Is 'Rampin' Shop' erotic in English?
Published: Sunday | February 22, 2009
Much of the hostility that Rampin' Shop has generated has far more to do with our perception of the raw-chaw character of the Jamaican language in which it is composed, than with its supposedly explicit sexual content. For Rampin' Shop is not all that explicit.
I know Mrs Esther Tyson won't agree with me. According to her, Vybz Kartel and Spice "launch into what can only be described as something which takes place in triple x-rated pornographic movies." I don't know how broad Mrs Tyson's database is; nor exactly what she considers to be "triple x-rated pornography". But I think the sexual interaction portrayed in Rampin' Shop is rather tame.
Here's the scenario: Vybz Kartel and Spice, fully clothed in the music video, playfully talk about the pleasures of heterosexual intercourse - plain and simple. No bestiality; no necrophilia; no paedophilia; no sado-masochism; no whips and chains; no orgies. Just normal, old-fashioned sex: one man, one woman. Quite frankly, I really don't think Mrs Tyson has listened carefully to the lyrics of Rampin' Shop. If she had, she could not reasonably describe the lyrics as "filth".
And I'm surprised to see that Ian Boyne actually got it right this time: "In this case, I agree with my usual University of the West Indies combatants that the language is metaphorical and we must not get silly by literalising it." But Ian deludes himself into thinking that he's usually combating the unholy dancehall academic trinity of Hope, Stewart and Cooper. Most of the time, he's really fighting straw men he has fabricated. The simple-minded opinions Ian attributes to us are of his own creation. But that's another story.
The main issue I had translating Rampin' Shop into English was trying to retain the exciting feel of the Jamaican original. First, there was the title of the song. I decided that 'Playpen' was a good translation since it conveys the playfulness that I think is at the core of the song. In the cut and thrust of the humorous duet, the big question is who is 'badder' than who? However much Kartel might fool himself into thinking that he's the teacher, hotty-hotty Spice definitely gives as much as she gets.
Then there was the problem of the bad words - both English and Jamaican slang - which are used for body parts, particularly sexual organs. If these words are translated into formal English, they become sanitised and lose the odour of vulgarity. The main offenders in Rampin' Shop are the common slang words for penis, vagina, breast and orgasm.
Then I had to find English equivalents for some of the hard-core dancehall metaphors. That was easy. There are lots of phallic symbols in English: swords, daggers, obelisks, neckties even. One of the phallic images used in Rampin' Shop is the gun: "My X is longer than my nine." Kartel's use of this metaphor should not be read as a clear sign of the deadly violence of Jamaican dancehall culture. It is much more complicated. The phallic gun is a long-established image in American popular culture, especially the Hollywood film industry. Masculinity is defined by the size of a man's weapons - both literal and metaphorical.
I do wonder, though, if the transcription of this line on the website is accurate. What I think I hear Kartel saying is not "nine" but "nike." And bearing in mind the rhyme scheme of the verse, "nike", would make much more sense than "nine", since it rhymes with "like" and "bike:" .
"Nike," with its reference to shoe size, would also poetically evoke the popular myth that the length of a man's penis can be anticipated by the size of his feet. If true, this would be a very convenient measure for women (and some men, let's not forget), since we are not always able to confirm the full extent of a man's offerings until the moment of truth when it can seem too impolite to retreat.
There are other arresting metaphors in Rampin' Shop that are easily carried over into English. I just love the image of the handcuff that is used to describe the woman's grip. Spice has certainly mastered her Kegel exercises.
My favourite line in Rampin' Shop, which I'm sure all our hotly competing telecoms providers will absolutely not find amusing, is this: "Mi two phone a ring and me nah ansa none." Finally, something primal takes priority over the seemingly irresistible urge to answer every single phone call, no matter the circumstances.
Even in Jamaican, Rampin' Shop is not "poison"; it's not "filth"; it's not "debasement of women". The song is a tantric celebration of one of the fundamental pleasures of life. But some of us will never be able to see that. The language gets in the way. In English, 'Playpen' could even be studied in school; right up (or down) there with Chaucer. In Jamaican, bleeped or not, Rampin' Shop is simply not fit for airplay; or for literary analysis.
And I certainly hope Mrs Tyson doesn't think she has done a scientific study of the psychological effects of Rampin' Shop on Jamaican youth by surveying 115 students at her own school, only two of whom did not agree with her hypothesis. Children have long mastered the art of telling big people what they want to hear. I have a lot of respect for those two bold students who spoke their own truth. They definitely aren't romping.
Carolyn Cooper is professor of literary and cultural studies at the UWI, Mona. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Feedback may also be sent to email@example.com.