Dancehall Music's Catharsis

Charles Campbell

Sunday, May 09, 2010    

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CLYDE McKenzie wrote an excellent piece in last week's Sunday Observer, and it goes without saying, I endorse his main prescriptions for correcting the dire predicament in which the Jamaican music industry finds itself presently.

As it regards the issue of self-regulation, I wish to go a step further than my colleague did, in proposing that members of the industry devise and collectively agree to adopt and publish a code of ethics and standards, which governs the professional conduct of all representatives of the music industry.

The Jamaican Federation of Musicians already has one such in existence, and probably in the interim, if we find it universally compatible, we could adopt this as an industry-wide standard, until a new multi-disciplinary one is drafted and approved, by other disciplines and professional structures within the fraternity.

While I believe that this is an ideal, I do not think it is absolutely necessary for this to be the only approach to self-regulation. It could also take the form of appropriate professional registration and standards, applied to each discipline within the industry. Because, let's face it, in the present scenario, even if all the active organisations within the industry currently, were to unite in promulgating such a code of behaviour, the bulk of the players would remain outside of their membership or direct ambit of influence. Most players within the industry are averse to formally joining any organisation or institution. At best, they are sceptical and at worse suspicious of the motives of all such bodies, but thereby remain beyond formal regulation. Therefore, formal registration to operate and do business in this sector is objectively a prerequisite for self-regulation really to be effective. One may ask, how would this improve the current business and external environment?

Using the dancehall dilemma, let's examine the structure of the industry, to gain a better understanding of the collective responsibility for the offending lyrics and deviant behaviour, of some popular dancehall artistes, which are currently threatening the very prosperity of the industry.

The truth is, while the blame is mostly focused on DJs and sound system selectors, dancehall songs could neither be produced, promoted nor marketed without the active participation of diverse professionals operating within the sector and the mass media. Generally, in the dancehall subsector, when a sound track, popularly called "riddim" is recorded, the producer then goes out seeking "name brand" artistes to perform songs on this track. In this case, the producer has the ability and professional prerogative to determine what kind of lyrics accompany this tune. Like all other music genres, dancehall music also has its fair share of professional songwriters. They are responsible for penning many, if not most, of the popular songs for which our artistes are credited. Oftentimes, they are literally the ones putting words into the artistes mouths -- words which the artistes themselves may foolishly think they have to live up to -- warping the lines between their public and private personas, in an attempt to be consistent.

The next step in the process involves publishing and distribution of the works, areas which again employ other professionals, working in conjunction with the artist. While these professionals should never be found guilty of censorship, nevertheless they do owe the pubic some responsibility for ensuring proper categorising and labelling of their products. Furthermore, there are some moral boundaries which bind us together as a society, beyond which we should not allow our good names and reputations to be associated.

The next set of professionals that get involved in the process at this stage, are usually operatives within the mass media, including sound systems. They play a very significant role, being ultimately responsible for what is broadcast and published to the general public, whether printed electronically or live. Unfortunately, some managers of these media and sound systems have allowed too much latitude to ZJs (as they are now called) and selectors in determining what is played. That freedom has been so abused, that a significant percentage of this cohort have essentially become informal publicity agents for special artistes or producers. In this role they earn far more than their official salary, by collecting payola in one form or another, to promote specific producers, artistes or songs without any measurable criteria, or governing standards. This is not a new phenomena, or even unique to Jamaica. The geniuses that we are, however, have allowed us to carry this anomaly to even deeper lows.

Of course the next links in the chain of professional structures that make up the music sector are the event promoters, venue and club owners/managers, especially those that produce live shows and festivals. Whereas attempts may have been made in the past to develop rules and standards governing the behaviour of these professionals, none have ever received broad based endorsement or withstood the test of time, and the onslaught of the overly materialistic hustling mentality. This has led to the prevailing "free for all" approach to the promotion of many events and the management of some of these establishments.

All the above sub-sectors are critical to the successful functioning of the Jamaican music industry and the continued popularity of its music. Given the rapid expansion and internationalisation of popular Jamaican music over the last three decades, and the positive impact it has had on the lives of many Jamaicans, including giving us a discernable national brand worldwide, the recent counter actions from external forces to stymie its continued growth, naturally has arrested the attention of the entire nation. From Europe through the Americas and the Caribbean, many countries are taking action to minimise the perceived negative impact that some dancehall songs and artistes are having on sections of their societies. It behoves all of us within the sector to now, before it is too late, take a serious appraisal of where we are coming from, of how and what got us thus far, and design and implement corrective measures, that will serve our economic interests, in the long term. From this perspective, booking agents and public relations professional will also have to devise their own ethics and standards, in guiding their activities, as well as uniting in a concerted effort to rebrand this great patrimony called Jamaican reggae.

The dancehall genre is not dying. That's only wishful thinking on the part of some. To the contrary, for instance, look how popular and integrated the musical form has become for gospel songs, and in the churches of Jamaica. Yes, there is no doubt that dancehall music is currently going through a catharsis, but happily, as Worrell King of Western Consciousness agrees, the tide is beginning to change. Today, more and more talented young artistes of this genre, have rejected the use of these stereotypically negative and base lyrics as a career path. This augurs well for dancehall music's future. Worrell King has been around long enough to witness the pendulum swinging both ways. In the meantime, he has been one of a rare breed of show promoters who has been steadfast in his principle of self-regulation for 20 years; putting principle above expediency, in his consistent promotion of good, clean, conscious music at his events. He richly deserves our sincere commendations and the western consciousness concerts merit better sponsorship support from the large commercial enterprises in Jamaica, whose executives so loudly pontificate from public platforms against the perversion of our societal norms in the dancehall and many of its songs.

Email: che.campbell@gmail.com





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