the stories of jamaican music

as i try to understand the way that hip-hop fits into jamaica's soundscape, social world, and cultural flows, i keep running into the story of jamaican music. for some, there is no place for hip-hop in the story. hip-hop is a degrading influence, an example of cultural imperialism pulling up the roots of true, distinctive jamaican culture. for others, hip-hop is a prodigal son: born of a jamaican immigrant to the bronx, routinely infused with reinjections from dancehall reggae, and now returned triumphant and globally dominant. generally, jamaica's cultural gatekeepers and scholars of jamaican music seem uneasy when it comes to rap and hip-hop: the music is at once too (african-)american and all too jamaican. for a large number of jamaicans, however, the issues seem to disappear entirely: hip-hop is their music; they grew up with it (whether in kingston, new york, miami, london, or toronto); they know who they are and they express it in everything they do, regardless of what accent they put on or where they put their kicks and snares. so which is it? is hip-hop another chapter in the story of jamaican music or is it a footnote? perhaps only time will tell, but the answer, and its implications, are exciting enough to me that i'm pursuing them in the moment (of course, this "moment" also happens to be a historical period of at least thirty years, and counting).

recently i reviewed some of the literature on jamaican music in order to get a sense of the different ways that the history is represented. significantly, several sources, not all of them academic accounts, purport to tell "the story of jamaican music." tougher than tough: the story of jamaican music (island records, 1993), a four-disc compilation covering the years 1958-1993, bills itself in precisely these terms. it has another sub-title, however, "35 years of jamaican hits," so there is some self-consciousness about its limits. even so, it is not unheard of to equate the history of recorded popular music in jamaica with the story of jamaican music. most non-jamaicans probably conceive of it this way. lloyd bradley's this is reggae music (grove, 2000; formerly called bass culture), a popular and rather detailed history of reggae, has a similar sub-title, "the story of jamaica's music," for a history similarly limited in scope. significantly, bradley's text reads like a romanticized history of reggae as a music of resistance--not simply resistance to the system and to the degrading conditions of poverty but to the neo-colonial force of american culture. reggae rises from the ashes of american r&b, via ska, and with it, jamaicans express their uniqueness to the world. as the text concludes, reggae music (a totalizing category that bradley uses to smooth over stylistic and historical disjunctures) continues to resist the pull of america's newest infecting agent, hip-hop, allowing bradley to dismiss the uglier side of dancehall as the fault of the US market and its effects on jamaica. search for other histories of jamaican music and one finds only more narrowly-focued studies of reggae, or simply of bob marley, or simply of marley's lyrics. reading texts like these, one might decide that there was no music in jamaica before amplification, the rise of the soundsystem, and the arrival of american r&b.

with such an emphasis on the mid- and late-twentieth century in popular and journalistic histories of jamaican music, it is no surprise that most scholarly accounts emphasize exactly the opposite--the traditional (which is to say, pre-WWII) and rural sources that represent the "jamaican" in "jamaican music." they often do so almost in reactionary fashion, however, and sometimes to their detriment. take, for example, the entry for "jamaica" in the new grove dictionary of music (2nd ed., 2001)--a comprehensive, multi-volume encyclopedia of music and the standard reference text for music scholars. the emphasis is so squarely on the traditional that the term "reggae" does not even appear, making for a conspicuous absence. (ska, on the other hand, makes an appearance, as we are told that it derives from kumina songs--though its american r&b roots receive no mention.) over the course of the four-page entry, one finds descriptions of traditional, and now unused instruments, the social functions of music in jamaican society, and a bit of religious history. the descriptions are in the mode of mid-century ethnomusicology--essentially, producing a taxonomy of jamaican rural traditions prior to the rise of kingston as a center for hybrid, popular musics. i believe that the new new grove, at least online, provides short entries for ska, reggae, dancehall, and various other popular genres [i apologize that i do not have better access to these materials currently], but it is telling that the entry for "jamaica" remains staunchly traditionalist.

the entry for "jamaica" in the garland encyclopedia of world music (1998) was written by olive lewin, the foremost musicologist of jamaican music, who has been writing about musical practices here for decades. lewin provides a more balanced and fairly comprehensive overview, with some coverage of popular music and the contemporary scene. her emphasis, however, remains decidedly on the traditional, including a hornbostel-sachs-style taxonomy of musical instruments (yes, there are idiophones, membranophones, aerophones, and chordophones "native" to jamaica). lewin also provides a consistent representation of east indian traditions, which rarely fit into the story of jamaican music. overall, her tone strikes me as rather preservationist. she sees, for example, the influence of radio and television having a "negative effect on the tapping of jamaica's rich store of traditional musical styles, with the notable exception of reggae." of course, here we should ask whether "reggae" is shorthand for "ska through dancehall," but that is left ambiguous. contradictions emerge between lewin's recognition of the vitality and undeniable "jamaican-ness" of these popular genres and her bemoaning of the "unfortunate" disruption of "the continuity of jamaican musical traditions." lewin notes that mento remains a vital tradition, even as it is re-informed by the dancehall rhythms which supposedly derive, in part, from mento musical style. she speaks of dancehall's "folk-based rhythms" without recognizing the influence of american rap music, though she notes that deejays are "called rappers in some countries." lewin brings to light the broad influence that the outside has had on jamaican music, but, in an attempt to emphasize the traditional roots, she misses an opportunity to analyze the way that jamaican musicians have in fact made these strange sounds their own. the process of reincorporation, of versioning, seems central to the story of jamaican music (at least since WWII, if not before--what is the jamaican quadrille tradition if not an example of the strange made familiar?). it provides a way to see the actual practices of people in jamaica not as misguided efforts to be marginalized in encyclopedia entries but as choices made within a vibrant dialogue between tradition and innovation, or, more importantly, as practices hinting at new ideas about what it means to be jamaican and how one might express such an identity authentically.

of course, as encyclopedia entries the two articles i have just discussed are necessarily limited in detail. nevertheless, scope and emphasis are significant, and the mode of analysis (e.g., preservationist or postmodernist) can make for an interpretation with significant political import. kenneth bilby's chapter on "jamaica" in caribbean currents (temple univ: 1995, ed. peter manuel) allows for a more detailed treatment. significantly, bilby also comes out on the side of the slightly conservative traditionalists, as, in order to counteract world-beat consumer ignorance, the author feels a need to root reggae in "that side of the musical equation that has usually been glossed over: the vital indigenous component of what remains a living and evolving local jamaican musical idiom." bilby does an admirable job of representing the traditional strands of jamaican music--what he calls the country's "deep and distinctive cultural wellsprings"--and teasing out the messiness of the post-war origins of ska in downtown kingston. he characterizes the development of jamaican popular music as an "ongoing interchange between the new and old." he is careful to note that simple, linear paths of development are rarely the case in the story of jamaican music, much as competing claims about origins might have you think. although necessarily broad and careful, bilby's summarizing statement, in response to these contentious claims, is a useful way to think about this dynamic and complex history: "the urban popular music of jamaica, like mento before it, represents nothing less than a synthesis of many diverse stylistic influences, both jamaican and foreign, the balance of which has continued to shift over time."

bilby's analysis falls short, i would argue, when he runs into the kind of jamaican popular music that he says, "can no longer be considered reggae at all" according to strictly musical criteria. in attempting to fit contemporary dancehall into his story, bilby seems stymied. he refuses to acknowledge a shift in aesthetic criteria, preferring to note the resemblances of dancehall's minimal riddims to the neo-african music of rural jamaica, and therefore making such tenuous assertions as, "it could be argued that the more rhythmically innovative deejays function much like the missing lead drum." (ugh.) such a statement precludes the investigation of deejaying as its own messy and interesting development, with roots not only in the early talkover practices of late 60s jamaican soundmen, but in african-american vocal practices, from rappers themselves (in mobius-strip fashion) to the jive-talking djs whose voices were caught on radio here along with the jazz and r&b of the 40s and 50s. moreover, bilby's observation that, thanks to more afro-folk input, european and north american musical aspects (e.g., melodies and harmonies derived from the "western tradition") appear to have decreased in prominence in contemporary dancehall music also downplays the influence of hip-hop--and bollywood, for that matter--in favor of yet more assertions of "deep" jamaican, and hence african, influence. bilby makes the point that such a decrease in melody and harmony (a contestable assertion, at any rate) makes dancehall less "familiar to foreign ears," but this kind of stereotyping once again smooths over the realities of lived experience, whether we're talking about kingston or paris. what is familiar to jamaican ears? in my limited experience here, it is already clear that a rather broad range of music pervades the air here. why would "african" sounds be any more familiar than, never mind seperable from, "european" sounds at this point? perhaps it is time to rethink our conceptual categories.

it is unclear why bilby seems more critical and suspicious of contemporary jamaican popular music. the very same conditions from which ska emerged--what he calls "the unusual fluidity and complexity of the social milieu"--remain the conditions in which jamaican popular music continues to change. just take a taxi ride around kingston. to bilby's credit, he does acknowledge that "the most obvious foreign influence on jamaican music in recent years has been from hip-hop." if it is true that, as bilby says of dancehall (which he calls ragga--a term not really employed locally), "the music continues to be rooted in the lived experience of its performers," then what is there to be afraid of? bilby's anxiety stands in stark contradiction to the continuity of the development pattern that he portrays. i appreciate bilby's desire to emphasize the roots of the music. he refers to an old rasta saying, "the half has never been told," to support his focus. i agree that the story is certainly incomplete without that half. but is it not a grave mistake to leave the other half out? how much sense does it make to represent the history of jamaican music (and the contemporary moment) as less messy than it actually is? jamaica's "deep and distinctive cultural wellsprings" are equally messy when we search for their origins. we are too quick to naturalize products of history and contingency. who is to say that jamaicans' incorporations of hip-hop (or even, god forbid, smooth jazz) will not someday constitute equally deep and distinctive sources?

perhaps the anxiety stems from a feeling that a real shift is occurring, that there is a real danger of uniqueness being lost. if, as bilby suggests, ska and reggae spoke of nationalism, then what might "yard hip-hop" speak of? my current feeling is that it speaks of a kind of post-nationalism--for how do we define the jamaican nation today when as many jamaicans live off the island as on it? bilby argues, compellingly, that "most of the music produced in jamaica today continues to speak primarily to local concerns and to draw on the rich fund of ancestral cultural resources that jamaicans can claim as uniquely their own" (emphasis mine). my big question is: what constitutes an "ancestral cultural resource" in 2003? does hip-hop qualify? what about for a jamaican living in queens? or a deportee, who spent 20 years in queens, and now lives in kingston? or for his son, who hears as much hip-hop as dancehall and admires the way his father shifts seamlessly between thick patois and cool new-york slang? the local/global dialectic is increasingly messy, and jamaicans will be the first to tell you so, or show you so. just listen to the latest hit single.

although i have only considered a handful of texts so far, i realize that this is becoming a bit long-winded, especially for a blog. (i warned readers in my first entry, however, that i would, at times, get a bit academic. i see this web-journal as a great way for me to work out my ideas as i share them with others, so i thank you for bearing with me. i invite feedback on any tangent or substantive issue that might grab you.) i do want to mention a few more sources, which i may come back to treat at more length in the future. one is garth whyte's two-part history on the development of jamaican popular music (african-caribbean institute of jamaica, 1983-4). currently, i have only had the chance to read part 2, "urbanization of the folk: the merger of the traditional and popular in jamaican music," which happens to be the most germane to my research. whyte's piece is an exceptionally detailed overview of the first half of the twentieth century, rich in sociological and musicological specifics. of particular value is whyte's attention to dance forms, an important but often overlooked aspect of popular culture. i also appreciate the author's interpretation of what made american forms so attractive to jamaicans and so influential on the development of popular music and dance here. "one is most certainly aware," argues whyte, "of the susceptibility of the jamaican populace to influence by outside forms especially when that 'outside form' had familiar elements or elements which could logically be added or developed out of its then present practice."

norman stolzhoff's wake the town and tell the people: dancehall culture in jamaica (duke univ: 2000) is another source that deserves menion here. stolzhoff uses the term dancehall rather broadly to connect practices from plantation days to the current moment. the book is, overall, a rather detailed history and contemporary (i.e., mid-90s) ethnography of dancehall culture (for what that conceptual category is worth). unfortunately, because of his research dates, stolzhoff's study necessarily stops short of the moment where dancehall and hip-hop seem to become more fluid and relational forms than ever--a process that seems to be only increasing in intensity as time goes on. i also find stolzhoff's analysis of dancehall--referring here to the style of jamaican popular music from the last two decades or so--to once again come up short in tracing the influence of hip-hop on its musical style. one wonders whether stolzhoff, in an attempt to represent the contemporary dancehall scene in all its authentic splendor, closes his analysis off from performers who mix things up a little too much and thus do not fit so well into the larger narrative. i realize of course that everyone must bound their studies somehow, but the question of boundaries is an important one, especially if it is precisely what is happening at these boundaries that seems most interesting. boundaries, after all, are what define the categories through which we perceive the world.

since so many sources skirt the issue, i want to close with a look at a piece that explicitly treats the area of overlap between dancehall and hip-hop. carloyn cooper, professor of english and director of the reggae studies unit at uwi-mona, recently contributed a piece called "hip-hopping across cultures: crossing over from reggae to rap and back" to a larger volume on creolization (questioning creole: creolisation discourses in caribbean culture; shepherd and richards, eds., kingston: 2002). seeking to map out, at least in broad strokes, the back-and-forth between jamaican music and rap, the piece is quite ambitious in scope, and, quite necessarily, its breadth leaves some things to be desired in the realm of detail. (i must confess to being rather devoted to details these days--a commitment stemming from my own assumptions and categories being consistently confronted by pesky particulars.) cooper's emphasis on the bridging of raggae, ragga, and rap gestures to the very fluidity that i am doing my best to document and to tease out these days. she also names hybridity and "noisiness" as defining features of both musics. her emphasis on (non-musical) texts, unfortunately, misses musical examples of cross-cultural exchange, which are perhaps less “superficial,” as she admits other textual borrowings may be.

one case of missing detail regards cooper's use of the category “reggae,” which seems to include both the “roots” and “dancehall” strains. it is my experience in talking to people here that many perceive a chasm, at least partly generational and partly class-based, between these musical worlds. this kind of border is usually what interests me more than the positing of a whole called reggae--an analytical category that is more likely to lead one toward facile generalizations. i have the same take on hip-hop studies: they all lack proper periodization, which is not to say more categories, but more attention to historical and social specifics. tricia rose’s black noise (wesleyan, 1994) is still authoritative as far as hip-hop monographs go, but, largely because of its own historical moment of publication and its attention to the media’s own monolithic representations, it takes hip-hop as a whole and proposes an aesthetics and a sociological model that only really works for the mid- to late-80s and early 90s.

the more i listen to dancehall and hip-hop together and experience the fluidity with which artists and audiences treat the musics here in jamaica (and to a lesser degree in the states), the more i am convinced that they are, as cooper says, “blood relations,” though they often seem closer than “cousins.” a few weeks ago, during an interview on the radio here, sean paul (americans' current favorite dancehall dj) maintained that he called his music "dancehall," in reponse to the radio dj saying she wasn't sure how to refer to the music she played anymore. he went on to elaborate, describing dancehall as the "son of reggae music, brother of hip-hop." in some sense, the filial relationship seems the most appropriate connection to draw, especially if we go with the story that hip-hop is but one outgrowth from a seminal idea transmitted to the states from jamaica by clive “kool herc” campbell back in the early 70s. of course, "the stories of rap music" need to be interrogated in their own right. but that will have to be an entry for another day.