Thu | Aug 13, 2020

Struggling to make reggae matter

Published:Friday | February 27, 2015 | 1:16 PMMel Cooke
Ibo Cooper
Ibo Cooper in emcee mode.

As he hosts events during Reggae Month celebrations, as well as others outside of February, the Jamaica Reggae Industry Association's (JaRIA) Ibo Cooper never fails to give context to Jamaican popular music's importance. He does it in at least three ways: by making a historical connection between the music being presented at the moment and what has been recorded or performed before; by noting influences on Jamaican popular music by other genres, as well as our music's impact on other forms; and by relating it to historical events outside of music.

Mixed in are the personal anecdotes that Cooper has gathered from his involvement as a crack musician, including, but not limited to, the Third World band, and as a lecturer at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts.

All of this is rolled into a consistent commitment to making us treat this music that we have made matter, to make it something that we own and treat with regard. He is not, of course, the only person doing so. He is one of many who are trying incessantly to make us value the incredible intellectual property that we have stumbled into.

It is an uphill task, making reggae and the other genres of popular music we have created really matter in their country of origin, to make sustainable success not something we buck our toes on, from time to time, and surprise ourselves so much that we often tun fool, but as normal as a sprint medal in track and field.


social obstacles


However, we have to recognise the inherent social obstacles to this repositioning of song and dance from distraction to national enterprise. Among them is the origin of this music. For while the tales of hardship that the creators can often tell - and often do so with relish - it is not expected that intellectual property would come from that socio-economic class.

For by virtue of their birth, these singers and deejays, players of instruments and sound systems, especially the earliest ones, were not supposed to produce anything remotely intellectual. To them has historically been cast the role of hewers of wood, drawers of water, toters of buckets, and diggers of holes. Thinking, which is a basic requirement for creating music, which goes beyond mimicry and minstrelsy, was not supposed to be part of their remit.

Added to that, the earliest creators of this powerful thing called Jamaican popular music are from the stock of those who came to Jamaica as property, and, especially with the rural to urban drift, continued to be without property even though they eventually owned their bodies, at least. Hence the many tales about Back O Wall being abuzz with the drumming, which is so critical to the development of Jamaican popular music until it was demolished to make way for Tivoli Gardens.

So we have people able to create valuable intellectual property who were not supposed to be able to use their brains or own anything. I suspect it can be a bit hard for many of those who have gone through a lengthy academic process and advanced though an arduous workplace experience to fathom - or stomach. They just cannot understand, or respect, someone who does not 'talk nice', but can write and deliver a mean money-making tune.

Chances are it is also a fly in the ointment of those who by dint of the accident of birth, deem themselves fantastic entrepreneurs and leaders of enterprise. The existence of persons creating and benefiting from intellectual property outside of this long-established structure is inherently an affront to the members of this group who feel that it is their natural right to own or control the society's productive resources. Expect little assistance from them.


investing time and money


In fact, neither of those groupings is likely to invest time and resources into making the business of Jamaican popular music stronger, beyond utilising it for advertising campaigns. And this inability to comprehend intellectual property also comes from the creators. Not accustomed to owning much, many of these new owners of means of income generation go cash crazy. The all too familiar (though not universal) result is that the money does not last even the creator's lifetime, much less go to the next generation.

Another social ill which has to be overcome in order for Jamaican popular music to truly thrive is the unfortunate perception of power as something negative. So, in the main, power is not seen as an opportunity to enable others and processes, but to use with a heavy hand on those below. This is manifested in the skulduggery to which entrants and even long-standing practitioners in the business of music are exposed.

It is not only in the rip-off producers, managers, and the likes, who routinely trample or milk and discard talent, but those who control also the routes through which music is publicised. I am not sure which is worse - the persons in media who take money to play or write an article, or those who simply do not give a damn and maintain a firm focus on frippery and spats and every little fad that comes along and fades almost as quickly as the publicity about it is forgotten.

And I swear that somewhere there is a factory turning out vapid twits calling themselves show hosts, who grin inanely at the camera as they ask vacuous questions. I need to find that plant, or the warehouse where the stock is stored, and firebomb it.

Having got all that off my chest, I return to Ibo Cooper's very patient approach. We cannot make Jamaican popular music, which in terms of intellectual property is our Hollywood and Bollywood, our Grand Theft Auto, or whatever video game is hot, our Yves St Laurent, our Smirnoff, our Apple (as in the computer firm) into a business without making it matter to us.

Unless ingrained attitudes towards who we value are addressed, we will continue to stumble on the sustainable, consistent high-level success, which is our natural right.