"I shot the sheriff, but I didn't shoot the deputy…Every time I plant a seed, he said kill it before it grows." (Bob Marley and The Wailers, 1973)
The first time I heard this song on the radio I was horrified. I found it unbelievable that such a song glorifying the shooting of law enforcement officers was being played on the radio. I wondered what message was being sent to our youth. I kept hearing the song on the radio frequently. Finally, I concluded that our society had given up on emphasising appropriate behaviour.
I found out that the singer of the song was an Englishman named Eric Clapton, and I thought that, for him to be singing a song like that was disgusting. What type of person would openly boast that he had shot a sheriff?
But why the sheriff, I wondered? Most Jamaican boys grew up watching American western movies in which the sheriff was always a hallowed personality, who stood between good and evil.
Mind you, I had previously heard songs about killings — Stagger Lee, Who killed Billy, Delilah, and some western hits like El Paso and Big Iron — but never such a bold confession. The singer had shot a lawman and was implicated in the death of another.
So one can imagine my amazement when word came that this audacious song had made number one on the American music charts. What was the world coming to? That the citizens of a righteous country like the USA could accept and support such a song disappointed me as a young teenager.
My early Catholic upbringing and later pro-Rastafarian leanings had taught me that peace and love will engender equal rights and justice. So I had no thought of shooting anyone, especially someone sworn to serve and protect.
I hope the sheriff survived and extend belated condolence to the deputy's family.
Sometime later, I heard the song's writer was none other than local hero Bob Marley. So, naturally, I immediately went out to buy the group's new album titled Burning. I must say that my perception of the song changed immediately. I was proud to know that a piece that had made it to the top of the American music charts was composed by Jamaicans. I define this change of heart as the psychology of denial.
But what was Bob Marley thinking?
In one interview Marley said he wanted to say, "I shot the police." However, he realised this wouldn't work in Jamaica, so he changed the victim to sheriff. Bob lived the Jamaican life and was probably either a target or witnessed excessive police or "Babylon" oppression. I was willing to try and work with that, although it still felt wrong to shoot a policeman.
In another interview, Marley said that the sheriff represented wickedness. I preferred that interpretation as in 1970s Jamaica we were all rebels with a revolutionary cause. We saw the police as strictly a function of the plantation's security apparatus. The song had a different feel of authenticity coming from a Jamaican than an English Caucasian with no experience of poverty and oppression.
Another interpretation came from one of Bob's girlfriends, Esther Anderson. According to her, Bob was against abortion and considered doctors sheriffs who wanted to "kill his planted seed before it grows". Again, this was plausible, although all had thought he was singing about a cannabis seed he had planted.
We will never know Bob's true interpretation. However, I Shot the Sheriff was the first outright in-your-face gun song I experienced out of Jamaica.
Bob Marley has had me on the back and front foot several times. I disagreed with his suggestion to bomb a church because he realised the preacher was lying (Talking Blues). I also was not comforted with the optics of his "burning and looting tonight" (Burning). However, I did agree with him that there would be "war" – if the philosophy of one race being superior to another was not abolished (War). Also, I was "arm in arm with arms" (Zimbabwe) with him on the African liberation struggle.
Our parents initiated gun culture in Jamaica. In their ignorance, they presented young boys with gifts of toy guns at Christmas and birthdays. So, at a young age, we boys became gun-conscious. Marley grew up in Trench Town and would have come into contact with guns by default. He would also be a part of the rude boy generation who would attend Italian-made Spaghetti Westerns at theatres like Ambassador, Rialto, Majestic, and Gaiety. There, audiences would see movies like For A Few Dollars More, Django, and The Good, Bad and Ugly. They knew all the stars by name and sight, like Franco Nero, Lee Van Cleef, and Clint Eastwood.
This socialisation had an effect on many of Jamaica's music personalities. Jamaican artists would adopt names like Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Josey Wales, Bounty Killer, and Lone Ranger. The gun culture invasion in our music extended to all forms of gun-related activities. Soon we would have a host of military personas like Admiral Bailey, Brigadier Jerry, and Lieutenant Stitchie, to name a few. The music was totally permeated with guns and its related theme of violence.
It is appreciated that many artists with an inner-city background would experience facets of the gun culture in their communities. It is also fair to understand that music as an art form is frequently based upon the writer's life experiences. However, Jamaican artists were extraordinarily attracted to gun-related lyrics, and soon these song enveloped the entire musical landscape.
Some radio stations and many sound system selectors have culpability in promoting these gun songs. The artists involved in gun-oriented lyrics became famous and have made a lot of money. However, rumours abound about how these newly found riches were used to acquire guns for the artists, their friends and communities. The names of some of these artists implicated would raise a few eyebrows.
The gun culture in our music had taken hold and would have a negative influence on generations of young Jamaicans.
Recently, a 50th birthday party was held for world-famous Jamaican DJ Bounty Killer. Bounty Killer's birthday was extensive, with many important music dignitaries flying in from all over the world. Sadly, Bounty Killer does not have a US visa. Corporate Jamaica, especially international conglomerate Digicel, were major sponsors. "The Killa" was lauded as the face of dancehall. One artist, Spice, declared that without Bounty Killer there would be no dancehall.
I remember once asking a friend for some Bounty Killer songs, and he gave me a CD with 20 songs. I only chose two of the 20 pieces. The other 18 were promoting straight-up gunplay. I was so disappointed. One of the two songs selected had a gun punchline which I decided to live with because of its popularity. In it Bounty Killer threatened:
"Anytime... mi hungry again, you a go see mi nine [9 millimetre pistol]; Government policy a undermine, police and soldier a fight crime."
I wasn't comfortable with what he was saying, although I understood where he was coming from. It reminded me of Marley and the sheriff.
Well, Bounty Killer is now 50 years old and has cleaned up his act. Age and family usually calm the rebel, and he has genuinely paid his musical dues. He is more mature and reasonable, which is good enough for me. I wish him the best and encourage him to become a positive role model for the youth in the music industry.
However, an artist like Bounty Killer, known as The Warlord, Poor People Governor, and Ground Gad, has already poisoned the well. His gun lyrics have significantly influenced a parade of later artists in the gunplay arena. So should he get a free pass, or is he deserving of some stick? I think he deserves some stick. The horse has already bolted the paddock, and artists like Bounty Killer must take some blame for leaving the gate open.
This musical fascination with guns has consumed so many artists. Some musical exponents graduated into genuine gunhands.
Veterans like Super Cat have made their name in the art of the gun. "The Cat" or "Don Dada" beefed up his gunman credentials by allegedly shooting fellow artist Nitty Gritty to death. Another veteran, Josey Wales, was at the receiving end as he was ambushed and shot many times. Thankfully he survived. Many rising artists like Rankin Toyan, Tenor Saw, Dirtsman, and others have been killed by guns.
One of Bounty Killer's leading protégés Vybz Kartel is now serving life in prison for a gun-related murder. Kartel has a significant catalogue of songs with gun-laced lyrics that would make Clint Eastwood blush. Another artist, an avowed badman, Ninjaman, also serves life in prison for a gun-related murder. In addition, young artists like Tommy Lee Sparta, Laden, and Rytikal are currently serving prison sentences for gun possession. Finally, producers like Blackman and Shabdon have been accused of joining the act. They are in front of the courts for murder and other gun-related activities.
The icing on the cake was the recent banning of Jamaican artist Skeng from performing in Guyana. This was due to gun-related activities in and around a recent concert. This brought forth comments from the Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness, who lamented the state of the music and the international embarrassment of the incident. This gun-oriented music is a definite variable in Jamaican's invasive gun culture as it has had a negative influence on our youth.
By the way, it is said that Jamaican dancehall has influenced other genres like hip hop and reggaeton. The many gun-related activities emanating from hip hop stars are well documented. Similarly, reggaeton is said to have fuelled gunmanship in the inner cities of Colombia, Puerto Rico, and Panama. So it seems we have exported our gun culture throughout the region.
Brand Jamaica is certainly a mixed bag.
In the final analysis, our music is too violent, and its influence on our youth is larger than life. We are guilty of allowing such inappropriate behaviour to get out of hand. I am aware of the downside of censorship and its potential for stifling artistic talent. After all, if Marley's music were censored, his album Exodus would not have been named the 20th century's most important album by Time magazine and he would not have had such a far-reaching and time-trancending influence.
However, something has to be done.
As I witness the demise of our great music, I am demanding action and reminding readers of an old Jamaican saying,
"If you want good, you nose haffi run."
By the way, should Bob Marley get a free pass? Just asking.
Rohan M Budhai is a tax consultant, writer, and history enthusiast. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or email@example.com