Reposted from Marvin Sparks Blog.
First things first; I want it to be known that this is in no way an attack on the music I love. It’s constructive criticism which I hope is a guide towards a better future. Any good relationship requires communication about the good as well as the bad.
Right now, I’d describe my relationship with dancehall music as complicated, strained may be more accurate. For the first time in my life, I don’t feel ashamed to say I’m indifferent to the current happenings. How did I get here? Well it’s due to a series of disappointments over the past decade.
But before I explain how I arrived here, I’ll give a bit of background about myself. I’m Marvin Sparks, a mid-1980s born-and-raised Londoner (UK) of Jamaican heritage. I have visited Jamaica fifteen times since my first visit in 1990. My dad plays strictly Jamaican music in the car, mum always plays popular south London, Jamaican community station Vibes FM in the house. I sang songs by Black Uhuru, Lovindeer and Tiger before I knew the likes of Michael Jackson, Whitney and other pop acts my age-mates grew up on.
Driven by my love for the music and dismay at how artists were portrayed by the media, I ventured into writing about music. Following my first interview with Tarrus Riley circa “She’s Royal”, I’ve spoken to many of my favourite artists including Popcaan’s first international interview, a controversial one with Vybz Kartel, Mavado, Beres Hammond, Sean Paul, Lady Saw, Damian Marley and Spice for various publications. I’ve written about dancehall and the sounds it inspired for MTV, Red Bull, Fact Magazine, Complex and the Guardiannewspaper. With all these reggae and dancehall interviews under my belt, I haven’t always been compensated for my time. Maybe to you, that’s naive, maybe it’s the nature of this digital media world, but it’s also a reflection of how passionate I personally feel about spreading the word. I never did it for money, I did it for the message.
I’ve also been on the Best Reggae Act committee for the MOBO Awards for a few years, dancehall expert at Red Bull’s Culture Clash in 2016 (when Popcaan’s Unruly x Mixpak team lifted the trophy), worked with Bacardi and put Masicka (one of my favourites) on the official lead single for UK film The Intent 2. I did digital marketing for Chronixx’s Grammy-nominated (should read winning but you know the cartel) album Chronology.
As a proven defender of the music, you can imagine how hard it is to admit I’ve lost interest, for the most part, in dancehall. I know I’m not too old. I don’t just hark back to the good old days of the nineties, nor am I against everything that doesn’t sound like it did in the past. I just know what’s happening now isn’t working for me and I’m sure many others relate.
Tell you what I see, can you feel my pain?
There have been a lot of great times and tunes in the 2010s, especially early-to-mid years. Solid artists have risen to the fore with Popcaan being the biggest ambassador. Alkaline brought new levels of lyricism and a previously unseen introverted identity. Konshens has been a hit with the ladies, Spice and Vanessa Bling/Gaza Slim represented for the ladies. Aidonia “Yeah, Yeah” and “Fi Di Jockey” still cause excitement. I-Octane had a great run. Dexta Daps doused the dance with sensual vibes (and Shabba Madda Pot!!!), Ding Dong brought credible fun back to dancehall, Masicka delivered first-person gun man deejay tunes for the times. Songs like “Bruk Off Your Back”, “Party Animal”, “Hold You”, “Clarks”, “Only Man She Want”, “Fever” (to name a few) have been universal floor-fillers. Legends Super Cat and Shabba Ranks made their long-awaited returns to Jamaica, as did Buju Banton following his jailing for conspiracy to distribute drugs.
On the down side, there have been a trailer load of lows, most notably Vybz Kartel – arguably the greatest artist to bless a microphone in the world – found guilty of murder at the peak of his career. Clash king and one-time Kartel lyrical foe Ninja Man also faced the same fate, currently serving a life sentence for murder. Busy Signal went in-and-out of US jail for obtaining a passport with a false name, Flippa Mafia for drug trafficking is in a US jail and numerous others been wanted. Tragically, ascending singjay J Capri died in a car crash and Voicemail’s O’Neil was murdered to name two passing artists. After years and years of disappointment Sting – the greatest one night in reggae music – is on an indefinite hiatus.
Eye-rollingly (made that up ‘cos it felt right), there have been countless media-baiting tactics by attention-seeking artists. If not something ridiculous, artists and DJ’s were having petty, baseless beefs with each other. In this era of click-bait thirsty platforms in both social media and print, pranksters have been rewarded with coverage, allowing the cycle to continue. In addition to making the culture look like a circus at times, the Jamaican media played a villain to the music with constant articles about lack of sales in a decade where music consumption switched to streaming and can also be measured by ticket-selling. Neither help the overall image of dancehall and the culture, but I guess clicks are the bottom line.
Less worryingly, the “cultural appropriation” argument and resulting songs saw more mainstream level attention than anything from Jamaica in the whole decade. Jamaican-created Dancehall not being present on the international charts isn’t my worry though. Majority of my favourite Jamaican songs were never on international charts. I’m more concerned that it’s losing pace on the dance floors. In London, we have commercial “urban music” clubs attended by all races, mixed genre mainly black attended events, as well as African or Caribbean community-specific events. At the beginning of this decade, dancehall was a heavy-hitter across all, now hot songs barely break out of the Caribbean community.
African, Latin and black British music now fills part of the gap Jamaican dancehall music brought us. The combination of heavy bass frequencies, irresistible drum patterns, precise rhythmically-timed, infectious sing-and-shout-alongs and a true alternative to American culture is still in demand. This year we’ve seen Nigerian-born, London-informed Burna Boy take the world by storm with his (in-part, dancehall-informed) afrobeats, plus both “Boasty” and “Joanna” dominate dance floors worldwide by UK-born/based artists. All aforementioned artists have an appreciation for and influence from Jamaican music.
“Dance ah yard before you dance abroad”
We’ve also witnessed the two most prominent hit-making producers Rvssian and Stephen “Di Genius” McGregor – who’ve both been criticised and ridiculed for forward-thinking production by the local industry – relocate to America. Between them, they’ve worked with the likes of Drake, Rihanna, Ozuna, Bad Bunny and Cardi B. While dancehall focused more on reproducing the synth-driven Summertime (Popcaan – Ravin’) and drum-pattern from Sprite riddim (Vybz Kartel – Touch a Button), Rvssian’s 2012 “Whine & Kotch” influenced major hits across the world (J Balvin ft. Beyoncé “Mi Gente”, Lethal Bizzle “Fester Skank”, Wiley “Boasty”). Di Genius-assisted “Controlla” by Drake practically spawned a sub-genre of black UK music known as afrobashment/afroswing (e.g., this banger) that saw repeated mainstream pop chart success in 2017.
New York-based producer Ricky Blaze produced the US and UK gold-certified “Hold You” by Gyptian (excess of 500k and 400k respectively). Fellow Jamaican-born New Yorker Kranium’s sleeper hit “Nobody Has To Know” recently surpassed 500k-equivalent US sales + streams. Charly Black scored major success in Spanish-speaking countries with “Party Animal” (I wrote about it’s potential a year before it HIT). On the pop-side Jamaican-born Walshy Fire was part of the billion-plus steaming smash-hit “Lean On” with Major Lazer, while the Felix Jaehn tropical-house remix of Omi’s “Cheerleader” topped charts across the world.
To me, a major part of dancehall’s failures stem from focusing on solely trying to break America. At the very least, the sounds feel like they’re reaching American pop radio and there’s an emphasis on proving lyrical prowess from some. Good for fans, but most of the world don’t understand what they’re saying. The style of spitting plenty lyrics with metaphors and multi-syllabic rhymes is all good and well for us lovers, but something simpler always connects more.
I don’t think the hip hop fans in USA should be the desired fan base because, quite frankly, they don’t give a sh!t. Look at the backlash for Drake’s “cultural appropriation” and Rihanna’s “gibberish”. Ones of the past were more open-minded, these lot don’t want anything without the same 808s and mumbles formula they’re used to. Reporting number one on the US Billboard Reggae chart is pretty pointless too. Not even just considering the number of sales, American consumption might be where the glamour is, but what are the real returns for artists? How about the European festival and tour circuit? Doesn’t that matter? Or the Spanish-speaking countries? Most of the success from Jamaican music breaks outside of America. Most artists don’t even have a visa to perform in America anyway.
The days of Sean Paul’s heavy rotation on BET and topping the Billboard Charts by himself are long gone. While he was in the “wilderness” to the USA, he featured on number 1, 2 and 3 singles in the UK (The Saturdays “What About Us?”, “She Doesn’t Mind” and Fuse ODG “Dangerous Love” respectively). After success with Sia “Cheap Thrills”, he also co-starred on British band Clean Bandit’s “Rockabye” which achieved the coveted Christmas number 1 title in 2016. That song spent 9 weeks at the summit, also topping the charts in 20 other countries. Popcaan featured on a top 10, “Kisses for Breakfast”. Countless other UK stars have charted with dancehall-sounding singles without the backlash artists received in America. And 2019 made fifty years since Jamaica’s first international number one song, Desmond Dekker “Israelites” hit top spot in UK, April 1969. The UK loves Jamaican music.
“If slackness ah di fault then culture ah di solution”
Not to divide, as I don’t believe in “reggae vs dancehall” argument, but the conscious roots artists have proven a revelation in 2010s. Not only have the likes of Protoje, Chronixx, Kabaka Pyramid, Jesse Royal and Jah9 wrestled some of the reggae market share back from the European and West Coast American band domination, they have restored a sense of authenticity missing from many Jamaican artists. Chronixx, the most impactful artist of the decade, attracted 10,000 people at a sold-out Alexandra Palace (a month in advance) and rammed a 15,000 capacity in Birmingham arena – 120 miles north of London.
Koffee’s star currently shines the brightest. A result of the aforementioned roots movement, she signed to the UK division of Columbia Records, therefore promoted heavily in the UK. “Toast” was in the UK national pop chart for 17 weeks, peaking at 71 in August 2018. Koffee’s honesty, integrity, likeable girl-next-door-done-good persona are her main selling points outside of her obvious talent. She also has a proven successful manager, Pierre Bost (also manages Chronixx and Kranium), who has creative ideas and concise direction. And a beast of a song in “Toast” that both feels and sounds true to Jamaica in a 2020 style.
Generally speaking, the future looks female with Shenseea, Stalk Ashley, Jada Kingdom, Lila Ike and Sevana building up steam. Their male counterparts shouldn’t take their own prominence for granted. Collaborate with the women. Give the balance.
Where did we lose our identity?
Audiences demand integrity and identity, and that is what always made Jamaican music great. From Studio One, Channel One and Treasure Isle days to the greatest years of dancehall, Jamaican musicians had an understanding of what worked internationally but gave it to the world in a Jamaican style. Now many of the makers attempt to rehash international interpretations of Jamaican music in a foreign-friendly style. Sounds backwards right? Because it is. I like some of the discounted American-sounding songs, it adds a different flavour, but I despise its dominance. I appreciate some of the Jamaican production but it lacks groove and feeling. I want something that makes me want to dance, buss gun finger and/or shout-along. Songs like the aforementioned Toast and Shabba Madda Pot, alongside Busy Signal “Stay So” and Buju Banton “Trust”.
Lack of stars is a huge issue also. People who speak for and represent a people or subcultures tend to become the headliners. Jamaican music has always excelled when speaking for the forgotten or the so-called underclass. Whether it’s Rasta, gun man, gallis, sufferers or the ghetto in general, we champion voices for the voiceless. Doesn’t matter if the lyrics and topics were celebrated or chastised, they spoke passionately about truth-and-rights for a demographic of Jamaican people, hence their lasting popularity.
Beenie represented the ghetto gallis. Bounty Killer the poor and gun men. Sizzla the uncompromising Rasta. Buju for the sufferers. Capleton burnt all wrongdoings and injustice. Lady Saw spoke for women demanding sexual equality and liberation. Likewise, Mavado spoke as the product of the gunman-filled garrison and Vybz Kartel is the all-encompassing hero from the garrison. Even Elephant Man, the larger-than-life entertainer, putting the dance in dancehall. They were stars for a reason – all provided something fans bought into and believed in. Most spoke unapologetically against a demeaning narrative the middle and ruling class tried to enforce upon them. And it always sounded like Jamaican even when taking inspiration from contemporary American and traditional African music.
Nowadays I mainly hear people following a trend of the last catchy party hit, which is good for what it’s worth, but where’s the balance? Who’s speaking for the school kids and 9-5’ers? Who talks to the robot taxi, car glass wipers and even scammers? Whatever way they’re trying to get money, there are reasons why they have to hustle by any means. Likewise, what are the situations, aspirations and frustrations of Jamaicans in the ghetto or otherwise? Are there many artists with a personality? We’ve had shedloads that were hot for one song/summer, disappearing once the hit mixes out. We need more projects that showcase an artist’s full spectrum and give fans a chance to really know the person.
Don’t know, but it feels like we need a revolution
There aren’t enough leaders or believers, behind the scenes too. On the business side, I hear about a lot of overpricing and under-performing. Yes, there are numerous obstacles that stop the music from benefitting like other forms are able to, but there are many ways to improve without external powers. Generations before have made huge impressions on the world, it isn’t impossible. Stop selling the culture short by chasing an “international” (read: American) audience.
Concerts need a real revolution. The one bagga wheels and general noise isn’t a performance. Work for the forward, don’t dictate it to me. We need a ban on the unnecessary dancehall mix by the band drowning out every artist too. I am not there to see the band. Drummers, stop trying to steal the show. Just keep a steady pace for the artist and rest of the band to perform. If you want to give it a different vibe, leave that to the second verse. And yes, we do like the second verse. We pay money to see people we don’t see often sing our favourite songs with a room full of people who love it the same way. Give us the songs how we know that and don’t rely on us to sing them out. We paid the artist for that.
To conclude, I think I speak for a large share of Jamaican music lovers from abroad and in yard that just want our culture back. I repeat “if slackness ah di darkness then culture ah di light”. We need authentic Jamaican perspective that are still relatable to the world packaged in a good song format. We need more conversation-provoking (not to be confused with shock value) songs. We need sing along, romance songs not just explicit sex. And we need riddims that sound like they could only be from Jamaica. We need the drums snapping and the heavy bass. Dancehall isn’t losing pace to other genres, dancehall is losing itself while others pick up the pieces and deliver the goods required. If dancehall regains a strength, it too will be back in the mix.
Makers of the music, as we enter the new decade ask yourself this: do you reflect and represent for the people with a sound that could only be a product of Jamaica in 2020? If not, please reconsider. Look to history, but live in the present to create a future. Everything back then wasn’t great, but it definitely holds answers. Protect your own brand like dancehall and reggae fans fight to protect the music from others. Remember: Jamaica is a big island not a small state.
Signed with love and respect,
Dancehall Correspondent/Story sharer