KINGSTON, Sept. 14 – A government-led crackdown on violent and explicit sexual lyrics seems to have stalled reggae music’s 20-year slide into what has been dubbed “murder music.”
Nineteen months after Jamaica’s Broadcasting Commission banned from the airwaves all songs with violent and explicit sexual lyrics, dancehall stars have begun changing the messages in their music – lyrics that once promoted guns, violence and sex now preach love, harmony and righteous living.
The Broadcasting Commission of Jamaica’s (BCJ) ban in February 2009 included versions of the offending recordings that employed “editing techniques of bleeping or beeping of its original content.” Together with police enforcement of the Noise Abatement Act, and rigorous monitoring of live performances, performers’ use of vulgar and aggressive language has virtually disappeared.
While BCJ supporters applaud the success, some speculate that recent gun attacks on prominent artists, and show and visa cancellations worldwide have also been contributing factors. In May, O’Neil Edwards from the reggae group Voicemail was shot and killed. In an unrelated incident a day later, Ewart Brown, stage name Mad Cobra, was also shot numerous times, although he survived.
“The people say that some of us big up in the music are responsible. This is an indicator that we need to stop it,” dancehall sing-jay Clifford “Mr. Vegas” Smith told journalists at a prayer vigil for Edwards.
Since its beginnings in the late 1960s, reggae has mirrored the social conscience of the inner city poor. In recent years, the celebration of violence and an escalation of graphic sexual commentary have made dancehall reggae an affront to religious and gay communities.
Religious groups blame dancehall music for social decline and rising murder rates. Gay groups dubbed it “murder music” because anti-gay lyrics often suggested killing homosexuals, and led a vigorous campaign against its biggest stars.
The long-running campaign against anti-gay lyrics caused some show cancellations in Britain and various U.S. cities, but promoters simply shifted their attention to the Caribbean, Europe and Japan in response to rising popularity of the music. Fast-forward to 2010: the airwaves are again buzzing with calls for social regeneration, peace and unity, reminiscent of the Bob Marley era.
University of the West Indies’ reggae studies lecturer Donna Marquis Hope noted that the standoff between the U.S. and Jamaican authorities over the extradition of alleged drug kingpin Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke may have had more of a profound impact on the transformation of the music than either the pullout of live reggae music’s biggest sponsor Red Stripe or the gay lobby.
“Red Stripe was certainly not missed as several other sponsors, large and small, stepped into the vacuum created by Red Stripe’s precipitous move in 2008,” Hope said.
Thwarted in its attempts to extradite Tivoli Garden strongman Coke, the United States revoked the visas of prominent Jamaicans, among them reggae stars Beenie Man, whose real name is Moses Davis, Rodney “Bounty Killer” Price, Sheldon Lawrence also known as Aidonia and David “Mavado” Brooks. Coupled with the December 2009 arrest of Mark “Buju Banton” Myrie, promoters complained of an air of “uncertainty” regarding the booking of reggae artists.
California’s Annual Seabreeze Festival was postponed in July because organisers were uncertain of “guaranteeing artist performance”. Industry sources say the U.S. market accounts for between a third and one half of the reggae shows these artists depend on.
Dancehall’s troubles escalated further in 2009 when, several Caribbean countries instituted their own broadcast bans, expressing concern about the effects they say the music has on their own populations. Many including Grenada, Barbados, Guyana and St. Lucia denied some prominent performers work permits.
“Enough is enough,” Barbados’ Education Minister Ronald Jones told reporters in March, after Jamaican artists Adijah Palmer also known Vybz Kartel and “Mavado” Brooks were denied permission to perform on the island. Jones insisted that there was a link between dancehall music and the increasingly aggressive behaviour of young Barbadians.
Palmer’s “Ramping Shop,” a duet in which he and female deejay Grace “Spice” Hamilton explicitly described a sexual encounter, is identified as the last straw that initiated the BCJ ban. Palmer is also the second half of the Gaza vs. Gully lyrical duel with self-proclaimed “gangster” Brooks, which pitted fans and communities against each other in 2009.
Fears that the row could set off gang warfare prompted the intervention of Prime Minister Bruce Golding. Gaza is the nickname Palmer gave to his working-class community of Waterford in Portmore, St. Catherine. Brooks hails from Gully, a poverty-stricken community in Cassava Piece, Kingston.
These days in addition to guaranteeing acts, local promoters are culpable for the performances. The Noise Abatement Act imposes strict shutdown times for street dances, entertainment events and political meetings and makes promoters liable for the actions of performers at events they stage. Music executives like Johnny Gourzong now make it a contractual obligation for artists to avoid the use of profanity and the singling out of certain groups.
“We have already set out what they should not be doing, and in addition, we sent them a letter which reinforced it,” said Gourzong, the executive producer of the annual Reggae Sumfest, at the start of the weeklong festival in July.
The fraternity is already seeing the benefits of the ‘clean up.’ When Reggae Sumfest 2010 opened in Jamaica’s second city Montego Bay on July 23, Red Stripe was back on board as a title sponsor after a two-year hiatus. (IPS/GIN)