RELICK: Electronic in the Dance: Alric and Boyd on Jamaica’s eclectic tastes

Since LargeUp posted a big ol’ feature on Alric and Boyd, I thought it might be a good idea to revisit a piece I wrote for the venerable UK zine No Ice Cream Sound  around this time last year. Alric and Boyd are a pile of fun to interview–and their music tastes are pretty fun too. Withut further ado, here’s “Electronic in the Dance”:

Alric and Boyd have a passion for music. They’ve produced dancehall and R&B, working recently with Jill Scott. They’re linked with Max Glazer’s Federation sound, crafting amazing mixtapes. But they really get animated when talking about doing remixes for Acid House creator DJ Pierre and the fact that Carl Cox is slated to perform in Barbados for the second Music Factory Pop, Dance and House Festival in May 2012. Alric and Boyd played the first edition in November 2011.

All in all, it’s been twenty years that Alric Anglin and Boyd James have been in the club scene and on radio, helping to bring electronic dance music to Jamaica. Describing themselves as a team, they’ve worked side by side since 1992. Djing since 88 and 84 respectively, however, they can chart just how house music and other electronic forms have been bubbling in the Jamaican scene. Yes, Boyd admits, “The scene is small, but it is there. There is an awareness.”

The prolific nature of reggae and dancehall production tends to obscure the fact that music lovers in Jamaica have significant variety in their musical diet. “We listen wide, not deep,” laughs Alric, in one sentence exploding any idealized view reggae lovers might have about the island and its music. “That’s where you find that we started to push the envelope with house music, with electronic dance music and found that there is a market.”

“Jamaican music is not just dancehall and reggae,” says Boyd, lowering his voice, “And I will tell you something that might be quite shocking. The UK reggae scene is way deeper than the Jamaican reggae scene.” The thing is, from the 1960s through to the 80s, a lot of reggae music was exported to the UK, because that’s where the money was. “We would get what you might call the ‘what left’,” laughs Boyd. The phenomenon can perhaps be linked to the fact that the Jamaican British population have been interested in music from home. For this reason, and also the fact that reggae music and dancehall was long looked down upon (not even used in tourist advertising until 1984), Jamaicans on the island tend to cultivate a varied taste in music. This has exposed non-Jamaican UK listeners to heaps of Jamaican music, but it has also allowed other types of music to flourish in Jamaica. One only has to look at the rapturous reception to Celine Dion at this year’s Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival to know that there’s a wide audience on the island for other types of music.

“We were always exposed to American and UK music, based on the influences on our culture,” says Boyd. After all, in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, it was mostly international music played on the radio in Jamaica. “It is in our DNA that we have an appreciation for country and western to classical to R&B to rock to hip hop.” Specifically, however, in 1981 there was a radio show on what is now FAME fm, then Capitol Stereo, called “Disco Mania”. “It was almost a five-hour radio show. It was the biggest thing for us,” recalls Boyd. The hits from that show trickled down into the party scene. Rae Town’s still-running party was founded in 1982, and showcased a lot of disco tunes—as it still does today.

Alric remembers sitting, listening with ear to the radio, to “Disco Mania” playing some of the underground sounds from New York. The radio show lasted ten years, and during that time Boyd ended up in New York, at NYU studying audio technology during the day and going out to now-legendary clubs from Studio 54 to Tunnel. He did an internship with Sly and Robbie, and then upon return to Jamaica, he began working with then-DJ Alric in 1992, and was able bring music to the table that was at the time unavailable in the Caribbean. “We started to develop a synergy and started to take off,” says Alric.

They’d drop the bass of pop tracks and introduce underground house and techno music gradually, making sure that the crowd wouldn’t lose interest. Almost like an inverted dubplate, Alric and Boyd would play with the riddim instead of the lyrics. And like all Jamaican selectors, they actively thought of the massive at all times, they were well aware of the fact that they needed to please: “If you can rock a Jamaican crowd, you’re a good DJ,” laughs Boyd, “In a night club where people are paying money, we had to keep the vibes. A DJs job is to convert and make memories. If you can’t remember what a DJ plays, you’re not a good DJ.”

Their radio show, aptly titled “The Edge” began in October of 1995 and took up where “Disco Mania” left off, Alric and Boyd playing the same format as they did in the club. “We went deeper into the house, deeper into the progressive,” says Boyd. “You would hear jungle, UK garage, 2 step, the new techno, hard house coming out of Germany, we were banging it,” continues Alric. But back in the 90s, there was no quick download of these tracks. Alric and Boyd needed to struggle and BUY these records. Sure, they got some promos, but they’d also get records from visiting DJs and vacationers who would come and play their house parties and club gigs. The show ran strong until April of 2009, when the pair moved on to other projects.

As for the place of Alric and Boyd’s favourite music in Jamaica today? “It still needs a kick. People who put on big parties here are afraid of electronic dance music because in the 80s and 90s it would come with a stigma—it was gay music of white people music or drug music. Now that it has blown sky high, I think they are trying to see how they can reintroduce it into the market.”

And how do they feel about folks like Bob Sinclair and Diplo who have come to Jamaica to draw on local music and enhance their electronic dance music productions? “Jamaicans can be close minded,” says Boyd, “But these people are introducing us to a new market, so don’t fight it. But there are pros and cons. There are producers who do come in and take. But the good side is exposure.”

And with festivals like the Barbados Music Factory receiving the blessing of London dance music stalwart Ministry of Sound, Alric and Boyd don’t think it’s unrealistic to think that there might be some potential for a bit of Ibiza in the Caribbean. After all, the region has the beautiful beaches and amazing weather. But, most importantly, a commitment to music that makes a crowd move. “It must have a vibes,” says Alric. Boyd nods in approval.

Party Circuit

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It isn’t an April Fool’s joke. Dancehall made the front page of the New York Times today. This was, as Annie Paul mentioned on Facebook, rather interesting considering Emma Lewis’s posting yesterday of complaints against the seemingly constant parties and night noise in Jamaica. It reminded me of Mutabaruka’s call for a study on the impact of this partying on a sleepy population. I should make it clear that I lean far more on the positive side of this argument–there is purpose in the partying. And there have already been studies–check this one on the economic impact of spring breakers or this one on partying as social and political participation. Larisa Mann has also written on how partying and politicking can come together–and how music can be a “powerful force for sharing pleasure, trust, release, and purpose across marginalized communities, and forging a radical, broadly participatory movement.” So after a day of discussing the pros and cons of letting loose, it was edifying to see Sarah Maslin Nir‘s piece “Jamaicans Get Party to Come to Them, via DVD“. Nir’s piece dealt with the way party DVDs–the long-form, unedited works filmed by the ubiquitous dancehall video men every night of the week–circulate, providing connection to yard for those abroad.

I then proceeded to get into a big twitter argument with a reader of the piece who tried to catch Nir on her lack of differentiation between selector and MC. Selector being the one who spins the tunes and MC being the one who talks and bigs up the dance. Of course, in 2013, based on the range of soundsystem practice, there’s no really cut and dry differentiation. But it was one of those ridiculous discussions that I only seem to have on the internet. It was a shame, really, because I shouldn’t have been splitting hairs about soundsystem terminology. I should have been talking about the meat of the piece.

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Apparently Nir has been the New York Time‘s nightlife columnist for a while, so she is familiar with a party–and perhaps some of the wilder sort (a quick google reveals a portrait of the writer with a couple horses at the Waldorf Astoria in NYC). I was a little disappointed in the descriptions of dancing as “feverish”, “outlandish” and “border[ing] on pornographic” in her column and then on her twitter–where the she exclaimed that readers of her piece had to check out the “bonkers” videos. Having been to numerous dances, as well as numerous late-night affairs in my home continent of North America, I can honestly state that there is nothing more offensive happening on the streets of Kingston than that going on at certain nightclubs and during aforementioned spring breaks in Canada and the US. She writes that “by night’s end…bodies jiggle free of miniscule clothes”. Not so much. Dancehall, for all its slackness, often draws a line between nastiness and nudity. The language of the piece is a bit grating and tiresome, as it’s yet another example of a portrait of the island as a wild place–unfettered by the boundaries of civilized society. A mite problematic.

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This being said, though I think that the piece could have been more fully fleshed out, it provided an interesting narrative of diaspora circulation. I liked the inclusion of Kim-Marie Spence’s comments about seeing one’s own reflection on video, but I wished that Donna Hope had been consulted. Hope’s Inna di Dancehall, was published way back in what seems like the ancient times–2006. She discusses video men like Jack Sowah (still active today) as a key creator of dancehall culture, alongside artists, dancers, soundsystems and so on. The book also discusses the circulation of Sowah productions through out the diaspora–in places Nir discussed in her piece, such as Brooklyn and Queens, New York. But Hope’s discussion stems from the dancehall in Jamaica. According to Inna di Dancehall, dancers and “models” try to steal a piece of the video light in hopes of catching a break.

Right now you have girls wheh deh a England an America true my videocassette. Raquel from Modelling Crew is in Engald an…Little Bit…she is also in England, Mackie Boo, she’s in England, Lisa is in…no…Mackie is in New York, Lisa is in England..An…couple a dem well yuh nuh leave here an go abroad true di video - Jack Sowah, quoted in Inna di Dancehall (73)

Nir describes the videos as providing a connection with home, whereas Hope describes these same products as offering a connection with foreign. Nir describes a young woman who travels from New York to Jamaica to get herself on camera, whereas Sowah presents the videos as a ticket to get out of JA. The dancehall circuit, whether Uptown Mondaze, Boasy Tuesdays, Weddy Wednesdays or any other day, is recast as a diaspora narrative, demonstrating links between home and foreign. The parties hold promise and potential for those in attendance, and they offer up Jamaican experience to those in the diaspora. And beyond the diaspora community, these films circulate further, crossing boundaries. As Sonjah Stanley-Niaah has written, dancehall is constructed according to certain borders–boundaries in space, time and, as the consistent crackdowns and complaints about night noise demonstrate, sound. But dancehall culture becomes boundaryless through its ability to reach beyond the spaces it inhabits. As sound travels from downtown Kingston upwards, disturbing those who wish to sleep, it also travels around the world.

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Footage recorded at events in Jamaica is mostly amateur, though it may often be sold to fans, while footage generated by prominent professional videographers such as Knight Rider or Scrappy is packaged for commercial distribution both in Kingston and other places in Jamaica, and in metropolitan centres such as London, New York or Tokyo. Generally, dancehall videotapes and, increasingly, dvds circulate, at prices ranging between five and twenty US dollars, in those countries where reggae and dancehall are already established as popular forms, such as Germany, Brazil, South Africa, Kenya, Canada and Japan. More and more footage is also becoming available globally through general-interest websites, such as YouTube or MySpace, as well as specialist ones, such as Dancehalltv.com - Sonjah Stanley-Niaah, Dancehall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto (168)

Dancehall and dancehall DVDs are about more than just partying. More than just noise. Yes, they do provide a series of economic opportunities, but it also presents a narrative of transnationalism, skipping across the world, bringing Jamaica abroad and abroad back to Jamaica.

Note: All photos from a heavily filmed Weddy Weddy back in 2009.

Jamaica wins the Superbowl

Yup, Jamaica was at the Superbowl. From Bey to VW, foreign was clearly taking cues from yard. As a demonstration of this fact, I’ve collected some of the best tweets referencing Jamaica’s presence. Some of my faves had to do with the blackout. Jamaicans have a sense of humour–and the remarks take the USA down a peg or two. Enough with first/third world characterizations. The powercut placed the US on a playing field no better than anywhere else. And it’s always nice to find an opportunity to poke at the incredibly expensive JPS electrical company.

@usainbolt Big man thing a Jamaica run the world #Beyonce.. Yard vibes

@DamionCrawford right now beyonce prejudiced fi a duh dutty wine lolol… anyway jamaica win super bowl argument done

@Real_Julz I guess they will say beyonce made dutty whine famous now?? lol #jokes #Jamaica #dontdis

@yaadinfo We need a Jamaican in New Orleans to bridge it fi dem. Where is Winstan?

@MrDatMad JPS DEH PON WORLD WIDE TOUR

@fluffymisskitty Well at least dem cyaa blame JPS! or maybe I should say I hope they don’t have a branch in New Orleans a supply di dome!

@Chunchi JPS get visa

@souldancing Power cut at big-big #SuperBowl? They’re taking this #Jamaica thing too far! Dwl!

@SadeSweetness 1st this: Jamaican accent, Jamaican music, Jamaican dance, then this: Jamaica powercut. #SeemsLegit

@BradscottJames Does “outside power feed” mean bridge light?? #PowerCut #SuperBowl47 #jamaica

@Richard_Stacks Powercut at superbowl and jamaica hav light! Bwahahahahaha!

@DwayneSamuels Jamaica win the Super Bowl! All JPS powercut reach dem to raw!

@nikkirich61 A who obeah di superbowl

@BigBlackBarry Light gone? True dem diss Sean Paul. #obeahstrang

And nothing is complete without throwing a little inter-island shade…

@Lacey_World So Bahamas paid for an ad and Jamaica got free advertising. #superbowl

@DebiBunni Poor Bahamas spent millions for that ad and Jamaica got free ad space from VW and Beyonce… rough…

Then, of course, there’s the response to *that* ad:

Red Stripe RefsThe GermaicanReal Jamaican Volkswagen Commercial

2012 in Reggae and Dancehall

In 2012 this annual roundup turned five-years old, but, more importantly, Jamaica turned 50. It perhaps wasn’t the year for brand new moves in Jamaican music, but rather time to freely rethink and review. Maybe that was the reason for so much throwback. Appreciation for Jamaican music has always required an interest in its foundations; relicking riddims and revisiting melodies is part and parcel of reggae and dancehall.

This year, however, the past was closer to the present. The 2010 images of Jamaica presented in Vanity Fair‘s November 2012 issue as present day reportage are easy to point to as misrepresentative of what’s actually going on right now in Kingston, but they also represent a time, but a couple short years ago, when dancehall seemed just a little more vibrant. There are still enough dances to keep Mutabaruka as annoyed in 2013 as he was in 2008, but the scene seems to have popped down a little. Heck, LargeUp even stated that 2012 was a year “where some might say soca surpassed dancehall as the Caribbean’s most vital music genre.”

I know many folks will point to Tommy Lee as an example of something new in the dance, but even though the man has earned celebrity status in JA, the Marilyn Manson makeup and demon image thing seem very 1999 (i.e. the year Manson’s The Dope Show entered the charts). Sure, “Shook” and “Psycho” are catchy tunes. But they hardly represent a new movement–I talked about the spooky strains of what I then called “cinematic dancehall” back in 2008, and Mr. Sparta doesn’t strick me as deviating too much from this model.

With Kartel still languishing in prison and Popcaan, though still cranking out tunes, not quite as hot as in 2011, it seems that there is some space for a non-dancehall type of newness (and niceness). Perhaps another example of everything old is new again, live roots reggae concerts have been occurring on the regular in Kingston. And bubbling throughout 2012 has been Chronixx, Kabaka Pyramid and a whole heap of young folk out there who seem interested in this live, organic sound of reggae–which is key in tapping into international markets for Jamaican music. After all, the Marley movie was released last year to darned-near universal rave reviews worldwide (including my own). It provided yet another reminder of the resonance of roots reggae.

Early in 2012, one of the sons of Bob, Damian Marley, spoke to students at the University of the West Indies. When asked what advice he’d give to upcoming artists, Marley didn’t mince words: “Make one drop reggae and sell it to Europeans.” Check the star students: Kabaka’s been to Europe and back already and Chronixx, hot off his successful Sting performance and mixtape produced by Major Lazer’s Walshy Fire, is set to take on Germany at the annual Reggae Jam festival this summer.

Perhaps it’s just that 2012 was so much about thinking through a whole 50 years of Jamaican music that it made concentrating on the contemporary difficult. After all, Beenie Man’s “Dweet Again” video (see above)–one of the best videos of the year–reaches back to the 90s. In mid-December, a casting call went out to any and all dancers familiar with the 90s for an upcoming Busy Signal video, so Beenie aint the only one interested in the past.

Speaking of Busy Signal, the deejay had quite the year. Arrested in July, imprisoned in the states, Busy was thankfully back in Jamaica in time to perform at Sting. Hopefully he’ll nah go a jail again in 2013. Buju is still jailed in Florida, but each week brings new news that might indicate good tidings for Mr. Myrie. In other prison news, Ninjaman was granted bail in March after three years. This does not bode well for Kartel. Ninja immediately began recording dubplates as well as a solid track with Kiprich, “The Don Gorgon is Back”. Alongside Ninjaman, Kippo won clashes with Merciless and Matterhorn at Sting. He wasn’t quite able to take down his partner in crime, but Ninjaman allowed him to take the title.

As for other musical moments that stood out in Jamaica this year, Quebec’s own Celine Dion kicked off 2012 with an appearance at the Jazz and Blues festival. She aint Jamaican, but she’s certainly dancehall. As I’ve written here in the past, the Rae Town Old Hits dance demonstrates that JA is in love with music that many foreign reggae aficionados might not expect. The complete, all-island freak out that met Celine is evidence of this. And, by the way, she was spectacular. Dropping knowledge of Jamaican food and chatting about the weather, she of the chest beating and multiple sparkly costumes dazzled the audience. Even Shaggy was impressed.

Seeing classic sounds like Bass Odyssey, Swatch, Stone Love and Rennaissance set up at the national stadium in February was a highlight of Reggae Month. Then, in April, after a year’s hiatus, Irish and Chin put on their World Clash event (they keep threatening to end it all, but it keeps coming back). Bass Odyssey took the title in a final showdown against Killamanjaro that ended far too quickly. Joshua Chamberlain and I wrote a piece for Cluster Mag about the seeming renewed interest in soundclash culture in Jamaica as well as foreign. Perhaps it’s part of the Jamaica 50 need to revisit the past, but as a clash fan, it can’t be anything but good news.

At Sumfest, Shabba Ranks returned, showing the yung’uns how it’s done. When introduced, legendary radio man Barry G suggested that there’s a problem that the most recent generation of artists and fans hadn’t yet experienced the showmanship of Rexton Gordon. Proving this statement true, Shabba ran through his deep selection of hits, showing up pretty much every other performer at the fest. I, for one, was pleased to see R Kelly, but his sloppy style and drunken swagger (“I’ve been chilling on the beach drinking”, he announced to the crowd) didn’t exactly win over the crowd at Catherine Hall.

Jamaicans celebrated their nation’s 50th birthday in August as well as the triumph of the Jamaica Olympic team at the London Olympics. The Shaggy-produced, more poppy-less-reggae “On A Mission” Jamaica 50 theme song was heard everywhere. The sheer ubiquity of the song made the controversy over its commissioning fade away. Usain Bolt reiterated his love for dancehall, bigging up Tommy Lee and making sure to indicate his admiration of World Boss Kartel before starting his gold-medal winning 200m.

In September, Sizzla, who hasn’t really been known for terrific live shows in recent years, stunned me (and many others) at a show celebrating Guinness Day. Performing hit after hit, he demonstrated that he can still mesmerize an audience. Everyone in the National Arena sang along to every word and it was hard not to feel sorry for Mavado. As the closing act, it was hard to top Sizzla–even with Mavado’s own catalogue of top tunes.

Rounding out the year and underlining the retrospective vibes of Jamaica 50, VP released Reggae Golden Jubilee – 50th Anniversary – Origins of Jamaican Music. A 100 song box set of key tunes as selected by one-time music producer and many-time parlimentarian the Honourable Edward Seaga. The former prime minister threw a big party to celebrate the launch of the package as well as celebrate the last 50 years of ska, reggae, dancehall and everything in between. In the middle of all this bigging up of all things Jamaican, David Rodigan quit the UK’s KISS fm at the end of November, citing “the marginalisation” of reggae at the station. To no one’s surprise, within the first weeks of 2013, it was announced that Rodigan would back on radio, hosting a show on BBC’s 1xtra.

By the end of the year, the industry had mourned a number of its own, losing deejays Ranking Trevor and Captain Barkey as well as producer Winston Riley and keyboardist/producer Lloyd Charmers.

And yes, 2012 was the year that Snoop Dogg converted to Rastafari, became a lion and recorded an album of roots reggae. Perhaps this is yet another example of throwback, and it’ll hopefully provide the payday that Vice Records most certainly expects.

So, after reading numerous rundowns and recollections (along with the last four versions of this here piece), I’ve been led to some conclusions:

1. Every year various commentators complain about the decline of reggae and dancehall.

2. Every year Jamaican commentators bemoan the spread of Jamaican-influenced music and not Jamaican performers/artists themselves. Sure, Matisyahu and Rebelution top the charts in the US, but that doesn’t mean there aint room for music straight from yard.

3. Every year there’s still damned good music (check anything Konshens released this year for details–and don’t forget that Beres is still cranking ‘em out) and Jamaica remains eternally interesting (Lady Saw turning away from slackness and towards the Lord?!?).

This year was no different. To another 50 years, Jamaica.

P.S. And, though my top tens have been posted here and here, I can say that my favourite riddim was one that didn’t seem to catch other critics. I love it. And one of my favourite moments of 2012 was hearing “Street Pledge” (big up Truckback Record’s Adrian Locke) on the fantastic system at Boasy Tuesdays. When we do road, we have fun.

Previous versions: 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011.

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Some recent writing on reggae…

Between a conference, a couple editing projects and a massive, ominous set of revisions, I’ve made some time to do a little writing. First, a review of a record chock full of one of my favourite genres of music–a genre I discovered while attempting to put together a “Women in Reggae” special for my old radio show, Venus. I first fell in love with “Caught You in a Lie” by Louisa Mark, but that, of course, is the tip of the iceberg. So happy to have written for Pitchfork again.

Joshua Chamberlain and I put together a little soundclash history for Clustermag to commemorate/celebrate this weekend’s World Clash events. Tonight we’ll be in Montego Bay for World Clash R.E.S.E.T. Jamaica–watch out for the tweets.

The Trip Wire

A couple of weeks or so ago I spoke with Professor Obika Gray, author of Demeaned but Empowered (a history of the role of the urban poor in Jamaican politics) for a newspaper interview. Although the news cycle moved on and it therefore didn’t make its way to press, the interview was and still is an interesting perspective from an insightful and important researcher.

Dudus: Trip Wire for the Jamaican Crisis

Christopher “Dudus” Coke, the man wanted by the United States for drug trafficking, whose attempted extradition from Jamaica has cost the country 73 lives, at present count, is “irrelevant”, or so says Jamaican scholar Obika Gray.

The professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin and author of multiple books about the Jamaican political system, suggests that Coke is simply a catalyst: “He is the trip wire…If he is extradited or if he’s killed it doesn’t matter in the larger scheme. He’s only the occasion for the exposing of this massive crisis in the country.”

What’s actually important is that the present situation in Jamaica has exposed what Gray calls a “bizarre system”. Since 1944, Jamaica has had elections every five years – there’s been no coup, no one party rule, no dictator. “To the outside world it looks like Jamaica is a model democracy,” says Gray, but there’s no real democracy for the urban poor.

From the first elections in Jamaica, there were “street battles between the political parties”. But in the 1950s and 1960s, Kingston became the largest and most important city in Jamaica, and controlling the capital meant controlling the country.

Gray explains: “What the political parties did was they recruited the youth gangs on either side and brought them into the political process as defenders of the political constituencies on both sides. Eventually they began arming these youth gangs on both sides and they [became] entrenched as political gangs rather than just gangs fighting for turf and territory on their own.”

Two parties, the People’s National Party (PNP) and the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP) dominate urban neighbourhoods. One of these is that of Tivoli Gardens, site of much of the recent unrest. “It’s a colony of the JLP,” describes Gray, who makes it clear that there are “similar neighbourhoods that belong to the PNP in urban Jamaica as well, and the same thing occurs there.”

But this isn’t just about power. It’s also very much about culture and what it means to be Jamaican. The country, explains Gray, “was colonized in such a way that the society oriented itself culturally as European. This was especially so for the political elite, the middle class and the business elite, and they set the tone for the consciousness and cultural outlook for the country.”

This created a clash. The elite were predominantly white or light skinned, and the black, urban poor, were, according to Gray, “seen as a group of people who were holding the country back because they were illiterate, undisciplined and didn’t subscribe to the moral codes of the dominant elite. What the political parties did was carve up districts and organize them for their own political designs.” However, within these areas, these so-called garrisons, Jamaican culture developed.

To Gray these communities are “disrespected because they are black, disadvantaged, won’t sign on to the moral values of the middle class and the political elite in the country.” But, he continues, “they’re empowered, because they’re so irrepressible and so defiant. They have been able to fight back in their own way. Everyone knows Bob Marley came from this neighbourhood and developed this independent creativity which put Jamaica on the map. Nobody knows who the Prime Minister of Jamaica is but they all know who Bob Marley is.”

And this need to be independent from a political system that doesn’t provide for the people has had clear repercussions: “From the 60s right down to the present what has happened is that the more defiant elements among the poor have developed their own forms of income, the drug trade, and they gain an opportunity to become financially independent and no longer to depend on the handouts that the politicians were giving them. The politicians no longer control the gangs. The gangs have gone off into international ventures, [enabling] them to get guns, and carve out bases of power in these same neighbourhood.”

So as early as the 1980s, “politicians no longer dictated the tune but had to follow and pay some respect to the dons or the leaders who now had access to capital and wealth because of the drug trade.”

And this brings Jamaica to the present situation. People admire Coke, because, as Gray says, “These dons become people to whom these communities look for providing all kinds of welfare that would typically come from the government. They are now the people who are regarded as the effective political authority.”

So how might Jamaica wrestle itself out of this crisis, a crisis triggered by Mr. Coke?

“Are we going to continue to have these fiefdoms controlled by drug dealers and by criminals who are affiliated with the political parties?” asks Gray. “Will the political parties rid themselves of these criminals and open up these communities so that they can freely exercise their vote and live like the rest of the country?…The people who come out to demonstrate on masse for [Coke] are victims of the system. In their own way they understand that the system is not giving them anything and so they look to this drug dealer. So any Jamaican government that emerges in the aftermath of this crisis will have the enormous challenge of breaking down all garrisons.”

The politicians are caught in a contradiction. “The system that they created is now wrecking havoc on their careers and on the country at large,” Gray concludes, “We’re going to have to find someone in either of the political parties who is large enough, visionary enough and enlightened enough to see the strategic need to end this horrible situation that has existed since the 40s and 50s. I keep thinking to myself where is the Nelson Mandela of the Jamaican polticians? And we don’t see any.”

Rereading Obika Gray

It’s difficult to discuss the potential end of soundclash, as it’s deeply upsetting that clashes of a very different sort are occurring in Kingston, Jamaica.

I picked up my copy of Obika Gray’s book, Demeaned but Empowered: The Social Power of the Urban Poor in Jamaica, published in 2004, and read through chapter one, which ends as follows. Stuck in a whirlwind of information from multiple newspapers, magazines, tweets, updates, television reports, bbms and blogs (some quite eloquent in their descriptions), a strange solace is found in context:

The predicament of the predatory Jamaican state is that the measures that secure its dominance and sustain the cohesion of society–clientelist party rule, punitive violence and elite unity–become the very sources that threaten the erosion of its power. As the parasitic state and its agents move into the shadow economy, violate democratic practices with impunity, protect fearsome gunmen, and foment a crucifying political violence in which the poor became cannon-fodder and the well-to-do fear for their safety, a legitimation crisis ensues and the hold on power by state agents becomes increasingly tenuous.

Recurrent attempts to surmount this dilemma, however, seem only to compound the problem. Repeat announcements of harsh crime eradication programmes appear ineffective as the provoke party factionalism, distress civil libertarians and alienate the poor, whose neighbourhoods are targeted in the fight against crime and political violence.

Similarly, official denials of state involvement in political violence, political leaders’ ties to gunmen, and the parties’ repeated signing of peace accords, merely earn politicians the cynicism of the poor and the unease of middle-class and corporate backers of the state. In both instances, the generic strategy of combining both “order” and “disorder” entangle the state in myriad predicaments. It is hardly worth mentioning that this loss of authority requires measures to arrest it. However, efforts to stem the state’s weakening hold over economic processes and social relations are themselves sources of hegemonic decline.

The perception of growing disorder and enravelling of social relations have thus far provoked the state into devising even bolder strategies involving risky and controversial policing. But as these measures founder and become what observers cynically call “nine-day wonders”, the seem only to invite scorn for the political leadership and to further the disgust with a foundering state that cannot maintain order, achieve legitimacy or solve economic problems has not provoked a ruptural break with predatory rule. Disillusionment has led neither to calls for military intervention nor to any support for a popular uprising and seizure of the state.

This impotence of civil society and the state’s inability to unravel the tangle of social contradictions is a fitting expression of the social crisis and of the identity of power in Jamaica. On the one hand, the crisis–manifesting itself in the double handicap above–clearly shows the checkmated relations between state and society. On the other hand, however, the crisis fittingly attests to the consequences of the distinctive play of power in Jamaica. That is, the Jamaica ordeal seems to confirm what I have argued here–namely the durability of state predation and its capacity to nullify and disarm its many detractors.

Though Gray ended his book with a discussion of 2001′s assault on Tivoli, resulting in the deaths of twenty-five people, he still had faith that relations of power could be reinvented in Jamaica, specifically in Kingston. I hope he still has this faith, for I wish to share it.

It’s Over

Dang. I was really enjoying my love for Drake, but, ironically, his
“Find Your Love” video is so profoundly lost, that it’s tough to keep
the feeling going. The song, sure, is ok, but the video, directed by
Anthony Mandler, is a tired rehash of the same old Jamaican
stereotypes: big bottomed gyal, moody gun man, wise Rastafari, and
ghetto children.

The fact that this video was released the day after Voicemail’s O’neil
was shot outside his own home
, and a peace vigil held in Half Way
Tree
, is at best ill-timed and at worst insensitive. And yes, I am aware of the difference between acting and reality, yet what I am talking about
here is what the video–a video made for a foreign artist,
made by a foreign director–communicates. Namely that guns, darkness and drama sells and Jamaica, with its fair share of gun problems, dark alleys and political drama, is nothing more than an advertising gimmick for Drake (did the Jamaica Tourist Board approve this video?).

The video opens with Drake receiving wise advice from an older man
with dreads. We have no idea why Drake’s in JA, save for the fact that
we get to see him in tough neighbourhoods hanging out at hot parties.
Mavado’s role is none other than that of gangster, peeking out
ominously behind his braids, drawing his all-male crew together to
ambush Drake and eventually have our Canuck hero shot, but, and this
is the key–Mavado’s character doesn’t do the deed, but instead, his
svengali ways make sure that the Gully God’s hands remain clean. He
gets his woman to do it. Mavado doesn’t just want his woman to do
house cleaning…badman nah shoot Canadian rap hero either.

Beyond the blatant glamorization of guns and gangsters, perhaps more
importantly, the role of the woman in the video is such an incredible
comment on the role of women in reality. Mavado’s character wields enough power such that he can demand that she kill Drake. She’ll do it, because she’s told to do so. Reminds me of how back in Baz Dreisinger’s “Reggae’s Civil War” piece for the Village Voice, she spoke of a discussion she had with one of Vybz Kartel’s female proteges:

I am beckoned inside, where a man who introduces himself as Not Nice
is seated at the mixing board, with a slim young woman in a ponytail
who looks no older than 20 in the recording booth. She would, she
explains, soon be the newest Gaza sensation, but “Di Teacha hasn’t
decided what my name will be as yet. Di Teacha will sort it out. Di
Teacha knows best.”

The Drake video is an extension of the reality of which Dreisinger
writes. In dancehall, there have always been a number of strong female
performers who can out-chat or out dance the boys, but the men always end up on top. There’s no speaking part for the female in Drake’s video, and it would seem that she appears for no other reason then to show her as a sexual object for Drake and as a useful tool for Mavado’s character. Who is she really into? Who cares? Well, according to comments I have seen, there is great appreciation for the girl’s behind.

O’neil was shot 5 times at his gate the day before yesterday. Following the shooting, Mavado’s management went public with another peace initiative. They are, according to @Alliancejamaica‘s twitter, starting a peace movement alongside the JA government: “we neva intended 2 go public wit it but we gota take this all the way now…i went to Jamaica House last week to discuss plans for Mavado to spearhead a Peace movement, hes ready the Alliance ready to make the change…this is a time for serious reflection. we all need 2 do what we can 2 stop this cycle of violence. entertainers r powerful ppl, lets use it”.

It does take power to start an effective peace movement. And it takes power to be included in a video with a hip hop mega star. And it will most certainly take a lot of power for the world to see more in Jamaica than the polar opposites of beaches and babes or ghettos and guns. According to twitter, Mavado himself is taking a lot of heat. But it’s Drake’s video. I do, however recognize Mavado, Drake and Anthony Mandler are entertainers, not social workers. Yet I believe there’s more to Mavado than what appears in this video. And I know for a fact that there’s much more to Jamaica as well.