© 2017 by AMY HILL

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And when I play them, every chord is a poem

February 5, 2018

 

 

 

The day before I departed for Jamaica, the BBC and other major media corporations ran a headline about the “state of emergency” which had been declared in Montego Bay, the city that I was flying into. I heard this news minutes before getting on the train to London to begin my travels, and so I was naturally a bit nervous. My first thought was to contact the R&A scholarship coordinator: as part of the scholarship programme I have to fulfil certain safety criteria, which usually means following the advice on the UKGov website. Fortunately, the website does not rule out travel to the area, but gives several recommendations concerning how to conduct yourself upon arrival. I spoke with friends already in Jamaica, who assured me that it was safe for me to go and, with the support of the scholarship coordinator, I got on the plane.

 

The headlines that dominated the media before my departure made it seem as if there had bene a sudden surge in crime which led to an emergency military lock-down. In reality, the government has been gathering the momentum to do this for a long time. This operation has been planned for months as part of a nation-wide crack-down on gang violence. In the UK, these headlines constituted the largest piece of news about Jamaica that has been in our media in the past year, and afterwards there was almost no follow-up about the situation. As a result, we received one very shocking headline with very little detail, encouraging tourists to “stay in their hotels” as opposed to interacting with any local aspects of the country. The kind of attitude that this promotes is one of fear between tourists and locals, which ultimately only serves into the hands of the large hotels on the north of the island (which are very rarely owned by Jamaican organisations). Some locals that I spoke with even indicated that the media coverage of the situation was fuelled by these hotel conglomerates, who will financially benefit when tourists choose to stay in their complex for the entirety of their time in Jamaica. That is not to say that tourists should not take the lockdown seriously, or that violence is not a significant problem in Jamaica. It is simply to say that a more rounded understanding of the country and its political dynamic is needed before snap-shot judgements are made based on these headlines.

 

I’ve now been in Jamaica for two weeks, and I’ve never felt in unreasonable danger since I arrived. Of course, this is not a place to take risks: crime levels are high and it is hugely important to follow local advice and look after yourself.  I spent most of my time in Kingston, which is historically viewed as the most dangerous area in the country; however, the vast majority of the violence is gang-related and is very unlikely to be directed at tourists. Of course there are parts of the city to be avoided, and common-sense applies to things like walking around alone, or at night, or keeping lots of money and valuables on your person. But this does not mean that it's impossible or even uncomfortable to travel here, and there are a wealth of experiences to be had which will be missed by those who remain within the confines of the hotel complexes around Montego Bay. 

 

One of Jamaica’s most famous attractions is, of course, its music. When people think of Jamaica, they think of reggae, of Bob Marley, of dreadlocks, of marijuana and a number of other aspects that might be broadly associated with ‘Rastafarianism’. Suprisingly, although these things are very difficult to measure, in the 2011 Jamaican census only 29,026 Jamaicans identified themselves as Rastafari, which amounts to around 0.01% of the population. Nonetheless, although the numbers of practicing Rastafarians might be low, the reach and influence of this religion is extremely broad. Many individuals who might not be devout Rastafari take on parts of its philosophy and culture, and, of course, Rastafarians do not carry full ownership of Reggae music. And yet, since my arrival I’ve actually heard far less Reggae being played out around the streets of Kingston than I expected. There is still music being played absolutely everywhere - the smallest fruit shack on the side of the road will probably own a huge speaker blasting music at all hours of the day. Sometimes this will be Dub/Reggae music, but usually the music heard will be closer to what is broadly defined as “Dancehall”.

 

Dancehall is quite distant from roots-reggae. It developed in the 1980s with the arrival of new music technology in Jamaica, and became popularised in inner-city communities. Dancehall originally came about as a form dancing music (hence the name), whereby people learnt specific moves to go with specific songs. In its origins, it could therefore be understood as community-building since people came together and danced the same moves. The music generally consists of an underlying repeated “riddim” over which people will “toast” (a form of rap) and sing a chorus, which is usually pretty catchy. During the late 90s and early 2000s, some of this music then developed and became more associated with various inner-city gangs, who essentially had the power to control what kind of music would be played on the sound-systems in their community. One of the most notorious examples of this was the rivalry between Vybz Kartel and Mavado, who would use their music to openly threaten each other and gain followings from people in their community. Dancehall became a kind of vehicle for this war between the two groups, and as the violence became more intense, so did the explicitness and vulgarity of their lyrics. Although this rivalry is now a thing of the past and ended around 10 years ago, the echoes of it can still be found in the lyrics that dominate some current dancehall music. It is very common to hear lyrics that encourage violence, domination of women and even bleaching of skin to become paler (as is the topic of Vybz Kartel’s most recent single).

 

One of the most noticeable aspects of Jamaican culture is the divides that can be found across the country in terms of identity. Not only is there a city/country distinction, but also a very strong divide between “Uptown” and “Downtown”. Those living in Uptown generally regard Downtown as dangerous, and many will very rarely set foot in it. On the other hand, those in Downtown believe that those in Uptown see themselves as superior in some way, generating a distance and sense of mistrust between the two. There is also very little communication between these two sides, and oftentimes communication is very difficult because of the language barrier between English and Jamaican Patois. Patois finds its roots in English, Spanish and the languages of West Africa, and was spoken by most of the Jamaicans that I came across. Despite this fact, it is not an officially recognised language, which means that it is not standardised and therefore changes greatly from community to community. This makes it incredibly difficult to learn, and can make communication very hard. Dancehall music predominantly uses Patois, and Dancehall musicians might even create new words through their music which will be picked up by their listenership.

 

After spending some time witnessing how music can be used to unify communities, it has been hugely interesting for me to learn about how it might be used in the opposite way. Lyrics that glorify sexism and violence are inevitably hugely divisive, and deter certain groups from listening. There is an argument that Dancehall musicians use these subjects deliberately to prevent their music from being palatable to all. And yet, when I was fortunate enough to spend some time working and playing with people in Downtown, there were still very obvious aspects of Dancehall music that were unifying. People will jam together for hours, singing over Riddims and learning the same songs. Furthermore, for many people in Downtown it appears that music is understood as something elevating, and ultimately a medium that might help take them out of their current situation. The guys I met were very secretive about their lyrics, and it became clear that this was because these were essentially their most prized possession. So much of Jamaica’s most renowned music has come out of impoverished communities like those in Downtown, and music’s value to the people in these communities is as strong as it has always been.

 

Although I tried not to be so predictable, I have chosen a Bob Marley lyric to accompany this piece. Despite the fact that roots-reggae certainly doesn't paint the whole picture of the Jamaican music I have experienced here, people do genuinely still seem to love Bob as much as we do internationally. He is perhaps the most prolific example of a Jamaican individual finding a path out of destitution through music. This line comes from the song 'Turn Your Lights Down Low', which I heard for the first time in a bar out here, and was struck by this particular line. The music I've experienced out here has opened my eyes to a whole new form of music-making and creativity. And yet, as with all music, there continues exists this poetry and expression, the value of which is appreciated here perhaps more than any other country to which I have travelled.

 

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