The Grammys, dancehall and pop culture’s complex relationship

Donovan Watkis

Saturday, December 10, 2016

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The 2016 Grammy nominations were announced on December 6, and although many dancehall songs were featured on the albums that were nominated, like Drake’s Views from the 6 album and Kanye West’s Life of Pablo album, there is little to no recognition from The Recording Academy for the current Jamaican dancehall music — a genre that has played a significant role in music’s development and is long overdue its own category, separate from the reggae category — and the players who have contributed to the music industry’s bottom line, and added artistic and creative value throughout the year.


Apart from newcomer Devin di Dakta, who was nominated for his EP that was released September 23, 2016;
Sly and Robbie Presents Reggae for Her; and Sean Paul, who was nominated for his
Cheap Thrills single with pop artist Sia in a pop category, not many local acts received nominations. The
Cheap Thrills artiste, along with other dancehall artistes such as Mr Vegas, have been complaining in recent times that dancehall is not getting its just due on the international market scene. They say other international acts are dabbling in the genre by using samples and features without giving credit to the people and the culture. The Guardian newspaper, reporting on an interview with Sean Paul, said that "the use of dancehall in pop music is not viewed by him as paying homage, but as exploitation". He later commented on
The Breakfast Club and on
Hot 97 that he has collaborated with many pop acts, but he would like to see more credit given when dancehall is used by mainstream artistes. Mr Vegas was more outspoken when he said that "Drake is a fake" for using dancehall on his album without giving credit.




Is pop culture pimping dancehall?


A Wall Street Journal article described how Justin Bieber’s What Do You Mean? was "pioneering the Caribbean, ‘beach-party vibe’ of tropical house in the mainstream". Note the use of the words "pioneer", "beach-party vibe" and "tropical house". In saying Justin Bieber pioneered anything resembling the dancehall genre in the mainstream pop industry is to disregard the barriers broken by Shabba Ranks, Shaggy, Beenie Man, Elephant Man, Sean Paul, Patra, Ce’Cile, and many others for over 20 years. "Tropical house" is the name many North American newspapers are using to describe dancehall when it is done by mainstream North American performers.


The dancehall genre is being treated by mainstream media players like a "side chick" for the value-added ecstasy, euphoric pleasure and dollars it brings; but there’s no official acknowledgement or doors being opened for the artistes or the people from whom the music came so that the artistes can fairly compete and survive.


Dancehall and "dancehallers", being no strangers to the ‘side-chick’ culture, know all too well when the genre is being sidelined. Many of the behind-the-scenes practitioners in pop culture are of Caribbean descent. There are influencers whose parents are Jamaican. Puff Daddy’s biggest artiste, the late Biggie Smalls, was the son of a Jamaican. Video director Little X and cultural artige Karen Civil are also of Caribbean descent.


So why the complaints? People generally complain when they don’t feel as if they are treated fairly. I am sure everyone on Jamaica’s entertainment scene, particularly dancehall practitioners, would not be critical if the markets were fair game for islanders and not just those who exploit the genre in North America and Europe.


The North Americans have more resources and bigger budgets so they are able to reach further. It costs North Americans more than some Jamaican music producers and label heads are willing to pay to promote a record. Do they have an obligation to share their platforms, their artistic influence, and their money if they choose to fuse dancehall with their music? Or do we, music producers, no matter where we are from, have an obligation to develop ourselves, with our art and culture, and put it out on the platforms that are accessible to us?




Valuing dancehall


It took many years to build the music industry to the billion-dollar industry that it is now. The gatekeepers understand that the granting of access to new players in dancehall equates to economic empowerment for the dancehall culture, and by extension for Jamaica. Power concedes nothing, it must be taken. We who have an interest in dancehall and the development of Jamaica’s entertainment industry must place ourselves where we can earn and grow, instead of complaining about Northerners who appropriate and pimp the culture. Bashing Drake won’t stop him from singing what he wants. Music, in general, is being dumbed down to the hustle game and everyone is doing what they can to get attention, so whatever is hot and golden will be used by the top pop acts to fill their coffers.


Artistes like Sean Paul and Shaggy who earned their way into international success probably have the power of experience and reach to run labels that will put authentic dancehall artistes to the world straight from the islands. It is good that Sean Paul used his voice and platform to speak on the issue again more recently on The Breakfast Club, but it is not enough just to talk. I know Sean Paul has done much, but I challenge him and others with a similar reach to do some more.


We need a few more dancehall specialists who will be brave enough to do the groundwork required to gain knowledge about how programme managers break records, in order that more Jamaican artistes can get air play on the mainstream stations. Jamaican independent artistes probably cannot compete with the big budgets and international label connections required to break a record, but Jamaicans have the energy, Jamaicans have the art, Jamaicans have the spirit of the people, and we have the culture. That is power. Whenever that power is organised, the big labels with the budgets will come searching for the next dancehall king. After all, this is a business.




Lobbying


I was told by a musical specialist that the line is long to break a record in North America, especially for the artistes who are not living there. Currently in Jamaica and the Caribbean, artistes are not able to take part in the purchase of their own records unless they have an American or European account on iTunes or Spotify, because the stores are not available in our geographical location. This is where organisation comes in, because to date neither the artistes, entrepreneurs in entertainment, nor the governing representatives have taken steps to correct this exclusion. Enquiring minds would like to know why. Is it because of Jamaica’s exclusion from the international copywriters’ agreements such as the Madrid Protocol? What I know for sure is that it is in the interest of the world’s music industry to open up the market to fairness through a fair licensing environment, so that Jamaicans and other Caribbean nationals can access the music they want anytime, anywhere, on any device.


The digital marketplace in Jamaica and the Caribbean drives the wider creative economy like no other art form, not just in Jamaica, but the world. This value gap is in urgent need of closure to ensure fair play, fair trade, and increase the capability of artistes who wish to build and access massive global audiences. This valuing of the dancehall music can and will drive economic growth for the country.


Music tourism currently generates over US$2.2 billion in the UK, and there are states in America that brand themselves "Live music capitals" because of their well-supported annual festivals. Jamaica, a country that has produced over seven genres of music, should implement from a policy level, through the Economic Growth Council and the Ministry of Culture, a new industry link between the music industry and the tourism industry so that we can increase revenue from the current $300 billion in tourism to a possible $700 billion in music tourism.


Additionally, the value-added quality of dancehall is evident on the Billboard charts right now. The genre is selling millions through streaming, downloads and physical CD sales. It adds value to the business bottom lines of major record companies regardless of the name they choose to give it upon distribution, so now is the time to get the major programme directors, record company executives, bloggers, journalists, governing bodies and artistes to become more aware so that they get the language right when they speak about dancehall. If they get the language right in the current musical atmosphere, dancehall will get its proverbial ‘40 acres and a mule’ in its mother country — Jamaica. They will call the music ‘dancehall’ and, more importantly, ‘Jamaican dancehall’.


Additionally, companies currently listed on the Jamaica Stock Exchange stand to benefit with the introduction of better credit and licensing practices through streaming and downloads. So, give higher credit and credibility to Jamaica and Jamaicans as the pioneers of this genre — who are always more than happy to collaborate with neo-dancehall hitmakers like Justin Bieber and Drake over in Canada — so that the cultural value gained when a song tops the chart may be shared.




Every mickle...


Getting access to the Jamaican stores to purchase music may be seen as a small step, but the destiny of local artistes cannot be left squarely in the hands of the North American consumers when most of the artistes live and work in Jamaica and are unable to acquire a US visa so they can tour or make relationships for one reason or another.


The buzz gained in Jamaica has been fuel for others, so why not get our house in order before complaining that someone else is benefiting when they use the same culture that we naturally cultivate and have at our disposal? Our language, our cuisine, and our indigenous faiths are going for top dollar on the international markets. Is it not worth something at home too? Jamaica is a cultural factory. A factory is a place where products are manufactured by people, but the people are not able to own or buy the products they make. Dancehall, like any other exportable product coming out of Jamaica, must be researched, developed and packaged for sale as is done in other markets to the target audiences. Without this research, development, and targeted sales practices, credible dancehall players will continue to watch as clever minds extract, fuse, use, and discard the genre. When they are through having their pleasure, they won’t even ask if it is too late to say sorry.


See what I did there? All well-thinking Jamaican dancehall artistes should know what the American pop acts already know, and that is you can go, record a song, mix it, master it, then ship it around the world within a day — I said within a day.


Big businesses are on the decline in the music industry, but the appetite is fresh and ready for micro music houses. If you are an entrepreneur doing dancehall music, this is the time to get a great artiste and put your music out. With Apple music and Tidal, all the music of the world can be consumed for less than US$10 per month. In 2014, the music industry’s digital revenue was US$6.85 billion, with only 16 countries having integrated streaming into their singles charts. Streaming, according to Lyor Cohen, former music executive at DefJam, now a music content executive at YouTube, is only at two per cent market penetration, and it will increase. I, along with Lyor, believe it is the perfect time to get into the business in anticipation of when the penetration rate becomes 50 per cent, and streaming becomes available in Jamaica and the Caribbean.


That being said, we, the music makers, the entrepreneurs, the producers, and the artistes in the Caribbean should continue to make the music we want to make that is culturally significant, and value ourselves and our art enough to make our culture flourish in proportion to our abilities to tap into these developing ecosystems that will allow us to reach the world.





Donovan "JR" Watkis is an author, producer, artiste manager and cultural artige’. Send comments to the Observer or @jrsbillion1.

    

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