Thursday, 13 March 2008

Dancehall: Jamaica’s Solution to Civil Society?

Perhaps unlike other periods in its brief history, Dancehall today is a space of sharply contending views, notwithstanding its increasing visibility – owing in no small part to its growing international appeal, as well as better efforts to treat it as legitimate academic enterprise. The recent Global Reggae Conference (GRC), at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona campus in Kingston, Jamaica bears testimony to this fact.

Dancehall is said to promote the vast majority of negatives which, currently, besiege Jamaican society. Among others, the two primary voices argue between themselves, nearly oblivious to alternate positions. In the main, the ‘detractors’ say that, Dancehall is a, largely, violent, homophobic and misogynistic music which promotes uncivil values.

By contrast, ‘Dancehall’s defenders’ claim it as the ultimate space in which society’s downtrodden – the previously invisible and powerless black, ghetto youth are able to eke out an existence, and a good one to boot, as a result of their lyrical ingenuity. This sets them apart from the other, largely, disenfranchised if not dehumanized members of Jamaica’s working classes. By which means, Dancehall is a space in which Jamaican ‘ghetto culture’ is heralded to unparalleled prominence and economic benefit.

In this regard, Dancehall is not to be criticised, in large part, because of the historically imbalanced power relations between the ghetto/ working classes and the Jamaican middle-classes. As we say in Jamaica – “Come off ah di people dem back an gi dem a chance!” (Get off of the peoples' backs/cases and give them a break!).


At best, this position is to be questioned; in large part, because the relationship formed between society, art and culture is often more organic and, thus, much more interlinked than is usually reported. Carefully examining the music in this regard is not the same as censorship.

Nor, does this, necessarily, imply that Dancehall needs to be held to a higher moral standard than other institutions in Jamaica. Rather, it is to make the case that artistic expressions, specifically in societies like ours, occupy a complex socio-political juncture between the worlds of entertainment and, inter alia, other necessary developmental needs, notwithstanding Dancehall’s value as a social document.

Media Realities

There is no denying the links between real violence and the effects of media, for instance, whereby people usually associate ‘reality’ – such as it is, with that which is consumed in the context of the images, sounds and ideas of our current hyper-real, ‘mediatised’ realities. This means that, while one cannot easily trace a causative link between art/ media and their audiences, it is useful to note that media help to create (hyper) realities which are often inhabited by society’s consumers.

Think, for example, of advertising as a technology used to train audiences to desire that which is seen and heard, often to the extent that they will pay vast amounts of their disposable income in an effort to acquire/ embody the values reflected in such media. It would stand to reason, then, that if we desire to live in a better society – whatever that means, then, there is also an urgent need to properly educate those who sing of and report about our society.


That, Dancehall artistes are, usually, men and sometimes women of under-privileged circumstances also means that education is not always considered a priority in their worldviews. This is especially the case in a society where young men are, by and large, not encouraged to stay in school and to maximize their potentials in that space.


Cultural narratives of a type of hyper-masculinity and violent machismo premised on early sexual contact with the opposite sex; the need for material possessions as a sign of status and wealth; and expressions of violence as macho toughness are real issues which prompt young men, especially of working class backgrounds, to drop out of school and, ultimately, the education system.

Education/ Values and Attitudes

Not to be exempted from this discussion is the fact that Jamaica’s education system is in clear need of an overhaul. The recent claims of spending excesses (read, ‘scandal’ in Jamaican politics) in the Education Transformation Programme, under the previous Peoples' National Party (PNP) administration, are cold comfort in this regard. After all, the Transformation Programme was, inter alia, aimed at achieving some of these objectives.


Education about citizenship, values and attitudes and (Jamaican and World) history must figure prominently in the school curriculum from the earliest levels; that is, if we are to pull the society back from the brink of hysteria. In fact, basic crime fighting skills like supporting the need to give crucial information to the police, at community level, and self-defense; tolerance and the regard for law and order must also be given pride of place in the Jamaican education system. These are absolutely necessary if we are to cultivate a society in which all are free and are, therefore, able to maximize their potentials for the benefit of themselves and others, without fear of retribution and or extermination.

The Role of Music

Which raises the crucial question: what is the role of the music in this scenario?

Dancehall is, arguably, one of Jamaica’s most visible and profitable exports, currently, even if all benefits do not directly accrue to the country. The industry must be strategically revamped along important lines of professionalism and needed talent development. This is not just at the level of lyrical and musical abilities of individual artistes but also in terms of the respect for the rule of law such as, adhering to the financial and taxation systems of the country; becoming informed about a range of (other crucial) concerns rather than just a narrow focus on self; as well as respect for self and others. Government’s role is undeniable in this regard.

It is not enough to just, as we say in Jamaica, “eat ah food” or “earn ah bread” from the music.

The Academy

The academy must also become more meaningfully involved – not just at the level of reporting data on the music – which is obviously needed, but to simultaneously locate these in appropriate context. This is in terms of the key ideas which promote Dancehall’s genesis as a black music and Jamaican popular/ culture.

Academics must also engage in critical analyses which make pertinent projections for Dancehall’s future and, hence, attempt to shape public discourses on the significance of popular culture in articulating Jamaican values and concerns, both locally and abroad.

‘Out of Many, One People’

Until this is done, and there is respect for all, then, the goals of the motto, so curiously positioned in this mix of facts and fictions; feelings and emotions, might not be truly realized. “Out of many, one people” is, in the current context, a paradox as far as Jamaica goes. As it is stands, there are many people with many concerns. They hardly ever meet; it would seem, at a place of common agreement about the type of society in which we want to live.

Jamaican History

Dancehall as the common denominator in this equation affords us the wherewithal to, not only earn revenue from the sale of the music, but also provides us with a unique opportunity to look at ourselves in a critically reflexive way.

Indeed, as a Jamaican cultural art (form), Dancehall is fundamentally linked to the society’s history as well as its future. It would be folly to analyse it in isolation of other key realities that also crucially impact its evolution/ development; that is, in terms of the call for civic and social responsibility in Jamaica.

Words, Sounds and Power

Undoubtedly, words have power, as do the images they conjure up in their repetitive refrain in the context of music. A meaningful use of such powers, at least, may set us on a productive path towards re-constructing Jamaica as a place in which we will all want to live. Hopefully, we will not shy away from this responsibility!


Annie Paul said...

Good start Aggy, a well-thought out and reasoned intervention. much needed. you refer to the power of the word to evoke images, which raises the problem of the violent image/moving image and its effect (surely even more influential than dancehall lyrics)on viewers. why when we are bombarded all around by such images on tv, video and film, are we always harping on the deleterious effects of dancehall lyrics in exclusion?


Raw Politics....Jamaica Style! said...

Firstly, Annie, thanks for your comments. Very instructive.

I rather suspect, by way of a response, that the real issue is less about the question of the violent image and how it is constructed - though I know this too is very important in this conversation; and more the significance of who says what, where they are coming from and how their concerns are lodged and interpretted in the debate. Dancehall scholarship, in other words, has become a very emotive and, largely, unreasoned issue in terms of the current mode of the popular analysis.

It would seem to me that everyone is cordoning off areas of the debate, such as it is, as uniquely theirs and are, therefore, extremely defensive in terms of how they approach it as a space of serious intellectual enquiry. The question of the moving image and how that is located in the conversation is an extremely complex concept to extrapolate, as a result.

This is for the simple reason that your point, as I hear it, which is a very valid one in terms of how other 'realities' impact even the construction of the various thoughts and ideas in Dancehall as well as other areas of culture/art/media/ society, is at the heart of the debate.

However, there is little effort to interogate that in the larger context of the turf wars that Dancehall has become, recently.

I find that to be very unfortunate and makes me worry that the true goals of scholarship are being undermined in this - us and them binary. We really need to move beyond that place. There is need for some critical self reflection going forward!



How important do you rank Dancehall's contribution to national development in Jamaica?