It was like surreal. That headline on The Gleaner's front page two Fridays ago: 'Split on hate music', a story indicating that our politicians could not agree on what's really awful and repulsive about murder music. How can rational, sane people have a disagreement about that?
I heard extensive excerpts from the parliamentary subcommittee discussing Section 15 of the proposed anti-gang law which seeks to criminalise certain violent lyrics. The contortions in logic were astounding. Olivia 'Babsy' Grange and Damion Crawford put aside their political swords to high-five each other, as it were, as they rallied for the oppressed, marginalised and class-profiled dancehall artistes, set upon by middle-class bigots who like to fight against poor ghetto people.
Babsy Grange said any proposed legislation outlawing hate music was an attack on "our creative industries" and would send a "wrong signal to the world". How could we, known as a cultural superpower, be identified with such an oppressive piece of legislation designed to squelch the creativity of our grass-roots people? Babsy asked incredulously. How could we be so motivated by class hate and sheer bigotry?
The original Section 15 of what has been called the anti-gang law says, "A person shall not ... produce, record or perform songs to promote or facilitate the criminal activity of a criminal organisation."
Committee members had excised that totally but they, sensibly in my view, broadened the scope of the proposed law's reach. Now that section would not limit criminalisation to the promotion of a gang but any violence against any group of persons - be they police informers, police personnel, gay people or rapists.
But if you think that Friday's headline was a caricature, you should read last Sunday Gleaner's lead entertainment story, 'Anti-gang bill may seriously impact music industry - Artistes should lobby against its passing'. In that article, the state minister for entertainment and culture, Damion Crawford, seemed to have been in competition with Ms Grange as to who could be more outlandish.
I had to read the following statement several times, and even now I am hedging he was misquoted (though I have seen no retraction): "It starts from the premise that there is no research which shows that the consumption of violent media leads to criminal activities. It is merely an assumption ... ." Is Damion really questioning the well-established link between media consumption and behaviour?
The minister said that "the sections of the anti-gang legislation and its target on the music industry are based on ignorance of some individuals involved". What? I don't want to be uncharitable to the minister, but he really needs to spend some time reading on the matter before he makes these kinds of embarrassing statements.
As young Jaevion Nelson says in his Gleaner column on Thursday, ('Anti-gang law, not divine intervention'): "I encourage dancehall proponents, including parliamentarians, not to pretend dancehall has no impact whatsoever on people ... . A body of scholarship on the impact of music and media, including Dr Marcia Forbes' Media Music and Adolescent Sexuality in Jamaica, is readily available and there is no excuse for our ignorance." Except our aversion to reading and our penchant for just running off our mouths, 'ray-ray' style.
Of course, there is no direct causality between consumption of violent lyrics and criminal behaviour. As Damion said in a glimmer of logical reasoning, if there were a direct causation, there would be far more murders in Jamaica.
The minister went on to wax lyrical (as we are wont to do in our oral culture) about the hypocrisy about "suppressing" our creative artistes, while we allow a flood of American movies with guns and violence through various platforms. Deal with everything if you are really serious, Brother Damion is saying; don't just fight dung poor, voiceless ghetto youths who can't write verbose, narcissistic columns! Damion as defender of poor people's culture, pram, pram!
I think it is a tragedy that near the end of 2013, we can't unite around the commonsensical, humanistic values of people's right to life - irrespective of gender, sexual orientation or political or group affiliation. The most reasoned critique of Section 15 of the bill was given by Jamaica Labour Party Senator Alexander Williams - a characteristically mild-mannered, urbane, well-reasoned and civil debater. His view was that Clause 15 was unnecessary simply because incitement to violence is already covered in the common law and, therefore, it is totally redundant to have it in a new legislation. Reasoned response.
But there is a rational rejoinder to that: The law is not just a means of dispensing punishments and rewards, or of dispensing deserts. The law serves a philosophical purpose also. The law might be considered an ass for criminalising things which are nigh unenforceable. But I have read some eminent philosophers of law and jurisprudential scholars debate this issue. And they point out that the law is not just instrumental and prudential, but also philosophical: it serves to send a signal as to what the society abhors and anathematises.
Take the fact that a number of European jurisdictions actually criminalise Holocaust denial. You can be arrested for that. You are not free to show the swastika. You can't write that it's a lie that six million Jews died in the Holocaust and that it was just a part of a grand conspiracy theory. But many persons have not been charged for this crime. Yet it still remains on the book as a means of European societies with a particular history making a philosophical point about what those societies anathematise.
A society which has historically faced certain kinds of problems has a right to put in its legislation some clause or clauses which show that it abhors certain things and renounces them. As the third most violent country in the world, which is also a cultural superpower, it is right that we put in our law something which signals to Jamaicans and the world that this country finds some things non-negotiable.
In a country where so many of our poor, defenceless ghetto people are slaughtered by gangs (some of them fostered by politicians), it is important that we send the message that we abhor the 'informa fi dead' subculture, which, as Minister of National Security Peter Bunting said wryly last Thursday, has become our new national motto. Our law - not just at common law - must signal that we anathematise that. Our artistes should not be free to produce and distribute music anywhere to call for the death of homosexuals. Every homosexual's life is sacrosanct and inviolable.
Let INDECOM and the Anti-Corruption Branch deal with killers in the police force, not deejays calling for their assassination. What can be wrong, Babsy and Damion - what in God's name can be wrong - about criminalising lyrics calling for violence against any group of persons? What's objectionable about that? What's small about sending a signal in a country that produced a music which helped to liberate South Africa and Zimbabwe, that we honour our musical heritage of standing up for universal human rights and justice.
I spoke last Thursday to the country's pre-eminent scholar on criminology, Professor Anthony Harriott. I like to write in an evidence-based way rather than just shoot off my mouth, as is our penchant in Jamaica. I asked whether it is true that lyrics promoting violence - anarchistic, nihilistic violence - has no effect on people and their norms. He rejected that view.
I am not saying he is taking my hard-line approach on negative dancehall. I take responsibility for my own position. But his deep empirical research and cross-country analysis show that pop culture is influential, and he has said he has noted definite shifts in values and norms about violence. It's not caused entirely by the music, but as Professor Harriott emphasised in that discussion with me, dancehall music is reinforcing larger trends accommodating violence.
I have always taken a balanced view on this matter. I am glad that my book of In Focus columns is now out (Ideas Matter: Journey into the Mind of a Veteran Journalist, published by Pelican Publishers). I have a whole section on dancehall which people can buy to see that my position has been balanced and nuanced. I have always acknowledged that dancehall is not the root cause of our dysfunctional society. Dancehall is a symptom, not cause. Our economic and political inequities, our political corruption, and promotion of criminality by our political class and our impaired family structures are at the root of our problems. Our society is sick, and dancehall is a reflection of that sickness, not the cause of it.
The view is that until we can fix everything that's wrong with our politics and economy, we must leave dancehall alone. Dancehall lyrics glorifying violence against groups of people, calling for the slaughtering of informers when we need more informers to put away vicious criminals and terrorists, holds us back.
I heard Mutaburuka moaning on his 'Cutting Edge' programme last Wednesday, "How the hell we reach here, Rasta?" He said, "I remember sitting in Winnie Mandela's house and her telling me what reggae music did for them in the struggle against apartheid, how it gave them strength to go on in the struggle. So how we come to this in the music where that revolutionary fire gone and is just some almshouse the man dem a deal wid?"
Muta groaned and lectured for about one and half hours. Dancehall has betrayed our glorious heritage of music. What Damion and Babsy need to see, if they can escape their myopia, is that certain dancehall artistes are slandering Jamaica's good name and heritage in the music. The school, Church and home have failed our youth. Dancehall is the major socialising agent for our inner-city youth. Our 'World Boss', our icon, is Vybz Kartel, now on trial for murder. He has more currency and rating than Miss Lou - and even Marcus Garvey, I dare say.
That Kartel's trial is leading every newscast tells us a lot about dancehall's influence on not just the subculture. His trial is trumping that of politician Kern Spencer's. So media, unlike Damion and Babsy, know where the influence really is, after all.
Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.