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Dancehall - Civilisation or Barbarism, and a word from the church

Published:Sunday | April 16, 2017 | 12:00 AMKimberley Small
Clyde McKenzie
Dr Dennis Howard

A public forum was convened in response to an article written by Aza Kanika Auset, published in The Gleaner on Wednesday, March 17. The title was 'Dancehall - Civilisation or Barbarism', and it carried on to become the theme of a discussion hosted by the Youth Ministry Division of the Diocese of Jamaica and The Cayman Islands Anglican Church. In her article, Auset opined that the degradation of society, particularly in relation to the low self-perception and esteem of black people in Jamaica, is perpetuated by dancehall music.

A panel gathered to extend Auset's conversation and insert a Christian narrative. The panellists included Auset herself, ethnomusicologist Dr Dennis Howard, music producer Clyde McKenzie, the Rt. Rev Robert Thompson, and youth representative O'Dayne Plummer. The panel was moderated by chief of staff of the opposition party, Imani Duncan-Price.

Auset reiterated the idea behind her article during the forum and said: "It is obvious that the effects of dancehall are destructive." She believes that one key issue with dancehall is that it promotes and intensifies race-hatred, and, therefore, in its permeation, victimises young Jamaicans.

"It is important to note that black people are the real victims. Jamaican society is suffering from a number of social ills, particularly of a sexual nature, a lot of which can be traced back to the free rein dancehall has on society," she continued.

Auset describes this as an erosion of basic morals and values, claiming that "civil societies and religious groups have not yet exercised the will to seriously regulate and police youth in censoring the decadent culture of dancehall."

In Howard's presentation, he suggested that dancehall was not just a music form, but also a culture.

"Art must move a society. If dancehall wasn't doing what it's supposed to be doing, we would not be here," he said. "All popular music is a victim of controversy, and all popular music was decadent and evil at a particular time. The first song to be banned in Jamaica was an innocuous mento song called Night Food," Howard said. He also highlighted the rocksteady song I Need A Fat Girl, by The Heptones. "Don't allow it to offend and influence you. If you condemn it, you can't understand it. There is nothing wrong with music. It is what you do with it.

"We have to be careful when we talk about music influencing people, and what is violent from what is not violent," Howard continued, as he highlightied the war themes of the anthems of the United States and Great Britain.


Culture problem


"You can move the thing called dancehall. It's a society and a culture, and the popular culture is a problem. We have to look at all the myriad problems that reflect in the music," Howard said.

In Thompson's estimation, contemporary Jamaican gospel concerts have begun to resemble dancehall scenes.

"It doesn't have to be 'either/or'. We have to make the culture a more harmonising place to rest our heads. We cannot identify the music and say it is the cause of degradation," said Thompson. He suggested that dancehall be defined; that it should be investigated and interrogated as a cultural form.

"Carnival emerged from Catholic culture," he said, designed as a conclusion to Lent.

"From time to time, you hear people calling for blanket bans on particular artistes, not taking note of the specific songs," McKenzie said during his presentation.

"I operate on the premise that there is good in the worst of us and there is bad in the best of us," he remarked.

"What you find very often is that when you hear an artiste getting up sometimes and talking about how destructive he can be in the bedroom, in many instances, what he's really doing is creating another reality," McKenzie explained. "Quite often, it is speaking to a deficiency. What you find is, some people describe it as metaphorical violence. Art in its true sense can be cathartic. It purges you because it gives you the opportunity to vent, to face issues sometimes that you're not able to do otherwise. The audience gets the artistes' purge.

Art is negotiating issues. It is cathartic," McKenzie continued.

In his presentation, Plummer, youth representative of Anglican Youth Fellowship, spoke about the ambiguity in the blanket banning of dancehall and the censorship of same.

"Censorship sometimes mutes the message of the artiste," Plummer said. "You can learn what's going on in society because it manifests itself in the music. It forces us to address social issues. What if the lyrics changed? By not seeing past the lewdness, you may lose the message," he said.