Wed | Jan 16, 2019

From rude boy to gunman

Published:Monday | February 21, 2011 | 12:00 AM

When you say the words 'rude boy', the youngsters immediately think of Barbados-born pop star Robyn Fenty (Rihanna) and her 2010 hit song. But, to those of us who grew up in Jamaica during the 1950s and '60s, the term 'rude boy' (or rudy) denoted truants, juvenile delinquents, rebels, petty criminals and, occasionally, career criminals.

'Rudy' also resurrects memories of a genre of pre-reggae music (ska, rocksteady) depicting an era charting the emergence of poorer-class criminals prone to antisocial behaviour/violence. Some songs tended to romanticise rude boys and sometimes painted them as mischievous social deviants rising up against the system (Babylon). Desmond Dekker's 007 (Shanty Town), released in 1967, spoke of their violence. "And now rude boys a go wail, 'cause dem out of jail, rude boys cannot fail, 'cause them must get bail." Chorus: "Dem a loot, dem a shoot, dem a wail ... a Shanty Town."

In the late 1960s, Jamaica's per capita murder rate wasn't even on the radar - it was about 5.7 per 100,000. Rude boys were not saints, however, by the early 1970s, as politics redefined criminality. Our political parties armed themselves with guns for so-called 'protection' (albeit for the protection of votes). Rude boy rapidly evolved into the gunman. These mercenaries serve politics and/or organised gangs. Unlike rude boys, gunmen revel in terrorism, insane bloodlust, ruthlessness, stick-ups, shakedowns, mutilation, multiple killings and slaughter (of the elderly, infirm, children, women, babies and even the unborn).

Illusory immunity

During the rude-boy era, the State did very little systemically to stem the growing tide of rude-boy crime. It appeared as if the lack of serious, interventional social change was triggered by the fact that the rude boys were looting, shooting and wailing in Shanty Town - the poorer segment of society. The other classes felt immunised by their distance from the inner cities, their social status, better roads, better lighting, better policing, grilles, bad dogs, live-in gardeners/watchmen/ 'security', personal firearms, and so on.

Anyway, there were enough murders during the period of political warfare, neonatal gangsterism and random killings (facilitated by the empowerment and ease afforded by the prevalent gun), that Jamaica's per capita murder rate made the top 10 worldwide in the mid-1970s - we tied with Trinidad and Tobago at 10 per 100,000.

The Dekker song (007) ended: "Police get taller, a Shanty Town, soldier get longer, a Shanty Town, Rude boys a weep and a wail, a Shanty Town, Rude boys a weep and a wail, a Shanty Town ... ." But, in reality, the limited and localised response to criminality alluded to in the lyrics were oppressive to all Shanty Town residents - estranging them even more from 'society' - and, therefore, had little impact on overall crime. Consequently, we made the top three in per capita murders worldwide with a whopping 32 per 100,000 in 2003. And, some listings now have us still in the top five with figures for homicide rates (not necessarily murder) varying between 49 and 59 per 100,000.

We could quibble over the figures, but that wouldn't change the fact that every single one of us thank our lucky stars every day that we do not make the evening news.

The May 2010 assault on society should be taken as a warning that gunmen are capable of further evolution into a paramilitary network with a common, antisocial purpose. As a democracy, we cannot simply shut the country down, send the troops out and blitz every suspected nest of criminality. The police cannot solve our crime problem; we need urgent, detailed, sustained social intervention.

Garth A. Rattray is a physician with a family practice. Email feedback to and