Escaping Roots or Extending Consciousness

Last night at Liberty Hall in downtown Kingston there was a panel discussion entitled “Escaping Roots of Extending Consciousness”. The panelists were Terry Lynn, a Jamaican artist who has found inspiration in European electronic music, as well as Alborosie and Gentleman, European artists who have found inspiration in Jamaican music. Carolyn Cooper moderated the discussion, which had been organized by the folks behind the upcoming documentary Journey to Jah (it’s a film about the aforementioned Europeans and their connection to Jamaica).

The conversation was pretty interesting, with all three artists describing how they got their respective starts in music and how they feel that they’ve found their right outlet/niche. Terry Lynn spoke eloquently about the struggle for women in reggae and dancehall–she acknowledged a desire to talk about sex and relationships, but questioned why that has to be the main focus of a woman’s lyrics. After all, she said, women head up the first institutions of the world–families–so women have a fair bit of insight on everything from finance to fairness.

Alborosie detailed his commitment to Rastafari and illustrated this by shaking his below-waist-long dreadlocks, critiquing those who have “pretty locks” rather than natural natty dreads. Michael Barnett, professor at UWI and editor of the recent Rastafari in the New Millennium anthology, asked Alborosie how he deals with the fact that Jamaica, which acts as a source of inspiration for so many international Rastafari, is viewed as Babylon by Jamaican Rastas.  Alborosie responded by saying that Zion is a moveable site–that Zion exists differently. Having spent some time chatting with Rastafari in Ethiopia, there might be some folks that would disagree with him, but the idea of a moveable Zion reminded me of Emily Raboteau’s story “Searching for Zion” (soon to become a book), where she provides an evocative description of a trip to Israel and search for Zion. For the characters in her story, Zion becomes as much of a place as a search for something or somewhere better, an inbetween, a desire for change.

For Alborosie, Jamaica is his Zion, soundtrack by roots rock reggae. Alborosie clearly presented a frustration with dancehall and wondered aloud why there had been a decline in reggae music production when internationally it is the most popular Jamaican music. Gentleman, however, professed a love for dancehall as well as reggae and argued that all genres are still played in the dance. One question that was not dealt with is why more dancehall artists and producers aren’t working with international electronic artists like Schlacthofbronx and, of course, Major Lazer. Terry Lynn has found success in this market… This might require a little more tweaking of dancehall to fit the electronic mold than reggae requires in the international market, but it might be worth it.

At the end of the night, there were a number of questions from the audience, many of which dealt with the desire for more positive reggae vibes. One commenter stood up and spoke to the decline of reggae music, referencing the degeneration of lyrics in the 1980s, suggesting that the music was negative, violent and problematic. Terry Lynn challenged both the commenter and the audience to think about the environment from which these lyrics stemmed. She asked people to recall the history, the rise of the garrisons, and the reality of gun violence. Were there guns and violence because people were singing about them? What is the source of the problem? It’s always tricky to suggest a causal relationship between lyrics (or music or art in general) and social problems.  Instead, she asked, think of the source of the problem and think of how the lyrics present that problem to an audience.

And with that, Carolyn Cooper asked some of the local artists in the crowd to perform. They showcased some positive vibes and impressed the panel. Anyone who was still worried about the state of the Jamaican music industry could take a deep breath and relax.