Ian Boyne, Contributor
DAMIAN MARLEY'S single, Welcome to Jamrock, is perhaps the most lyrically and rhythmically rich and poignant single since Capleton's Tour some years ago. It is not just a song. It is a phenomenon.
'Jr. Gong' is the Marley who is set to have the biggest impact in Jamaica and across the world, and he is the most hard-core cultural heir of Bob Marley. There is something distinctive, something ineffable, something magical about Damian Marley that aficionados of roots rock reggae can attest to. His genius and appeal were already evident in the album Half Way Tree. This young man is definitely Grammy quality. His copping the award was not just a fluke. Bob Marley has, indeed, been reincarnated.
With over 86,000 copies sold in its first week of release, his new album has smashed all the sales records of every reggae artiste.
Welcome to Jamrock has sparked controversy in some circles because it conflicts crudely and disconcertingly with the sanitised, Madison Avenue-packaged Paradise which has been marketed abroad, and it highlights a Jamaica which the Jamaican power elite would like to ignore. In Welcome to Jamrock, Damian Marley plays the classic role of the prophet who disturbs, afflicts and tortures the comforted with pictures and images not in concert with the vision of the ruling class. It lives up well to its genre of protest music, jolting the complacent who would soon forget the other Jamaica.
One incensed person, assumedly a Jamaican, does a good job of representing those in denial about the realities of inner-city Jamaica, in one blog: "I was watching MTV yesterday with a group of international friends who came to visit. Damian Marley's Welcome to Jamrock was on. I was in shock and awe. What was this guy thinking? He chooses the dirtiest streets with garbage piling up on both sides, people living in cardboard boxes, shattered zinc homes, man eating out of garbage bins. Utterly disgusting to see the image this guy is broadcasting to the world."
It certainly would be utterly disgusting if you invite your (white?) friends over as a proud Jamaican only to see that other side of Jamaica that you are ashamed of projected on your flat screen television in the suburbs of the United States. But this is just the point of cultural prophets like Jr. Gong: They, like the young Jeremiah, burst on the scene to afflict the comforted and to taunt the mainstream with the ugly subterranean realities.
God knows Jamaica needed a Damian Marley. That he is part of a whole renaissance of consciousness, roots/rock reggae music is particularly delightful to people like me who have long stood against the backwardness, slackness/bling bling and gun talk lyrics of the dancehall. How refreshing to see a concert recently with only culturally conscious Rastafarians 'bunning fire' on Babylon's false values, its materialism and oppression of the poor and marginalised.
DISGUSTED WITH VIOLENCE
The work of people like Chuck Fenda, Bascom X, Warrior King, Gyptian, Turbulence, I-Wayne, Richie Spice, Fantan Mojah, Morgan Heritage, Junior Kelly, etc. is particularly welcome in an environment where the guns are barking and where HIV/AIDS is claiming many precious lives. This renaissance in the dancehall must be supported and applauded by all members of civil society who are disgusted with the growing violence and anarchy in the country, the lack of vision and the runaway selfishness and atomism which characterise the society.
Welcome to Jamrock, superbly video-directed by Ras Kassa, the toughest and finest in the business, should be sent to all the contenders for the leadership of the People's National Party. It is all well and good to talk about massive infrastructural developments, fast-lane highways which facilitate easy travel by those who have cars. It's well and good to talk about "the greatest Spanish invasion since Christopher Columbus" (not the best expression in our historical context!), in reference to investments in our tourist industry.
It is good and true to talk about record numbers of Jamaicans owning homes, driving cars, having piped water, electricity and cellphones. It is good and true to talk about declining infant mortality rates and improvements in maternal health. It is good, great and true to say though it is counter-intuitive - that poverty rates have actually fallen, that significant achievements have been made in the social sector.
It is true that we have record foreign exchange amounts in the Net International Reserves, that our exchange rate has been largely stable and that interest rates are going down. Yes, the rating agencies are happy with us and so are the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other representatives of global capital. It is not true, as the Opposition claims, that the economy is collapsing. That's pure propaganda and exploitation of ignorance. But, niether is it true that things are rosy for everyone. There are many people who are left behind in this process of neo-liberal capitalist development, and there are not enough voices lobbying for them.
The potent voices of the Left from the 1970s have been silent. Some have joined the PNP chorus, regaling us with happy anthems about the progress which is being made. But Junior Gong is here to crash the party and to bring discordance to the "Don't Stop the Progress" choir.
DIFFERENT IMAGES OF JA
We can choose to crucify him because his image of Jamrock is not that of the Jamaica Tourist Board. Yes, it is true, the footage in Welcome to Jamrock is not representative of all of Jamaica. There are the lovely, scenic and therapeutic images of Jamaica which the Prime Minister showed the Travel Channel producer. I am cool with that.
But just as the Jamaica on the Travel Channel is not all of Jamaica, and no one is accusing the Prime Minister of distortion, so is Junior Gong's portrayal of Jamaica no distortion either.
Truth, as the postmodernist philosophers would maintain, is perspectival and situated. There is no "view from nowhere", no neutral, Archimedean point. None of us speaks outside of a particular context. Where one sits, as one philosopher says, determines where one stands.
But I tell you that we ignore Damian Marley's Jamrock to our own peril. As the revolutionary-looking Gong says in this lyrical dynamite of a song: "Some bwoy nah notice, dem only come around like tourist." The politicians tour their constituencies, but do they represent the heart and soul of those inner-city constituencies? Damian Marley and many Jamaicans don't believe so. All dem dealing wid is some "bedtime stories... and don't know di real hardcore". But watch it, Prophet Marley warns: "When Trench Town man stop laugh and block off traffic. Then dem wheel and pop off and dem start clap it... Police come inna jeep and dem caan stop it." Jamaica, Jamaica!
This is consciousness lyrics at its best. It is an appeal to uptown and the power elite to take notice, to stop making the poor and inner-city youth invisible. I know we don't want to be reminded of the Jamaica Ras Kassa shows us on the Welcome to Jamrock video. We don't want to disturb our evening meal.
But, the youth who hails from both uptown and downtown - the Half Way Tree metaphor - yells: "To see di sufferation sick mi. Dem suit nuh fit me, to win election dem trick wi." While it is an exaggeration poetic licence if you will to say as the Gong does that, "They don't do nutten at all", the Gong is dramatising and using hyperbole to make his point. Hear the young prophet some more: "Come let's face it, a ghetto education's basic. And most a di yutes dem waste it and when dem waste it, then dem tek the guns replace it. Then dem don't stand a chance at all." What powerful lyrics!
ANOTHER GRAMMY WINNER
The progressive forces in this country have abdicated their responsibility to the poor and marginalised. Some of those now supposedly speaking on behalf of the poor are merely using the poor to come to power to further their own political ambitions. It is artistes like Damian Marley from whom we can expect the sincerity, honesty and deep empathy for the underclass.
Welcome to Jamrock is another Grammy winner. It deserves every accolade possible. It reveals the work of a young man who is on a mission, who is no mere minstrel or entertainer, hunting for "forwards". He is using the popular dancehall idiom and hard-core rhythm to drive home universal truths. Every Christian, every pastor, every religious and social activist should applaud this song. (We don't have to accept the Selassie theology to embrace the song's universal message of concern for the oppressed).
When the defenders of negative dancehall have sought to defend the indefensible by saying that the gun-lyrics deejays are merely "reflecting the reality of the ghetto when they sing about gun," I have replied that boasting about AK, M-16 and SLRs and talking about boring man skull is not the same as talking about the reality of the gun in protest music. Welcome to Jamrock is a perfect example of an artiste's talking about the gun and about ghetto realities without glorifying the gun or violence.
Incidentally, Vybz Kartel's Emergency is excellent and a first-class piece of protest music. Bounty Killer, Ninjaman, Kartel, Assassin, Kip Rich, Bling Dawg and the others have the ability to do serious protest songs, but because the UWI dancehall defenders have provided no guidance and have promoted "almshouse" by excusing the reprehensible in the dancehall, they continue in the folly of their ways.
Junior Gong has shown them the real potency of dancehall. And he is achieving an international commercial success with his hard-core sound that the gun hawks who are "king a yard" can never hope to have. Welcome to Jamrock is an anthem for the poor and oppressed, the invisible in the society, those left behind by globalisation and the neo-liberal, Washington Consensus policies. Bob Marley would be proud. Jah live!
Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist. You can send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.