Tue | Mar 28, 2023

Alfred Dawes | The day the music died

Published:Friday | April 9, 2021 | 12:09 AM

The Don McLean classic American Pie referred to the tragedy when three rock and roll performers died in a tragic plane crash. The song, however, is a fitting eulogy for the state of Jamaican dancehall music. There is no doubt about the outsized impact that Jamaican music has had on the world. When Jamaica is mentioned as the answer to the question “where are you from?”, around the world the natural response is “Bob Marley!” and on occasion “marijuana!” Outside of Bob, there are many artistes who have created their own expansive fan bases in the different genres of music that we have produced.

I remember disappointing one fellow traveller who told me that he couldn’t wait to come to Jamaica to listen authentic ska music because all he heard were cover bands in his native country in Europe. Not only have we created a worldwide market for Jamaican music, but we have inspired several genres such as reggaeton, hip hop and even dub step. Yet somewhere along the road we have lost our way. The greatest reggae acts are no longer Jamaican and our music no longer captures the imagination of hordes of fans the way it used to. The power of Jamaican music has faded.

I refuse to believe that I have simply become my parents in saying that the music of my generation is better than what we are currently subjected to on the airways. There is objective evidence to this. The biggest names in dancehall now are the same names I listened to 20 years ago. Whereas one might argue that there are many successful modern-day artistes, I would ask to identify who outside of a handful of home-grown reggae artistes such as Chronixx and Koffee have international appeal. We listen to dancehall music far more than reggae and the biggest dancehall artistes do not have the same carrying power as those who were sought after for collaborations with the biggest international artistes of their day. If we look at album sales and concert crowd power, we realise that we are past our peak. As one industry insider put it, our performers used to sell out stadiums, now when artistes leave to go on tours its nightclubs that they sell out. Meanwhile, we see the rise of Afrobeat artistes who list Jamaican deejays as their inspiration generating millions in revenue from songs that sound a lot like dancehall.


Our music has changed. The message has changed. We comfort ourselves in saying that music does not lead to crime, and that saying something on the mic does not mean it is going to translate into real-life events. This may be somewhat true, but there is no disputing the direct link between some dancehall artistes and criminal activities. It seems they have fallen prey to the power of their own lyrics that glorify guns and badness. The pioneers of rocksteady and reggae protested the oppressive system of the day and inspired the revolutionaries in Africa fighting for freedom and black power movements in the United States. Their music resonated across generations and still enjoy a strong following among disaffected youths and those yearning for a more egalitarian society. How have our modern ambassadors fared with their gun lyrics? Is theirs a message that can be passed on from generation to generation? How many of our immensely popular songs locally have burst on to the international scene with their gun and badman lyrics?

The glorification of violence in a society beset by murder and violent crime has some impact on how the listeners see themselves. Without a doubt, it breeds toxic masculinity where self-actualisation is being considered a shotta by one’s peers. It may be tempting to use one’s own personal experiences to say “I never felt the need to be a badman after listening a gun tune”, but are you representative of the subset of society from where the majority of perpetrators of violent crimes originate? In examining our crime situation, we need a proper analysis of this subculture in order to understand the propensity to join gangs and aspire towards owning guns. I bet there is a correlation with their favourite songs and the personas of their favourite artistes.


There have been several videos of criminals parading their weapons in front of cameras, often to the soundtrack of gun lyrics. A true example of life imitating art. The attitude of the gunmen towards their high-powered weapons parallels the glorification of owning a gun we hear in songs. It is hard in this instance to not imagine that gun lyrics do not aid in creating a culture that promotes criminality. Why then do we speak out against crime and at the same time encourage these deejays?

Of course, nothing critical can be said about our music without the fanatics running out and screaming that we are uptown people fighting dancehall and that it is our culture. But when exactly did glorifying violence and denigrating women become my culture? It wasn’t always like this. There is an iconic moment when Bob Marley lifted the hands of Edward Seaga and Michael Manley on stage in a display of unity when warring political factions threatened to tear the country apart. Fast-forward to the moment when it was Prime Minister Bruce Golding inviting Gaza and Gully factions to come to Jamaica House in a display of unity when the warring dancehall factions threatened society. It was on that day, at least symbolically, that the music died.

- Alfred Dawes is a general, laparoscopic, and weight-loss surgeon; Fellow of the American College of Surgeons; former senior medical officer of the Savanna-la-Mar Public General Hospital; former president of Jamaica Medical Doctors Association. @dr_aldawes. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and adawes@ilapmedical.com.