UWI Panel Discussion –Social Impact of Jamaican Popular Music

UWI Panel Discussion –Social Impact of Jamaican Popular Music

Marcia Forbes PhD

Feb. 26, 2011

I am delighted to be here with the other panellists – Professor Freddie Hickling, Dr. Donna Hope and Mr Cordell Green -- exploring and discussing Jamaica’s popular music. I have no doubt that this will largely centre on dancehall. I thank Professor Claudette Williams of the Cultural Studies Department, University of the West Indies, for inviting me to participate.

Not impact but influence:
Let me highlight that my presentation will focus on the influence of music, not its impact. The purists will point out that impact can only be measured by research studies which are designed in particular ways such as the experimental mode so as to measure causal relations between variables. I make no such claim. My research design was not to establish cause and effect relationships between adolescents and the types of music that they engage with. My design, as is the case with the majority of studies involving human beings, used methodologies which allow me to identify correlations/associations/connections/relationships, but not cause.
So I cannot tell you that popular music will cause certain types of attitudes or behaviours in our youths. But what I can tell you, based on my work, is that music is very, very influential on what we think about and how we think about those things and that music can and does influence what we do. I dare anyone to challenge me on this!! Last year we saw how so many of our youths took up the Gully/Gaza divide and how this spread across the Caribbean region to places like St. Lucia, Antigua, Trinidad and even solid and staid-Barbados. Last year while I was in Barbados I hear the hotel staff singing Dancehall songs and passing comments directly related to the lyrics.

MMASJ & the Social Influence of Music

What I’ve written about in Music, Media & Adolescent Sexuality in Jamaica is the ways in which music, and at a wider level media in general, influence the psyche and behaviours of children—how music and media influence how they feel about themselves and the kinds of things they may see as right or wrong based on some of the things they see and hear in music and music videos. And some of the things they may do in response to what they see and hear. As one boy from rural Jamaica remarked about music videos, “they touch all parts of life…how to treat your mother properly, how to cross the road properly. So music videos...they influence in your decision making process.” Not my words, but the words of a teenager making quite clear how he sees the social influence of music and music videos.

From a survey of almost 450 young persons across several parishes almost half of the girls (47%) wanted to look like the women they see in their favourite music videos. But listen to this, among those girls whose favourite was hip hop, a full 65% of them, that is pretty much two thirds of them, wanted to look like the women in hip hop videos. So when we talk about the social influence of music, this is a part of what we are talking about, the ways in which we look to music and their related videos for social cues such as how to dress and other aspects of our physical appearance.

Among boys, 44% of them wanted to look like the men in their favourite videos. Listen to what one 17 year old boy had to say about his favourite artistes, “because they set their image…so they look a step higher than everybody. Always clean cut—and their shades and haircut…groomed, and chains and shirts…and rings and jewellery. They always look buffed.” He was talking about hip hop stars, not dancehall! So it’s not just dancehall that is extremely popular among youths!!

From another boy, a devout Christian is how he described himself, his views about music videos “some of them show you how you must carry yourself in front of a girl…like how you dress and how you approach a girl.” Again, his focus was on hip hop videos. And of some note is that nearly all the boys who named gangsta rap as their favourite genre wanted the kind of lifestyle that the men in those videos portrayed. We don’t have to get into a discussion about the kinds of images that are most likely to be portrayed in gangsta rap videos – the glorification of guns. Neither do we have to discuss the kinds of lyrics that are most prevalent in the gangsta rap genre – ma bitch, ma hoe!! The powerful influence of music on our youths extends beyond dancehall!!

One girl described how she drove down her boyfriend because she saw a girl in his car. She later described a video she had seen with a similar scene but hadn’t made the link between her behaviour and the video. Again this video related to a hip hop song. Music and music videos influence us in many ways and many times we are not even aware of this. As one young girl explained, she didn’t like a particular song (Tek Buddy) but, as she said, the lyrics just come up in head and she found herself singing it and was annoyed at herself for singing it.

The infectious rhythm and the attraction to the beat of the drum, which Marjorie Whylie explained as in sync with our heart beat, pulls us into music and we take it all in sometimes wittingly but many times, especially for children, unwittingly.
I now want to share with you a few clips from a video shoot a couple days ago. This is promotional material being compiled for the book and which will be posted on YouTube and included in the EPK (electronic press kit) for its launch at the Caribbean Studies Association’s conference in Curacao this May.

Male Dominance
All three of them, Kartel, Macka and Beenie, in their own ways touched on issues of male dominance and the system of patriarchy, where men rule and men dictate the boundaries of social discourse about women and their sexuality. Both men and women in music largely perpetuate the societal norm of man as provider, protector and dictator of acceptable sexual behaviours by females. You notice how all three of them, even Macka, focus on the female fans?

In a society where so many of our men are unemployed and unemployable and with our own indigenous music placing such heavy demands on men, is it any wonder that our males will strive to ‘provide & protect’ by whatever means necessary? Music, Media & Adolescent Sexuality in Jamaica is replete with direct quotes from adolescents which indicate the ways in which music enhances their socialization into a system of patriarchy with a reliance on men to ‘let off’, even in instances where the women see themselves as ‘independent’. Macka’s Money O depicts this well. As she noted in the video clip, it makes a woman feel more secure when she has a man who gives her money.

The art versus reality argument is always quite strong in our artistes’ defence of their lyrics and their accompanying music videos. All three of them emphasize this. And it is true, but only to a point. What we cannot ignore is that when popular entertainers take up what is already represented in reality and project this in their songs and videos, the reality ‘tek life’ (as we say in Jamaica). It becomes amplified.

Using the metaphor of music video as a prism, this art form can be regarded as taking aspects of reality and not only reflecting them, but importantly, breaking up this reality into numerous and diverse aspects and presenting them in a different light; Much the way a prism breaks white light into many colours. Importantly, songs and music videos do not simply reflect reality, but modify, amplify and change that into something else. They do not simply reflect reality but amplify certain aspects of reality and, using life to create art, throw up new artistically designed and sometimes distorted realities.

Listening to our popular music and watching the majority of our music videos one would be led to believe that life in Jamaica is nothing but sex, sex, sex, with sexual violence thrown in for good measure. On reading my book Kartel may fool himself and others into believing that I was the one who ascribed the words ‘disgusting’ and ‘degrading’ to his lyrics. It wasn’t me!! I captured the words used by his female fans and some of the male ones as well. Yet despite these descriptions, they mostly continue to fully enjoy his music.

The DJs are acutely aware of the social influence of their music, despite their oft times protestations and failure to take responsibility. As Macka noted, and as we all know, they do it for the ‘forward’. And that ‘forward’ impacts the bottom line – Money O!! Kartel is quite clear on the influence of his music and his actions when in that interview he almost disdainfully describes his fans as merely puppets with him, the master puppeteer controlling the strings. It’s his GAME, he says!!

DJs Have Power to Influence but so do Others!
DJs obviously recognize the power they have and the power of the music to influence our young people but they still insist that “it wasn’t me”. And true, it is not only the music. Earlier this week I presented at the Institute of Jamaica and made the point that it is not just the music which influences our children into certain types of behaviours, it is everything they see and hear around them. And if daily they hear about sorting out, and swiping and mixup and this goes on for four hours every day, for five days a week and then again at night, what do we expect them to think about? We repeat certain messages, and we reinforce them with our positive responses by laughing about them, and we normalize and make them OK and acceptable.

Media Messages
I want to frame the rest of my presentation against the backdrop of media proliferation in Jamaica because, frankly, without the rapid proliferation and access to media many of the things we are exposed to and we begin to take as quite acceptable and normal now, were it not for media we wouldn’t even hear about or see those things. The social influence of music all depends on many variables. What we see and hear via the media, and remember that extends beyond TV, radio and newspapers to media such as Facebook, Youtube, ITunes, Twitter, MySpace and others, and how often we see and hear these things is a key variables

Who are the Gatekeepers to determine what we see and hear via these various media forms? In any discussion of the social influence of Jamaican music, the role of media, parents and families cannot be ignored or underestimated. And that is why the title of my presentation said – It all depends!

It All Depends!
But it’s not just media, parents/guardians and families that ‘it all depends relate to’, importantly ‘it all depends’ relates to the individual. Let me spend a little time highlighting some of the variables which relate specifically to the individual and the social influence of music based on the messages in music.

• Gender – Male & Females do not respond in the same ways to music. The sexes are socialized differently and certain messages take on greater resonance and salience depending on whether you are a man or a woman. ‘Man a long distance Stulla’, while likely to result in sexual satisfaction for both the man and the woman in one particular act of sex, bears greater social consequence for the man. He has to be a long distance Stulla in every sex act, otherwise he’s quickly diminished as ‘saaf’ or ‘wutliss’. For the male, the art of ‘Stullarism’ has to be learnt and honed. Many of our songs extoll the virtues of ‘Stullarism’, although it may be called by other names.

• Age – This relates to our development stage -- We respond to the messages in music differently based on our level of physical, psycho-sexual and emotional development. This area is discussed in-depth in Music, Media & Adolescent Sexuality in Jamaica where the point is made that it is our young boys, the 10 to 12 year olds, who, based on their consumption levels, are most influenced by music videos.

• SES – This again relates to the concepts of resonance and salience.

When Cham sings:
“Dis aah survival storieee, True Ghetto storieee”
“I remember those days when hell was my home,
When Me and Mama bed was a big piece a foam”

Uptown children with their own bedroom, with air conditioning, TV and computer have no idea what it must feel like for your bed to be a piece of foam. Nor would they understand what it means like to hear gunshots around you all night. They will listen to the song and love it because it sounds nice and catchy. However, to the child in the ghetto whose home is really like living hell with violence in close proximity with hunger and deprivation as daily challenges, they hear the words and they feel it. They know and understand it. So the lyrics have greater resonance to them and are more salient to them and therefore have the ability to exert greater influence on them.

• Emotional State – This is an important variable since even within the same person the influence of music will vary depending on the person’s emotional state while listening. When you are sad or depressed you may only want to hear certain kinds of music. Sometimes we hear arguments that certain types of music cause certain types of behaviours. The verdict is not out on this as to which comes first. It is still being debated.

In closing I want to emphasize that we need not detain ourselves with the semantics of impact versus influence. We all know that music is powerful and that it can and does influence and perhaps even directly impact. We also know that there are social and economic consequences based on the dominant messages in our popular music. Sexualisation of both males and females, but especially the latter, is one consequence. As too is the heavy burden placed on males to perform – sexually and financially!!

Our males, in particular the young ones, are the ones most at risk for suffering negative consequences based on their heavy consumption of many of the messages of our popular music.  We know that many of our most popular DJs are entirely hypocritical and two faced in their continued defence of the kinds of messages they perpetuate. It boils down to money and what will drive sales. As Macka points out, it's all about what will get a 'forward'.  Being totally opposed to censorship, I invite consciousness-raising among DJs as to the role of their music among youths, along with focus on the role of media, parents and family in attending to the social consequences as they relate to messages in our popular music and their power to influence—negatively but also positively!!

Thank you for your kind attention.