Rantin from Inside the Dancehall is an epistemological look at Jamaican society through the prism of social critic and ethnomusicologist, Dennis Howard. A compendium of commentaries, Rantin is richly animated and offers an incisive look at a people, their history, achievements, struggles and shortcomings. Howard is committed to the advancement of a people - black people - through the appreciation and advancement of culture. Rantin bleeds identity, culture, nationalism and Afrocentrism. These are delicate, tricky subjects that are ably and compellingly discussed by Howard.
Remarkably, the author employs musical and artistic expressions to understand the sociopolitical and economic state of the nation. It is done with utmost fluidity and literary style. Throughout, he consistently holds his ground. Jamaican art is the lens, and reflection of its social progress.
He revels in the global contribution of Marcus Garvey, "one of the fathers of the American civil-rights movement", but bemoans the sparse recognition of this monumental personage. He concedes that there has been some change, "were it not for the efforts of Garvey scholars such as Rupert Lewis and Camara Nkrumah".
Rantin fittingly opens with 'Culture More Important Than We Think', a stark message that Jamaicans are sometimes their own worst enemy. Howard is uncompromising, chiding nationals for invariably seeing the glass half-empty, thereby creating a debilitating self-fulfilling prophecy, "The average man is led to believe that nothing is good in the country ... . Talk-show hosts have been practising this for so long that they can't help themselves ... . All we hear about are the bad things ... . It's gloom and more doom."
He is persuasive, exerting mastery over every topic, every opinion. As with all critics, Howard's work, though rooted in historical enquiry and observation, is still subjective and will be challenged. To his credit, though, he remains balanced, and can hardly be likened to the ideologues and provocateurs that have invaded today's brand of journalism. He is an exemplar of social thought, and in the nostalgic 'Let's Give the World Reggae that They Love', he writes that "Madison Avenue has been using reggae every chance it gets", and that "The Jamaica Tourist Board has to realise by now that reggae, rather than rooms, breakfast and sunshine, will attract tourists to Jamaica. Reggae has to be central to any tourism strategy. We have the formula and don't know it."
Howard is equally elucidating in 'Ultimate Woman', although short on detailing the sociological impact of matrilinealism in Caribbean societies. Most interesting, though, is his interpretation of relationships. Without shredding masculinity, he writes, "Just ask the many successful men all across the island who wear the pants ... . This is not an emasculating thing. Men gladly give up the pants when they experience the magic of the ultimate Jamaican woman." More than a tribute to his countrywomen, it is a statement on the psychology and politics of gender relations, beyond national and regional boundaries.
Outside of a handful of discursive moments, Howard's didactic work is centred on the reclamation of culture, with all its manifold manifestations. They are the keys to social and economic progress. But with Caribbean societies still riddled with classism and strains of racial, political and religious tribalism, Howard's cultural solution may be somewhat of an overreach, at least at this juncture. Nevertheless, he consistently posits that Jamaican identity, revivalism and atonement are only achievable through this medium.
His counsel to writers on understanding the essence of publishing and copyright laws is invaluable. And so, too, are his candid remarks about combating drug use in the music industry. He also argues that radio programming has been turned on its head.
Hustling and pandering to musical sensibilities have lowered standards across the board. Obscene, suggestive lyrics - the hallmark of the dancehall genre, have their place, but overkill at the expense of meaningful musical expressions is unfortunate.
He is critical of who he calls "the new messengers", or misguided singers who threaten upheaval if social demands are not met. This development, he asserts, is alien to reggae music, which was also rooted in social protest.
He writes: "Instead of bigging up 'shottas' and glorifying guns, dancehall writers should be highlighting the ills of society and offering solutions. Poor people should be guided to force political representatives to serve their interests."
This explains his extolment of Bob Marley, Burning Spear, Jimmy Cliff, and many others, including Trinidadian David Rudder. Unquestionably, Howard is worth his salt, producing a gem that well exemplifies his unique understanding of a society once governed by the reins of colonialism.
Rating: Highly recommended
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