Ever since the death of Bob Marley, reggae music has found itself in a downward spiral musically and lyrically as it transformed itself into dancehall. Where once there was melody and harmony, there is now aggressive, rhythmic monotony. Where once there were odes to pan-African unity and universal love, there are now sexually vulgar lyrics and incitement to murder, specifically of gays. The quality of the music had degraded to such a degree, that in the beginning, it only appealed to the déclassé lower orders of Jamaican society. Over time, it became more popular across class lines. Worse, it became popular in other Caribbean countries and further abroad. Things have started to turn around. It began with boycotts and protests of the “artists” who attempted to tour in North America and Europe. Human rights groups such as Outrage, J-Flag and the Black Gay Men’s Advisory Group, deciding that there was enough variety of home grown hatred to deal with, tackled these foreigners who wanted to bring their own brand of hate to Europe and North America. Religious groups in Jamaica also protested that the lyrics corrupted the youth and contributed to the moral decay of the society. From country to country and city to city they were followed and harried with effective protests. Venues started to respond by cancelling shows and even went further in not booking the offenders. The American market accounts for 1/3 to 1/2 of the musicians depend on. The musicians began to respond by modifying their message precisely because they were beginning to feel the economic pinch to their wallets. This led to some musicians signing a document called “The Reggae Compassionate Act” in 2007 that is now discredited as ineffective. Savvy activists knew that the new “make nice” language was insincere double speak and kept the pressure on. Concert promoters meanwhile, shifted their focus to markets in Asia and the Caribbean. The activists followed them there, setting up satellite branches in those markets. Soon, reggae festivals began to be cancelled. In the Caribbean, Red Stripe beer, a popular Jamaican brand, decided not to sponsor some of the festivals and concerts. Tourism [for the Caribbean economy does not depend on locally manufactured cars or microchips] began to take such a hit that governments began to get involved. The governments of Barbados, Grenada, St Lucia and Guyana took the initiative of denying musicians visas AND banned their music from the air. The Barbados education minister went so far as to say that there was a link between the increasingly aggressive behaviour of Barbadian youth and dancehall music, a truism that can be seen in other countries. So, in Europe, North America, Asia and now in the Caribbean, the pressure was on. Markets were drying up and the haters were losing money. Their music was not being played on radio. The final frontier was the epicentre of manufacture of the nasty products, Jamaica. In February of 2009, the Jamaica Broadcasting Commission banned vulgar and violent songs including versions of the offending recordings that employed editing techniques of bleeping or beeping of its original content. Police enforcement of the Noise Abatement Act, and rigourous monitoring of live performance were implemented. Laws were passed holding promoters criminally liable for violence stemming from any concert that they produced. And now, 19 months after such stringent measures, guess what? Well, well, well! Looky here, looky here, performers’ use of vulgar and aggressive language has virtually disappeared! The Jamaican air waves are clinically clean.
So, protests and boycotts worked very well in this case. But shrewd social analysts have attributed another incident to spurring the Jamaican government to resolute action. And this was the botched attempt at arresting the drugs criminal, Christopher “Dudus” Coke. The diplomatic fallout from this travesty included revoking of visas of artists and a travel ban for high-profile Jamaicans, including government ministers. That got their attention if the detrimental affect of the music on the society didn’t. Activist groups have vowed to monitor the situation. It seems that some in Jamaican society have discovered that the target of the hate are not the only ones affected by hateful lyrics. The haters and the consumers are dehumanised as well and end up dirtier than the people they are trying to cleanse or eradicate. It’s a lesson on par with the moral lessons of Greek tragedies. Hopefully now, Jamaican musicians could try to regain the mantle of the Bob Marley legacy which they had forfeited to African reggae artists. Time will show.