A view from the outside: From Bob Marley to cornflakes and b.ddy water
The lyrical content of the hit 'Watz On Sale' song by Laa Lee has stirred controversy.
With Karyl Walker
‘Careful what you teach the little children’ – Tony Rebel
For some of us who live outside Jamaica, it is sometimes disheartening to be assaulted by the plethora of negative messages that have been the mainstay of modern dancehall music.
It seems as if there is a dearth in the range of topics that is covered by the major practitioners of the popular music idiom – murder, sex and more murder.
Added to that, it seems as if every few months another popular dancehall artiste finds himself in the cross hairs of law enforcement.
The latest dancehall practitioner to fall under the examination of the police is David Brooks, popularly known as Mavado.
A bitter gang feud which is now raging in the impoverished community of Cassava Piece has caused law enforcement officers to request the artiste to come in for questioning. In that latest round of violence to hit the community which has been relatively peaceful for the last few years, one man was shot, beheaded and his body burnt. A few days later, a woman from the community was shot and injured after thugs staged a drive-by. Five persons including another dancehall artiste, Chase Cross; Mavado’s son and other relatives have been taken into custody for questioning in relation to the violence.
Whether or not Mavado is guilty of any crime is left up to the police and the court to prove and is not the purpose of this column. However, many of his songs or as the lady at the club in South Florida dubbed them, ‘chunes’, are filled with incitement to violence.
This trend has by no means been the brainchild of Mr Brooks as this method of appeasing to the baser instinct of the frothing masses has been a path to a better life for many before him.
However it would suit him to recall that one of the darkest periods in his career involved the Gully/Gaza rivalry which saw even students in schools across the island executing violence against each other in his name and that of one who is hailed by many as the current ‘King’ of dancehall, Vybz Kartel - himself staring down the barrel of a life sentence gun for the murder of his crony Clive ‘Lizard Williams.
So bad was the Gully/Gaza war that it took the intervention of none other than former Prime Minister Bruce Golding and senior police officers to bring some sort of end to the bloodletting.
One week before Mavado became the latest dancehall artiste to be named by the police, another deejay, Tommy Lee Sparta was ordered released by a judge after being held behind bars for more than a week by police. Tommy Lee was branded by a senior police officer as a major player in crime in the island and that was not his only brush with the law.
Last year, another dancehall artiste, Alkaline, was also questioned in connection with a murder while yet another, Munga Honorable, is before the courts facing similar charges. Lest we forget, Ninjaman, was also recently sentenced for murder, along with his son.
Dancehall star Alkaline (right) with detectives last year after being brought in to the police for questioning in relation to a murder.
Is it that dancehall music is fuelling crime and violence? Or is art mirroring life?
With the exception of a few, most of Jamaica’s popular artistes hail from humble beginnings and have numerous examples of those who ‘trod’ the road before them only to have fallen victim to the lure of street credibility and lost it all. I would opine that for someone to come from nothing to something that they would use every resource at their disposal to keep out of trouble and not return to the pangs of poverty. But it seems that some of Jamaica’s entertainers are, as old people said in my younger days, ‘Hard Ears’.
Why not use that wealth and opulence to lift others out? What could be more fulfilling than using one’s good fortune to do more good? It seems, however, that some of us are hell-bent on self-destruction.
Last Sunday night as I sipped on coconut water and reasoned with a group of friends at a popular Caribbean haunt, the infectious beat of reggae music pulsated through the speakers. Then as if to change the focus of our discussion the selector segued into a popular dancehall song, Laa Lee's 'Watz On Sale', that is currently a hit in Jamaica.
Ninjaman leaving a police truck before entering court for sentencing in his murder conviction.
'A weh she drink? Cornflakes and b.ddy water,' One of the lines of the trite single said.
One woman who has lived outside of Jamaica for more than three decades was clearly disgruntled and went straight to the selector’s booth and demanded that he stop playing that song immediately.
“Is what them young people in Jamaica thinking about? What kind of foolishness that dem choose to sing? Unu nuh see say dancehall gone to the dogs?” the woman said with a frown that resembled someone who had inhaled more than a whiff of fecal matter.
The tone of the conversation then swung straight to a topic which many older Jamaicans in the Diaspora have long grappled with - the direction in which most of the dancehall music that is coming out of Jamaica is heading.
Personally, I love dancehall. In fact as a reporter in Jamaica, entertainment was never my beat, but I have covered every Sting concert for almost 20 years and attended most of the others. I have witnessed Super Cat hurl back a bottle in the audience after being humbled by Ninjaman inside the National Stadium, Shabba Ranks also falling victim to the same 'Don Gorgon', the exploits of Tiger, Papa San, Little Lennie, Professor Nuts, Stitchie, Brigadier Jerry, Charlie Chaplin, Pinchers, Buju Banton and was but a child when the ‘slackness’ of General Echo ruled the dancehall. But the direction in which the music has turned has left more than a lot to be desired.
‘Slackness’ as it was known then, has always been a part of Jamaican popular music. The difference with then and now was that it was served up in an adult space. The younger generation should know that the dancehall was once a place where children were not allowed to attend. Adult music was enjoyed by adults. Now the dancehall is a lifestyle.
Nowadays the youngest child knows every line to the ‘chune’ 'Watz On Sale'.
One of my memories as a child growing up was a bout of discipline that I received for singing the punch line to the song 'Soldering' by Stanley and the Turbines. The funny thing was I didn’t even know what soldering was and why the young gal wanted it. Yes the music was ‘slack’ but the lyrics were well written and not as plain and raw as some of the singles that some are now labelling ‘music’.
I expect a lot of backlash from certain sectors who will not take kindly to this piece. I am not worried however as I realize that many who will scream for my head on a platter are not aware that the music of Jamaica was once a liberating force. One which was instrumental in tearing down the walls of the brutal system of Apartheid, inspired the liberation of Zimbabwe, the Mau Mau Warriors of Angola and was the ‘gospel’ of oppressed peoples the world over.
Have we regressed from Bob Marley to b*ddy water?
That is my view from the outside.
Karyl Walker is a multi-award-winning journalist who has worked for Loop Jamaica, the Jamaica Observer, the RJR Communications Group and Nationwide Radio among other media entities. He now resides in South Florida.