Andre Sheckleford | Dancehall and crime in Jamaica
The carte blanche defence dancehall receives when one dares to whisper of its vices is unfortunate. Dancehall can't be treated as some autonomous entity, distinct from her content.
Where the content of dancehall deserves to be scolded, it should be so scolded. When scandalous parts of our culture elevate dangerous subcultures in the world outside of music (for e.g., 'informa fi dead'), we must put a pause on our head-bopping and 'appreciation of lyrics' and make an assessment of what we love.
"Dancehall is descriptive: a reflection of society" is a common mantra. But dancehall songs are oftentimes not merely descriptive: they are quite often prescriptive. Said another way, dancehall influences values and attitudes. Just as the rise in popularity of a song with the lyrics 'Murda dem an' shub dem inna ground' won't magically create murders tomorrow, a general change of dancehall into something sweet and nice won't stop the faucet of destruction Jamaica is facing.
Take the following lyrics, which may easily find their way into a popular dancehall song which may be widely received by the defenders: "if a bwoi violate, him a get a shot inna him face/from di nine inna mi waist/mek him face displace."
Now, let us try and achieve that same tone with a different theme of lyrics: "if a gyal violate, she get a slap in 'ar face/now she cyaan escape/panty a guh get displace".
The former - which heralds gun violence and murder - will be accepted and may even be played at children's gatherings (I've witnessed many a children's gathering where such music plays). The latter - which heralds abuse against women and rape - would likely draw ire, and rightfully so (i.e., assuming the song gains popularity).
"But violent movies are shown all the time. What about them?" The central question to ask here is if those imported movies are norm-creating in our society. That is, is a movie about a police officer killing terrorists in a tower in LA (the plot of Die Hard) so closely related to Jamaican society so as to influence values in a meaningful way?
"But dancehall music is enjoyed all over the world without sparking violence." The central question is whether those societies are such that dancehall has a norm-creating character there (take Japan, for example, where one would be hard-pressed to find a gun).
So, what danger does a constant defence of dancehall, whatever its content, pose? For one, it empowers the crafters of these lyrics and positions them as defenders of culture. Additionally, it contributes to a sliding scale from the genre: the music gets more violent and sexually explicit as time goes on.
Additionally, the strength of the defence of the genre is not normally coupled with strong calls for social responsibility. Taking a stroll through Half-Way Tree with scores of schoolchildren? You will certainly hear all sorts of lyrics of murder and pounding of vaginas.
So my call is for a proper assessment of dancehall's content and effects before giving it widespread love. I'm not positing that there's a straight-line, causative link between content and what happens on the ground. Much of dancehall's content has fed from society's waste, and has in turn, contributed to the waste, which it once again feeds from, become a grotesque cyclical monster that is but a shade of its former self.
- Andre Sheckleford is an LLM candidate at the University of Cambridge. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.