The Great Dancehall Freeze-Out of 2010


When word spread on April 1 that the U.S. Embassy in Kingston was stripping dancehall stars Aidonia, Beenie Man, Bounty Killer, and Mavado of their visas, many Jamaicans figured the news for a joke—just more fodder for Clovis, the Jamaica Observer cartoonist whose satirical barbs target trouble-prone musicians just as often as inept politicians. For the artists themselves, though, it was no laughing matter. “It was a big shock for us,” says Lav Lawrence, Aidonia’s brother/manager. “These are maybe four of the five top artists right now. They’re ambassadors for the country.”

As such, all four are remarkably problematic ambassadors: Each has come under great scrutiny at home and abroad for their controversial lyrics and what seems like a never-ending cycle of feuds with one another. Bounty Killer has racked up a litany of arrests over the years, adding one for allegedly assaulting his longtime girlfriend just days after the U.S. Embassy edict. Beenie Man was busted for marijuana possession Stateside in 2000. Aidonia and Mavado were both apprehended on gun charges in Jamaica in 2008. But no convictions have resulted from any of these crimes, in either country. That, and the timing of the revocations—just weeks after prominent Jamaican businessman Wayne Chen lost his own visa—has led many observers to conclude that the cancellations were de facto sanctions, prompted by the Jamaican government’s dawdling on the U.S. request to extradite politically connected Kingston druglord Chistopher “Dudus” Coke, a debacle that steadily heightened tensions between the two countries for nearly a year before his capture in Kingston last week.

The U.S. initially requested the extradition of Coke, now awaiting trial in Manhattan federal prison, back in August 2009, charging the alleged leader of the Shower Posse (an international drug/crime ring with roots in 1980s Brooklyn) with conspiring to distribute marijuana and cocaine, and trafficking firearms between the U.S. and Jamaica. But it wasn’t until mounting pressure forced Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding to cop to hiring a U.S. lobbying firm to run interference that he finally initiated extradition efforts, which culminated in the bloody, four-day siege of Coke’s Tivoli Gardens neighborhood (a so-called garrison where the don dada holds more sway than the government) that claimed over 70 lives in mid-May. None of the newly barred dancehall artists were thought to be in any way involved in this dispute, but whatever the reason—some cite perceived ties to Coke, whose entertainment company stages Kingston’s annual Champions in Action concert—those artists now remain sidelined from U.S. travel.

“Suddenly, the U.S. is saying, ‘No matter if the Jamaican government or law enforcement gives you a clean bill of health to travel, we don’t think you should fly,’ ” says Bobby Clarke, CEO of Irie Jam Media, which produces New York reggae fetes like the annual Irie Jamboree in Queens. “Which is a whole new policy. Somehow, the actions of the government have been linked to the entertainment industry.”

Representative Yvette Clarke (no relation to Bobby), the Jamaican-American congresswoman whose district contains a heavily Caribbean swath of Central Brooklyn, says she has been assured by the U.S. State Department that the Coke flap has not impacted the issuing of visas to Jamaicans. (The U.S. Embassy itself does not publicly comment on individual visa cases.) Still, “There always is a certain extra scrutiny given to entertainers coming from the Caribbean region overall,” she says. “We’re not sure where that emanates from, but that’s something my office is actively investigating.”

It’s not yet clear how, if it all, Coke’s capture will impact dancehall artists’ reception at the embassy. (Aidonia told the Voice earlier in the month he intended to reapply for his visa in July; Beenie Man, who stated his intent to regain his privileges in an April recording entitled “Visa,” has a U.S. lawyer on the case, his management says.) But in the interim, 2010 is in jeopardy of becoming a lost year for reggae in the U.S. Summer is the genre’s peak season: As temperatures spike, so generally does the amount of dancehall played at U.S. radio and in clubs. Beginning with May’s “Best of the Best” concert in Miami and culminating in the orgy of New York–area events preceding the West Indian Day Parade on Eastern Parkway every Labor Day, a string of outdoor music festivals typically keeps all the usual suspects busy here. But to the ire of promoters, Beenie, Bounty, and company have joined what is an ever-growing group of dancehall scofflaws, including Sizzla, Busy Signal, Vybz Kartel, and Jah Cure, all barred from entering the U.S.

And so, after Sean Paul, Elephant Man, and the Marleys, the list of marquee names capable of drawing festival-size crowds is strikingly short. (Buju Banton’s recent arrest on federal drug-trafficking charges doesn’t help, either). Jammins Entertainment’s Brooklyn Music Festival, headlined last year by Beenie, Bounty, and Mavado, will rely on rappers B.O.B. and Fabolous (along with a suddenly-back-in-action Shaggy) this July 4. Irie Jam’s Clarke has cancelled two events planned for this summer; he says he’ll scale back the climactic Irie Jamboree, held annually on the Sunday before Labor Day, citing both the depleted talent pool and a “damper on the overall mood” caused by turbulence in Jamaica.

Show receipts are crucial to any musician’s revenue, especially nowadays. But in singles-driven dancehall—which has seen CD sales diminish at an even greater rate than the wider music industry—they’re even more important. “I’d say maybe 70 to 80 percent of dancehall artists’ funds come from America,” Lawrence says. “Some, I’d even say 90 percent.” Aaron Talbert, head of sales for Queens-based VP Records—home to the vast majority of touring dancehall acts—puts the U.S. share of the reggae/dancehall market at about 40 percent. “Shows are going to be the primary income for any dancehall or reggae artist in any market,” Talbert says. “If they cannot travel here to do shows, we’re all affected.” With relations between the countries still seemingly cool, trips to U.S. airports have become nerve-wracking experiences for visa-holding Jamaican acts as well, says Nathaniel Watkins, VP’s director of publicity: “They’re on edge about being turned away and the uncertainty of getting through.”

Back in Jamaica, where culture (and music, in particular) has long been a chief export, the loss of income for entertainers stands to have a broader economic effect than it might elsewhere. “I think a lot of people are not eating, a lot of jobs have been lost,” Irie Jam’s Clarke says. “Where Beenie Man lives, he feeds the churches, he feeds the schools. He’s a part of everything. So is Bounty Killer. So is everybody else.” As artists and their agents search abroad for new opportunities, New York—with its network of Caribbean DJs, radio stations, and music venues—stands to lose as well. “You have promotions departments for radio stations that are not being utilized—they have no use for street teams,” says Clarke, whose company also broadcasts Caribbean programming on New York’s WVIP-FM. “It feels like we’re being targeted for extinction.”

Amid the gloom, though, some observers see a future opportunity. Dahved Levy, veteran promoter and host of WBLS-FM’s Caribbean Fever, is already anticipating the hype generated when artists re-obtain their visas: “When your fanbase doesn’t have the opportunity to see you, they want you more and more,” he says. “Whoever brings a Vybz Kartel or a Beenie here first is going to be paid.”