How Jamaica's Volatile Dancehall Scene Can Avoid a Biggie vs. Tupac Tragedy

It's that time again: Dancehall reggae is taking the heat. Not that Jamaica's resplendently lewd and crude export ever stops courting controversy—a lyrical bounty of violence and slackness, not to mention sporadic yet egregious forays into homophobia, make it ever-ready for reproach. But for months, the backlash has intensified. As gun-talking dancehall stars escalated beefs with each other, the Jamaican government began beefing with them, performing weapons raids at concerts and selectively enforcing the Noise Abatement Act, which holds parties and other public events to strict curfews. Meanwhile, media pundits went into attack mode, blaming dancehall for Jamaica's record-level murder rate and epidemic of violence. Climactically, Red Stripe, after a peaceful seven-year partnership, nixed its sponsorship of Reggae Sumfest, the premier festival held every July in Montego Bay.

So, in time for the genre's warm-weather close-up—on American airwaves, at the West Indian Day Parade on Labor Day, and, especially, at the premier Irie Jamboree show in Queens on August 31—I humbly offer five bits of advice to the dancehall massive: artists, listeners, critics. This wisdom comes not from me but from dancehall's close relative, which has been there and done that, enduring many a beating from pundits and cultural gatekeepers yet still maturing into a multibillion-dollar industry: hip-hop.

Lesson #1: Monitor the beef.

Mavado, keeping his cool
Martei Korley
Mavado, keeping his cool
Bounty Killer, on blast
David Corrio
Bounty Killer, on blast

Beef has been a staple of the reggae diet since the '50s, when legendary sound-system pioneer and proud gunslinger Duke Reid went viciously sound-to-sound with Studio One's Coxsone Dodd. And while dancehall feuds, from Super Cat vs. Shabba Ranks to Bounty Killer vs. Beenie Man, were once entirely lyrical, that's no longer always true.

A rough timeline: In January 2005, Gerald "Bogle" Levy, an iconic Jamaican dancer, was shot dead; the posse of John Hype, a rival dancer affiliated with Beenie Man, was suspected. Controversy soon settled on the Alliance, a crew of ferocious DJs led by "the Warlord," Bounty Killer. When slick-talking DJ Vybz Kartel left the Alliance in late 2006, he feuded with the posse's remaining members, especially the rising superstar of the group, Mavado, whose most famous song, on his 2007 album Gangsta for Life, is about marrow flying and bodies being sent "to the grave park." The beef between Mavado and Kartel produced some wickedly biting tracks—and, allegedly, several high-profile shootings in Kingston. Then, in February, after Jamaican tabloids ran a photograph of Kartel and another artist seemingly modeling a gun collection, Operation Kingfish—the Jamaica Constabulary Force's gang-dismantling task force—requested an interview with the artists, who'd been unleashing lyrical ire at another Alliance DJ: Busy Signal.

"Yes, every now and again, fans that's following me and fans that's following another artist have a quarrel," Busy Signal acknowledges to me during an interview in a Kingston studio. "But at the end of the day, you don't have a death—a blood violence—because of music and because of followers." Sporting camouflage pants and a matching cap, the baby-faced 25-year-old—whose album Loaded hits stores in September—smiles earnestly when asked if dancehall could ever produce its own Biggie-and-Tupac tragedy. "Me nah think so." Pause. "Well, it could happen—it's not impossible." Pause again. "We do need to take more responsibility for our actions."

At Sumfest last month, Bounty Killer blasted longtime rival Beenie Man throughout his performance, but Beenie, onstage, laughed it off and kept on dancing. And last year, Mavado and Kartel took a page from hip-hop's PR book and staged a press conference to formally end the beef between them. (Think 50 Cent and the Game, in patois). Mavado, 27, never quite believed the drama would reach tragic proportions because, as he tells me: "Me nah inna de dead thing!" But Biggie, Tupac, Jam Master Jay, and plenty of other hip-hop stars initially weren't, either.

Lesson #2: Take responsibility, but don't be a scapegoat.

February 2008 was officially declared Reggae Month, and newspaper editorialists seized the opportunity: "The dominant trend in dancehall represents a betrayal of reggae; the tragic case of the child doing violence to his mother," fumed Ian Boyne in the Jamaica Gleaner. Historian Kevin O'Brien Chang followed suit in the same newspaper, lamenting the "dancehallisation of Jamaica" and asserting: "We are already about as violent as a state can get without descending into actual warfare."

Flash back to 13 years ago, when C. DeLores Tucker and William Bennett published "Lyrics From the Gutter," a scathing New York Times op-ed piece that attacked hip-hop for glorifying violence and misogyny and called on music companies to dump the offending rappers in order to forestall "America's slide toward decivilization." Such media firestorms come seasonally—"Fuck Tha Police" sparked one in 1988, as did the 2 Live Crew obscenity trial in 1990, Ice-T's "Cop Killer" in 1992, and, most recently, the Imus scandal last year—but the debate never really evolves. One side blames hip-hop wholesale: During 1994 congressional hearings, Tucker cited gangsta rap as the reason "why so many of our children are out of control and why we have more black males in jail than we have in college." The other side, represented by elder statesmen like Russell Simmons, defends the music by arguing that it reflects—not produces—ghetto tragedies. University of the West Indies professor Carolyn Cooper epitomizes the Jamaican version of the Simmons defense, delivering metaphorical readings akin to the one that Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates gave on the stand at the 2 Live Crew trial. (Gates argued that Uncle Luke and crew deliver the "sexual carnivalesque"—stereotypes in comically exaggerated form.) At a recent UWI conference, Cooper spoke of dancehall "clashes" as "a trenchant metaphor for the hostile interfacing for the warring zones in Jamaican society."

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