A Collapse into Chaos? The Dancehallisation of Jamaica'


Published: Sunday | February 24, 2008
Kevin O'Brien Chang, Contributor

'I am a human being, so nothing human is strange to me' wrote the Roman poet Terence. Obsessive homophobia aside, this pretty much sums up dancehall. And no artiste better conveys its raw uncensored immediacy than Marion 'Lady Saw' Hall, the most important female artiste and most celebrated slackness performer in Jamaica's music history.

There were significant reggae female stars before her such as Marcia Griffiths, Phyllis Dillon and Patra. But as the first to become a bona fide show headliner and write her own material, Lady Saw sparked something of a cultural revolution. All female dancehall divas stage shows were unthinkable before 'the queen of the dancehall' kicked down the glass door and paved the way for Macka Diamond, Ce'Cille, Tanya Stephens and company.

Sings beautifully

Almost uniquely among deejays, the lightning-tongued 'A' class 'riddim rider' Lady Saw also sings beautifully, as evidenced by Give Me A Reason, Mama G and No Less Than a Woman. She undoubtedly has the talent to be a mainstream international star if properly managed.

Yet, Lady Saw is most famous as perhaps the most accomplished exponent of the obscene in recorded music history. (The real life Marion Hall is apparently nothing like her onstage persona.) She delineates the explicitly graphic with unparalleled skill and her best slackness songs are musically compelling. Even her 'hardcore' has a touch of poetry.

"It sweet him so much, him start bawl tears

When me chip off the top and draw extra gears."

It's not to everyone's taste. But in context slackness at a bubbling dance can be a thrillingly primaeval experience. The established tradition that never fails to drive crowds wild is Boom Bye Bye followed by Love P... Bad and a string of slackness classics like Position, Backshot and Stamina Daddy. It may not be uplifting art, but as they say, it doesn't get any more real. (The invariable pairing of Boom Bye ByeLove P... Bad deserves serious academic study.) and

Nothing is more difficult than to try and describe the feelings generated by music, which by definition expresses what words alone cannot. But a rough analogy to dancehall at its most pungent might be the breaking down of all emotional barriers as the id completely overwhelms the ego and super ego.

In this sense, dancehall is perhaps the purest expression of the Jamaican experience. It's no accident that the most 'anything goes' country on earth has produced the most 'anything goes' music. And, as evidenced by Jamaica's culture worldwide appeal, it's a very attractive and addictive ethos. When everything that is usually suppressed inside has been set gloriously free, well it's hard to get the genie back in the bottle.

Inability to control emotions

This may be the root of both Jamaica's allure and problems. For the flipside of complete emotional liberty is the inability to control your emotions. As good as 'doing whatever you want, whenever you want' might feel in the moment, the rejection of all restraint can mean brawling arguments over the slightest disagreements and violent outbursts at the mildest provocation.

So it's the old chicken and egg paradox. Is dancehall merely a reflection of a slack Jamaican society, or does it encourage Jamaican society to be slack?

It's always a bit of both. One difference with the past is that our authorities have lost control over what people listen to. Truly violent or graphic dancehall songs never come on the radio. But since they can be heard blasting from roadside bars, open window cars, public buses and at nightly dances, 'not fit for airplay' means little today.

You hear lots of songs expressing sentiments that any responsible society would ban from the public sphere. Take Mavado's Amazing Grace

"My war is like no other/when me done you have no sister and no brother"; or Lady Saw's "If me get breed me naw mention you name,

Just give me de ... and gwan bout you ways".

Reflection of street reality or not, how can lyrics like these not encourage gun violence and casual sex? It's hardly surprising that a society whose school buses blare such songs has the world's highest murder rate, and serious teenage pregnancy and AIDS problems. But officials know that any attempt to ban such music on public transport would at best be ignored, and at worst lead to violent confrontations.

Look at our leaders

Not that the dancehallisation of Jamaica is confined to the 'downtown masses'. 'I'm going to do what I feel like and damn the consequences' behaviour permeates our society from top to bottom. In most 'civilised' countries, the educated elite set examples and their restrained values filter down to the less schooled. In Jamaica, ghetto indiscipline has flowed uptown and taken root. Look at our elected leaders. The percentage of our male parliamentarians who have children out of wedlock is very likely the highest in the world. And if it no go so, it go close to so.

I once asked a government official why we don't have Chilean style paternity laws, which allow women to put the father's name on the child's birth certificate, with court ordered DNA testing for disagreements. He roared with laughter. "You think the big men in this country are going to pass laws that would end up embarrassing them?" Not that women seem interested anyway in giving up their God given right to 'jacket' and 'raffle'.

Religion should in theory serve as a social brake. Yet supposedly having the most churches per capita doesn't stop us from having an 85 per cent out of wedlock birthrate. The Jamaican seventh commandment is apparently 'Thou shalt not get caught committing adultery'.

This country actually seems to thrive on uncertainty. Busy Signal's song Wine Pon the Edge may be literally about sex. But the title vividly captures the national penchant for pushing the envelope of total emotional release. Or in local parlance - we love fi bruk out! It's as if the entire island is intent on actively answering the question 'How far can a society let itself go without collapsing into chaos?'

We are already about as violent as a state can get without descending into actual warfare and ceasing to function normally. How long it can continue to do so given our current attitudes is another question. You would think having the planet's highest murder rate might spur some desire for change. But we seem to have collectively shrugged our shoulders and accepted this dubious landmark as just another consequence of the 'do-as-you-will' lifestyle no one has any desire to give up.

Yet, Tony Rebel senses a wind of change, pointing to uplifting songs like Tarrus Riley's She's Royal and Queen Ifrica's Daddy Don't Touch Me There. He says even hardcore deejays like Ninja Man and Vibes Kartel are recognising the havoc guns have wrought and turning away from violent lyrics. Certainly, tunes like Busy Signal's Nah Go a Jail Again and Demarco's Fallen Soldiers express a profound dissatisfaction with the current situation.

Mr Rebel insists that the media must play its role by highlighting the positive and not celebrating the negative aspects of dancehall. In his words, both deejays and the press should 'prescribe as well as describe'.

Time will tell which path we follow. But the bottom line is that, for good or bad, the dancehallisation of Jamaica has taken place by choice. If most of us did not wish it so, things could not be as they are.

Comments (0)

Post a Comment
* Your Name:
* Your Email:
(not publicly displayed)
Reply Notification:
Approval Notification:
* Security Image:
Security Image Generate new
Copy the numbers and letters from the security image:
* Message: