The decline is the result of a complex set of factors. Chief among them the coordinated attacks by the international gay lobby coupled with the use of effective media campaigns and unofficial political and economic blockades. The Jamaican music industry is in deep trouble, as a result.
Indeed, the development of other forms of Reggae music across the globe while obviously a testament to the reach and coverage of Jamaican music, should nonetheless be cause for concern for local artistes and producers. In fact, the SummerJam Reggae Festival held in Cologne, Germany is a telling example of some of these development. Among others, there was a noticeable absence of big named Jamaican acts at the July 2-4 show. Underlining in the process, the extent to which foreign produced Reggae/ Dancehall shows are able to successfully organise themselves without the heavy involvement of Jamaican artistes.
One of several concerts scheduled for European Reggae circuit this summer, SummerJam’s line up, organization, brand and marketing clearly indicate a growing trend in industry practises, internationally – the creeping disappearance of Jamaican control of the Reggae brand. The consequence of which is that, anti-Jamaican sentiments as they affect the performance and selling of local Reggae and Dancehall music in some of the biggest markets in Europe and the United States has impacted the musical outputs from ‘the Rock’.
Thereby, resulting in a breakdown in some of the key thematic concerns generally associated with traditional Reggae music. This has created space for the emergence of European and other foreign nationals who are able to colonise, as well as to organise and profit from the various brands.
Coupled with the recent spate of United States (US) Visa cancellations affecting some artistes, the gravity of the situation is made all the more apparent. Reduced travel, especially during peak summer tour seasons mean reduced earnings and bans equal less air play.
The sum of which is decreased earnings by Jamaicans, particularly big namd stars like Beenie Man, Vybz Kartel and others. Consequently, enabling the re-branding of Jamaican music as a risky business investment and politically unappealing. That is, given the other messages associated with Jamaican musicians internationally. Placing, in the process, local Reggae and Dancehall musicians at risk of developing not only a bad reputation, internationally, but also casting an impression of Jamaica as a nation of unprofessional bigots.
Part of the reason is that, Jamaican artistes are felt to be homophobic bigots who constantly preach the violent deaths of homosexuals as a group. As a result, wholesale pressure has been brought to bear on the local industry; effectively, stymieing its development and bringing with it the eventual replacment of Jamaican control through increased foreign participation, management as well as profits. Shortly, the brand will no longer be ours.
SummerJam celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary this year under the theme: ‘Let the Spirit Rise’. The three day concert, held in Cologne, Germany is an interesting case study in some of these dynamics. From the limited numbers of Jamaican artistes on the show to the inversion of the colours of the Rastafarian religious icon often used to brand Reggae and even Dancehall, to the wholesale trade in and consumption of Rastafarian/ Jamaican craft items by Europeans, the massive transference of controlling interests in Jamaican culture is actively underway in the ‘Old World’.
Trade/ Brand Jamaica
Vendors at the popular Reggae event claimed that they stood to gain as much as forty thousand Euros from sale of Jamaican and Rastafarian icons. This, after paying only two thousand Euros to rent the small space. Part of that arrangement, they say, comes with providing their own security.
However, none of the vendors were perturbed by the small inconvenience. After all, there is much to be gained from trading in ‘Brand Jamaica’. Jamaican made and represented craft items like carvings of Rasta men with guitars to blankets and shirts with the Jamaican flag emblazoned on them, to photographs of Bob Marley and other Reggae paraphernalia provided the means for a stiff trade in local brands at the event.
Still, with the absence of an official Jamaican delegation at the concert, benefits from the mass marketing opportunities, or even a chance to promote accurate information about Reggae’s history and its association with Jamaica were not available to the patrons. At nearly a hundred Jamaican dollars to one Euro, the monetary implications may become more apparent and serious to stakeholders.
German artistes controlled the opening night of SummerJam, which was dedicated almost exclusively to European Reggae acts. Headlined by blockbuster Gentleman, the foreign performer was accompanied by a slew of other German acts including the Jamaica-Trinidad connected Cornadoor, as well as Nikitaman and others. Of the four big named artistes on the show, only two were Jamaicans, Damian ‘Junior Gong’ Marley and Toots and the Maytals. American, Hip-Hop star Nas was the other headline entertainer.
However, the absence of Jamaican celebrity artistes did not completely escape the audience’s notice. One Gambian complained that, for a twenty-fifth anniversary staging there was no Beenie Man, no Vybz Kartl or even Taurus Riley.
But that could easily be explained. Jamaican artistes are blocked from working in certain international markets due to their ‘homophobic lyrics’. At least eight Jamaican albums have been banned from German airwaves, having been placed on a list of music considered dangerous to children. They cannot earn from the music whether in recorded or video formats.
Unprofessional Jamaican Artistes
Speaking at the Reggae Conference in Kingston in February, German Reggae promoter Klaus Mack, head of Contour Music and organizers of SummerJam noted that Jamaican artistes may no longer be needed in Europe. According to Mack, their ‘unprofessionalism’ and super large egos are costing European promoters monies some are not willing to invest (anymore).
Mack’s insensitivity aside, his comments were spot in gauging the mood in Europe, currently. German Reggae and Dancehall artistes are coming of age and Jamaica is rapidly being routed from the picture.
In the estimation of the Gambian vendor, European Reggae events like SummerJam are a rip-off. He should know.
Gambia recently awarded deejay Sizzla a Diplomatic Passport and routinely conducts Dancehall Queen Competitions as well as Passa-Passa street parties. There is a great deal of supporters for Jamaican Reggae and Dancehall in the African country. Summer Jam, according to the Gambian vendor, has become ‘too commercial’. He feels that the promoters presented a less than spectacular show.
Commenting on the cost of the three day pass, the foreigner who has lived in Germany for approximately eighteen years pointed out that the promoters stood to gain a lot from the one hundred Euro fees. Given the nearly forty thousand or so patrons at the event, many of whom live in tented residences on the festival grounds, as a means of cutting costs, the economic reality may become more apparent.
But the jury is still out on the weakness of the German Reggae and Dancehall industries. Some European Reggae insiders believe Reggae music (in Germany) has come of age. According to Pete Lilly of the German Reggae magazine Riddim, there is even an indigenous Dancehall industry in that part of the world. He notes that that process is now actively underway.
The Chief Editor of the German language magazine says that, while some singers have mimicked Kingston’s hardcore themes of guns and ghetto youths, more and more German Dancehall artistes are focusing on things unique to their experience. According to Lilly, they are even engaging in clashes and sound system competitions, as well.
European Pride/ Sound Clash
Lilly’s statement reflects pride, an emotion also noted in the attitudes of others on the inside of Europe’s ‘niche’ music scene, as they call it. They are proud they are able to rival the Jamaicans at their own game. In fact, sound systems like Sentinel and Pow Pow have also won clashes with their Jamaican counterparts and were even doing dub-plates.
And there is some truth to the remarks. The play out on the unofficial ‘Dancehall Night’ seemed more like a Jamaican ‘Passa-Passa’ styled set. The Selector played a slew of current hits in the Dancehall, as well as Reggae and even Soca.
However, there was none of the fashion and preening associated with Jamaican street dances. The patrons were mostly dressed in cargo shorts and not much else. The strong smell of perspiration clearly indicated that not all elements of ‘being Jamaican’ has yet been mastered by teh Germans.
Still, the cause for worry is real. Jamaican music is in urgent need of an image make over. That reality cannot continue be brushed aside by industry insiders as an ‘uptown/ academic fixation’. Self criticism and an active move to clean up the music and professionalise the standards must become one of the hallmarks.
Artistes need to educate themselves about the world and learn how to conduct interviews with foreign press without seeming defensive. They need to recognise that an advertisement of their personal beliefs and in such a very public way, as conducted in Dancehall, will continue to result in them being sidelined, internationally.
More work has to be done with the artistes and state agencies like the Culture Ministry as a means of closing the gaps in this process. We have to actively work at changing Jamaica’s image in a very comprehensive way. Otherwise, all three brands – Dancehall, Reggae and even Jamaica will all become foreign owned and controlled.