Saturday, March 8, 2008

Dancehall's Impact

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Waltzing with wolves - Dancehall's link to violence
published: Sunday | June 5, 2005


Ian Boyne, Contributor

THE PUBLIC'S revulsion, disgust and raging anger at the gunman-terrorist is showing no signs of let up, and the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica's protest succeeded in getting the two political leaders to pull their Members of Parliament (MPs) kicking and screaming against their forced public pledge to shun the gunman.

Everywhere in Jamaica the gunman, or 'shotta', is under fire. Except in the dancehall. The dancehall remains the one space in which the gunman has honour, recognition and 'ratings'. In the dancehall it is no shame to be a gunman. Indeed, you have pride of place there. When one giggling female at a prominent gunman's funeral was recently featured on the front page of a newspaper with a wreath in the shape of an M-16, polite society was shocked and astounded at this perversion of values, but to those who know the dancehall that was nothing unusual.

OBLIGATORY BIG-UPS

The dancehall is the place where gunmen and dons are toasted and touted, where they get their obligatory big-ups and shout-outs. Let me make it clear that this is not all that the dancehall is about. There are positive elements in dancehall and not all dancehall artistes glorify violence. But the link between dancehall and the criminal underworld cannot be denied and the defenders of dancehall culture in this country have done us a tremendous disservice by their failure to critique negative dancehall, and by their reflexive apology for the promoters of criminality in the dancehall.

The promotion of criminality in our music has been with us for some time, but because corporate companies were making big bucks from some of these well-known deejays, and profit is sacrosanct, they turned a blind eye to their 'informer fi dead', 'People dead', 'bore bwoy skull' lyrics. Only the power of the gay lobby forced them to pay attention to some values beyond money-making.

CRIME AND MUSIC

The private sector has to put its house in order at the same time that it is demanding that the politicians do something concrete to isolate the gunman. By promoting artistes who promote criminals, artistes who glorify nihilistic violence, the corporate sponsors of dancehall shows featuring these artistes are contributing to the culture of criminality in the country. If the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have to show some guts and leadership in insisting that their MPs fall in line in this all-out war with criminal elements, then the PSOJ must demand that its members not support dancehall events which feature artistes who use violent lyrics.

The uncritical defenders of dancehall have a set of fallacious arguments which they routinely trot out and which any sophomore philosophy student who can get a C for her critical thinking paper can convincingly demolish. The uncritical defender starts by noting that the artiste who glorifies violence is merely reflecting the injustices, inequities and the dehumanisation of his environment. He is merely a reflector. He did not create the conditions that he is singing about, nor is he responsible for alleviating them. The politicians and the 'society people' created the inhumane conditions and the lack of opportunities which produced the violence-promoting deejays, and then middle class hypocrites like Ian Boyne want to further victimise the innocent victims.

Would the problems in the society disappear if we got rid of all the violence-promoting deejays?

The answer is simple. While it is true that the largely uneducated, under-socialised (in mainstream values) youth who constitute the core of deejays? are not responsible for their dehumanising conditions, their lyrics reinforce and strengthen the negatives of their environment.

A youth oppressed by the ruling class, starved of opportunities, stigmatised as belonging to a 'worthless good for nothing' class; stereotyped as a criminal, actually participates in his own oppression. He aids the oppressor class by spouting lyrics which reinforce the prejudices toward ghetto people and which besmirch the majority of decent people who live in the inner city.

Besides, when cooperation, harmony, compromise and forgiveness are values which promote the interests of all human beings - not just middle class people - and you have youth singing that people's skulls should be filled with bullets because of the slightest dissing, how does that help inner-city people? When hundreds are dying -- not mainly people who look like Mr. Azan or in the class of Dr. Bernard Benjamin - but poor ghetto people because of inter-community warfare and grievances, how does music which incites vengeance, scoffs at the overlooking of offences be in the interests of the ghetto?

MUSIC INDUSTRY MUST FOLLOW

By excusing and not lifting up one's voice loudly against the violence in the music, one is actually aiding the destruction of precious human lives in the inner cities. The polemic against violence in the music is a defence of inner-city people. At the recent 10 giants concert with gun hawk Ninjaman, a number of the deejays openly spoke out against the increasing violence in Jamaica. The polemical attacks against criminality are having an effect and a cascade is developing. The anti-violence movement is gaining critical mass. The private sector has been forced to come on board, the politicians are constrained to join the bandwagon and the music industry will have to follow suit, too.

Talking a lot of crap and making a whole lot of excuses for uncivilised behaviour and violent lyrics take us nowhere. It is a patronizing and literally dehumanising view that these inner-city youth are really mindless automatons 'beyond freedom and dignity' (to quote the well-known Behaviourist BF Skinner) who can't help but reflect their conditions. "I show respect to them because I am rejecting the determinism which says they can't help themselves. I am saying they have brains and they can use them to resist the negatives and chart a positive course for their liberation."

A lot of middle class people reading this don't know how chilling the violence-promoting lyrics are because they don't go to the dancehall and don't live in inner-city areas where decent people are assaulted with this stuff almost 24 hours a day. The worst songs are not played on the radio stations which are themselves very liberal and loose in what they allow on the air.

The other point which is usually made is that Bob Marley had violent lyrics, too, and other artistes who have gained respectability were no angels. They miss the point. While I am a pacifist, there is a crucial difference between revolutionary violence to end oppression and the kind of nihilistic violence which characterises dancehall shotta glorification. Don't come with any sleight-of-hand with me. I am not talking about artistes chanting against oppression, exploitation and injustice. What is glorified in the dancehall is the shotta who can pump 'head shots' to homosexuals, to police informers, to assorted enemies, to guys who want to tek weh dem woman.

These lyrics ridicule youth who don't have big guns; youth who have not killed a lot of people. The dancehall is the place where the shotta, who has no education, no middle class connections, no colour credentials, no good looks and no uptown address, can come and feel honoured and celebrated for the sheer power of his gun and his savagery. In a society which has not created enough legitimate opportunities for recognition, honour and respect-which all human beings crave ­ the shotta gets all that through his mastery of the big gun and his reputation for dog-heart wickedness.

So, while in mainstream society, the gunman (shotta) is despised, seen as vomit and waste, in the dancehall he is celebrated as hero, as Kingpin, as God, not the devil, for he decides whether you live or die. I agree with my critics: If as a society we eliminated the conditions which lead people to see what Professor Obika Gray calls 'Badness-honour' as the way to get respect, then we would reduce crime. It is not the music which is the root cause of the crime in the society. It's the dehumanising exploitation and unjust conditions which exist in the society, the neglect of the poor and marginalised which constitute the crime factories.

I am pleased that Kingsley 'Ragashanti' Stewart has been now speaking out clearly against negative dancehall lyrics. The asinine view that if you criticize violent lyrics in dancehall you are against 'the people's culture' and are expressing 'middle class snobbery' must be seen for what it is. I am saying than Bounty Killer, Assassin, Beenie Man, Vybz Kartel, Sizzler, Bling Dawg, Kip Rich are talented and versatile enough to do pulsating, chart-stomping hits without the negativity. We must not try to destroy them but must use our influence to lead them to see the error of their ways and how their work is negatively impacting ghetto people. Bogle is dead today through foolishness and 'almshouse'.

HIT THEM WHERE IT HURTS

The private sector must burn the violence-promoting deejays in their pockets and make it clear to them that they can get the support if they support peace and love. If not, they are not going to get sponsorships and endorsements. These guys are materialistic. They will cooperate for the money. The media must not big up and glorify the artistes who promote violence.

We are not promoting 'the people's culture' when we in the media promote artistes who incite youth and youth to kill one another over trivial or even major offences. When we need intelligence to put away criminals who are killing our six-year-olds, shooting up buses with school children, killing old ladies and women with babies in their hands, we can't be backing songs glorifying the M-16, the AK 47, the SLR. We need 'informers' to put these wretches away. It is those of us who are crying and sighing for the abominations in the ghetto-in all forms, including from the politicians and the big private sector man-who are the real friends of the inner city.

Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist. You can send your comments to ianboyne1@yahoo.com or infocus@gleanerjm.com

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Has the church dropped the emancipation struggle?
published: Sunday | August 1, 2004


Ian Boyne, Contributor

THE CHURCH was the most important social institution for ex-slaves in the immediate post-Emancipation period. The church made emancipation meaningful by providing land through the Free Villages programme, without which the black masses would continue to be at the mercy of their white oppressors.

The church gave organisational force to the ex-slaves so that their savings could be mobilised in their own interest. The church founded the credit union movement in Jamaica, pioneered co-operatives and established the educational system to provide meaningful liberation to black people.

The church was integral to every single area of the life of the people in the post-Emancipation period. Indeed, the church played a pivotal part in the abolition of slavery and in its delegitimisation, not to take away from the slaves' own revolts in ending slavery, as Richard Hart and others have so conclusively demonstrated.

But, alas, 170 years after Emancipation, the church's influence over the lives of Jamaicans is both marginal and decreasing.

MORE CHURCHES

We claim to have more churches per square mile than any other country in the world, but also the most murder per capita than any other country in the world, barring one. Churches dot every corner and lane, but so do corruption, immorality and injustice. Our crusades are roaring with excitement but so are the vulgarity, venality and debauchery of the dancehall.

On weekends our churches are packed but on Monday morning there is no perceptible impact as our hedonism, materialism and Godlessness do not effectively trail that of post-Christian Europe where many churches have been closed down or are empty. It is not just the political project which has failed in Jamaica. The church, as an institution, has been a failure in so far as affecting the culture and life of the people.

Three well-known, godly, well-meaning women have interrupted their sleep to run around Heroes Park at 5:00 for 42 days (a day for a year of our Independence), desperately praying for a change in the nation.

BAWL OUT TWO

This afternoon, thousands of Christians are expected to gather downtown for Bawl Out Two, hoping that God will hear them this time and stop the runaway violence and criminal mayhem in Jamaica.

The Christians follow Lieute-nant Stitchie's advice to "Fast and Pray", but the nation continues to drift further from God. How has the church fallen so badly since the days of Emancipation when every Jamaican life was tangibly touched by the church's activities?

As we celebrate Emancipation, it is an appropriate time for us to reflect on the decline of the Jamaican church. First, let's understand what we are not saying.

We are not saying that the church is doing nothing except preaching about Heaven. That's a bit of nonsense spoken only by people who have no connection to the church. The church is extremely active in touching the lives of many Jamaicans through its social outreach and multiplicity of social programmes.

Indeed, it is now routine for Evangelical and Fundamentalist churches which formerly eschewed what they called "the Social Gospel" to be heavily involved in uplifting members' lives in the here and now.

The church continues to rescue many youth from gunmanship, prostitution and a life of purposelessness through its evangelistic witness. The crime and corruption in Jamaica would be worse had it not been for the church. Make no mistake about this.

Very importantly, the church, particularly its charismatic and newer elements, has made a major advance in providing an alternative cultural offering for Christian young people by using the dancehall, popular music rhythms as a channel to both educate and entertain.

SECULAR ENTERTAINMENT

On a weekend Christians don't have to be bored at home or settle just for secular entertainment: They can shout, scream, wave and do the latest dance moves and rival the dancehall and the night-clubs, all to the glory of the Lord, substituting immoral lyrics for sanitised ones.

This is a major advance in popular culture, and though it is being resisted by some elements from the traditional churches, the newer churches have facilitated it and the young adults are having a grand time in the Lord, while totally ignoring the old fogies who prefer their Jim Reeves and Sankey songs.

But there has been nothing comparable at the intellectual level. The church has been vanquished in terms of intellectual influence in the nation. While in the past, members of the clergy influenced the national discussion agenda and were forceful in influencing discourse and reflection, today the church in Jamaica is intellectually marginalised, though no other institution boasts the number of high-calibre intellectuals as the church.

PREPARE THEIR PEOPLE FOR HEAVEN

We can understand that some Fundamentalist churches and sects are withdrawalist and believe they should only prepare their people for Heaven or the eschatological Kingdom. The Jehovah's Witnesses and others must be respected for their pietistic, quietistic theological views.

ESTABLISHED CHURCHES

But the established churches have never accepted that exclusively otherworldly orientation, and that was what led them to have such a decisive influence on the social, economic and political life of post-Emancipa-tion, post Indepen-dence Jamaica. That is what led the Jamaica Council of Churches to be so active in the 1970s and to play such a crucial role in raising political consciousness and in affirming cultural identity. But the church has been in strategic retreat. And the nation is suffering as a result of it.

If you listen to many of the preachers in Jamaica today, especially the educated ones, they are dull, boring, excruciatingly irrelevant, out of touch with everyday realities and seriously lacking in effective communication skills.

GREAT ORATORS

Sure, there are still some great orators, men highly skilled in homiletics. But they are not connecting with the issues people are grappling with; they are answering questions no one is asking; rebutting points no one is raising and providing answers to questions people don't even understand. They are on Mars and Venus while we are on planet Earth.

The Pentecostals and the Charismatics are more relevant but culturally debilitating with their unbalanced health and wealth teaching, which is really rebranded consumerism. The church's state in Jamaica is truly sad: Those with the sophistication and learning are speaking above the people's heads and are typically dismal communicators, and the effective, moving communicators are usually intellectually deficient minstrels, performing to the American Gospel of Prosperity. It is not an Emancipating Gospel.

It is a Gospel which identifies Godliness with the American Dream and it serves to further enslave our people in a web of consumerist, materialistic values which rob them of their sense of significance and worth if they don't have the trappings of "faith": The fine home, car, clothing, fat bank account.

SHAME

It is a shame that the biggest issue the church is known for out side its walls is its opposition to casino gambling. At a time when the country is reeling from the worst effects of American cultural penetration, the church has not provided a counter-ideology for the masses.

Indeed, the fastest-growing sections of the church are themselves victims of this Americanisation. But the church has serious intellectuals who could provide the critique of the atomistic, nihilistic and hedonistic culture which we have imported from the United States principally.

This has nothing to do with rejecting the market economy and reaching back for socialism. Nonsense. Accepting a market economy ­ which we should ­ is not the same as accepting a market society ­ which we should not. There are values which are above the aggrandisement of the self and the maximisation of personal pleasure. The church must reassert that hedonistic values hurt societies.

TAINTED MONEY

The Prime Minister is warning his possible successors about disqualification for accepting 'tainted money' and fears are being expressed that cash-rich campaigners in the JLP succession race might be able to bribe delegates to choose their man for the job. So here we are faced with the possibility ­ and more than the mere possibility ­ of having corrupt people foisted on us because we are in a culture which puts money and material advancement ­ through whatever means ­ at the apex of the value chain. You can't sit easy with a culture of hedonism and self-centeredness and then suddenly expect people to act morally when electing party successors. Why not take a bribe and accept drugs money if it suits your personal interests? Away with old-fashioned values!

The church has not built a counter-culture against the admittedly very powerful influence which has been distorting the emancipation of our people and enslaving them in the values of American consumerist culture.

SHIFTS IN SOCIAL VALUES

Writing in the year-end issue of the Journal of Popular Culture last year, Laura Oswald notes the shifts in social values over the last forty years from "commitment to a higher good that transcended the individual such as the good of the community or the family to commitment to self-satisfaction."

There has never been a time when the church has had more powerful ammunition to attack secularism as it has today when secular societies are languishing in anomie, social crisis and what Newsweek calls "eroding moral certainties" in a cover story titled 'Sad Planet: Depression Has Become a Global Disease' (June 21 issue). The June 13 issue of The New York Times has a fascinating article on 'The Fidelity Fix' showing the astounding successes of the fidelity model in fighting HIV/AIDS in Africa.

The fall 2003 issue of the New Perspectives Quarterly contains a fascinating interview with University of Chicago Professor of Social Thought Leon Kass on the failures of secularism: "The present attitude of consumer society is against the grain of all past human experience which called for sacrifice in the present." The church needs to resurrect this message in post-Emancipation, post-Independence Jamaica.

CONSUMERISM

"There is an enormous amount of evidence that consumerism that characterises the lifestyles of middle and upper class Americans and is being exported the world over is harmful to our shared environment," says Laura Canon in the essay 'The Butterfly Effect and the Virtues of the American Dream' in the Winter 2003 issue of The Journal of Social Philosophy. The Church must be a part of the resistance to these alien values to our African peoples.

The church needs to lead a new emancipation struggle against cultural imperialism in order to make itself relevant to 21st century Jamaica.

Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist.

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http://dukemagazine.duke.edu/alumni/dm2/books.txt.html



Noises in the Blood: Orality, Gender and the "Vulgar" Body of Jamaican Popular Culture

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By Carolyn Cooper. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995. 240 pp. $39.95; $15.95 paper.

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Today, the cultures of former colonies like Jamaica are fueling a "reverse colonization" of cultural power centers in Europe and North America, and of the borderless, media- and marketing-linked world of global pop consciousness. This is the thesis of Jamaica's Carolyn Cooper, a professor in the English department at the University of the West Indies, in Noises in the Blood. In these essays on Jamaican popular culture, she plays the "informer," an interlocutor who helps make the meanings and purposes of folk and street cultures accessible to a mainstream public.
Cooper is a well-known Caribbean literature specialist and newspaper columnist. In Noises in the Blood, she recognizes that, just as cricket, fast food, and Hollywood action movies have become staples of Jamaica's pop landscape, so have expressions of homegrown Jamaican pop culture, especially its music, spread around the world. Mass media have aided this boom, allowing, for example, reggae's Bob Marley to become an international hero by the time of his death in 1981. Jamaican migration to England and, later, to the U.S. and Canada during the island's independence era in the early 1960s had also broadened popular knowledge of its people and their society.

Cooper notes that their language, Jamaican English, is a fully evolved creole. Among its most important, if ephemeral texts, she examines the works of Louise Bennett ("Miss Lou"), the Burl Ives of Jamaica who has entertained her country's citizens for decades with humorous ditties that comment on local manners and mores. In Bennett's dialect songs, poems, and children's stories, Cooper identifies elements of the deeply expressive language she calls Jamaican that incorporates African-derived words and grammar and in which proverbs play a powerful, semantic role. For Cooper, Bennett's "performance poetry" represents one end of the spectrum of Jamaica's mostly unwritten "oral literature," whose listeners understand its rhymes and identify with its central themes. Among them: the struggle for survival in the face of economic hardship, the battle of the sexes, and the ongoing search for a national cultural identity.

At the other end of this oral-literary spectrum, Cooper scrutinizes the lyrics of today's "dancehall" singer-DJs, purveyors of the thunderous, post-reggae music that has become the leading sound in Jamaican clubs and a major pop music export. Dancehall is marked by a beat as insistent as that of American gangsta rap; for the most part, it is similarly devoid of melody. "Indeed," Cooper writes, "music is far less important than lyrics in this genre" that attracts hordes of fans to all-night jams. But within the "space" of the dancehall concert, the boasting of charismatic singer-DJs like Shabba Ranks, Yellowman, or Josey Wales reigns supreme.

Whereas reggae performers like Bob Marley or the late Peter Tosh often sang with idealism about political themes, dancehall DJs celebrate an unabashedly crude culture of "slackness." "Slackness is a metaphorical revolt against law and order, an undermining of consensual standards of decency," Cooper explains. "It is the antithesis of Culture." As dancehall aficionados know, this music provides an anything-goes forum for its mostly male stars to brag about their sexual prowess, denigrate women, revile homosexuals, and indulge in tedious macho posing.

Acknowledging that "One culture's 'knowledge' is another's 'noise,'" Cooper explains the cultural-historical sources of the dancehall phenomenon (including its devotees' exposure to grade-B shoot-'em-ups that movie distributors routinely dump on "lesser" overseas markets like Jamaica's). But don't look to these essays to make critical (that is to say, moral) judgments about the dancehall's messages, or aesthetic (that is to say, evaluative) judgments about its quality as music. Instead, Cooper focuses on "deconstructing" her various subject "texts," not on assessing their artistic value.

Noises in the Blood also looks at the dub poetry of such writer-performers as Jean Binta Breeze, Mikey Smith, and Mutabaruka. This "performance poetry," she says, "is a return to the roots of language in oracy" that falls flat on the printed page. Its full impact depends on the personal charisma and interpretive skills of its performers as they incorporate traditional lore from African and Jamaican sources, folk sayings, and proverbs into texts that address familiar, contemporary issues.

With its history of slavery and colonial rule, its ethnic mix, and its fiercely independent spirit, Jamaica is a microcosm of the multicultural energies from which nation-states of the post-colonial Caribbean were born. And as Cooper notes, even as tiny, "marginal," post-independence Jamaica still strives to define its national identity, its culture's reach far beyond its island borders helps turn history "upside-down as the 'margins' move to the 'center' and irreparably dislocate that center."

With Noises in the Blood and Cooper's ongoing analysis of indigenous Caribbean cultural forms, the work of artists like Bennett, Marley, the dub poets, and the dancehall DJs have found an intelligent, determined custodian. For Cooper rescues the heretofore neglected folklore, proverbs, music, poetry, and songs that have followed in colonization's wake. They are the vibrant, provocative products of a dynamic, new "New World" culture that is shaking up that of the "Old."


--Edward Gomez


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Gomez '79, a New York-based arts journalist and editor, began his career as a cultural affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in Kingston, Jamaica. He is a member of Duke Magazine's editorial advisory board.
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