Word sound and power

Of course popular musicians are entitled to free speech. But what if they’re promoting violence and hate? Garry Steckles speaks out on the issue

Lee `Scratch` Perry at the Black Ark Studios, 1978. Photograph by UrbanImage.tv/Adrian Boot

It’s not often the government of a Caribbean island does something that the rest of the world can learn from. But I’m hoping the courageous, controversial and entirely admirable decision earlier this year to ban violent and/or sexually explicit music from Jamaica’s airwaves will be followed by other governments around the region and, with any luck, much further afield.

Like many music fans, I’ve got little time for censorship, and many of the artists I’ve admired most over the years have used their gifts to stir things up socially and politically. Fela Kuti, David Rudder, Culture, the Clash, Alpha Blondy, Mutabaruka, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Bob Dylan, to name just a few, have never hesitated to confront injustice, and their lyrics have often encouraged their listeners to stand up against evil in whatever manifestation it crops up…or, as Marley so memorably put it, “spiritual wickedness in high and low places”.

And there’s a rich tradition of, how shall we put this, “suggestive” lyrics in reggae and, even more deeply entrenched, in calypso. Jamaica’s Lloydie and the Lowbites – I can’t help laughing just writing their name – made some of the most raunchy reggae I’ve ever heard back in the Seventies. The brilliant and wildly eccentric Jamaican producer/singer/songwriter Lee “Scratch” Perry’s “Bed Jammin’” leaves little to the imagination. The Mighty Sparrow, regarded by many as the greatest calypsonian of them all, has recorded some of the wickedest double-entendre songs in history… “Ah Fraid Pussy Bite Me”, “Saltfish”, “Sa Sa Ye”, “The Lizard” and “Lying Excuses” spring to mind. Lord Kitchener, perhaps Sparrow’s only serious contender for Greatest Calypsonian honours, was equally salacious, with songs like “Dr Kitch” and “Saxophone Number Two”.

But none of these artists has ever used their lyrics to degrade and humiliate. Or to encourage impressionably young fans, many of them already living in violent and dangerous surroundings, to commit murder. And for anyone to argue seriously that it’s acceptable for television and radio stations to exploit, in the interest of ratings and profit, music that explicitly advocates sexual abuse and violence strikes me as beyond rational logic. If I went on a talk show and told listeners that it would be a good idea if they beat to death a neighbour who happened to have a sexual orientation they didn’t share, I’d be breaking the law in most countries. And I hope I’d be held accountable for what I’d done.

So why should a musician be able to express those same sentiments with the addition of a dancehall or ragga rhythm track (probably computerised and hackneyed, but that’s a whole other issue)? If there’s some logic to that argument, it completely escapes me.

I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels this way. I asked the Florida-based, Jamaican-born author and poet Geoffrey Philp, whose geoffreyphilp.blogspot.com website about Caribbean music and culture is a treasure trove of roots vibes and wisdom, what he thought about it all.

Here’s his response: “I believe, though I know many Rasta would blood me up for this, ‘Every man gotta right to decide his own destiny.’ I am firmly against any system that demeans and advocates violence against anyone because of gender, race, or any other mental construct that we invent.

“Rasta during the Seventies became a ‘peace and love’ movement and as you know Bob struggled with the war in Africa until he finally sang, ‘But brothers you’re right…’ (‘Zimbabwe’). Other than that, he sang mostly about ‘why this fussing and fighting’.

“That said, I do have a problem with government censorship – especially in Jamaica – because it becomes a political tool.

“I guess what I’m saying is the ideal situation would be an audience that is sophisticated enough to recognise work that demeans others and propagates violence, because most singers only produce songs that they think will sell. If the audience won’t buy it, then the singers wouldn’t sing it.”

Agreed, wholeheartedly.

In the meanwhile, I hope the Jamaican government’s stand sends a message to artists like Beenie Man, Elephant Man, Sizzla, Capleton, TOK and scores of others that they’ve gone beyond boundaries that decent people are willing to accept, and that they decide to use their Jah-given gifts to send positive messages to the young fans who hang on to their every word.