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The rise and fall of dancehall

Lloyd B SMITH

Wednesday, March 19, 2014    

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FROM the heady days of Wear you to the ball to the raucous Rampin' Shop, the home-grown musical genre of Jamaican dancehall has risen to respectable prominence and fallen to the depths of decadence. No amount of philosophising and sanitising by academia and apologetic stances by wannabes desperately trying to identify with a popular cultural practice can deny the fact that this musical form is in serious trouble.

The guilty verdict handed down to dancehall artiste extraordinaire Adidja Palmer, better known as Vybz Kartel, along with his alleged cronies Andre St John, Kahira Jones, and Shawn "Shawn Storm" Campbell, with respect to the August 2011 murder of Clive "Lizard" Williams, has elicited a variety of responses as to the good, the bad and the ugly of the "haul and pull up kulcha". Kartel was no ordinary citizen. Indeed, one well-known talk show host opined in the aftermath of the celebrated trial that not even a member of parliament could have attracted so much interest.

Well, the die is cast and it remains now to see what will be the severity of the sentence when Justice Lennox Campbell delivers his decision next Thursday, March 27, 2014. Of course, there is no doubt that Kartel will have instructed his lawyers to appeal the verdict, but no matter what transpires from now on the jury has spoken and justice has been served. In any event, a close scrutiny of some of Kartel's lyrics provide for the discerning eye what may be referred to as the mens rea, described in law as "the intention or knowledge of wrongdoing that constitutes part of a crime". In the final analysis, it is not for me to pass judgement, but clearly this could well be a case of "cock mouth kill cock".

And, in this context, what is most frightening for me is the revelation that attempts were made to bribe the jurors. This act to pervert the course of justice is the ultimate corruption of our justice system and brings into sharp focus the reliability of the jury system in a country whose unofficial national hero is Brer Anancy. I shall be following this case very closely, because an example must be set if the juror in question is found to be guilty. What is even more important, though, is for the police to do their work and trace this dastardly act to its origin, because such a practice does not augur well for transparency and accountability in the courtroom.

In the meantime, it is safe to say that dancehall will be haunted by this unfortunate comeuppance for a long time to come. Very few dancehall artistes have been as prolific as the "Worl' Boss". He has shown himself to be a shrewd businessman, an author, a lyrical master churning out hits like an automated machine, but most significantly an icon who gained a tremendous following of young men and women, both here and abroad — as far away as Africa — who believed in his way of life, his pronouncements and his actions. The show of support last Thursday in downtown Kingston and at his base in Portmore is ample evidence that he is the idol of many Jamaicans who see him as someone to emulate.

It can be said without fear of contradiction that many of our young males sought to ape Kartel's behaviour. Bleaching, saggy pants and tattooing are but some of the things that defined the dancehall giant's persona. Against this background, there are many Jamaicans who feel that because of this perceived deleterious influence on young minds in the country, what occurred on March 13 was not just "bad luck" or "obeah", but poetic justice. After all, to the average Jamaican, dancehall has become synonymous

with indiscipline, sexual promiscuity, violence, gangsterism, anti-establishment behaviour, and moral decay.

When one considers that the average age of the jurors was 40, it may well be argued that it was not only Vybz Kartel that was on trial, but dancehall. Many well-thinking Jamaicans have become fed up with dancehall as they feel that it has corrupted our youngsters to the point where certain artistes are referred to as "god". I recall visiting recently an inner-city community popularly known as a ghetto, and during a conversation with some "yute man" I asked them if they follow the news in order to have a better appreciation of what was happening in their country, some of which may have a direct impact on them. And the glib reply was, "No, boss, ah Beenie Man and Bounty Killa we get fi wi news from!" This telling response confirms the great, overwhelming influence that our dancehall artistes have on the young minds in this country. It is therefore incumbent on them that they use that influence for good rather than evil. But are they in all instances?

I well recall when Rampin' Shop was in its heyday; even the little children coming from school could be heard delivering the lewd lyrics with much aplomb. No longer is it a case of "Gentle Jesus, meek and mild..", it is more a case of "Come inna mi rampin' shop..." Juxtapose dancehall with reggae and it becomes clearer and clearer that the former belongs underground, while the latter should be promoted and extolled. Bob Marley's immortal lyrics are evidence that good will always triumph over evil, because decades from now millions of people all over the world will be singing One Love as against how many will be chanting any of the dancehall songs that have a relatively short shelf life.

The current fall of Jamaican dancehall should be a wake-up call to its many practitioners that it cannot be business as usual. They need to "wheel and come again!" Yes, there are artistes who have tried to clean up their acts, but they do not get the "forwards", "lighters", airplay, and performance gigs that those who promote slackness and violence get. So it is also incumbent on the followers and patrons to clean up their acts, not to mention the disc jockeys and radio stations who feverishly and unscrupulously go after ratings and popularity at the expense of destroying a nation in the process.

After this Kartel debacle, dancehall must rise again, with or without him. However, even from his jail cell, he can begin to be part of a new day for that musical genre. From now on, his lyrics must embrace forgiveness, redemption, positive vibes, love and unity. He can make a difference, and if he does he will play a pivotal role in bringing back the love in dancehall.

Lloyd B Smith is a member of parliament and deputy speaker of the House of Representatives. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the People's National Party or the Government of Jamaica. Comments: lloydbsmith@hotmail.com

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