Death in the Dancehall
Published: Sunday | January 30, 2005

"That a the new style weh the whole place a do

Rock Bogle dance from music sweet you
Bogle a run the place night and day
So just rock Bogle dance from your tune a play"


NOTWITHSTANDING EDWARD Seaga's retirement, Bruce Golding's move to West Kingston and Paul Burke's last minute PNP vice-presidency bid, the main topic of conversation in most of the country last weekend was the murder of dancehall dancing legend Gerald 'Bogle' Levy. This shows once again the extent to which dancehall culture has penetrated into the Jamaican consciousness at all class levels.

For Bogle's name rarely made it into the 'official' media. In a sense he was a true folk hero made famous not by artificial media hype but by word of mouth. And he has been as immortalised in song as those who originally inspired tunes like 'Sammy Dead', 'Judy Drownded', and 'Matilda'. It may have its detractors. But in terms of being a genuinely popular sound spontaneously generated by a people's experiences and emotions without the outside interference of press agents and spin-doctors, dancehall is one of the world's few living folk music.


Yet, it is a sad comment on Jamaica in 2005 that most people were shocked at his murder but not surprised. In the blase words of a Star editorial, 'Dancing apart, though, Bogle ran with a tough dancehall crowd and things have a way of happening around those crowds'. Something is extremely rotten in the state of Denmark when the brutal murder of a relatively young man (Bogle was 40) can be casually dismissed as 'just one of those things'.

Yet, perhaps the power of our music and the viciousness of our society are not unrelated. For both are by-products of the tremendous visceral energy this country generates. When channelled into the right direction it expresses itself in the form of a Bob Marley or Beenie Man. But we saw 1,445 examples last year of what too often happens when it is not. And Bogle was hardly the first dancehall personality to die in a hail of bullets. For General Echo, Tenor Saw, Nitty Gritty, Dirtsman, Panhead and Early B all met brutal early deaths.


Jamaica is an enigma. There is so much that is attractive about this country and so much that is repellent. The worldwide popularity of our music is more than just a matter of pleasing words and notes. A great part of the fascination of dancehall to outsiders is its outsized 'anything goes and absolutely nothing held back' exuberance. Its international appeal is no doubt partly rooted in the attraction to those in more reserved countries of a land where emotions are given full rein to the nth degree.

In a world increasingly dominated by cookie cutter corporate franchises and one size fits all media giant marketing campaigns, dancehall is a bracing blast of unprocessed authenticity. It is as 'real' as music gets. Yet, dancehall is above all an uncensored mirror of Jamaican society, showing all that is good and bad. Surely there has never been a less inhibited music or country.

And truth be told, there is something very liberating about living in a country where there is almost no such thing as emotional restraint. Any opinion worth holding in Jamaica is worth holding at the top of our voices. When we feel miserable we suck our teeth with whip cracking displeasure. But when we feel happy our whole face and body shows it - no people on earth laugh more easily or more loudly.

Unfortunately, this emotional freedom too often boils over into a kind of self-indulgent narcissism whereby, as reportedly happened to Bogle, anyone who is perceived as having 'disrespecting' me or my 'brethren' has forfeited his right to live.

Why is life so cheap in today's Jamaica? For we were not always a violent country. Up to 1962 we had a similar murder rate to our West Indian brethren and a lower one than the USA. Today our homicide level is almost ten times that in America. What happened? The best explanation I've seen for our murder explosion came from the late, great Carl Stone.

"What we witnessed after independence was a convergence of the following factors that reinforced each other in creating a new culture of violence in inner-city communities.

  • Mixed class residential communities in the Corporate Area where the poor and middle class lived side by side were replaced by class-exclusive communities of homogeneous middle class areas and homogeneous poor residential areas. The middle class role model among the poor declined and the physical polarisation of the classes generated distrust, mutual hostility and a new we versus them set of social attitudes. Exclusive suburbanisation in the middle and upper levels and ghetto-isation of the bottom set the classes apart and created the climate in which these value changes occurred.
  • Massive outward migration destroyed families and family structures which have been weak since slavery, leaving behind a new generation of youth deprived of nurture, love and adequate parenting. The 'leggo beast' phenomenon of uncontrolled wild youth using violence to prove their manhood multiplied massively in the inner city as a consequence.
  • Increased youth unemployment among males with secondary education created new formations of young people with intelligence, leadership potential and enormous confidence in themselves and aspirations for middle and upper class lifestyles but without legitimate opportunities to achieve them, hence the resort to guns and violence. The gap between their aspirations and blocked social opportunities created the motivation for violence.
  • The huge inflow of guns from the USA empowered ghetto youth to 'dis' adults and traditional community leaders and to literally take over communities.
  • Links between street gangs and political leaders legitimised and empowered the gunmen to defy the law and created a whole culture of lawlessness.
  • Increasing inequality between rich and poor as uptown society flaunted affluence while poverty increased and opportunities for upward social mobility among the poor declined substantially."

    All these have been vividly reflected in dancehall tunes like Ghetto People Song, Bad Man a Bad Man, Look Into My Eyes, One World A Gun, Hortical Don and Fed Up. There may be a bit of chicken and egg with dancehall and violence, but music is always more of an effect than a cause of a society's problems. Surely, dancehall was not primarily responsible for any of the ills diagnosed above by Dr. Stone.

    I am still convinced that intelligent crime legislation and management can significantly reduce the levels of violence in our society. But multi-dimensional problems require multi-dimensional solutions. And if the first step in solving a crisis is proper diagnosis, we should all be listening closely to the Jamaican reality that is dancehall.

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