Looking for an image that sticks
Despite the ludicrous lengths some younger Jamaican deejays go to in order to forge an outstanding visual in this age where music is as much watched as listened to, at times I feel a twinge of sympathy for them. It is not only hard to cut through the clutter of what feels like a gazillion radio stations, in addition to social media and a multiplicity of disc jocks walking with a laptop and calling themselves a one-man sound system, but the newer dancehall performers also have a tough collective act to follow.
So as much as I am bemused, bewildered, flabbergasted and even exasperated by the attention-grabbing antics, I understand that separating one’s self from the dancehall pack is difficult. There is the fake eyeball tattooing, the demon masks and names, the creation of conflicts on social media that are hardly ever played out on the live stage, the announcement of bouncing from man to man in the same music outfit, excessive tattooing, stripping down to less than the bare essentials, making videos with very real sexual content – it goes on and on.
And the poor little things, who have not yet learnt the difference between being irritating and being important, and have not lived long enough to know that five years is a very short time and does not a ‘career’ make, cling so desperately to every scrap of reaction that they get, thinking that to cause an effect is to somehow be effective.
But, from Alkaline with his eye enlargement and lyrics about the swiping of nether parts, to Tommy Lee and his (former) demon persona and Ishawna’s scattering of her sex life (how many people actually talk about her performance – on a stage, that is), I understand and I empathise, especially since a couple of those who have concentrated on controversy, to ‘eat a food’ have stated outright that they are playing a role.
For it is not only a matter of cutting through the clutter of a society with increasing, constantly open channels of communication, but those who would wish to be marked among the ranks of the enduring dancehall greats must be measured – as much by themselves as the dancehall massive and those responsible for chronicling the development of Jamaican popular music (journalists and academics, primarily) – against those who have come before.
And in the compressed view of time, which sees dancehall feeding back on itself of a mere two decades ago (there was some expansion on that in last week’s column), the generation with which the wannabe legends of today is compared is very, very strong on image. To make it even worse, for the shock crotch jocks of this era of the ephemeral, those images were not constructed for the press and public, but lived, and the characters set limits which I believe cannot be exceeded without the performer going overboard.
There cannot be a dapper, dancing deejay for the ladies who outdoes Beenie Man. This is a man who seems to have more teeth than most human beings, pearlies that are always glowing and showing no matter the circumstance (and from Carlene to D’Angel, friction with Capleton to Bogle’s demise, Beenie Man has been through it all). There is no outdoing the badness of the General, the Warlord, Grung Gad, Poor People Governor, etc. (damn, the man has more titles than the late Idi Amin) Bounty Killer without it being all too real. Vybz Kartel is living testimony to that.
Going into female sexuality beyond the territory of that delightful lady, Marion Hall, is to tread into waters where a lady is just not supposed to venture. A few years ago, I was at a Champions in Action concert at Jamworld, when a female deejay came on stage (light skinned, if that is of any importance) and, in an attempt to connect with that most hardcore of audiences, shouted “me want a man come f.... out mi pretty pink....”. There was stunned silence, then there were handclaps to usher her off.
If it was not a Presidential Click show, chances are she would have had to dodge some bottles. You can’t out-Saw Lady Saw without coming off as a skettel. And Jamaica don’t like no skettel.
Which Rastaman can have a more striking visual presentation than King Shango, the Fireman Capleton? Those robes and the matching shoes are not costumes. That is how the man dresses all the time, then and now. On the other end of the Rastafari dress spectrum is Sizzla, who will often turn up to an event in a three-piece suit, complete with vest and tie. Also a man from the 1990s, there is no more dapper Rastaman (when he chooses to be) than Miguel Collins.
Add to the mix Elephant Man, with his multicolored hair and outstanding dental work, the Mad Cobra with the build of an obvious weightlifter with his black trenchcoat (pre-Matrix, mind you) elegant attire, and Buju Banton’s penchant for loose-fitting garments vaguely categorised as ‘African’, and it is a formidable legacy to follow.
Going back a little, in the late 1980s to early 1990s, Shabba upped the style ante, and who can forget Supercat’s gangster suit dressing?
So what to do to make a mark, but to go over the top, creating an unsustainable, unbelievable visual that inevitably repulses a large section of the population (a fate which also befell Mr Palmer) and automatically pigeonholing into a niche from which there is no escaping, to become simply an entertainer who has become a national figure.
Because when the image designed to evoke controversy makes the breakthrough, then the artiste has the unenviable task of either sticking with it (in which case it becomes oh so juvenile – remember when Kris Kross was wearing their clothes back ways) or trying to shed it (that’s when they start to complain bitterly about the media being unfair and not leaving them alone).
The poor little dears. Isn’t it a hell of a thing, to become trapped in the image of your own making. Damn.