Carolyn Cooper | Dancehall culture ‘Verzuz’ Babylon system
Two Saturdays ago, Beenie Man and Bounty Killer displayed the megawattage brilliance of dancehall culture. Hundreds of thousands of fans from across the globe logged on to witness the stellar clash on the Verzuz stage created by the African American producers Swizz Beatz and Timbaland. It’s such a pity that the COVID-19 protocols seemed to have been disregarded by most of those in the studio.
The spectacular dancehall event highlighted the fact that it is the culture of the so-called underclass that often defines ‘Brand Jamaica’ globally. The Jamaican elite willfully refuse to acknowledge the cultural capital of the black majority. ‘Babylon system’ constantly expresses nothing but contempt for our creativity: ‘demonic’ African-derived religion, ‘vulgar’ popular music, ‘corrupt’ Jamaican language, ‘dysfunctional’ extended families, and on and on.
But it is this undervalued culture that, most often, attracts tourists. That’s our competitive advantage. Sun, sand, sea, and sex are readily available at a variety of destinations. It is true that Jamaica is an exceptionally beautiful country. Several years ago, while attending a conference at the University of Hawai’i, I ran into a couple from Canada. They assumed I was a conventional tourist. When they heard I was from Jamaica, they wondered what I was doing in Hawai’i. Jamaica was one of the most beautiful countries they had visited.
A discriminating friend, Liz, who has travelled the globe, was amazed to discover how perfectly ordinary Hawai’i is. With typical wit, she suggested that the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB) should hire whoever does branding and marketing for Hawai’i. If they could fabricate such an appealing brand out of the little she saw in Hawai’i, she couldn’t imagine what they would do with the riches of Jamaica.
As the poet M.G. Smith put it, “I saw my land in the morning/And oh, but she was fair.” He didn’t mean that the personified land was a browning. Or that Jamaican society was fair, as in just. Smith, who would later become a distinguished anthropologist, fully understood the complexities of colour and class in Jamaica. In his book The Plural Society in the British West Indies, published in 1965, Smith observed that “white rulers” had “the highest status and their culture the greatest prestige”. He concluded: “Things African were correspondingly devalued, including African racial traits. The basis of the ‘white bias’ which characterises West Indian society is thus cultural rather than racial.”
‘OLE NAYGA MUSIC’
The tourist industry in Jamaica has long been controlled by the white and brown elite. This “white bias” has determined the way in which the island is marketed. It’s the all-inclusive hotels that still dominate. And the ‘culture’ that’s usually promoted as entertainment did not, for a long time, reflect “things African”. And even if it did, it was not popular music, for example, on stage. It was ‘folk’ music.
In Jah Music, our poet laureate, Lorna Goodison, conveys both the sense of threat that popular music posed for “decent people” and its healing power for its creators:
“The sound bubbled up
through a cistern one night
and piped its way into
and decent people wanted
‘What kind of ole nayga music is that
playing on the Government’s radio?’
But this red and yellow and dark green sound,
stained from traveling underground,
smelling of poor people’s dinners
from a yard dense as Belgium,
has the healing.
More than weed and white rum healing.
More than bush tea and fever grass cooling
and it pulses without a symphony conductor
all it need is a dub organiser.”
The JTB belatedly recognised the value of reggae and ganja as marketing tools. That famous image of Bob Marley smoking a spliff was truly revolutionary in its time. Now, it’s far less so. The JTB’s visitjamaica.com website features a sweet-faced young woman, flanked by two photos of Bob Marley. In one, he wears a T-shirt with the word Kaya.
The JTB doesn’t seem to realise that Bob Marley died almost forty years ago and that reggae is fast becoming ‘folk’ music, like mento. The very first page on the site announces, “Jamaica, the heartbeat of the world.” It encourages viewers to “feel the rhythm of Jamaica, the beat, the pulse of life”. The rhythm and beat are exclusively reggae. There’s no dancehall!
The JTB has never taken dancehall culture seriously as a drawing card for tourists. But Marley, who is now hallowed, has created lyrics that are a perfect soundtrack for dancehall culture. The one-drop heartbeat rhythm of reggae is quite distinct from the revved-up Revival riddims of dancehall. And the ‘conscious’ lyrics of reggae seem far removed from the unconscionable themes of sex and violence that recur in dancehall.
All the same, Marley’s revolutionary reggae challenges the status quo, much like dancehall. We hear this in Babylon System, with its Biblical overtones of Isaiah 63:3: “Yeah, we’ve been trodding on the winepress much too long/Rebel, rebel!” Perhaps the JTB will take notice of the Verzuz clash and free dancehall artistes from the winepress. It’s time to use ‘ole nayga music’ to market Jamaica.