Obsessing About Sex, Ignoring Murder


Published: Sunday | February 22, 2009


Kevin O'Brien Chang

Slackness has always been present in Jamaican music. Mento, for instance, was as sexually obsessed as you can get. Obeah was not the main theme of 'Healing in the balmyard'! And while Rampin' Shop may be more to the point, its focus is no different from tourist staples like "All day all night Mary Ann, down by the seaside shifting sand", and "The big bamboo stands up straight and tall, and the big bamboo pleases one and all".

Ska and reggae continued the tradition. The original conscious deejay U Roy chanted "Is Catty high, is catty low, will catty stand up to any blow?"

Though never heard on the radio, all were big sellers in their day, as were the famously obscene Lloyd and the Lowbite albums. Another banned underground hit of the early 1970s was Leggo Beast. One hugely popular 1980s NFAP (Not Fit For Airplay) song went 'Soldering a wha de young gyal want".

Around 1990 risque suggestiveness gave way to hardcore songs like Love P... bad, and Position. It was Lady Saw who arguably broke down all barriers, with tunes such as Hard Core, and Stab Up the Meat. Musically and lyrically brilliant, these anthems of female sexual empowerment certainly could not be called sexist.

Since then, it's been just about anything goes in the dancehall. Over the past 15 years or so Jamaica has probably produced more sexually explicit songs than the rest of the planet combined, past or present.

But an unwritten rule still prevailed. Slack songs were fine for adults in adult settings, but children were not supposed to hear them. And what was not suitable for children was not to be played on the radio, or in public spaces frequented by children.

envelopes pushed

When only two radio stations existed this was easy to enforce. But nearly 20 stations chasing the same market caused envelopes to be pushed, sometimes too far. So the Broadcasting Commission's ban on 'daggering' songs is to be welcomed. What adults like Vybz Kartel and Spice do with each other is their business. But why should my four year-old daughter be forcefully exposed to Rampin' Shop, beeped or not?

Every medium has 'adult only' sectors. Nobody thinks children should watch pornographic movies or read pornographic books. So why should they hear pornographic music? Banning slack movies or songs or movies would be about as realistic as banning sex. But like sex, pornography of any sort should be confined to consenting adults by law.

As for the soca music red herring, well, again common sense makes a distinction between suggestive and explicit lyrics. A Dollar Wine song is as different from a daggering song as a movie showing kissing is from one showing intercourse. There's a vast gap between 'Cent, Five Cent, Ten Cent, Dollar' and '5, 10, 15, 20, 25,30 35, 40 ... 100 stab 1,000 jook'.

As Blakka Ellis put it in The STAR of February 18 ('Stop the dagga whining about soca'), "How many soca songs you know where the lyrics directly and explicitly name and describe intimate female body parts in graphic, vulgar language without any attempt to cleverly disguise the denotation?"

Again, it's about children. Suggestive songs are allowed on radio - and explicit ones are not - precisely because what can be explained to a child in non-sexual terms is seen as harmless. And let's face it, life is not a Disney movie, and you can't shelter kids completely from sexually charged movies or books or songs or dances. But you can prevent sexually explicit ones being thrust upon them before they are mature enough to deal with aroused emotions. Only agenda pushing axe-grinders argue otherwise.

Yet, why is the 'unacceptable' music debate obsessing about sex and ignoring murder? 'Send it up inna me tripe' might offend some sensibilities. But 'My war is like no other, when me done you have no sister and no brother' (from Mavado's Amazing Grace) is infinitely worse.

My take is pretty basic. Songs promoting any activity prohibited by law should not be allowed on the radio, and the last time I checked murder was illegal. The beeping defence is an idiotic one, when teenagers know all the words and just fill in the lyrics when the song comes on. I personally would support a similar 'slackness' ban in buses and taxis but this, frankly, may be unenforceable in the face of passenger demands.

gun-toting young boys

Why is Jamaican society getting so upset about sexual songs and saying so little about those promoting guns, violence and murder? Is it that we simply value our girls more than our boys? Is the thought of sexually active young girls getting pregnant more upsetting to Jamaican society than that of gun-toting young boys killing each other?

In 1986, Professor Errol Miller wrote 'The Marginalisation of the Black Male'. Not all agreed with his entire thesis, but it has been in a sense prophetic. For over the past two decades young, black males have almost come to be seen and treated as second-class citizens, becoming an increasingly endangered species in tertiary institutions. Yes, a minority excel in sports and are lionised. But nobody seems to give a damn about the majority.

Look at our obscene murder rate. Probably 90 per cent of our annual 1,500-plus homicide deaths are uneducated black youths. And what is being done? Less than nothing. The least hint of tougher laws that might stem the slaughter is met with a chorus of condemnation from prominent organisations. The Jamaican Bar Association has actually threatened to sue the Government over proposed mandatory gun laws. God only knows what their agenda is.

Talk to young Jamaican men and you can feel their resentment. Girls they say are treated nicer and given more opportunities and shown more love. Boys are mostly left to fend for themselves, and any complaints about a lack of affection are met with accusations of effeminacy and 'maama manism'.

Is it surprising that so many gravitate to gangs where they feel wanted, and love 'bad man' tunes that make them feel important, and take up guns which make them feel respected?

There's no denying that endlessly repeated gun lyrics deejaying can make a terrible situation worse. The increasing violence in our schools is evidence of that. But why are these songs so popular in the first place? Probably because the young men singing along vociferously identify closely with them.

Yes, there need to be limits on what is played on the airwaves. But those, like the Jamaica Council of Churches, who talk about banning street dances and high-handedly cleaning up the music are living in dreamland. There could be no surer route to social chaos in this country than attempting to deny the masses their primary mode of self-expression.

Music is one reason that Jamaica, despite all its problems, is such a stable democracy. Political upheaval often stems from a society's inability to express its anger and frustrations peacefully. But dancehall lays bare the realities of its people with perhaps unparalleled forthrightness. What is whispered elsewhere is here chanted at full volume. Nothing is suppressed.

Our deejays talk the good, the bad, the ugly and the pretty. If the truth sometimes hurts, well, they're only saying it like they see it. We'll get more uplifting music when they get a more uplifting Jamaica.

When did trying to shoot the messenger ever solve anything?

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