Kevin O'Brien Chang

U ROY'S Wear You To The Ball was the first big deejay hit. I was too young for parties in 1970. But I remember my uncle shouting "Turn off that tuneless garbage!" to my older cousins when it came on the radio. Now the same people who sing along at oldies sessions to 'Chica bow chica bow, she's got it, move it up!" condemn their children's dancehall favourites as 'foolishness'. Plus ca change ...

Wear You To The Ball was a truly revolutionary record. For it legitimised deejay music in Jamaica, and indirectly created a global phenomenon via Clive Campbell, aka Kool DJ Herc. Herc moved from Kingston to New York with his family in 1967 and later assembled a big yard style sound system. He started out blending Jamaican and American music but discovered that while American blacks didn't like reggae, they loved deejay toasting. So he chanted over funk in American slang and they called it rap.

U Roy was once asked if he had any idea deejaying would become so big. He laughed that he had only been trying to establish himself as a recording artiste. Because popular as he was at dances, he was still considered just a loudmouth record spinner. If anyone had told him back then that one day people would ask him about his music he would have run them away as a madman.


Deejaying is arguably the most distinctively Jamaican music form. Our other modern sounds ­ mento, ska, rocksteady, reggae ­ were essentially Jamaican versions of English folksongs or Trinidadian calypso or American rhythm and blues. Deejaying was totally new, unlike anything else on earth. Sneered at by many as 'boogooyaga', it grew ever more popular. By 1983 it was the dominant sound in the land and gained a new name, dancehall.

Dancehall can at times seem disturbingly preoccupied with sex and violence. But is it surprising that we produce songs like Badman a Badman and Best Baby Father when our murder and out of wedlock birthrates are among the highest in the world? The truth is dancehall covers every aspect of Jamaican life, from topical happenings to social reality to new dances to sports triumphs to songs of praise. For every Boom Bye Bye and Tek Buddy there is a Pon de River and Too Bad Mind and Run Veronica. No music reflects its society more vividly.

Some say deejays are role models who should produce more civic minded music. Yet dancehall artistes are often in a chicken and egg situation. For preaching abstinence and turning the other cheek to our sexually and physically aggressive stage show crowds might result in a hail of bottles and shouts of "Go inna church with San and Stitchie!"

A former girlfriend of a popular deejay told me a story which pretty much sums up the situation. While he was waiting to go on stage she and her then boyfriend did "the full one hundred plus" in the back of his van. Half hour later he went on stage and chanted "All de man who know dem no bow, put up oonnoo hand and go yow." As he came off she shook her head and said "Bwoy you no easy!". He laughed "Baby me a deejay so me haffi follow de crowd!"


Dancehall is infamous for obsessive gay bashing. Now as a firm believer that a beautiful woman is the strongest argument in favour of the existence of God, I don't understand how any man could prefer another male to the Lord's loveliest creation. Yet dancehall's fanatical fixation with homosexuality puzzles me. Who cares what adult strangers do in the privacy of their own homes?

Now deejays used to focus entirely on satisfying the Jamaican massive without regard for outsiders' opinions. But things changed in the early 1990s. Media liberalisation like cable television exposed many Jamaicans to rap. And artistes like Shabba Ranks began making big inroads abroad, sometimes 'crossing over' by incorporating hip hop into their songs. Dancehall artistes began penetrating the American and British charts in unprecedented fashion, and made previously undreamt of sums money.

But they are now learning that to get a piece of the world financial pie, you have to play by its rules. Gay groups like Outrage have got venues to shun artistes who preach violence against homosexuals, and hit dancehall artistes where it hurts ­ in their pockets. Now we hear them toning down lyrics and apologising for past 'mistakes'. Some claim these deejays are 'bowing' and betraying their principles. But the choice is simple. Either remain publicly anti-gay and get no more foreign tours, or act contrite in return for continued access to the big money abroad.


Many in the Jamaican establishment have long advocated the reining in of dancehall. While not in favour of flagrant homosexuality or against social expression in music, they say the violent anarchy witnessed at stage shows like Sting must eventually lead to disastrous tragedy if left checked. And that a society cannot progress when young boys grow up singing Informer fe dead and Dis me an yu a duppy.

But who could bell the cat? Both the government and private sector have always feared a violent backlash if they were seen to be tampering with the dancehall's untrammelled freedom of expression. However Outrage's protests are clearly changing the deejays' attitudes. And perhaps sensing an opportunity to achieve the long wished for purging of the music's worst excesses, local sponsors are now threatening to boycott artistes preaching violence of any form.

Life is full of ironies. But who would ever have imagined that a militantly homophobic music like dancehall would eventually be tamed by gay organisations?

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