It is felt, generally, that all Jamaican popular music can be described by one brand name - reggae. This assumption has been widely accepted because of the dominant position of reggae music, which has so captured international popularity that it is a phenomenon. But musical styles remain popular for only so many years. Then comes the period when the composing of new tunes ceases and, the music thereafter lives on in memories and reputation.
Reggae reached that stage 25 years ago. Since Bob Marley's death in 1981, there have been little new popular reggae compositions. While this follows the pattern, it is amazing that a small country striving with some success for world recognition would virtually abandon its world-wide achievement in music mid-stream. But that is what has happened. It appears that the outside world is more interested in keeping reggae alive than is Jamaica.
The musical successor to reggae arrived in two stages: first, a short-lived period of a different 'riddim' (rhythm) called rub-a-dub. This was introduced by two young Kingston College graduates who called themselves Michigan and Smiley. Their signature tune of this period was Rub-A-Dub Style.
Although this new style had enough of each of the elements for successful popular music to keep it going (lyrics, rhythm, melody), it faded when the second stage occurred: deejay music (disc jockey), introducing its own star who himself was an attraction as a novelty. This was Yellow Man (Winston Foster), who was affected by a lack of melanin, which adds colour to the skin. Hence his 'yellow' pigmentation, because of inadequate melanin. Given the often insensitive treatment by members of the public who ridicule persons with this deficiency, Yellow Man did not retreat into the background. With consummate self-confidence he promoted himself on stage where in his signature tune, Mad Over Me, he proclaimed his attractiveness to women. He blew away rub-a dub.
But Yellow Man was more than just a new singer, or a curiosity. He reintroduced the deejay style of music made popular in 1969/70 by King Stit (Winston Cooper) and U-Roy (Ewart Beckford) who created the first successful deejay tunes to capture the popular market. At one time, there were three records by U-Roy ranked 1, 2 and 3 on the hit chart.
moved in a different direction
Using this style, Yellow Man moved in a different direction, he not only promoted the deejay style but he pushed the envelop further. He openly introduced sexual references in the lyrics. This was wildly accepted by the crowds, especially women. When asked why he had ventured in this direction, he replied frankly, "Is slackness de people want and is slackness I ah give dem."
The popularity of 'slackness' music grew, propelling the popularity of deejay music so that by the end of the 1980s it was completely dominant.
Then another development occurred. The music became associated with an explosion of new and outrageously sexy fashions portraying a careless and daring lifestyle, for example, revealing underwear for men and, for women, extra-tight shorts. This became prominent in the early 1990s. As crime figures started to climb again, the lyrics added gun violence to sex and drugs. This new lifestyle of anti-social music and revealing fashion emerged, producing dancehall as a cultural way of life.
The new star in this era of crassness was Shabba Ranks (Rexton Gordon) with a coarse voice that commanded attention. From that point, dancehall progressed, pushing the envelop to extremes in portraying more and more explicit sex, homophobia and gun violence. The music thrived on these three popular themes wildly supported by the younger segments of the underclasses.
In its extreme form, dancehall has now been confronted by social interest groups leading to the banning of broadcasting of explicitly lewd, not just sexually-suggestive, lyrics. The social interest groups include those who want to extend the ban beyond the type of music in the Vybz Kartel and Spice hit, Rampin' Shop, which spelled out the sex act with relish and bravado. Some want to ban the revealing dress that goes with dancehall as well as the soca-based carnival.
The Broadcasting Commission, which imposed the ban, is very likely to find itself in the middle of many protests if it cannot spell out in unambiguous terms what is lewd music in order to deal with borderline cases. There will be charges of favouritism and class discrimination if the first step in banning offensive music is not followed up with appropriate legislation and a well-thought-out credible policy.
Banning production could open the door to the bootlegging practices of selling records without labels as in the early days of the industry. There would be no problem in producing such clandestine recordings as it is said more recording units per square mile exist in Jamaica than anywhere in the world.
The dancehall style is a sub-cultural phenomenon on which I have written and spoken many times. Personally, I wish it would fade away, returning music to the composition of tunes that can be whistled and freely able to be played everywhere. But this is not likely to happen. The end is not in sight because dancehall music is a product of a dynamic counter-culture.
As I noted in my May 2005 inaugural address at the UWI:
"This dynamic segment is to be found among young people who have shallow religious roots, detached from civil society, distanced from the tradition of the family, impatient with frustrating economic barriers and deprived of social space, creating their own order rooted in their own values and imperatives. They translate this into a way of life honouring the need for respect, power, money, sex and, where necessary, the retribution of violence.
'The Broadcasting Commission which imposed the ban is very likely to find itself in the middle of many protests if it cannot spell out in unambiguous terms what is lewd music in order to deal with border line cases.'
"They exist in a counter-culture which has broad support without theology, ideology, or even social commitment. It is individualistic and impulsive, deeply grounded in an expressive and creative self. As such, it carries a powerful base of cultural release which has solidly captivated a generation of youth as a renegade route to respect. The indicators of success emphasise material wealth.
indicators of material success
"This culture allows those with few resources to access the 'bling-bling' indicators of material success, ensuring that they can never be ignored. Dancehall is the musical expression of these realities".
This powerful sub-culture, dancehall, has its own brand in association with rap and hip-hop music which are popular in the same societal background in the USA as in Jamaica. A choice can be made as to which brand direction Jamaica should promote - the revitalisation of reggae as a global brand with positive world-wide acceptance, or dancehall, with its supporting markets of positive and negative vibes.
The issue has deep cultural roots. Brnds have a powerful influence on people, which is deeper than a ban on lewd music and offensive lyrids.
Edward Seaga is a former Prime Minister. He is now a Distinguished Fellow at the UWI and Pro-vice chancellor at UTech.
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Reggae and dancehall A culture clash
Published: Sunday | February 22, 2009
BY EDWARD SEAGA