By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
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By Katherine Turman
By Steve Weinstein
"Every time the youths from the garrison communities try to make something of themselves and out of life, [the Jamaican government] try to pull them down," Mavado laments. "They are trying to blame a problem that they put we in on us. They are turning dancehall into a scapegoat."
Mavado knows about scapegoats. Born David Brooks in Cassava Piece, a ghetto in the heart of uptown Kingston, he's affiliated with an alleged gang called the Cubans; because his music and his lyrical personas are separated by a line as thin as the one dividing, say, 50 Cent's, he's the eye of the anti-dancehall storm. The cases just keep coming: a 2006 charge for wounding, assaulting police, and resisting arrest; a 2008 charge for possession of ganja; talk that he and his entourage beat up a journalist in March; an arrest that month for two counts of shooting with intent to kill and possession of a firearm. The gun charges were dropped in June—Mavado's lawyer told the press that her client was innocent and had been accused only because "he's a high-profile man whose name is easy to call"—but by then, the star had lost his U.S. visa and been banned from various Caribbean countries, including Guyana and St. Vincent. In Trinidad, an editorial blamed a stabbing on "an artiste like Mavado who says he's a gangsta for life and has the youths emulating that lifestyle."
"There's no way gun lyrics affect the youths," Mavado fires back, plainly pained by his predicament: Visa-less, he can't perform before an American audience just now learning his name. "You know what affect the youths? Poverty. And hunger. Dem"—he slips into patois as he blasts the Jamaican government—"dem mash up de country! Dem make the youth dem a do crime! How long now people a dead inna Jamaica? Years! Bob Marley and his days right up to now—people never stop die because of politics. And them try fi blame it 'pon the music."
Dr. Travis Dixon, assistant professor of communication at the University of Illinois, explains that a causal connection between violent action and violent music is not consistently supported by scientific evidence. "With violent TV and aggressive behavior, there's no debate—there's a stronger link there than between cigarettes and cancer," he says. But with music: "Moderators matter. Context matters. It's so hard to say that if you listen to a song, you're going to do X. It's not just a straightforward link." Blaming music, then, is an easy way out of an uneasy conundrum.
Lesson #3: Big Brother is watching.
Since Prime Minister Bruce Golding took office in September 2007, his Jamaican Labor Party has taken a stand against violence by, among other things, selectively enforcing the Noise Abatement Act. Their first target was a given: Mavado. At his Kingston birthday party late last year, Jamaican police and soldiers surrounded the outdoor venue, locked exits, and searched patrons for weapons.
"I perform all over the world, and no one die at any one of my shows," Mavado tells me. "All my shows are so beautiful—just music." He has a point. With rare exceptions—in March, one man was killed and eight others injured at a "unity" party put on for two feuding Jamaican sound systems—concerts and dances are not prime sites of violence. This is partly because many events, such as Kingston's famous Passa Passa street party, take place in gang domains patrolled by powerful dons. It's also because, as Mavado explains, parties keep people dancing instead of shooting: "You know how much time a man in a dance and really want to go kill somebody, but the dance so nice, him cyaan leave the dance?"
Busy Signal points out another, more economical problem with the clampdown. "Vendors make money," he says of the music's international lure. "People that have the bars make money. People that's charging to get into the venue make money. People who playing the music make money. Tourists come in. This is Jamaica, and what we have is music."
Lesson #4: Take the good with the bad.
Hip-hop isn't a presidential candidate—you can't be "for" it or "against" it. (Unless, of course, you're Bill O'Reilly: so ill-informed about the complexities of the genre that dismissing it indiscriminately is easy.) Pop culture is a mixed bag of the good, the bad, and the ugly; until one makes peace with that fact, one can't enjoy dancehall, that messy mélange of the pious and the profane.
Take the self-styled Gangsta Ras. Nothing could be more contradictory than a hot new DJ—Munga, who rhymes about Selassie and bigs up Jamaica with a staccato flow and swollen-headed style that's all hip-hop—billing himself as part Rastafarian, part gangster. "The day the concept came to my head, I knew it was controversial—but then, entertainment is controversial, and I need to make my mark," he explains during an interview at the Kingston studio of Don "Corleon" Bennett, his producer. A gang, he continues, "is a group—not a violent group. So I represent for a group that happens to be Rasta." A towel resting atop his long locks, he lisps through the gold grill casing his teeth. "I'm not the first—Peter Tosh. And was Bob Marley a pushover? No, he was a rebel. Him say him shot a sheriff!"