Jamaican Reggae Artists Push for a Cleaner Sound


A Rastafarian group spent months making the weapons of a cultural crusade--1,200 brooms to symbolically whisk the sex and violence of American gangsta rap out of the pure "One Love" of Jamaican reggae.

Meanwhile, reggae stars toiled in the studios of this violent capital, churning out new titles: "Unconditional Love," "Walk Away From Trouble" and "People Unite."

Last month, Gary Himelfarb, the Washington-based record promoter who goes by the name Dr. Dread, blitzed more than 1,000 of the biggest retail shops, producers and radio stations in the United States and the Caribbean with the CDs--and the brooms.

Dr. Dread's call from arms is a profound development for reggae's birthplace and all of the Caribbean. It comes nearly two decades after rap's commanding voice fused with the Rastafarian-rooted reggae that Bob Marley popularized in the 1970s to produce such controversial performers as Bounty Killer, Sizzla and Capleton, whose hard-core, rap-like lyrics have helped shape a generation.

Social commentators charge that this rap-reggae hybrid, feeding on real-life drugs and violence, is driving the region's increasing youth crime, alienation and frustration.

Drug-related murders, robberies and rapes are on the rise on many of the Caribbean's tourist-dependent islands. Since the mid-1990s, many Caribbean countries have become key transshipment points for Colombian cocaine en route to the U.S., a trade drawing largely on the region's jobless and impoverished youth.

That phenomenon, commentators say, has helped popularize violent lyrics in this fusion of rap and reggae. The genre was originally inspired by the Rastafarian movement begun in the 1930s, which worships the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and regards smoking marijuana as a sacrament. In turn, the drug-era rap reggae, commentators say, has fed the culture of drugs and violence that inspired it.

Governments Consider a Ban on Hard-Core Songs

Religious leaders in St. Lucia cited lyrics by rap-influenced Jamaican artists in explaining why two unemployed, self-styled Rastafarians attacked that nation's main Roman Catholic cathedral during a Mass in December. They bludgeoned an Irish nun to death and set fire to a French priest, who later died.

Several governments in the region have discussed banning airplay of hard-core, rap-style reggae tunes--a genre known variously as Jamaican dancehall or DJ, which has drawn millions of young fans throughout the Americas to hear the disc-jockey-style artists rap about rebellion, eroticism and rape over recorded reggae beats.

"You have to draw the line between what is protest and what incites violence," Jamaican Prime Minister P.J. Patterson told the island's reggae community last year. "You cannot ignore what some of the songs do to an audience.

"There's nothing wrong with someone singing that poor people are fed up. But singing about guns is out of line."

At the core of the vicious cycle of art imitating life imitating art is a social and lyrical tapestry in which profits play a pivotal role, artists and producers acknowledge.

"We have to pay bills. We have to create a market for our clients," said Jamaican producer Patrick Roberts, whose successes include Beenie Man--a rap-influenced dancehall artist who won this year's Grammy award for best reggae album.

"When you go and put out a hard-core dancehall song, the consumption is great," he said. "So we have to put out what the market wants."

Besides, he added, "lyrics are just one's creativity. What surrounds you is what you belch out. If you are surrounded by violence, violence is what you belch out. Even Bob Marley wrote 'I Shot the Sheriff.' And no one ever criticized him for violent lyrics."

Damion "Teflon" Forbes, of Kingston's newly formed Jah Dawg Records, said: "The main content of dancehall now is sex. And sex sells, especially with the influence of American cable TV."

But reggae purists and academics here insist that profit motives and cultural influences from U.S. hip hop--now one of the world's top-selling musical genres--have perverted and polluted the reggae that ranks high among Jamaica's national icons.

For them, Himelfarb's crusade is preaching to the converted in the debate between the hard-core dancehall lyrics known as "slackness" and the purity of reggae called, simply, "culture."

"One side of reggae is saying sow for the future. The other side is saying reap now," said Joseph Hill, the 53-year-old founder of Culture, one of Jamaica's oldest and most devout Rastafarian reggae bands.

"What I say is that we have sowed and the other people have come and reaped."

Yet Hill stressed that he doesn't blame U.S. culture for tainting reggae: "If bugs come in your house and mess it all up, you can't blame the bugs. You have to blame the man who opened the door."

Clinton Hutton, who teaches a course at the University of the West Indies here called Popular Music as a Sociopolitical and Philosophical Text, sees a broader context for the influences in dancehall--and its impact on society.

Rap, in fact, was born here, Hutton said. Jamaican artist King Stitt was the first world's recorded rapper. And Stitt came not out of reggae but from the Jamaican genre known as "toastin," dancehall disc jockeys who raised a glass and talked out improvised lyrics to background music.

"When King Stitt brought rap to New York, African American culture picked up on it, influenced it, and it came back here to influence what became known as Jamaican dancehall reggae or DJ music," Hutton said.

He added that dancehall's messages of misogyny and mayhem have strongly influenced the region's youth, but more because of the medium than the message.

Hutton acknowledged that even Bob Marley, who popularized reggae worldwide, "meant the police when he sang 'I Shot the Sheriff.' "

But, Hutton added, "when Bounty Killer says, 'Next time, you'll see my nine'--meaning his 9-millimeter pistol--he's not singing it. If you talk it, the impact is different. It's more like you're commanding it, which is what DJ music tends to do."

There's another difference between the 1970s of Marley and today, according to the 46-year-old Hutton.

"There was alienation in my time, but the difference between then and now is you heard hope in the music before," he said. "The alienation now seems more fixed. There's more frustration.

"You hear the line 'Me done dead already.' Well, that's a form of alienation that's pathological."

To blame the artist, though, "is absolutely wrong," he stressed. "It's the movers and shakers who, for a long time, were quite at ease with doing slackness. It's what's in vogue. It's what sells."

What's more, Hutton said, society must address an inescapable reality behind the lyrics before such messages will disappear.

"It's simple to say, 'Clean up the lyrics,' and I do think there should be a movement," he said. "But I am going even beyond that. Is it because they want these things that they talk about them, or is it because these things are already in their lives? I am saying the songs of alienation reflect a lived culture."

Artists Begin Turning to Uplifting Lyrics

Angie Angel, "the Queen of Conscious Dancehall," who recorded one of the three CDs Himelfarb sent with the brooms, couldn't agree more. But that's all the more reason to change, she argued.

Her career began with the crude and lewd of slackness. Most memorable was her hit "Agony," which one Jamaican record producer described as Angel "explaining in detail every position she liked doing it best."

"When I used to do DJ dancehall, my conscience bothered me," said Angel, who was born Angelique Cameron in a tough neighborhood of this capital city. "I had two young daughters, and I couldn't DJ like that in front of my own children."

Then, like many other dancehall artists, she converted to Rastafarianism. Three years ago, her brother Wade was murdered in downtown Kingston.

"Now I just write good songs," she said. "Life is more important to me now. The message now is to live hopeful and nice. Live good, and live big.

"Everyone is changing right now," she said of the Jamaican dancehall scene. "While they're growing, they're looking more deeply inside themselves."

Tony Rebel, whose new release also was in Himelfarb's "Slackness Done" package, was at the vanguard of efforts to purify dancehall more than a decade ago. Since 1994, he has sponsored an annual "Rebel Salute" concert in Jamaica that requires all artists to use only "uplifting" lyrics.

Now, he said, the movement may well be reaching critical mass.

"It's a journey, a gradual process," Rebel said. "It has been succeeding. The hard-core thing is definitely on its way down. But maybe this is the effort to erase it completely."

Keeping the Next Generation in Mind

One young Kingston artist who performs as Turbulence provided evidence that, with or without Dr. Dread's brooms, Rebel may well be right.

Born Sheldon Campbell 21 years ago, Turbulence was the opening act for Sizzla's successful U.S. tour earlier this year. He's considered one of Jamaica's hot new reggae stars. And he's moving toward straight reggae--that is, singing rather than "sing-jaying," as the Jamaicans call it.

"Right now, my mission is to clean up the music," he said, standing among the roosters and stray dogs in the dirt yard of his family's weathered, two-room house.

"The DJ speaks about what's happening in the street, what he sees. If it's about guns and coke, it's because that's what's in the air," he said. "But I'm young. I'm moving up in the music. So I'm trying to send out a new positive message now. It's for the children."

Among the lyrics of a song he recorded earlier that day:

"Children are our future; we must protect their lives. Lead them in the path of righteousness, from the darkness to the light. Unite for the children. Be wise for the children. Open up your eyes for the children. Do it for the children."

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