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Classism leaves J'cans ignorant to their musical history

Published:Monday | October 26, 2015 | 10:28 AMCurtis Campbell
Dr Donna Hope
File Dr Dennis Howard

The Sunday Gleaner recently carried an article that sought to sensitise the public about EDM music since the roots of the genre can be traced to Jamaica; however, the question has since been raised as to why the average Jamaican remains unaware of the history of Jamaica's music.

Veteran journalist-author Dr Dennis Howard, in a recent interview with The Gleaner, noted that EDM was not the only internationally renowned genre that was started in Jamaica. According to cultural analyst Dr Donna Hope, during the formative years of Jamaican music, classism was at its peak, therefore, only the kind of music and musicians that were accepted by the elite received the required media coverage.

"Look at it this way: Every single form of Jamaican music emanated from the lower classes, or poor people, and in every era, those higher up on the social ladder have perceived each genre as problematic, immoral, and or working against their notions of decency. Mento had songs that were 'banned' in an era where local music was only played in dances or privately at home," she said.

According to Hope, the only genre developed by the lower class that received relatively good media coverage in the early days of Jamaican music was ska. And this was only due to the fact that the genre was practised by persons residing in both uptown and downtown Kingston.

Foreigners documenting music

Holding no punches back, the cultural analyst also pointed out that it was ironic that reggae is now celebrated by the elite in Jamaica, the same class that turned a blind eye to its existence in its formative years. She believes that the documentation of Jamaican music was severely affected by local classism and also pointed out that foreigners were the main persons documenting the progress of Jamaican creators, which would explain why the overseas-based would have been able to laud King Tubbys and King Jammys as forefathers of EDM music, while many Jamaicans were ignorant of the fact.

"Reggae was the music of lazy, weed-smoking Rastas who wanted to lead your sons astray and breed up your daughters. Dancehall is the arbiter of immorality and violence. So serious documentation of these forms usually takes place after they are long out of time and is usually undertaken by non-Jamaicans. This means that a great deal of our musical history is lost because our young and not so young people are socialised against analysing or documenting same during its heyday, and by the time we get around to it, many of those who have the information are dead or dying," she told The Gleaner.

Hope and Howard have both written books about of dancehall culture. Hope believes that the genre is underdocumented, again relating it to the effects of classism on Jamaican music. She is, therefore, encouraging other authors and potential authors to do more.

"Dancehall has reigned for three and a half decades. How many books have been written about this aspect of our music culture? Time to research, document, and write more for posterity - and talk less," she said.

According to Howard, however, mainstream media should take part of the blame due to their focus on controversial stories and sensational strategies. He also named several contemporary Jamaican scholars who have made attempts to remedy the documentation crisis that has faced Jamaican music with published research of their own.

Some of the authors mentioned by Howard include Prof Mike Alleyne, Dr Clinton Hutton, Herbie Miller, Dr Sonjah Stanley-Niiah, Dr Ray Hitchins, Dr Wigmore Francis, Prof Carolyn Cooper, and Dr Donna Hope.

Lack of media interest

"Collectively, we have investigated almost all areas of popular music expression and production. One of the main reasons why Jamaicans are not generally informed about our history is due to the lack of interest by mainstream media. The media are more focused on current pop culture issues, which include conflict among artistes [and] controversial and sensational happenings. In addition, the school system is yet to embrace culture and the history of popular music despite the fact that it is the best-known product of Jamaica," he said.

Howard also tackled the issue of classism but felt that the tendency of Jamaicans to favour products and services from overseas rather than their own is also expressed in the acceptance of the art of music. These biases, he believes, have been detrimental to creative entities.

"This is a major problem. It's what Rex Nettleford explained as the "blurred focus" of Jamaican society. We are still not completely comfortable with the creative output that comes from the belly of the working class, and even during the golden age of Jamaican popular music, there was also a movement to sanitise the music to create what I call gentrified Jamaican popular music, which, thankfully, did not work," he said.

"But this ambiguity still persists. Take for instance the success of OMI's Cheerleader, a song that dared to experiment with a fusion sound, which I call 'One Beat'. No one paid the song any attention until it broke internationally ... . Now you hear it on all radio stations in Jamaica," Howard said.

Dancehall duo-authors Twin of Twins recently chastised elitist and classist Jamaicans for their role in holding back the progress of Jamaican music. In the meantime, Jamaica is now gearing up to host its first EDM Festival in 2016 called Lost Paradise. At the recent launch, the organisers promised to socialise the Jamaican public on EDM's Jamaican roots.