Tue | Sep 25, 2018

The poor economics of badness

Published:Sunday | January 31, 2016 | 12:00 AMMel Cooke
Jimmy Cliff in a famous picture from the movie, ‘The Harder They Come’.

There are any number of songs about 'badness' in Jamaican popular music, focusing primarily on the firearm. It happens even when there is no mention of the pistol or rifle of whatever calibre and variety in the song itself and some contextualisation is required to make the badness connection, such as in Jimmy Cliff's The Harder They Come, the title track of the landmark 1972 Jamaican movie, The Harder They Come.

While Cliff sings about getting what he wants here on earth instead of waiting of that "pie up in the sky", there is no mention of the method by which he will get to that goal. This is even though it is clear that he will not tolerate opposition as "the harder they come, the harder they fall, one and all".

It takes going to the movie to establish the aggressive connection between goals and determination as Cliff - his character patterned in part on the Jamaican gunman, Rhygin - slings a pair of pistols, and in one memorable scene, slashes the face of a former co-worker who would take a bicycle which Cliff had fixed up. Cliff's character shoots at JosÈ, a former friend, and he also kills a few policemen.

In all this, though, as The Harder They Come does not have an explicit reference to badness, it has become a revered Jamaican classic. The enduring image of Cliff in a two-gun pose is an indication of what to expect, though, and then there is the emphatic "don't f**k with me" line from the movie scene - where he slashes his adversary's face - that Cliff at times takes the option of using on stage.

As much as Cliff is a real badman in the movie, his lady Elsa, reveals his whereabouts to the police when the ganja trade is stopped because of him and the hardship becomes personal. For although The Harder They Come, was made long before Damian 'Jr Gong' Marley, Assassin and Chronixx were born, the economics of badness, which all three express in song, is the same as in the movie.


Most gunmen are poor.

Jr Gong says this literally in Gunman World, a poignant pane to the futility of the batman lifestyle. After going through the various aspects of the gunman's life, some directly related to his trade ("Sleeping with the rifle cross his chest/ So he never gets a good night's rest") and some now ("Does he kiss his kids to bed at night/ Making sure the blanket tucked just right"), Marley demands:

"Tell me is it worth it all

Those sleepiness nights and patrol roll call,"

And he puts the flawed economics of badness close to the end:

"The truth is me waan de yute dem stop ignore

De majority a gunman poor."

Chronixx's take on the matter is more expansive, as he dedicates an entire song to an exploration of the badness economics, coming up with alternatives. The bad economics of gunmanship is stated clearly in the introduction:

"Spanish Town me born and grow

Whole heap a bad man me know

One thing they all have in common

The whole a dem poor."

Instructing the wayward "yu no fi bad an hungry", he advises that if he were they, he would sell his gun. The proceeds would go into "a old Corolla" to run taxi, then he would take care of his children:

"Taxi mi run an buy me daughter stroller...

Son a baller but no score no goal

'Cause de boss him have no no have in no insole

Me wan show him Daddy a de boss

When him go shoe shop

Him say pick up anyone yu want

New shoes, new shirt, new shorts

Cyaa buss gun an me pickney dem a bawl."

And in Priority Check, Assassin looks at the cost of keeping the weapon more than a blunt instrument with a trigger, deejaying:

"Yu say food yu cyaa afford

A tree bills fi a shot an yu banana clip load

How yu a bawl say yu ain't got no money."