The power and the downside of dancehall music

Mark Wignall

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

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DANCEHALL music derives its power from the simple fact that those who supply it to the public are the greatest communicators of happenings, trends, and ideas in Jamaica.

Those who we call DJs also have the additional power of being able to define in the minds of our impressionable young people what 'acceptable' behaviour should be, whether it is social at the community level ('informa fi dead') or in interactions with women ('lif up yuh dress gal, and mek me.... General Echo).

But dancehall music starts off on a great transgression, a big plagiarism, in that it stole the physical place, the dancehall — where young lovers gathered in days leading up to the 1960s to dance mostly to music by singers.

Because it had bastardised the toasting of the early purveyors like King Stitt, URoy, Lizzie, Big Youth, etc, and created a crudity that was more palatable to a new generation of youngsters who were educationally stunted and one dimensional in their musical outlook, it could not be named hip hop, like the Americans did, and so it settled on labelling the form dancehall music.

By the time the 1990s came around, little of it bore resemblance to what could be remotely considered music. But, by then, few of our younger folk could recognise music even it had hit them in the face.

In the 1960s, when the toasters (DJs who artistically blended rhythmical 'talking over' with breaks in popular musical pieces) started out, it was novel and quite exciting, and because it encouraged those dancing to 'talk along' with the DJ while dancing, many singers ached to have their songs brought up to the level of say, the Paragons, Wear you to the ball with URoy. Those who had purchased the original 45 rpm vinyl also wanted the one with URoy, and potentially both singer and toaster benefited financially from the double sale.

In the mid-1970s, when Bob Andy scripted and sung one of Jamaica's most powerful pieces of popular music — Fire Burning — there was still balance between the singers and the raw DJs who would later emerge, like Yellowman. In the 1980s, when King Yellowman found that the emerging generation needed liberal doses of 'slackness', he and others like General Echo delivered, and the template was set.

Even Yellowman's attempt at the original toasting genre had to give way, and although many Jamaicans liked his rendition of the Fats Domino's classic, Blueberry Hill, singers began to disappear. Musicians, in turn, began to starve as the electronic keyboard and musically dunce producers gained prominence, and slick talkers from the rough inner-city areas found that the easiest way to earn big money was to gain entrance through that heavily guarded gate and into the recording studio. In time the studio shrunk, the ranks of DJs increased, and all one needed in an attempt to 'buss' was a laptop and a shrewd producer.

The music has morphed from being an art form and the DJs have been made into cultists by those who have no sense of our musical history and, in general, have latched onto the only role models who are available to them.

On the day that the DJ phenomenon Vybz Kartel was found guilty of murder, schoolchildren were out in full array downtown, chanting "Free Worl' boss, free Worl' Boss. No teacha, no school. No teacha, no school".

Kartel's music was never on trial, but one could not help but note that much of his lyrical content was quite distasteful to someone like me who could hardly be described as the fastidious type.

In response to my Sunday column, 'The fascinating case of Vybz Kartel', a journalist from Zimbabwe emailed me the following,

"Read your article on Adidja Palmer, better known as Vybz Kartel, with great interest. Though I have not sampled any of his music, I was particularly taken by the following this man has here in Zimbabwe.

"When I began following his trial, my mind raced in all directions trying to figure out how such a singer could hold the minds of young people captive while celebrating something else. Your article is truly liberating and helps us to recalibrate our thinking as people of the developing world.

"Should we continue to celebrate fame, criminality, sex, drugs, and the dehumanisation of our women through music at the expense of real and pressing issues such as the welfare of our security guards, health, education, and protecting the legacy of musical greats such as Bob Marley who championed the fight for human dignity? The youth here in Zimbabwe are also trapped in a similar fashion as those in Jamaica courtesy of ICT advances.

"I am a journalist with one of the main dailies in Zimbabwe and 22 maize seasons younger than you, but I admire your courage to speak out on pressing issues facing us people of the developing world. In this world of today, it seems black people have to work round the clock to protect their minds from the corrupting influences of power, sex, drugs, and fame attached to money. Thanks for the good and positively inspiring piece. May your ink pot never run dry."

Politicians, parsons and newspaper columnists are forced to yield to the fact that it is the DJ who has the power to communicate just about any idea in Jamaica. I am not suggesting that all DJs should take the route of that thing called 'conscious music'. But when I was much younger, my heroes were Malcolm X, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Marcus Garvey, Walter Rodney, and Mandela. I sought no heroes in music because, as far as I was concerned, music was simply for rest,meditation, relaxation, enjoyment, and dancing.

Times have changed, and where the teacher is now no longer a role model to be looked up to, the 'Teacha' takes over. In a perverse contradiction, where I, Vybz Kartel, and I found that there was a lucrative market for the sort of music I made, I would be foolish not to give the people exactly what they demand.

You and I have to make our way through a rough life, and so did Kartel understand that route. Unfortunately, like a politician on the podium at election time, the people have to be given the words that best make them feel good, even if the words are just designed to empower the speaker.

Where the people are starved of quality education and are crying out for leadership of any kind it is the DJ who is always at the bat, ready to score his century and earn the adulation of the cheering crowd.

Unfortunately, too many of them get the cheers, the standing ovations, and the big 'forwards', while there is absolutely nothing graceful and memorable about the batting.

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