Violence in dancehall lyrics the same old song
For this instalment of The Gleaner’s Entertainment Forum, our panellists peered into the history of Jamaican music in an attempt to rationalise the pervasiveness of sex and violence in dancehall lyrics. The conversation, however, went tangential as the experts dug deep to uncover passionate, deep-rooted thoughts about how to centralise industry players’ efforts, introduce legislation, and gain what they deem “long, overdue respect from the powers that be”. Before the tangent, panellists Junior ‘Heavy D’ Fraser, Garfield ‘Ricky Trooper’ McKoy, Cordel ‘Skatta’ Burrell, and Cardiff ‘General Degree’ Butt offered their positions on dancehall’s contemporary lyrical content and evidence that local artistes’ thematic choices are canon in the language of dancehall music.
To open the table, The Gleaner posed: Should lyrical content shoulder the blame for issues like the degradation of women or encouraging and perpetuating a violent society?
To start it all off, artiste manager, Heavy D responded that he didn’t think so. “I know some of the lyrics are really out of touch sometimes, but to say it’s the lyrics alone that make the society what it is, it’s unfair. People have been violent a long time. Dancehall music really started in 1983-84 and 1980, we had the worst year in Jamaica. There was no such dancehall culture for people to say it was bad or good. So why we blame it on it now?”
MUSIC AND THE GHETTO
Sound system owner and operator, and member of the Jamaica Sound Systems Federation, Ricky Trooper (Killamanjarro Sound) believes that it is necessary to observe where the music came from: the ghetto. Noting that it was labelled ‘second-class’, local popular music often focused on struggles people were going through. “’ Wash wash wash all my troubles away.’ Dem lyrics was about the economic pressures that they were going through at the time. The lyrical content of our music has always been what is happening in society. The artistes always sing about what they see going on,” he reasoned.
Trooper further observed that some of these goings-on were founded in unfavourable circumstances. “The gun culture has been there from the beginning of the music. You have this ‘rude bwoy’ era when [them] start wear Clarks and dem ting deh. The music ah seh ‘rudie doe fear no bwoy’, and all dem stuff deh. Even Bob Marley used to sing dem rude bwoy song deh. It has been there from the inception of the culture. Most of who got involved in the music – a lot of them were rude bwoys. A lot of them were thugs. Dem come from the ghetto, so dem always ah sing bout dem struggles. So the lyrical content from those days, it wasn’t a smooth road. From inception, it’s always been a fight to make the voice of the poor people heard,” he said.
But even before the ‘rude bwoy’ era, before the climb of Clarks Pon Foot (Jahvillani, 2019) or Clarks (Vybz Kartel, featuring Rvssian, 2010), there was ska, and the overly suggestive overtures of Prince Buster. “Slackness was from inna the ska days. In the late ‘70s when the deejays start to work on sound systems more, you have a dejay by the name of Rankin Joe. He was the one who started to bring the slackness more to the forefront. After Rankin Joe, there was deejay General Echo. They call him Rankin’ Slackness. From that era in the music, you find Yellowman came about,” Trooper outlined.
As dancehall artiste General Degree sees it, everything happening now has happened before – gun lyrics, slackness, and the conversations bouncing between condemnation and defence. “Some of the slackness back then is no different. The riddim might make it come across different, it might be slower, but, trust me, if you listen to some song weh Echo (Minott) dem ah sing, you’d be surprised. Dem ting deh is before me,” he said. He did point out a difference between then and now to explain current contention with lyrical content in contemporary dancehall music. “What makes it look like it’s more prevalent is because it’s so easy to access now. It’s more dominant now because every pickney have a phone in dem hand,” he said.
Engineer, producer, and promoter Skatta Burrell asserted that when lyrical content is called into question, it stems from a dislike of Jamaican culture on the whole. “For instance, you cannot say a certain word and they don’t say it’s a bad word - where it is loved and appreciated in the wider world. So there’s a squeeze on the culture,” he said.