Is Dancehall killing itself?
Artistes, experts look at the impact of dancehall culture on international success
Curtis Campbell, Gleaner Writer
Dancehall music has had its fair share of highs and lows since the 1990s. The most notable of those 'highs' are perhaps Shabba's double Grammy Award wins and Shaggy's diamond-selling record, despite many other gains by several artistes.
As far as low moments are concerned, there appears to be stiff competition between Shabba's fall from grace, the backlash Bounty Killer faced after appearing in a music video with a naked man (an occurence he was taken to task about by Beenie Man) on the highly successful Hey Baby collaboration, and Buju Banton's incarceration on drug charges.
Several dancehall artistes have pointed out in numerous interviews that the genre has suffered because of the uncompromising nature of its culture.
According to veteran dancehall artiste Mr Lexx, dancehall's progress has been hampered by a clash between foreign and Jamaican cultures.
Mr Lexx explained that dancehall artistes have tried unsuccessfully to sell their music to an American market because of those clashes.
Bounty Killer had some success with the collaboration No Doubt, but was pegged back by cultural norms which would not allow the nation's 'Warlord' to be seen as compromising about the social norms of the society.
Mr Lexx also drew attention to Assassin's recent collaboration with Kanye West in which the rapper sang about sexual practices normally seen as taboo in dancehall culture.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
Assassin has since received some negative backlash from some dancehall fans on social network Twitter. However, Mr Lexx says the bigger picture is more important than a cultural squabble.
"I think culture hampers dancehall music and it has to do with ignorance, and at the end of the day local critics won't help you sell platinum or gold records. It's up to you as an artiste not to feed into critics. Because some of the things we stand for are the very things which cause certain foreign acts to avoid working with us," the deejay said.
According to the Full Hundred deejay, dancehall music can maintain its cultural practices and belief without trying to enforce them in other geographical locations. He believes the enforcement of dancehall's culture in markets which are against its beliefs will only see the genre ostracised.
"Our music depends on breaking into another nation to sell records. It's not possible to break into somebody's culture and be bashing them and think they are going to accept you. Look how long Sean Paul sell platinum and nobody else nuh guh through di door? And some artistes who went through the door before us destroyed the bridges. We need to start looking out for the business and not just our families and friends," he said.
Hapilos Entertainment artiste Flexxx sees things a little differently. According to the deejay, dancehall artistes should find creative ways to captivate foreign audiences without bashing foreign culture, while still maintaining dancehall's beliefs.
"We have to tap into overseas fanbase, yes. But at the same time you can't sell out dancehall culture. Because after the overseas hype gone you have to run back to the same Jamaican dancehall fans. Dancehall would be better off and more successful if we didn't hold on to certain things. But then again, dancehall wouldn't be dancehall if we let go, it would be rap music," he said.
Flexxx also commended Assassin for his work on Kanye West's single I'm In It. He believes Assassin showed that dancehall artistes can be featured on a song that goes against dancehall's culture, without losing that culture in the process.
"In Assassin's verse he didn't sing the same thing as Kanye, he did his own thing and represented dancehall. If Jay-Z wanted to do a song with me and he was rapping that he loves oral sex, I would still deejay on the song. But mi nah guh deejay bout dat, mi a guh seh real Jamaican man nuh duh dat. It's about being creative. The main problem with dancehall is not really what we say, it's just improper marketing that defeats us," Flexxx said.
T.O.K.'s Flexx holds a view that doesn't fall far from that of Flexxx's.
According to the singer, dancehall artistes should not have to compromise their culture in order to break into one particular market because there are many that are supportive of the genre, regardless of cultural differences.
"Our music is based on our background and what we believe in. Some places in the world have beliefs which contradict ours, but we just have to be more creative with our expression and we can still tell our stories. There are other genres which have strange cultures, like punk rock with their demonic representations, but they have more support from their fellow artistes and industry. Out here it's not like that, when a man is down they pull away," he said.
Dr Donna Hope-Marquis, senior lecturer and director at the Institute of Caribbean and Reggae Studies Unit at the University of the West Indies, believes dancehall music is a reflection of Jamaica's socialisation. However, she could not predict if the genre would be more successful if artistes were to muzzle their cultural beliefs.
"Dancehall is a product of Jamaica's culture. Its creators (songwriters and artistes) are the products of Jamaica's institutions of socialisation and the music reflects this.
"If the creators of the music want to fit in with what are accepted paradigms outside of Jamaica, then it would be prudent to 'sing a different tune'. How this would impact on the music's 'progress' remains to be seen. The music has progressed since the Shabba Ranks fiasco and Buju Banton's moment. It has gained traction all over the world so its progress is ongoing ... even as we speak," she said.
As it relates to dancehall's stance on oral sex and homosexuality, Dr Hope believes the world is not singing the same tune on these cultural issues. However, because of Jamaica's connections in the western hemisphere, which is relatively accommodating, the country is being encouraged to follow a similar path.
"The 'world' is not more liberal. The USA, Europe and several other powerful Western democracies are more liberal. Since these countries currently take the lead in setting particular regional and international agendas, countries like Jamaica are 'encouraged' to move in sync ... . It is all a process and Jamaica has reached the next level in a critical discussion. Talking about homosexuality in public forums and giving voices to different groups. Remember dancehall's quarrel with oral sex and male homosexuality comes from Jamaica's social, legislative, cultural, religious and folk culture. This is where the impetus should really be," Dr Hope said.
Despite the move by dancehall artistes to tone down the production of anti-gay music, Dr Hope remains doubtful that the genre would see an increase in sales in the US market, as a result.
She, however, noted that the dark cloud hanging above dancehall music would finally disappear.
"How is success defined? Dancehall is a very successful cultural product and musical genre internationally ... that is why we are having this discussion. If dancehall removes all discussions about male homosexuality and oral sex from its lyrics, I doubt this will have a significant impact on its market share in the USA. But it would help by removing the negative glare that continues to be cast over dancehall artistes and actors because of the continued dalliance with these lyrics, and would force gay activists to seek another platform for their fight for tolerance," she said.
Kanye West's album Yeezus, which features Assassin, Capleton and Beenie Man, this week debuted at No. 1 on the billboard charts selling more than 300,000 copies in its first week.