Catch a Fire

On the streets of west Kingston, it's been a summer of roadblocks and rah-rah, police and soldiers, politicians and their area dons and their gunmen. During the July riots, Tivoli Gardens thugs—frontline soldiers for Jamaican Labour Party politician Edward Seaga—pounded their chests after a policeman had been shot, his car set afire as he bled to death inside it: "We a go bu'n down de place if dem nuh ease off Tivoli."

It's politics time again. Blaze fire blaze. With the year's death toll already at 500, 2001 will probably trump even the bloody, fiery 1980 election season. And Jamaicans don't even vote 'til next year. But on the musical frontlines, it's been the most tedious summer in years. As T.O.K.'s ragga fluke "Chi Chi Man" crosses over to foreign charts and surefire controversy (is it advocating burning gays?), the world-weariness of VC's new-roots "By Your Deeds"—a warning to the thug "sitting in your church on Sunday, thinking who you'll thief on Monday"—has been one of the few embers in a stamped-out, smoldering dance.

On an island where vibes are always in revival—new-roots artists like Buju Banton and Luciano bringing back Bob Marley and Count Ossie to capture a downpressed defiance, slack DJs like Elephant Man and Ward 21 pumping new gas into Ninjaman's and Shabba Ranks's fallen stars—dancehall's ragga yin and roots yang are up against a new enemy from foreign. Blame the Viacom entertainment-industrial complex, neocolonialism in a box. Since cable moved down yard, uptown sound playlists feel like they were faxed in from the Tunnel. Boys who might have sported mesh shirts and divas who might have hand-sewn their batty riders now scrape for the U.S. dollars (exchange rate: $45 JA to $1 U.S.) to cop reimported Tommy Jeans stitched in Caribbean free-trade zones for pennies.

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

Sumfest this year was rammed for Snoop Dogg, Alicia Keys, and the prodigal-but-oh-so-lovable Shaggy. Meanwhile, dancehall night featured an unscripted battle royal between Merciless, Bounty Killer, and Beenie Man that ended in bottle throwing and gunshot firing, almshouse fashion. Shrinking audiences, profanity standing in for wit, a perfect mirror to the desperate garrison business in the streets.

So much for the theory that suffering always makes great art. The last time this happened—not that long ago, right around the gas-tax riot season of 1999—a lot of great art wasmade: Bounty Killer's "Look" and Baby Cham's "Ghetto Anthem" (both ghostwritten by the unsung producer Dave Kelly), Buju Banton's "Justice," Anthony B's "Tax" and "Fire," and the songs that became Capleton's pivotal More Firealbum. His vision of Jah Jah's city as a cold apocalypse of warring gangs and corrupt politicians, which Rastas and sufferers could only hide from or burn down, was so fi-real that bling-hoppers who cop their designer gear for free began queuing up at Butch Stewart's Air Jamaica counters for their authenticity pass.

If Shyne, Busta, Foxy, Eve, Fat Joe, and Wu-Tang are any indication, the embattled tourist board can exploit a new market to replace fearful hippies and white coeds. But don't expect the JTB to embrace the Boboshanti class of 1995—Anthony B, Capleton, and Sizzla—the way they did Marley's ghost. The first victim of the Bobo dreads' rise was the myth of the mystical, glassy-eyed Rasta natty dread as black hippie, an invented fiction enshrining the same "mental slavery" Marley once attacked.

Bobos are Rastafari's Garveyite fundamentalists. With their new-roots movement, as Andrew Ross wrote in a chapter of his 1998 book, Real Love, entitled "Mr. Reggae DJ, Meet the International Monetary Fund" (an encounter recently restaged by film director Stephanie Black in Life and Debt), "you have a generational narrative about the return of the wayward children of Seaga to the prophetic life of the fathers." Or as Sizzla asked in 1996, "Would a white God save me from white man oppression?"

It's that kind of militancy that the neoliberal, ruling People's National Party hoped to tame in a series of high-level state meetings called by ranking government officials around the time of the riots. But compromise would have been tantamount to taking sides in a street war that's turned increasingly bloody, and so, as Anthony B puts it, "Nah bow to jacket an' tie, the big bosses."

Two years later, the dominant feeling in the dancehall is one of exhaustion. If Sizzla Kalonji once called himself "the element of surprise," his albums—he releases two a year, usually in the same month—have become disappointingly predictable. A feverishly productive singjay, his concentric melodies and sudden leaps suggested a ragamuffin Coltrane, intimating but never disclosing deeper levels of Boboshanti wisdom. Producers wrapped his clarion voice in warm, dense riddims.

He's since built his own studio, collaborating less with other writers and engineers. Black Historysuggests that Sizzla rises to the level of his material. In "No Pain," he finds the right notes and the right words. Elsewhere, the riddims flag and the performances distract. Taking Overis even leaner—betraying his continuing fascination with hip-hop—and also mostly sparkless. Sizzla often strains against the stiffer riddims, his trademark swirls turning into yelps. Most disappointing, he seems to have lost the edge that once made his every word worth hanging on. Against earlier lyrics that seemed universal for their very specificity—trigger-happy Babylon cowboys, sufferers holding firm—the truth-by-aphorisms approach of "Thought for Today" and "Higher Heights" feels insubstantial. It doesn't burn all illusions, it multiplies them. The best performances are the nyabinghi-drummed love song "Somewhere Oh Oh" and the torrid, apt "To the Point," on which he promises, "Hey! Sizzla Kalonji say, 'Hot up the 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.

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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