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Ben Thielen


Reggae is a form of music that is too broad to be grouped into one particular category. The reggae genre is composed of such distinct forms as roots, dub, and most recently dancehall. Similarly, the message contained within reggae music has changed since the days when the music reflected an adherence to Haile Selassie and the Rastafarian faith. Since the beginnings of reggae in the 1960s reggae has evolved tremendously into the high-bass dancehall form most prevalent today. This musical evolution has not always been without criticism, however. It is true that there is a certain amount of reluctance with any change, for change means shedding a past way of living. It must also be recognized, however, that prior modes of thinking and representation through the medium of music can be preferable.

When critiquing reggae music it is of great importance to distinguish the lyrics from the rhythm. To the unaccustomed ear it is easy to forget, or altogether ignore, the paradoxical fact that such a cheerful, upbeat rhythm is used as a form of protest. Reggae music has traditionally been used as a method to speak against such serious issues as slavery, colonialism/neo-colonialism, repression, and poverty. Thus, to better understand this unique form of music it becomes necessary to analyze the message conveyed in the music from the sound itself.

Dancehall, both as a form of music and especially as a reflection of society and its beliefs, frequently stands directly against the music from the 'golden age' of reggae in the 1970s. One of the most startling differences between these two forms of music is how the DJs of dancehall visions' of the world differs from that of conventional reggae artists. There has traditionally existed a great reverence for a united Africa with Ethiopia serving as heart in the Rastafarian faith and reggae music. This is largely due to the rise of emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.

Standing in direct contrast to the desire for a unified Africa is portrayal of immediate community by the music of dancehall. It is claimed that hopes for a unified Africa no longer remains a theme for inspiration among the current dancehall artists. Chude-Sokei argues, "With raggamuffin sound, which currently dominates the ideologies of Afro-Caribbean youth and black Third World pop/ghetto culture, one is challenged to find references to the mythic signifier of black identity that is Africa. With the advent of dancehall the realities of life in urban London, Toronto, and Kingston replaces the calls acknowledging the significance of Ethiopia or the end to repression in Zimbabwe. Hence, the lyrics of dancehall, "see the new battles as immediate and local- through gun-sights and across dirty inner-city streets." (Chude-Sokei, 80) This shift of attention from a global or continental struggle to describing life in one's neighborhood has brought this form of expression considerable criticism. As such, "Outsiders to the culture of ragga tend to find these narratives rude, crude, scatological, and 'slack.' This, however, is what DJs describe as 'strictly reality.'" (Chude-Sokei) While it can be argued that this reality is lacking sensibility and decency, it should be compared to what the music of roots reggae spoke against. While sexual exploits and gun violence are certainly grotesque and deplorable subjects, they convey a generally unflattering mode of existence. If the listener can get past the vividness of the lyrics of dancehall it quickly becomes apparent that both it and traditional forms of reggae are speaking against social conditions that few of us would care to contend with. The enormous tragedy caused by slavery, colonialism, and despotic rule by an elite class should be considered equally, if not more, morally reprehensible.

What reason can be offered, therefore, for the discrepancy in the responses to dancehall/ragga and roots reggae. It could be argued that the former has a tendency to glorify the situation that exists, while the latter found the conditions in the developing world reprehensible and sought to change them. A plausible argument could be made that prior forms of reggae represented the voice of a global struggle but that dancehall focuses on "microrealities, the obsessive minutiae of Jamaican urban life which holds little meaning for all outsiders." (Chude-Sokei) If this explanation is to be believed, it could also be the case the foreign listeners refuse to accept the fact a within Jamaica there is a significant amount of violence and misogyny. If the listener realizes this, Jamaica no longer remains only a place of palm trees and ocean views of Ocho Rios. Nor does Jamaica retain its special, although false, image of primarily being a place populated only by peaceful Rastafarians who smoke kaya all day and eat a diet of fish. As is often the case with rhetoric, this stereotype held by well-meaning tourists proves to be false upon further scrutiny.

In the latter half of the past century much of urban Jamaica was a culture obsessed with Hollywood outlaws and their fictitiously violent exploits. Perry Henzell's 1972 movie, The Harder They Come, starring Jimmy Cliff, depicts the struggles of the early reggae music industry and life in general, in some of the tougher sections of Jamaica. "The hero/villain in the movie is gun-toting Rhygin, the heroic challenger of the authority of state power." (Cooper) One of the more prominent songs, Johnny Too Bad, warns:

Walking down the road with a pistol in your waist

Johnny you're too bad

Walking down the road with a ratchet in your waist

Johnny you're too bad

You're just robbing and stabbing and looting and shooting

Many of the youths in Kingston borrowed the names of the most violent of these characters of the American films, with musicians under the names of "Dillinger", "Clint Eastwood," and "Frisco Kid." The urban poor, suffering from lack of role models, broken families, and second-rate education, it may not have been easy to distinguish between truth and fiction, and hence the content of these imported movies could prove to be highly influential on the youth who view them. "Caribbean societies have a long history of ghetto youth internalizing images of Hollywood heroism and gun violence that they regularly absorb in the movies, the cheapest form of entertainment of the urban poor." (Cooper) The historical context of the outlaw image needs to be remembered to properly compare the changing messages of reggae and dancehall. "The gunfighter/outlaw image has always been there in reggae; it is now, however, without overt references to the Western world as the 'Sheriff,' as in Bob Marley and the Wailers' classic "I Shot the Sheriff." (Chude-Sokei)

Much of the violence that plagues modern Jamaica, finding its way into the lyrics of many musicians, can be traced to the political violence that marred Jamaica in the 1970s and 1980s. Throughout this period Jamaica was seen by policy makers in the United States to be one of the areas to counter the expansion of communism in developing countries. The two major political figures throughout 1970s and 1980s Jamaica were Michael Manley of the socialist People's Nationalist Party (PNP) and Edward Seaga on the right, leader of the Jamaica Labor Party (JLP). Manley, elected Prime Minister in 1972, won the election by offering an alternative to the Jamaica Labour Party's paternalistic rule of Hugh Shearer. To accomplish this Manley turned his attention to the 'sufferahs' of Jamaica, which meant the overwhelming majority." (Barrett, 220) Much of the politics in this era was shrouded in violence, both in the hope of swaying the elections and gaining influence. To reconcile the differences between the two warring sides, Bob Marley held the "Smile Jamaica Concert" and the "One-Love Peace Concert". According to Barrett, "It was just prior to the former performance that Bob Marley, his wife, and his manager, Don Taylor, were shot by gunmen who, some believe, had Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) connections." Furthermore, "it was one the later occasion that Bob Marley joined hands with Seaga and Manley in a gesture of peace. The 'One Love Peace Concert' was held during the most trying period for the Manley regime, when it was reported that the country was on the verge of civil war." (Barrett, 223)

The threat of communism ultimately proved to be both Manley's downfall and a cause of much of the violence that has plague Jamaica and dancehall lyrics. Barrett writes of Manley: "his close ties with Fidel Castro became a political noose around the neck of his socialism; and international credit began to dry up as he nationalized foreign industries…" (Barrett, 224) One observer claims:

"The Jamaican people en masse thus voted for the Jamaica Labour Party, under Mr. Edward Seaga. Michael Manley and the P.N.P. were thus booted out of office by the same public who gave him their overwhelming mandate for 'Democratic Socialism' only four years earlier…The people of Jamaica have taken up the enthusiastic offer which the J.P.L. has made of applying the classic American solution to solving Jamaica's classic Third World problem and they are now expecting a miracle of economic growth and social development." (Barrett, 224)

Unfortunately, for the residents of Jamaica, this political dialogue ceased to occur through peaceful means, with supporter of the two parties frequently resorting to violent methods. One pundit notes, "Election-related gang warfare using automatic weapons began in earnest during the 1976 campaign, when the C.I.A., under its Director, George Bush, carried out a widely reported drive to destabilize the Manley government." (Gunst) Political violence in Jamaica is frequently an extremely local event. For example, "The J.L.P. has controlled Kingston's wharves since the labor struggles of the 1930s; a half-century later, J.P.L. posses can rely on wharf officials to let their ganja out and their guns in," with one observer noting, "We send down the guns like food, in barrels." (Gunst) During this dire time of political tumult the profits from the exportation of marijuana were used to purchase guns to be used in the political clashes in Kingston's ghettos. In these areas of gritty Kingston, the posses are the crucial link between the sufferers and the politicians. The local members of parliament funnel jobs, money and guns to their constituencies through the gangs." (Gunst) This active role in the political struggles of urban Kingston residents contrasts with the traditional role of the Rastafarian community and this change has been reflected in reggae music. Commenting on this, Chude-Sokei observes, "The ragga response, however, is not to accept themselves as passive victims in an overwhelming Babylonian structure, not to represent themselves as 'wailers,' as victims of history belonging to a helplessly innocent race." As such, "This can be seen in the incredible boasting and self-assertions that are typical of dancehall and the 'fearless' rude-boys…Instead, they see themselves in many ways as being free within Babylon to destroy history and rebuild community…" (Chude-Sokei)

The rampant violence in the streets of Kingston has captured the attention of many concerned residents. It is claimed, "Considering the size of this tiny Caribbean island, the current crime wave is nothing short of a national crisis- the proportional equivalent of 100,000 murders a year in the United States." (Vulliamy) Many of these violent criminal organizations are transnational groups, and it is a common practice "for the United States and the U.K. to deport violent Jamaican criminals back to the island, adding further fuel to the fire already raging." (Vulliamy) In an attempt to curb this violence, the Jamaican government (frequently the cause of the violence it is seeking to deter) established Gun Court, "which is both a court of law and a detention camp." (Barrett) It is claimed that Gun Court, "is a pseudonym for a process of incarcerating apprehended gunmen and later trying them under the Jamaican Gun Court Act of 1974. Under this act, if a person is found guilty of possessing an unlicensed firearm, or even a few bullets, he receives a mandatory sentence of 'detention for life with hard labor'." (Barrett, 14)

With the rise of dancehall in the 1980s and continuing for much of the 1990s, the music was marred by affection for guns and the gangster lifestyle. The violence of Kingston, "found its reflection in the dancehall, where many records directly addressed it, while others merely utilized the image of the gun figuratively, as an expression of power otherwise denied to most ghetto dwellers." (Barrow & Dalton, 294) The appearance of gun lyrics in dancehall music occurred at approximately the same time as the rise of the cocaine trade in Jamaica. "Imported guns were the means by which political power, in the form of garrison constituencies, was acquired and maintained, a method that worked very well until the balance of power shifted from the political 'dons' to the drug dons that the politicians had themselves created. These drug lords became internationally self-employed." (Sheridan) These drug cartels came to dominate the cocaine trade in New York, Toronto, Miami, and London, with the former political rivalries replicating themselves in the form of competing drug cartels in such neighborhoods as Brooklyn and the Bronx. Reflecting these developments, there has been, "a musical switch from marijuana-influenced acoustic reggae to the cocaine-charged computer beat of dancehall, where acts with names like Bounty Killer and Destruction have replaced those of more cultural nomenclature, such as the Abyssinians, Burning Spear, and Culture." (Sheridan) It has become a frequent occurrence at local concerts to show enthusiasm for the music by a practice known as lick shot. Lick shot can be, "Either the firing of a gun, or the imitation of such, to express approval." (Barrow & Dalton, 375)

The violence and gun lyrics expressed in dancehall have caused a debate about whether free expression or a lawful, safe society should take priority in the music. Jamaica has no First Amendment or similar protections of speech. Former Jamaican police commissioner, Trevor McMillan claims, "Some dancehall lyrics are in breach of the laws in Jamaica and it is my responsibility to enforce those laws." Additionally, McMillan argues, "I am not trying to legislate morality, but there is a difference between freedom of expression and irresponsibly breaking the law, and I have a vested interest in holding such people accountable." (Sheridan) Of particular relevance is Section 8 of the Jamaica Act. This statute claims, "Whosoever shall solicit, encourage, persuade, or endeavor to persuade…any person to murder any other person…shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and liable to a sentence not exceeding 10 years with or without hard labor." (Sheridan) Professor Carlene Edie at the University of Massachusetts suggests that this ban hasn't been enacted in an arbitrary manner. "The ban on gun lyrics has largely to do with a tremendous increase in the levels of extremely violent crime in Jamaica over the past year." (Wexler) Producers and others in the reggae music industry have been caught in a difficult situation. While many involved with the production and distribution of dancehall may not endorse the violence and gun lyrics, they cannot ignore the reality that these themes have been popular in the past. Accordingly, "It is an ever-present fact in the industry, however, that social concern gives way to commercial interest, given the intense competition of a tough business." (Sheridan) Similarly, distributor Jason Lee comments, "My company has been rejecting gun lyrics since January of this year [1993]," however, "when Shabba Ranks comes out with a gun tune, it becomes a more critical business decision…If I don't release it, will another distributor." (Sheridan) Others, while not defending the propensity towards violence, argue that it is necessary to target the direct causes of this violence and not erode the liberties of free expression. One producer believes, "The introduction of firearms into the ghetto was by the politicians, and the gun salutes in the dance were started by the police. If Colonel McMillan is on a real cleanup campaign, he has to find the real source of the violence, and this is not the lyricists who write of their reality." (Sheridan) A different interpretation of the use of gun lyrics has been offered by Professor Carolyn Cooper. "In predominantly oral societies like Jamaica, there is often an open-ended dialogue transacted between the performers and the audience in public performances at the theatre or in the cinema. Loud comments on the action, not simply non-verbal laughter or tears, articulate the viewer's response to the performance." Hence, "References to guns in the culture of the dancehall are not always intended to be literal." (Cooper)

Messages of sexual dominance and the objectification of women have accompanied gun lyrics on many dancehall albums. Such lyrics are known within the Jamaican music industry as slackness. :The genealogy of this overtly sexual dimension of reggae can be traced directly to a long established, indigenous musical tradition: mento. Mento music, which shares elements of the Trinidadian calypso, particularly the penchant for sexual double entendre, is an undisputed progenitor of contemporary ragga/dancehall music." (Cooper) An example of slack lyrics can be found in Beenieman's song "Nuff Gal" on his Maestro album, where he claims:



Similarly, it is noted that Lady Saw, one of the few female dancehall performers, "claims that one man is not enough, but two or three might satisfy her." (Barrow & Dalton, 295) Additionally, many female DJs exploit their sexuality for the purpose of attracting wider audiences and receiving more attention. To many, this exploitation of sexuality may appear to be another from of oppression, with gender discrimination being equally as loathsome as the racial inequality that provoked the protests of a prior generation of reggae musicians. It has been urged, though, that we remember the social context that this occurs in. It has been posited, "the interesting thing about tunes such as these is that they have been bought largely by Jamaican women- sex is one area where women in Jamaica can assert some sort of power, and these lyrics perhaps show men's uneasy response to this." (Barrow & Dalton, 295) While not apologizing for the portrayal of gender in dancehall, this explanation helps to remind us that women in Jamaica suffer, at a minimum, three distinct oppressions: racial, gender, and class/economic burdens. At a minimum, these women cannot be altogether blamed for seeking some form of respect when the prospects for advancement in society seem bleak. At least one person believes, "Left of center, slackness is what is left of the protest. Slackness is not mere sexual looseness though it certainly is that. Slackness is a metaphorical revolt against law and order, an undermining of consensual standards of decency and good taste. It is the antithesis of middle-class, upper-case Culture." (Cooper)

The problem of sexually demeaning lyrics in dancehall music is that it exacerbates an already dire situation. Similar to the gun lyrics, the messages contained in the music may not be so harmful if they were listened to in a stable society. In a volatile community these song lyrics can have a devastating effect, especially when voiced by DJs who are looked upon as heroes. Sexual crimes in Jamaica are frighteningly high. "Murder rates for women in Jamaica, although not as high as for men, are still alarming: 64 women were murdered by men in 1993, and over half of them were between the ages of 13 and 30." (Haniff) Furthermore, it is likely that many more of these crimes go unreported because of the fear of retaliation in a patriarchal society. Accordingly, "Reporting to the police, knowing all these unwritten rules, will require bravery…But this is unlikely to happen since the community will support your silence as a way of ensuring safety." (Haniff) It is also claimed, "for a woman who is a victim of violence by a male partner, there is more support in the community and the legal system for her silence than her voice. She does not have the sympathy of the police, the community, or even her relatives who all at some level find ways to blame her." (Haniff) There has been speculation that one reason why the problem of sexual violence in Jamaica is so severe is the prevalence of guns. Haniff argues, "Our people are being shaped by the easy access to guns and the glorification of 'nuff respect and big up of gun man'." Haniff claims, "the guns are shaping us- giving us false power, making us garrison communities…"

The condition of dancehall and reggae is not an entirely dreary situation. The last half of the 1990s saw a shift in dancehall from lyrics about slackness to lyrics based on spirituality and social consciousness. Many involved in the reggae music scene credit Buju Banton for this revival and improvement of the content of the music. Banton (Mark Anthony Myrie), was criticized in the United States and Europe for his song Boom Bye Bye. Many people interpreted Boom Bye Bye, released in 1992, to advocate violence against homosexuals ("Boom Bye Bye inna batty boy head/ Rude boy haffi knowsay nasti man fe dead"). This song was the focus of protest by gay-rights groups such as GLAAD and ACT UP, seeking to remove the song from the airwaves in the United States and Jamaica. "The militant anti-homosexual attitude of Jamacians, men and women alike, is startling. Few subjects arouse such strong emotions here and polls have shown a strong majority in favor of jailing homosexuals," leading to a situation where, "no stage show goes by without at least one ringing condemnation which inevitably draws a huge chorus of approval from the crowd." (Chang & Chen, 204) Barrow & Dalton attempt to explain, although not justify, this bigotry. "Some psychologists, accurately or not, attribute this to a lack of real male self-confidence in a society where 85 per cent of children are born out of wedlock, and the vast majority of boys lack full-time male roll model while growing up." (204)

Since this initial blunder, Buju Banton, and dancehall in general, have matured. Some dancehall admires even make the claim that Buju Banton is the one who is most likely to fulfill Bob Marley's legendary place in reggae music. Although Buju Banton, who's style has been described as "singjay" is the most prominent of the new dancehall artists, he is clearly not the only one in this movement towards Rastafarian themes and socially-conscious lyrics. Other musicians include Beenieman, Tony Rebel, Anthony B, and Capelton. Banton's song Murderer, in 1993, is credited for the shift in dancehall lyrics. Murray Elias, a reggae producer notes, "A conscious Rastafarian movement has been part of dancehall reggae for several years now. One reason that it has suddenly blossomed in the last couple of months is a commercially driven reaction to the gun ban." (Wexler) Radio station executive, Lloyd Stanbury argues, "The 'Murderer' record by Buju Banton was the turning point as far as dancehall DJs are concerned, because Buju was the leader within the dancehall. Everyone in Jamaica was very supportive of the song, because it came at a time when there were serious violent acts within the country." (Wexler) The lyrics from the song are both personal and beseeching:

Murderer! Your insides must be hollow

How does it feel to take the life of another…

Why did you disobey the first commandment

Walk through the Valley I fear no pestilence

God is my witness and He is my evidence

Lift up mine eyes from whence cometh help

You will never escape this judgement

This renewed focus on the Rastafarian faith has produced visible change as well as lyrical change. "Dreadlocks, the traditional Rasta coif, have been gaining popularity with many dancehall artists- including Capelton and Buju Banton- whereas before, DJs preferred a slick R&B or Westernized look." (Wexler) Many people familiar with Jamaica believe that the change in messages is also due to the harsh social conditions that residents have been forced to contend with for the past decade. "The economy is shrinking and hard times have brought protest and politics back to the fore." (Gibbs) Echoing this sentiment is Professor Carlene Edie. "Many people are seeking religious options now, because the political parties seem to have failed everybody. People are looking for other options now, and there has been a retreat into seeking answers from religious organizations. I'm not surprised to hear that this is showing up in the music." (Wexler) Carl Bradshaw, director for Island Entertainment maintains, "We Jamaicans see ourselves as a powerful world cultural force, and we can't understand why as a people we can't get the economics right, why the social and political conditions can't be better. That's why you are seeing the switch back to protest music." (Cooper)

While the violence that Buju Banton sings against in "Murderer" is for him a local issue the revival of socially conscious lyrics contains larger themes, applicable to much of the developing world. In Banton's song "Untold Stories" one of the messages is the difficulties of poverty. Similarly, a song by Beenieman shows his respect and admiration for Steve Biko, one of the people who had a great role in helping to bring an end to the apartheid in South Africa. Anthony B suggests that one of his purposes of more intelligent lyrics is to have the messages be more permanent. "I make my lyrics universal so they appeal to everyone, so everyone can get a right understanding from them, not just a nation understanding from my perspective or your perspective. We do something good for our music so the next generation to come can be proud to know that we lift a step on Bob Marley himself and feel good." (Oumano) Likewise, Luciano, widely credited as one of the most cognizant reggae vocalists, believes the role of the musician should be a, "missionary, visionary and messenger. Yes, there are still people around who are singing slack lyrics about the silly things in life, like what they are going to do to their woman. But the pendulum is swinging back the other way." (Cooper)

It may be undeniably true that dancehall has betrayed some of the central tenets of the Rastafarian faith and represents a step backwards since the great days of Bob Marley and Burning Spear. This criticism would be unfair, however, for while there have certainly been some abysmal aspects of dancehall, this form of music is to expansive to lump together. It must be noted that there is a growing number of artists who have effectively repudiated the slack lyrics of past and who continue to be a positive influence on reggae music.

Works Cited


Barrett, Leonard E. The Rastafarians. Boston: Beacon Press, 1997.

Barrow, Steve, and Peter Dalton. Reggae -The Rough Guide-. Penguin Books: London,


Chang, Kevin O'Brien, and Wayne Chen. Reggae routes : the story of Jamaican music.

Temple University Press: Philadelphia, 1998.

Chude-Sokei, Louis. "Post-nationalist geographies: Rasta, ragga, and reinventing

Africa." African arts. 27 (1994): 80-84.

Cooper, Carolyn. "'Lyrical gun' metaphor and role play in Jamaican dancehall culture."

The Massachusetts Review. 35 (1994): 429-47.

Cooper, Carolyn. "Where have all the rebel music gone? Reggae to Ragga: What's left of

the Protest?" .

Gibb, Tom. Reggae's changing message." BBC Online Network. 19 Jun. 1999.

Gunst, Laurie. "Johnny-too-bad and the sufferers." The Nation. 13 Nov. 1989: 549-553.

Oumano, Elena. "Reggae re-examines spirituality." Billboard. 28 Jul. 1998.

Sheridan, Maureen. "A trade in criminals: Canada's policy of deporting lawbreakers

helps fuel Jamaica's soaring crime rate." Maclean's. 17 Feb. 1997: 48-51.

Sheridan, Maureen. "Dancehall courts danger." Billboard. 13 Nov 1993: 46.

Vulliamy, Ed. "Jamaica Dispatch: Roots of Violence." The New Republic. 16 Aug

1999: 13.

"Welcome to Paradise, Jamaica-style." The Economist. 3 Oct. 1998: 40.

Wexler, Paul L. "Rastafarian spirit replacing violence in dancehall lyrics." Billboard. 19

Nov. 1994: 47.