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Jamaica music lyrics — trigger of violence?

The debate has intensified since lethal police raids in a slum that is the home turf of an alleged drugs and arms trafficker whose violent lifestyle is glorified in lyrics of a music called dancehall.

June 13, 2010|By Chris Kraul, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Kingston, Jamaica — Ova di wall, Ova di wall

Put yuh AK ova di wall…

Blood a go run

Like Dunns River Fall.

Blood flowing like waterfalls. Brains floating like feathers out of a torn pillow. Women submitting to the whims of neighborhood "dons."

The images are typical of dancehall, a popular Jamaican music style that has sparked a furious debate over whether it merely reflects an increasingly violent society or somehow contributes to the mayhem.

Some of dancehall's most popular performers, including Elephant Man, who wrote "Ova di Wall," use hyperviolent lyrics that chronicle the exploits of "badmanism," the cult of gun-toting gangs. Some are also criticized as misogynistic and anti-gay.

The national debate has intensified in the aftermath of lethal police raids last month in the Tivoli Gardens slum that is the home turf of Christopher "Dudus" Coke, the alleged drugs and arms trafficker whose violent lifestyle is glorified in dancehall lyrics.

Community leader Henley Morgan, a pastor who runs a social outreach program in the lower-class Trenchtown district where reggae legend Bob Marley grew up, worries that the extreme songs of dancehall, a successor to ska, rocksteady and reggae, could be "dictating the culture."

"This is music that is coming out of what we call garrisons, or ghettos that have been politicized. Violent dancehall has a lot of profanity, glorifies guns and degrades women," Morgan said. "Not all dancehall promotes violence, but it's the songs with raunchy lyrics that get played."

Youths interviewed recently seemed torn between their enjoyment of a genre that is perfect "jumping up," or dance, music and their aversion to the lyrics' often explicit messages.

"These are things the Jamaican middle class doesn't want to hear, but they happen in our society," said Adrian Demetrius, a 20-year-old telemarketer who was interviewed one Saturday night amid the din of a popular dance club here called Quad. "Dancehall is just bringing it to the mainstream."

As the music's influence has grown, Jamaica's Broadcasting Commission has tried to impose rules on radio stations to limit explicit language. But dancehall's enormous popularity has frustrated those efforts fueled competition among the island's radio stations to play the most outrageous tunes, said Donna Hope, a Jamaican music expert and professor at the University of the West Indies.

Hope said the music is a reflection of inner city reality and a product of "the social environment from which it has emerged."

"It's the old chicken-and-egg question that doesn't have a clear answer," said Hope, who has written several books on Jamaica's musical heritage. "I don't believe the simplistic analysis that music is responsible for social violence. If we have a huge bloody set of incidents, you can be sure they will be documented in music, just as, I assure you, the Tivoli Gardens operation soon will be."

Many performers write songs that glorify gang dons like Coke in exchange for patronage and local gigs, music journalist and lecturer Dennis Howard wrote in a recent issue of Jamaica Journal magazine. But the relationships are highly competitive and can turn deadly. Two Kingston performers, Oneil Edwards and Mad Cobra, were shot in early May under mysterious circumstances; Edwards died.

"Enough is enough," Barbados Education Minister Ronald Jones said to local reporters in March after authorities denied Jamaican artists Vybz Kartel and Mavado permission to perform. Jones insisted that there was a link between dancehall music and increasingly aggressive behavior exhibited by young people in Barbados.

Don McDowell, a 40-year veteran of the music business as a Kingston studio owner and music producer, agrees with that viewpoint.

"Jamaica's popular music needs a cleansing, a move away from the promotion of drug use, explicit sexual content and violence," said McDowell, who is now also a Christian preacher. "Dancehall is not the root cause of violence and declining moral standards, but it is a contributor."

Even some dancehall practitioners think that some songs' suggestive violence may have gotten out of hand. Performer Michael Davey, whose stage name is Powerman Stone, said in an interview outside the popular Mix Up Studios:

"If you take a man to the top of the building and you say 'jump,' he won't do it. But if he hears it in a piece of music, it somehow fascinates him."

Kraul is a special correspondent.

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