Dancehall yuh pick?
I am Jamaican. Proudly. Unapologetically. Frustratedly. I come from a small island with a big cultural impact. We are seen. We are known. We are heard. One of the strongest elements of that culture is our music. Reggae and Dancehall are known worldwide and anyone, anywhere who hears them immediately know that Jamaica is being represented.
Reggae is the older of the two with its genesis in the 1960s and one of the primary facets of the genre was its use in highlighting issues of political, economic and social injustice. The main proponents of Reggae music are members of the Rastafarian religion and culture and the music is reflective of their ideals of freedom, liberation from Babylon and a return to the Motherland of Africa to escape the oppressive and exploitative Western systems.
By the 1970s, Reggae was popular on both the local and international stages and is arguably one of the first things to officially put Jamaica “on the map”. As it increased in popularity worldwide, the sound began to evolve locally, the tone and context changed and Dancehall music was birthed from the same base rhythms as reggae but with the addition of a beat, deepening the bass and pace of the music.
While Reggae was inclined toward political ideologies, dancehall was a more visceral, earthy compilation of songs intended to spark movement and dance with salacious lyrics mimicking sex and violent lyrics in reference to life in the inner-city areas of Jamaica.
Both genres have grown in popularity worldwide and have evolved over time while still maintaining their core ideals. Reggae is still used to highlight and criticise the politics of the day. Dancehall is still used to bring attention to the more socio-cultural norms and issues. Because of the topics in dancehall, sex and violence, while it is popular in many sections of Jamaica, it is often under scrutiny and criticism from the more conservative members of our society, namely the church and the politicians.
And this is where I have a big fucking problem. In recent statements, the genre came under fire from the current Prime Minister, Andrew Holness, who pointed out ways in which the lyrics can be seen to have a negative effect on our culture, seemingly insinuating that dancehall music is influencing the crime and violence that is currently plaguing our society… In January the PM stated, in a public forum, that dancehall music was at least partly to blame for the current prevalence of crime. He was quoted as saying,
“In the last few decades, our music has been overtaken by violence…By [the music) we are producing we are devaluing our culture which is a very important asset for our economic development,” and in an article dated today he is quoted as saying “In our music and our culture, in as much as you are free to reflect what is happening in the society, you also have a duty to place it in context”.
Context… OK. Let’s talk about the context of crime and violence in Jamaica. And you know what the best way to do that is? With a Dancehall song, that’s how. In response to his statement in January, I had tweeted a commentary about the hypocrisy that was woven through the statement and just last week, I was introduced to this song that beautifully sums up my thoughts on the matter. Because that is what Dancehall does. It beautifully sums up what is current, what is relevant, what is topical. Have a listen:
Basically, the artiste in that video is highlighting the facts that violence is not new in Jamaica. The video plays a clip from the elections dating back to the 80s when heavily armed men battled it out in the streets of Kingston to establish the dominance and secure the win for their political party. With guns…lots and lots of guns. Where did those guns come from though? Maybe you should ask your political representative or even the PM. In the words of Addi di deejay:
“Question: Kingston mek no AK?
Question: How gun come inna JA?
Who own the wharf and the airport, the docks and the bay?”
LOL. Syke. They won’t answer. They’ll just blame Dancehall… But, not to worry. Edmonds (2016) sheds some light on that in the article ‘Guns, gangs and garrison communities in the politics of Jamaica’:
While traditional political rivalry in Jamaica can be traced back to pre-independence times, modern-day Jamaican politics have been overshadowed by Kingston’s influential ‘garrison communities’. In order to establish and maintain political dominance in key constituencies, the loyalty of impoverished but highly influential gangsters in Kingston’s ghettos was secured by the main political parties through the development of large scale, highly politicised and heavily armed public housing schemes – essentially operating as states within a state.
You see, people who read, who pay attention, and those of us who sat in living rooms while older relatives reflected on the realities of violence in Jamaica, will tell you the truth about exactly how guns came here and remind each other that violence in Jamaica can be traced directly back to the political machinations and power grabs of the predecessors of the current politicians… and it wasn’t that long ago. And as Dancehall evolved, as it reflected the norms of the young men and women who wrote the lyrics, created the ‘riddims’ and voiced the tunes; the music became more aggressive and explicit as the culture devolved. Not the other way around.
What Dancehall has always been and continues to be, is a meter of what is happening in the areas of society that too many of us would prefer to ignore or worse, prefer to not exist. A lot of the people who feel that way, are related to, connected to, complicit in or beneficiaries of the very systems and the creators of the systems that were crafted to and continue to perpetuate the topics that are being sung about. Dancehall music should have been seen as a means to effect change by acknowledging the many ways in which it was used to plead to the powers that be for systemic transformation and improvement. But it wasn’t. And now, now they want to vilify and demonise the very music that they ignore when it suits them and highlight when it is beneficial. Prior to the PM’s recent statements, the 2020 government elections, and in fact elections prior, saw party officials using multiple Dancehall tracks to gain the attention and engagement of the electorate. Many of the dubbed songs were sung by the very artistes who they criticise for singing the violent, explicit music that they want to use to lay blame for the problems in our society…
So, if Dancehall is soooo bloodclaat influential, why didn’t the government ministers answer the questions that Rodney Price aka Bounty Killa, Poor People Govana, and many other DJs asked over the years and feel moved to address the issues they sang about? If it was so powerful, why have the challenges and pleas for socio-cultural change gone unanswered? Why is it only one set of persons influenced to do the negative things the DJs harmonise about? Instead of using Dancehall as a scapegoat now, why did the government of the day ban ‘Look Into My Eyes’ in 1999 instead of addressing the multiple systemic issues it highlighted? Does Dancehall only have influence over one set of people then? And if that’s the case, isn’t the bigger issue why it has influence over some and not others?
You cannot demonise my Dancehall music when the same Dancehall artistes challenged political parties for change through the music and nothing has been done. When any Jamaican politician can pick up the challenge issue by Bounty Killa when he sang:
“Look into my eyes, tell me what you see? Can you feel my pain? Am I your enemy?”
How many of us who agree with the PM have even had a conversation with someone from the inner city, from a garrison community? Do you know their stories? What do you see when you look at them? Do you really believe that the government is doing all they can to change the situations of the most vulnerable and marginalised in society…? They’re not… Instead, they are pitting “us” against “them”, making those who produce Dancehall music the enemy.
When Bounty said:
“Look into my mind, can you see the wealth? Can you tell that I want to help myself?”
Do we truly have any idea how many persons from known, violent communities just want an opportunity? A chance to get out of the cycle of poverty that is inarguably systemic? Have we any idea of the wasted talent and potential that is caused by systemic education inequity that consistently ignores the issues of funding for schools in areas where education is needed the most? We talk about brain drain when the educated leave the island. But what about brain neglect when children with potential cannot get access to education and opportunities to break the cycle of poverty into which they were born?
Another line says:
“Look into my heart, I can feel your fear, Take another look can you hold my stare? Why are you afraid of my hungry face? Or is it this thing bulging in my waist?”.
The challenge that many of us are just a few pay checks away from hunger if not outright poverty is something that we are afraid to acknowledge. How many of us would be in the positions that we are if even one of our parents had lost their jobs, or gotten sick and been unable to work but still needed extensive, costly care, or worse, had died…? Do you have any idea how many persons living in the inner city areas, caught up in criminal activity, are living that reality? Dancehall doesn’t cause that; political mismanagement does. Incompetence. Corruption. Theft of public funds. High cost of living (artificial) and low wages. Those are the real issues. Look. Look at the circumstances under which many people live and be honest with yourself about the why. Understand that the music is an outlet for them. They are singing about what the see, about what the experience, about what they fear.
Let’s go deeper still:
“Look into my life, can you see my kids? Let me ask you this, you know what hungry is? Well, in this part of town, survival is my will; For you to stay alive you’ve got to rob and kill. Look into my house would you live in there? Look me in the eyes and tell me that you care…”
I have long been an advocate for politicians to live in the areas they represent. Our political representatives have no understanding of the circumstances of those they represent. Or worse, some of them understand but they don’t actually care. A lot of them know the history of violence in Jamaica. They still benefit from it. Their elitism still causes them to look down on the very people they represent while they sit in Parliament for years without introducing a single fucking piece of legislation to improve the lives of people in their constituencies. Their children are guaranteed education through to tertiary level, have the financial cushion to “pursue their passions” or are bequeathed a seat to continue the political fuckery and gaslighting. If you were in survival mode every day, almost from the day you were born, what would you be willing to do to get by?
So now, you tell me:
“Stop and ask yourself, would you live like that? And if you had to then, you wouldn’t buss gun shot? Look into the schools, tell me how you feel? You want the kids to learn without a proper meal? Den what you have in place to keep them out of wrong? If dem drop out a school, dem a go bus dem gun”.
Have you even been hungry? Not peckish, not hungry for a while but too lazy to cook or go buy food or waiting for mommy, daddy, guardian, helper to finish cooking… I mean hungry for days and unsure of where your next meal is coming from… There are actual statistics, research about how abject poverty changes the way people think, feel, reason, process life. There are recommendations about what governments can do to improve the living conditions and consequently the mindsets of marginalised, impoverished persons. There are living realities of countries that have made the systemic changes and the results are there for all to see. Those studies are not new. They are not hidden. But, what happens when government is challenged with the task of addressing the root cause of an issue that has been plaguing Jamaica for decades now…? They deflect. They misdirect. They make excuses. Anything but legislate. Anything but actually doing the work of effecting long-term, sustainable change.
So, when we build a new Parliament and ban violent Dancehall music… what then? Does everything magically change? Dancehall cyaa stall. It is grass roots. It is art. It is culture. It is catharsis. It is a mirror. They can only remove it from the mainstream because it will simply move underground and the people who can relate will still have access to it, will still create it, will still celebrate it. You see, they’re not concerned about how Dancehall reflects and affects our culture. They’re only concerned about the way it is perceived by potential investors and visitors. You can’t change the music, you can only evolve the culture. You can re-socialise the people and change the environments in which the music is inspired and created until the music begins to reflect the environment. You can take the hypocrisy out of politics and put in the work that is needed to meaningfully change the circumstances of the people. If government and politicians continue to look for scapegoats for the Jamaican situation, they will never undergo the internal assessment and restructuring that is needed for sustainable economic, social and cultural improvement.
So, the next time a politician tries to convince you that Dancehall is contributing to Jamaica’s socio-cultural decline and is influencing the youths to perpetrate gun violence and crime, reflect on what pieces of legislation have been passed in the last 20-30 years to improve the lives of persons in those garrisons and inner cities that were created by the politicians themselves. Revisit the questions asked by Bounty Killa all the way back in 1999, that instead of being answered by the government of the day, were met with a ban on the song.
We have a national emergency that no SOE, ZOSO or ban on violent dancehall music can fix. The structure needs to change from the top and until politicians stop deflecting, misdirecting and scapegoating, the two parties will keep playing the same sad song and all a wi a guh suffa round ere…