Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Friday, March 13, 2009

Get A Culture? Ghetto Culture?

The English-speaking Caribbean is not alone in having public discussions about the relationship between public entertainment and public behaviour and morals. In recent years, these discussions have been intense in Jamaica because of stated concerns about the level of murders and other violent crimes, their connection with drug trading and gangs, and a tendency in certain styles of music ('dub' and 'dance hall') toward lyrics with commonly accepted offensive words or hateful sentiments-often against women and homosexuals. Sexual suggestiveness in songs and dances has also come in for comment, though this is an aspect of Jamaican music that has been there for decades; many of my generation can recall easily Max Romeo's controversial song 'Wet Dream'. The discussions often take on a socio-economic flavour because many see the popular music as having its roots in Jamaica's 'ghettos', and therefore criticisms can sometimes be seen as attacks on 'ghetto culture'.

Trinidad too, has had similar public discussions as some of its soca music has taken on a more sexually suggestive tone in lyrics and dance styles.

Barbados has gotten into such a conversation largely because much of the music popular with the young here is Jamaica's dub/dance hall output. Tag that with the tendency of the public minibuses ('ZRs') to lay such music, often at high volume, and for some a perceived downturn in social behaviour has its clear cause and effect.

General public sentiment about popular music has rarely been complimentary, wherever one looks. Much of the past 60 years is an interesting study in how popular music crazes in the USA and Europe were first reviled, then accepted, then lauded. A common criticism in places like the USA and England was that this was the 'devil's music' or 'jungle music', taking a hammer to often thinly disguised roots in black music that were not given their due credit, initially. We only need to look at the careers of white rock-and-roll stars such as Elvis Presley, through The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Cream, punk bands, and many more. Within black music itself, the accusations were also many and criticisms harsh. Whether the target was Bo Diddley, James Brown, Funkadelic, The Last Poets, Prince, Ice Cube and many of the modern wave of hip-hop artistes.

Similarly, other forms of popular entertainment have had to deal with much public opposition or criticism or lack of acclaim. Look back a few hundred years into the history of English literature, for example. William Shakespeare, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's preeminent dramatist, writing in the 16th century, was never revered in his lifetime. Geoffrey Chaucer (the 'father of English literature'), writing 'The Canterbury Tales' in the 1380s, regaled England with sex and bawdiness, and portrayed women as sexually insatiable, lecherous or shrewish--as was common in those days often with the backing of the churches. Yet, now these and others are regarded at the pinnacle of the English language and literature 'culture'.

Looking at films, the list of offending items is really too long. In the days of heavy censorship in the UK, it was interesting to see how opposition moved from political themes to those depicting sex and violence. The British Board of Film Censors received strong criticism for an over-zealous attitude in censoring film prior to the 1960s. The censoring found that those who wanted to could always get access to what was banned or distributed with cuts.

One of the problems with having these public discussions is that society does not share one view on what is acceptable. This is often most obvious with the generation gap between parents and children. Many of toady's parents liked music as teenagers that their parents thought inappropriate. Similarly, today's teenagers like music that many current parents find odious.

As a society tries to build or retain a culture, the role and position of its various elements are complex. Music's roots and attitudes to musical output are very complex. Taking a slice of social development. Those whom I know who grew up in a social setting of going to dances, or clubs, or parties, tend to have a certain view (positive) about much popular music. Those who grew up differently, not surprisingly, could be expected to have different (negative) views.

Music has many effects, without doubt. Often the beat is what drives people's reactions and its popularity, and lyrics can often become secondary. I recall someone saying to me that they could not understand how people enjoyed jazz, which only seemed to serve to put people to sleep. The soothing tones of jazz are what some love.

I have used dance music a lot when coaching soccer. It is wonderful for developing rhythm and balance. People laud Brazil for playing the game to the rhythm of samba. I even had a Ghanaian friend, who is a dance teacher, work with my team of young girls to get them to learn how to move to various forms of modern popular music. I know professional soccer coaches who have incorporated ballet music and steps into their routines to develop a certain grace and pace.

I grew up in the UK at a time when funk was popular (late 1960s)--which mixed jazz and R&B-- and also when 'house' music was very popular (which originated in Chicago in the late 1970s and early 1980s), and mixed soul, funk, and disco. As a result, I love music that has a strong beat and a fast rhythm. I also grew up during the era of psychedelic heavy metal music. I like them too. Many of the major artists were known to be inspired by drugs and drug-taking, with lyrics that made that clear. I did not like that, but my love for their music did not turn me into a drug fiend.

During all of my sporting career I had that music playing in my ears or around me when I trained and before I raced or played a soccer match. We often see today athletes with their iPods tuning in to their music before they compete.

I did not grow up in Jamaica, but love the heavy bass rhythm of reggae. I understand most of the lyrics so can relate to them at many levels, with or without music. Whether it's the complex social commentary of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Mutabaruka, or Linton Kwesi Johnson. Whether it is the lyrics on the hard-driving Buju Banton style. I know that much of reggae music is inspired by and through the use of marijuana. I do not see that loving that music makes me a supporter of a drug culture.

What I have heard in discussions recently suggests that when people do not understand something they tend to fear it; highly educated people are little different in that regard though talk better around the same fear. I even heard this attitude with regard to much popular music: "I don't like it. I don't understand it and I don't see that I need to," I overheard in a conversation the other day. Those who like and understand it can deal with it at many different levels. I self-censor offensive lyrics if they come in any song; once I know the song, when it is due to be played I take care to censor it for the benefit of children if they are nearby. I certainly have no time for arguments that laud the music of Chopin or another European classical composer as being great while labelling dub music as being base or even worthless. Likewise, country ballads have their place in the hearts of a certain group of people, but not in mine. But I should not imagine that listening to country music will turn me into a 'redneck'.

Much of the recent outrage has to do with the featuring of certain explicit sexual or violent references in music. Little of the discussion has focused on whether music is the problem or the listeners are the problem. Any thing innocent and harmless can be made dangerous in the hands of a fool or someone careless. Likewise, dangerous things can be dealt by those who know how to handle them.

Music and other forms of entertainment have their place in a social and economic context and trying to discuss their worth and influence without knowing or studying or understanding that context is limited. Talking about music's influence without saying how it is it will harm some and not harm all leaves out an important element about how people behave. I have not heard much discussion of the context or the roots of behaviour when I hear condemnation of certain music styles, so I have to conclude that a real conversation is yet to happen. I also wonder about the focus on music when there are horrid images of violence and drug use and trafficking in many of the films distributed for public viewing. Sordid sexual images are in many advertisements. Has anyone gone around and checked the content of books sold freely in the stores? Is the concern really about bad influences or is just about one noticeable possible element?

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