"Can you honestly imagine Aretha Franklin singing in her bra and panties ... No! Yet that is what most of today's stars do in order to become more outrageous and attract more media attention, said [David] Rodigan.
A disturbing image, to be sure, but one which the veteran selector feels is a propos to the point. And who can blame him, given the current state and reputation of Jamaican popular music in international circles. Dubstep, garage, dub, hip hop, all largely the spawn of the Jamaican sound system movement - which ironically, has never been given its proper due here - are outpacing dancehall, and in particular the recent (last five or so years) offerings of Jamaican deejays/toasters. Roots reggae, while not having any stratospheric new releases to speak of, continues to hold its own in the general market sense and is becoming an even more vital and viable catalog medium as more of the stalwarts (Gregory Isaacs, Culture) pass on.
While these giants have been lovingly (if sometimes belatedly) praised in the local media, their messages are largely falling on deaf ears with respect to today's Jamaican youth, the primary consumers (not buyers, consumers) of music the overarching need for quick returns rather than genuine articulation of feeling has reduced much of the output of the dancehall deejays to the aural equivalent of fast food - one vacuous slang and dance command succeeding the other in a dull procession. 'A Yahso Nice" - or, this is the "hot spot" is merely the latest, itself soon to be usurped by something else.
I mention that slang song title specifically because Dancehall's defenders usually zero in on the use of the vernacular, and its perception as a cultural birthright, long suppressed, being asserted. That may be true, but for many - in Jamaica and abroad - the cultural birthright encompasses civility and intelligent - if passionate, sometimes even heated - discourse. Those values, by and large, are not being reflected in the offerings of today's deejays.
While major music charts (Billboard et al) no longer represent the "be-all, end-all" validation that they did when the recording industry was tightly gripped by a few labels working a few established media channels, the protracted absence of dancehall artistes from the Reggae Albums charts, as well as many national territory charts is not merely a matter of "politics" or classification. it is a powerful bellwether of the appetite - or lack thereof - for contemporary Jamaican music on the part of global audiences.
The short-sightedness is playing out in another critical area, with steadily declining demand for today's Jamaican acts overseas, coupled with increased restrictions and pressure from regulatory agencies (Visa Immigrations, Gov't ministries, etc) sharply curbing the access and official welcome afforded to those acts.
As the following excerpt from a recent Jamaica Observer article shows, even veteran overseas promoters of Jamaican music, like NYC-based Peter Schwartz, have found it necessary, from a business standpoint, to put some amount of daylight between their business and Jamaican artistes.
"Schwarz pointed out that he has not closed the door on reggae entirely, but said several factors forced him to stop booking some artistes.
"I still do represent a handful of them and I still love the music and genre, but unfortunately, many of the artistes I represented in reggae have come into issues that have prevented me from continuing to build their touring careers," Schwartz explained. "Many have lost their US visas or work permits and without those, I obviously cannot book them here," he added. "Some have unfortunate legal issues and in the case of Gregory Isaacs, one of my hardest working reggae artistes, he sadly passed away."
Schwartz did not name the delinquent acts. He said he will focus on the hip-hop acts at The Agency which include Big Boi, Method Man and Redman.
Its important to note here that the above-quoted hip-hop artistes that Mr Scwartz will be focussing on are no paragons of virtue. They have many of the same proclivities towards sexual promiscuity and hard-living that many of our Jamaican artistes do; they often rap about them, and some of that same behaviour has landed them on the wrong side of the law, from time to time.
The critical difference here is that these artistes still honour promotional (interview, appearance, etc) and performance obligations MOST of the time instead of on an ad hoc basis like many of their Jamaican counterparts. This creates credibility, which down the line, creates more business. An added plus - those artistes, and others in the hip-hop world, have figured out how to weave in some amount of valid social commentary into the quilt of "pimpin and bottle-poppin" whereas the majority of Jamaican artistes have either ignored weightier matters altogether, or breeze by them in the most superficial ways.
They're being aided and abetted, unfortunately, by much of corporate Jamaica, itself suffering from a kind of fast-food delusion that mass buy-in is the only worthwhile goal. No one is denying that mass consumption drives profits, but for the beverage, telecoms and other companies that continually sponsor events with these artistes, and hire them as pitchmen, there's at least a mild sense of conspiracy here - as in " let's keep them (the public) focussed on this narrow band of expression, as long it means they keep endorsing our products."
In that shuffle, diversity and individuality in musical taste is lost. I had the occasion to talk to a group of high schoolers, members of the school band, no less about their listening habits, and three out of six declared a preference for dancehall "exclusively". Only one of the six expressed an interest in a wide variety of music forms. This does not augur well for the future of our music, live or recorded. One hopes that the forthcoming new local music reality show ( I'll address those in detail in a future article) may have a positive impact, but from this vantage point, I'm not optimistic.
Ultimately, it might be better - if only for the shock value - for our youngsters to see the likes of an Aretha Franklin belting one out in only her undies....Rihanna-style. Better still though, would be for our Jamaican artistes to begin modelling themselves a little more on the musical greats - not to slavishly copy, but to build on what has been established and for which the world is still hungry for.
Photo Credit To United Reggae