Dancehall's betrayal of reggae

from the JA Gleaner
published: Sunday | February 24, 2008 
Ian Boyne, Contributor 

Reggae Month cannot end without someone's saying that the dominant trend in dancehall represents a betrayal of reggae; the tragic case of the child doing violence to his mother.

Reggae differed from mere pop music which was for entertainment and frivolity. Reggae was serious without being sombre. What has accounted for reggae having this phenomenal impact on the world is not just its pulsating beat and hypnotic rhythm, which it certainly has. There are other great rhythms which have not had reggae's impact on the world.

Reggae is message music. The classic reggae artistes were acutely aware that there were not just minstrels. Their songs had us singing along and rocking, most definitely. But there was a message, which represented not just 'brawta'; it was its life force. For it came from the bowels of the working class experience with oppression, injustice, dehumanisation and exclusion.

Reggae artistes did not have to read philosophy to carry a strong philosophical message. Their life experience - harsh, brutal, but hopeful - gave them a natural mystic. Reggae could be claimed as a potent source of inspiration by Southern Africans struggling for liberation from apartheid, as well as for middle-class white people in America and Europe because reggae was a universal language understood by all.


Reggae's appeal is its innate humanism and universalism. For in decrying oppression, colonialism, imperialism and injustice, it was saying, forcefully, that these features are alien to our common heritage as human beings. This was not how humans were supposed to live. We were not supposed to be segregated by class, race, gender, religion and nationality.

Bob Marley's astounding appeal to the world cannot be separated from his message. He certainly did not have the finest voice in reggae. His rhythms were not unique. There was - there is - something about Bob Marley which just resonated and still resonates with mankind.

It was not just Bob Marley. Another great artiste who has never received the just recognition he deserves in this country is the great Max Romeo. Max Romeo, Bob Andy, Burning Spear, Joseph Hill, Dennis Brown, the Mighty Diamonds, Half Pint, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, among others, have a timeless appeal.

What is the message of dancehall today in its most dominant trend? It's about the "gal dem business", the objectification and commodification of women, the glorification of promiscuity. It is about power over women's bodies. As Buju Banton has put it:

"Hear weh me tell di girl seh if unnu look good Hear weh me tell har seh Gal me serious Mi haffi get yu tonight Even by gunpoint"

Rape, in other words. But in the dancehall, women's bodies are not their own. They are merely allowed to beautify them and take care of them for men to use. The dancehall trends have to do with lyrics glorifying dons; glorifying the shottas, bad man; worshipfully describing the various guns with relish and lyrical eloquence. The dancehall has to do with shaming youth and youth who can't "tek it to dem".

No encouragement

So at a time when we need peace in the inner cities; when old people need to sleep peacefully rather than having to risk heart attacks and strokes at night; when children need to study their books so they can leave their lives of wretchedness rather than bawling out for "gunshots!", what we have are communities and corners set ablaze with no encouragement from the music - as the dominant trend - for "the youths dem to 'low' the glock," as Tarrus Riley pleads. The top deejays - the ones currently ruling the dancehall - the Mavados, the Bounty Killers, the Vybz Kartels, the Assassins, the Baby Chams, the Bling Dawgs - are not shouting to the youth "be careful of yu guns and ammunition".

Instead, what we have in the dancehall is the glorification of the gun; the inciting of violence. And when we don't have the vulgarity which is hailed as the expression of 'female liberation' and the gun talk, we have the promotion of bling bling and Western materialistic and hedonistic values - the values of Babylon.

Now, imagine you are a poor ghetto youth struggling to find food to have just one meal a day; struggling to find clothes; struggling to eke out a subsistence under Babylon's oppression to find food for your youth. The music being played all around you is telling you and your neighbours that you are nobody because you don't have certain name-brand things. You have no value because you don't have a certain type of car, can't flash the dollars and can't drink expensive European champagne. You are nothing if you have nothing. You are traced in the lyrics, especially the women.

When the reggae pioneers were saying "Natty never get weary" and to "hold di struggle", these modern-day traitors of the revolution are telling you the opposite: Babylon is really right, uptown is right after all, join the rat race, life is about what you possess, how much money you have in the bank, what you wear, eat, the "stush area" you live in, etc. This is what the music has come to in its dominant form.

'Ghetto authenticity'

And this is what is not being critiqued by the academics at the University of the West Indies who are teaching reggae studies. They are so busy celebrating and bigging up 'ghetto authenticity' that they have failed to grasp how dancehall represents - in its dominant trends - the betrayal reggae.

Now, dancehall defenders say they respect ghetto people. It is people like me who disrespect ghetto youth. Yet, I respect them enough to believe they can do better than just reflect the worst of what they see around them. I believe they have brains which they can use to go in a positive direction. The UWI academics apparently believe that they must mechanistically and deterministically follow their environment. They are Skinnerians (after the famed Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner) with black masks.

Another canard is that people who criticise negative dancehall just despise everything Jamaican and black and display Eurocentric tastes. As someone who is one of the most ardent vintage fanatics in Jamaica and who has attended more stage shows than many 'worldians,' this could not apply to me. I enjoy dancehall music. I totally disagree with those who believe there is no creativity in dancehall music and that it's all monotony. People who say that have a limited exposure to dancehall. The dancehall lyricists - including the negative ones - are some of the most creative pop artistes in the world today.

Negative dancehall

What I am saying is that we should not uncritically support the music just because it is part of our culture and comes from the inner city. There are some things in the inner city which hold us back and which represent a kind of self-hatred and self-injury. Negative dancehall is in that category. Peace is a public good - it is not just 'Christian fundamentalism,' a term Carolyn Cooper (Professor, pardon me) uses as a conversation-stopper.

Music which lionises shottas and badmen who are a terror to poor people is not good. Music which encourages violence for the slightest dissing; music which preaches a message of death to homosexuals or any group is not a good thing; music which encourages "gal inna bungle" is not a good thing because of its effects on our sisters and even on our brothers. Music which makes poor people feel small because they can't bling out is not good. This has nothing to do with 'middle-class values'.

In fact, the UWI academics and my colleagues at TVJ don't live in the inner cities. They can glorify dancehall music from their ivory towers and television studios but the poor, defenceless ghetto people who have nowhere to hide and no friend in high society have to contend with the gunshots and the mayhem - not created by dancehall but certainly not helped by it. Another blindsiding argument is that the violent lyrics in dancehall represent a kind of cry of the oppressed. Nonsense. The kind of revolutionary lyrics against oppression and 'downpressors' is not the dominant trend in dancehall. Peter Tosh was a rebel and was no pacifist, but Tosh was not talking about blowing out people's marrow because "dem dis him woman". He did not trivialise violence. He took it seriously to be used selectively and strategically.

None of the reggae practitioners did that. Even when Bob did some songs hailing the 'rude boys' of the 1960s - and was rebuked by fellow Trench Town giant (and my rocksteady idol) Alton Ellis in Dance Crasher and Cry Tough - Bob was not glorifying nihilistic violence. The comparisons by the UWI academics are grossly overdrawn.

The UWI academics are guilty of overcompensation. They have seen the music snubbed and scorned in decades past by the middle class and they now feel psychologically and morally obligated to give 'full hundred' endorsement to our indigenous music. But in doing so, they have taken daredevil liberties with intellectual rigour and have done a disservice to reggae.

Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist who may be reached at