Music has the power to shape society — Tanya Stephens

BY BASIL WALTERS Observer staff reporter

Sunday, April 03, 2011    

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ONE of the most influential female voices in reggae/dancehall has brushed aside what could be deemed a hypocritical view that music doesn't have the power to influence societal values and attitude.

If there is one Jamaican artiste thinking out of the box, it certainly has to be Tanya Stephens. Sounding truly Infallible (the title of her last album), Tanya Stephens in her lecture, nay, reasoning on the UWI (Mona) campus on Thursday, was not just verbally creative, but as social scientist Clinton Hutton once said of her, was intuitively intelligent as she deftly tackled a relevant issue relating to her profession.

Anyone who was in doubt at the University's Assembly Hall, of Who is Tanya?, the title of song in which she described herself as "the gyal weh come fi change di whole game wid a pen", would have been convinced that the singjay is more than just an artiste.

In one of her most penetrating (non-musical) performances to date, coming on the heels of Vybz Kartel, Tanya Stephens prefaced her discourse under the theme, Music: the Power to Shape Societies, thus.

"I feel like this forum this evening demands this particular topic. This being the last day of Women's Month. This being a presentation following on the heels of another presentation by one of my co-workers, one of my peers. And based on the social climate right now, I thought it would be relevant to provide a different perspective from what you used to be hearing from artistes."

As far as it turned out, she challenged her peers. But this should come as little surprise to anyone familiar with the artiste who developed beyond what she once called "the same old four topics."

"Music has the power to shape society. I have heard that debated often. I have heard people from within my industry refute that claim. I have heard people saying music is not responsible for what is happening in society and musicians are not to be blamed, and I agree with them. It is not the sole responsibility of musicians to raise our children or to shape our society, but music does have the power to do this and as a result it is important that we wheel it responsibly," Stephens cautioned.

"Numerous scientific studies," she added, "have been conducted without producing conclusive evidence of the exact neurological process by which music evokes emotional reactions. However, the fact that it does affect us emotionally is not at question. From the chanting of Negro spirituals by slaves as a method of keeping the dream of freedom alive and conveying hope; to Public Enemy's 1989 single Fight the Power; a call to arms in which rapper Chuck B instructed the African- American community to revolt, music has been an effective means of rallying the masses and creating ideological groundswell."

"It is incredible that we can accept the credit that comes with sparking social change in positive directions without being willing to accept the responsibility of the part we play in negative trends", she added.

For further emphasis, the entertainer, who emerged in the late-1990s, rolled out another impressive list of songs that made the point. "I Am Woman by Helen Reddy, I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor, R.E.S.P.E.C.T. first performed by Otis Redding and later made an anthem by Aretha Franklin, are all songs which spurred women into action and emphasised the need to demand more from our male counterpart," she noted.

"The messages contained within these compositions provided a script for many who had previously been rendered powerless by the inability to express themselves. These are some of my theme songs. These are some of the anthems that I grew up with. I was born in 1973, and I incorporated them into my life. Many people called me feminist. I am not. I stand up for myself, I happened to be female..."

She unleashed more from her armoury. "Music amplifies and adds urgency to emotions as evidenced by successful use of love songs to set the mood for a romantic escapade. Artistes like Beres Hammond, Freddie McGregor, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson have provided a soundtrack to countless nights filled with passion. And that's just talking about my life," Stephens said to rousing applause. She then joked, "What, oonu don't have dem kind a night deh too?"

She didn't stop there. She went on to stress the role that music plays in the marketing of various products. "The capacity of music to galvanise the masses has not been limited to affecting political change or aiding and abetting intimacy. Mention of brand names in the lyrical compositions of popular artistes has been instrumental in promoting numerous products to market in which they had previously been significantly less popular and sometimes unknown. We cannot continue to say we are not responsible for situations within our society. "




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