cartoons by Las May, The Gleaner
In India the self-appointed defenders of Indian culture wanted to ban Valentine’s Day celebrations and force all couples found displaying affection in public or dating on Valentine’s Day to wed on the spot; in Jamaica the Broadcasting Commission (BC) has imposed a blanket ban on ‘daggering’ songs from the airwaves, even in edited form. It defines ‘Daggering’ as “a colloquial term or phrase used in dancehall culture as a reference to hardcore sex or what is popularly referred to as ‘dry’ sex, or the activities of persons engaged in the public simulation of various sexual acts and positions.” It should be noted that this definition has been contested by some people as inaccurate.
The BC then issued the following directive to licencees:
1. There shall not be transmitted through radio or television or cable services, any recording, live song or music video which promotes the act of ‘daggering’, or which makes reference to, or is otherwise suggestive of ‘daggering’.
2. There shall not be transmitted through radio or television or cable services, any audio recording, song or music video which employs editing techniques of ‘bleeping’ or ‘beeping’ of its original lyrical content.
3. Programme managers and station owners or operators are hereby required to take immediate steps to prevent transmission of any recorded material relating to ‘daggering’ or which fall into the category of edited musical content using techniques of ‘bleeping’ or ‘beeping’.
It’s such a pity that elections aren’t impending because you would have been sure to find various politicians daggering all over their campaign platforms, delivering themselves of stirring speeches in rock chaw Patwa and otherwise wallowing in the vernacular culture that is now deemed too profane for the airwaves.
For the last ten years I’ve been studying and writing about the culture wars played out in the Jamaican public sphere. The following is a quote from Dancehall in Jamaica: ‘Keeping It Jiggy’ in Babylon, a paper I presented at a symposium on censorship in the arts at the Edna Manley College of Art some years ago. The paper was inspired by an article called Jonkonnu in Jamaica published many years ago by Sylvia Wynter in Jamaica Journal:
‘Plantation’ ideology, the official ideology, “would give rise to the superstructure of civilization in the Caribbean while ‘provision ground’ ideology would produce the ‘roots of culture’. The former was predicated as European and the latter as African. With such a worldview it wasn’t surprising that the suppression of African-based ‘slave culture’ was widespread throughout the Caribbean; Errol Hill describes how even those well-disposed towards the slaves had no hesitation in calling for the banning of the more ‘African’ influenced dances and masquerades:
“Ironically as we have seen, among those who worked hardest for slave liberation were people prominent in demanding the suppression of so-called slave culture. Reasons given for suppressing the Christmastime masquerades in Jamaica in 1842 were that they obstructed the progress of civilization and were derogatory to the dignity of freemen. At the other end of the Caribbean, similar attitudes prevailed regarding the Trinidad Carnival. Once it was taken over and transformed by the black freedmen, the leading newspaper castigated the festival throughout the nineteenth century in the severest terms and urged its abolition. Rioting ensued. In 1838 the masquerade was called “a wretched buffoonery [tending] to brutalize the faculty of the lower order of our population.” In 1846 the carnival was “an orgy indulged in by the dissolute of the town”; in 1857 it was “an annual abomination”; in 1863, “a licensed exhibition of wild excesses”; in 1874, “a diabolical festival”; and in 1884, “a fruitful source of demoralization throughout the whole country.” These attacks served only to alienate the revelers and to stiffen their resistance to any form of control. The results, unsurprisingly, were more riots and a widening gulf between government and the people.”
Similarly Wynter refers to the quotation by F.G. Cassidy of a 1951 letter to the editor of the Gleaner which objected to the revival of Jonkonnu “because the dances were ‘demoralizing and vulgar’.The police had managed to succeed in suppressing it in his district, ‘and many people were taken to court for it’.”
Policing Popular Culture
Ironically the policing of popular culture has been such a normal part of the Jamaican scene for centuries that it was even a trope in Jonkonnu. Wynter talks of the dance of the Whore Girl and the Wild Indian.
“But there was another dance in 1951—one performed by a Sailor and a Whore Girl “who dance(d) vulgar all the time” [Wynter’s italics]. This was the same one danced in the Jonkonnu Parade at Portland as late as 1969—and termed by the citizens who watched it with shocked delight: “a real dirty dance”. Apart from the Whore Girl, there was another character called the Wild Indian. In this dance, both these principals are men, but Whore Girl is dressed as a woman. He/she lifts his/her dress, holding it at both sides to show the underwear, bends back with knees open and bent before, and does a dance which is an exaggerated form of the hipsway and pelvic roll. The Wild Indian straddles his/her hip, and lifting one leg and changing the other, does a backward-and-forward movement of the pelvis, known in Portland as ‘the forward jam’. “
Their openly sexual dance is curtailed by a Policeman who arrests them both pending their being bailed out by the crowd who pay pennies to set them free. Then the dance which Wynter claims parodies obscenity and celebrates the life force continues. “And without its framework of meaning it repels the more Christian element who see it only as one more example of the ‘sexual license’ and immoral lack of restraint of the lower classes.”
Unfortunately one has no choice but to see the latest action of the BC as an updated version of the centuries old attempt first by the slave masters, then the colonial missionaries, and now the middle and upper class elites who occupy the highest rungs of society in postcolonial Jamaica, to censor and legislate the morality of ‘the lower classes’ on the grounds that their behaviour and musical products are a threat to the moral well-being of wider society.
One is forced to take this view for various reasons. The Broadcasting Commission of Jamaica went on the rampage after Esther Tyson, the Principal of a local high school wrote a column expressing outrage over the popularity of a song called ‘Ramping Shop’ featuring popular DJs Vybz Kartel and Spice. Depicting the song as ‘musical poison’ the Principal went on to lament the effect such ‘filth’ would have on young minds. Contradicting her own worry she went on to quote several children at her school who were all critical of the song and showed that they were capable of digesting and analyzing the lyrics without becoming desensitized sex maniacs. Perhaps she didn’t notice how this contradiction weakened her own argument.
Neither did the Broadcasting Commission. Ms. Tyson’s letter appeared on February 1 and acting with what one might legitimately call indecent haste, the BC issued its draconian ban on daggering exactly two weeks ago on Feb. 6, less than a week after the Tyson letter had appeared. Ironically February 6 is celebrated here and elsewhere as Bob Marley’s birthday. Also as a visitor from Germany who is an avid consumer of dancehall noted, it was interesting that this devastating stab to the heart of the music industry occurred during the recently instituted Reggae month, something he and his wife, well-known music journalists had come to Jamaica to cover.
The reason one is forced to conclude that a certain bias guided the censorious actions of the BC is that Esther Tyson subsequently pointed out that she had previously written a similar column expressing concern over carnival and its attendant vulgarities. In yesterday’s Observer Michael Burke also wrote a column titled Slackness and Hypocrisy lamenting the fact tht the BC had paid scant attention to his earlier columns demanding censorship of vulgar carnival dances and lyrics.
As Trinidad and Tobago stands poised on the brink of its annual cleansing carnival rituals (Feb 22-24), a wonderfully licentious national celebration that purges and purifies the atmosphere there, its worth noting that in Jamaica carnival remains a middle and upper class indulgence. Although the BC subsequently came out and said that carnival songs and dances are included in its ban, the language it couched its ban in was clearly exclusively directed at dancehall music, which is primarily consumed by the underclasses here.
The tragedy of all this is that the freewheeling creativity and exuberance of the dancehall which for the last twenty or more years has built up an international demand for its products without benefit of state subsidy or intervention is about to be curtailed and put in shackles by people who neither understand nor appreciate its iconic stature in world culture. On the contrary the state has been completely indifferent to the pleas of numerous DJs, promoters and other players in the music industry who have been asking for years that specific regulations and structure be designed for musical production and consumption here. The letter of the day in the Gleaner (Feb 19. 2009) titled “Dangers of dictating tastes for others” outlined ways in which the consumption of cable telelvision can and should be regulated. There is no reason why dancehall music which is primarily for adults should not be regulated in the same way.
Despite the stellar international success of Jamaican music there are no purpose-built venues for its consumption and dissemination locally although there is a National Gallery of Art, the Little Theatre for the National Pantomime and other such facilities for the cultural products of the middle classes. The nation’s universities have no courses in entertainment law and management; its banks have no loan products to facilitate music producers or aspiring singers and DJs yet we can’t wait to drive a dagger through the heart of the goose that has laid so many golden eggs for Jamaica.
There are other glaring inconsistencies in the BC’s recent actions. As others have pointed out, despite international outrage the BC has never issued a ban on lyrics threatening violence to homosexuals, or so-called ‘hate’ music in general although this could be argued to be more morally deletrious to the nation. There is also the entrenched system of payola plaguing the dissemination of music on radio which is the bane of music production here. What action has the BC taken to clean up this kind of corruption in the industry? does it interpret its mandate solely to be that of a watchdog against moral corruption?
As Sylvia Wynter pointed out in her article forty or so years ago the careless, cavalier interventions of Christian groups eventually drove Jonkonnu underground and led to its extinction. Today the custodians of culture in Jamaica lament its demise and try in vain to resurrect what is acknowledged to be the ‘folk culture’ of Jamaica. Dancehall music is today’s–contemporary–folk culture, and will be celebrated as Jamaican folk culture in the future (if its goose isn’t cooked by then), something today’s elites are loath to acknowledge.
The moral brigade and the state could do worse than to pay serious attention to the words of Vybz Kartel who responded to the attack on the Ramping Shop with the following words:
Ms Tyson, the “devastating impact on the psyche of Jamaican children” is not caused by ‘daggerin’ songs but rather by socio-economic conditions which leave children without free education, single-parent homes, (or shacks), the lack of social infrastructure in ghetto communities, unemployed and disenfranchised young men with no basic skills who are caught up in the ‘gun culture’ cultivated by our politicians in the 1960s-’70s, all faults of the governments (PNP and JLP).
Until these underlying systemic obscenities are rapidly dealt with such actions as the BC undertook in Reggae month must be viewed as purely cosmetic and marred by class bias. The daggering debate in Jamaica proves that censorship can and often is a double-edged sword.
Rebuke them! rebuke them!
you have to watch this wonderful Elephant Man spoof of the Moral Re-armament crew–
and for the latest in contemporary soca, this is one of the hottest songs/videos in Trinidad this carnival! Machel Montano’s Wild Antz–get bitten!
PS: The University of the West Indies now offers courses in entertainment law and artiste management under the aegis of the Reggae Studies Institute. This a relatively recent development. As soon as i have the exact course titles i will post them here.
Also since posting this yesterday the Broadcast Commision has come out with a second ban which covers transmission of carnival songs as well. The original ban issued two weeks ago only targeted dancehall music. In another development the rivals Vybz Kartel and Mavado have both come out with songs protesting the action of the BC. As Clordene Lloyd notes:
With the release of three new songs, A So Yuh Move by Mavado (Big Ship Productions), Dem Nuh Like We (Big Ship Productions) and A Nuh My Music (Fresh Ear Productions) by Kartel, the deejays are protesting the ban by the Broadcasting Commission on all daggering songs and songs that require bleeping.
 Errol Hill, The Jamaican Stage 1655-1900: Profile of a Colonial Theatre, Amherst:University of Massachusetts Press, 1992, p. 279.