is a very sore point' a subject discussed ad nauseam. The problem is that these discussions do not filter down to the average citizen. As for dancehall's practitioners and fans, they are largely totally oblivious to the debate.
I know, for instance, that the leadership of both the Jamaica Federation of Musicians (JFM) and the Jamaica Association of Vintage Artistes and Affiliates (JAVAA) are very concerned, do not support and agonise constantly about the violent lyrics and bigotry of dancehall, which aid to brand Jamaica as a crime-infested and sadistic society. Also, if you speak with the more successful tour managers, or the artistes who regularly tour, they will tell you, without any prompting, the negative impact the unsavoury content of dancehall is having on their careers, as well as the medium term prospects of the industry.
But let us be clear on what is the real source of our problems, for fear we shoot the messenger. Ian himself alluded to this when he proffered that "Dancehall is a reflection of the society - both downtown and uptown. An uptown devoid of any ideology outside of hedonism and atomism; an uptown driven by crude commercial and market-driven interests, sold downtown the ideology of materialism and hedonism."
Surely this column cannot be accused of not having "the guts to deal with these issues". Interestingly, I assumed that by now, my own views on the matter were nothing short of reiterant and point to two of my more recent articles in support. In an edition of this column titled Neo-Liberalism's Gift To Dancehall (Sunday Observer, April 1, 2007), I advanced a similar, yet deeper polemic, "Existence in Jamaica, for the majority of our people today is nothing short of brutal. By the 1980's neo-liberalism was embraced as the world's new doctrine and religion. Henceforth, the credo was "money talks and bullshit walks".
Talk of Blackness, Africa, Nkrumah, Garvey and fashions like the dashiki and Nubian knots were taboo- except where it was on conspicuous display in our quaint tourist capitals. The new approach to government was minimalist and public funding of social organisations was either severely slashed or completely withdrawn. Since the 1990s, we have reaped the whirlwind. The vacuum in our community life left social space only for sex, drugs, violence and the tagline 'the almighty dollar rules', all mirrored by our music". a by-product of poor education and deficient socialisation.
In A Longing For Self-Worth (Sunday Observer, May 27, 2007), my fundamental analysis was, "in order to change the lyrics and orientation of the Dancehall artistes, the society has to begin to repair the oppressive, brutal underlying, social conditions and stimuli which [de]motivates and inspires their work." This, while bearing in mind that by the time they are six years old, 30 per cent of our children residing in the inner cities of Kingston and St. Andrew, have witnessed a death by violent means.
Further, "forty years of minimum economic growth in the formal sector of the economy, contraction of agriculture and the consequent erosion of rural economies and communities, injustice, unemployment, social displacement, the lack of [social] infrastructure which facilitates integration, the destruction of quality family life, urban squalor and continuous political and gang violence have left psychological scars on our youth population tantamount to ictus."
I also made the point in Neo-Liberalism's Gift To Dancehall that similarly, "as a consequence of the same pervading social conditions across the American continent, we have witnessed the birth of Reggaeton - influenced by Hip Hop and Dancehall and even more degenerate, violent and sexually explicit - in the barrios of Panama, Puerto Rico and other Central and South American countries." Thus, the albatross that is dancehall is not necessarily a unique phenomenon.
In developing strategies to address this schism, I suggested that "the best way to counter the decadence and derogation promoted in some aspects and music of the dancehall is not censorship but the deliberate projection of quality works of artistes who seek to carry on in the vein of the musical style and positive - even in protest - messages of self-worth of the founders like Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, Toots Hibbert, Burning Spear and Culture." [A Longing For Self-Worth] "There is a very strong counterculture seeking to be heard however, and those of us interested in 'reviving' dancehall must do more to promote this trend, even if sometimes, the images it portrays are foreboding." [Neo-Liberalism's Gift To Dancehall]
"I am referring to recording artistes/performers who have successfully adapted the Reggae form and messages to make it appealing to this generation and get good responses in the Dancehall sphere when their songs are played. Let us remember that there was a time in the 90's when roots music and artistes were relegated to the back burner. Their songs were not promoted on radio, their records did not sell and even when these artistes appeared on stage shows, patrons barely tolerated them- impatient for the appearance of the more raunchy acts." [A Longing For Self-Worth]
So in my view, there are positive signs, this progressive counter-intuitive stream that has forcibly injected itself into Dancehall is the right medicine; and a good seed that needs nourishing for a renewal of dancehall music