Mon | Sep 26, 2022

Politics is dancehall

Published:Wednesday | November 18, 2015 | 11:32 AMMel Cooke
Some of the many persons who turned out for the Reggae Sumfest 2015 All-White party at Pier One, Montego Bay, St James, in July.
A section of the crowd at a People's National Party rally in Portmore, St Catherine, last Sunday.
A section of the crowd at Independence Park in Savanna-la-Mar, Westmoreland, for a Jamaioca Labour Party rally.

The person at the microphone makes a point (a 'speech', not in the extended form, but a compact, emphatically expressed opinion in street parlance), an appropriate song is played with precise timing to support the speech, the crowd roars.

The music is thumping, the women are 'brucking out', and the men, many of whom are clutching a bottle or a smoking object, are signalling their approval. Many of the persons are dressed in varying costumes in the same colour theme.

In the first scenario, it is not a selector on the microphone working in tandem with the person at the sound system's control tower whipping the crowd into a frenzy at a dance, but a high-ranking politician addressing a crowd of party faithfuls at a mass rally. And the second is not a colour-themed party (all-white is particularly popular), but the celebration at Old Hope Road or Belmont Road after a general election victory.

In Jamaica, politics is dancehall, more so than dancehall is politics. For while both are ongoing, it is only at election time (of the general, much more than the local government variety) that that political fever spills out into the streets. So it is politics which imitates dancehall, not the other way around, in the use of public space and popular music, which goes beyond the standard use of popular songs for political campaign purposes.

In that vein, be not surprised that Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller is waiting on the good Lord to tell her when the time is right to sound the call for voters to exercise their franchise. After all, in dancehall, the call for righteousness and claim of protection by the One Up Above is constant, along with all other subject matters that often could be misconstrued as misfits for spirituality.

So now, like two deejays who are habitual adversaries but whose mutual animosity peaks when their rivalry is given a big stage and a large audience to be played out in front of, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and People's National Party (PNP) are chomping at the bit to clash. Everything else leading up to the campaign is setting the stage for that decisive moment. For Jamaica's two main political parties, the clash day at polling stations around the country is to be announced; for high-calibre dancehall rivals December 26 is the day of decision, for that is when Sting is on at Jamworld in Portmore, St Catherine.

The similarities between Jamaican politics and dancehall continue. Just as a hot male dancehall deejay travels with his entourage, its size reflective of and magnifying his status, so does a politician who has real clout attract a number of 'falla backas'. A good dancehall performer is supposed to be able to dance; a great politician must be able to 'drop legs' (the late Roger Clarke was especially well known for this) with the populace. A dancehall 'tette' must be able to fling it up, so must the woman at a political rally if she is to use her body to express support for her party.

Important difference

However, there is an important difference between politics and dancehall, and that is in the language of the person at the microphone. For while in dancehall, the microphone man (or woman) would be laughed at if they spoke only English, the politician would lose traction if they were able to speak nation language only. For being able to speak English well is still seen as a sign of high intelligence, and no matter their level of intelligence and formal education, the party faithful does not want to be led by a dunce.

It is a significant point of departure between the politics that is dancehall and the dancehall which is itself. There is a reason why so many politicians sound wooden when they try to speak the language of the people, to which their tongues are unaccustomed. For even they know it is jus for the moment - and that if they are unable to break into expositions of English which are above the heads of the party faithfuls looking eagerly up at them, then they would lose respect.

The audience knows also that the politician they are listening to speak nation language is acting. The audience in the dancehall expects a greater degree of honesty, even though they know that at points, they are watching an outright performance.

There are different expectations, and isn't it sad that there are greater expectations - and demands - of honesty in a dancehall than there are from the political platform?