Catch a Fire

This Boboshanti metaphor of fire—signifying love for black women and ghetto youths, and judgment for the corrupt, which places the politician and battyman in the same category—has become common currency, the stuff of literally a thousand singles. It's enough that Jamaicans consume hundreds of new singles a month, probably more per capita than anywhere else in the world, but how does a box of titles with minor variations on the fire/blaze/burn sound? Ring the alarm.

These days there's a lot of vinyl burning fassie, burning concubine, burning "69," burning wifey, burning matey, burning enemy, burning battyman and lesbian. This last theme—which caused anguish a decade ago when dancehall first came to foreign—does not reflect an endemic pathology so many journalists are eager to uncritically accept, but it does reveal a massive failure of imagination.

Which brings us to the Capleton conundrum. His follow-up to More Fire, aptly named Still Blazing, isn't due for months. In the meantime, 45s like "Boom"—which burns down all the usual targets on the same old bomp-bomp beat—may hype the yardcore. But they won't move foreign—the old-school roots fans, jet-setting rappers, hell, music critics who just want to believe.

Feverishly productive singjay Sizzla
photo: Anderson Ballantyne
Feverishly productive singjay Sizzla

Capleton might choose to fuck off our empathy—"critics should leave I alone," he once sang—and he'd be right, too. Dancehall, even more than hip-hop, was always about not surrendering, about taking over. But in the current climate—where beef flows from the top of government to the concert stage down to the street with no clear winners—most dancehall artists are retreating, settling for the easy money.

Anthony B's That's Life doesn't give ground. True, he may lack the thug appeal or vocal gymnastics of Sizzla or Capleton. He may be prone to currying tunes like "Fire Dance" that fulfill some pre-independence island r&b nostalgia but sound karaoke-corny on the continent. Still, he knows how to choose and voice a great riddim, whether Beres Hammond's "Silekshan II," Morgan Heritage's "Rastramental," Fatta & Bulby's "Soldier," or Bobby Konders's "Dun Dem."

And with his plainspokenness he's attained something like an elder's wisdom. If dancehall fires seem now to be raging out of control in an "everything b'un" mood, it pays to remember they were born for a purpose. In 1996, Anthony B's "Fire Pon Rome" ignited the Molotov cocktail that's become the current arson-craze, and it did so by bravely naming names—Stewart, Seaga, prime minister and PNP leader P.J. Patterson. "Fire Pon Di Government" ties together Patrick Dorismond, MOVE, Tupac, Biggie, and assassinated Grenada prime minister Maurice Bishop in just the first verse, a diasporic view of state brutality. When he tackles Peter Tosh's "Equal Rights," it doesn't feel like the new-roots cliché it could have. (Justice in Nigeria? Someone call Shell Oil and put him on tour with Femi Kuti.) Relevance is what this was supposed to be about.

So let burn what must be burned, Anthony B says, while cooking up a new metaphor for the charred city. "Everyone want to make it," he sings in "Good Life," "but if a one slice of bread, come mek we break it." Save the fire for a small slice of hope—hot vinyl pressed onto a seven-inch plate.

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