by Yao Atunwa
The Ska legend Millie Small, whose childlike high-pitched vocals captivated the United Kingdom, North America and frankly the world with the hit single “My Boy Lollipop,” passed away on 5 May 2020 at age 73 as a result of a stroke. The announcement of her death was relayed by major news outlets around the world.
When one is truly an international sensation, as she was, one is recognised and honoured in a manner befitting of such stardom, even long after the concert’s lights would have been turned off. The petite woman from Clarendon, Jamaica, is truly a music legend. Apart from touring the world and sharing her nation’s love affair with music and winning the hearts of many, Small would have received many accolades in the process. This includes being presented with her nation’s Commander of the Order of Distinction (2011) for her contribution to the Jamaican music industry. But perhaps the utmost distinction in all would be the fact that she was the first Ska or Jamaican recording artiste to score a number 2 hit on the UK Singles Chart and later duplicated the achievement on the US Hot 100 Chart (1964). The single became the largest grossing Ska song, with over one million records sold. To date, it has sold over seven million records.
The aim has been for some time to take the local musical product international, the way bauxite, bananas, and rum will leave the island for larger markets in Europe and elsewhere. Chris Blackwell, founder and owner of Island Records, has been most instrumental in introducing to the UK and by extension the world such great talents as Millie Small and the Wailers, which he would re-brand Bob Marley and the Wailers subsequent to Small’s noted arrival, as they were seeking to make their début in England in the early 1970s. The representation of a larger market means the greater is the potentiality to reap bigger financial rewards for such products. And that has not changed, not since Millie Small officially launched that campaign as a Ska (forerunner to Reggae) singer one year after her arrival in England in 1963. Before her appearance and that of Ska, there were Jamaicans and other West Indians who would have been making a name for themselves as cabaret and Jazz singers and musicians in earlier periods.
Most notable would have been Grenada-born cabaret singer and musician Leslie Arthur Julien “Hutch” Hutchison (1900-1969), who abandoned his father’s plans for him to become a physician when he quit his studies in the US to take his musical talent to a more racially accommodating England in 1927; a talent he had started honing as a young lad playing the organ at his local Anglican church in Gouyave, St John and would refine whilst playing in the party circuit in the US. Though he would meet his demise almost penniless, he was solidly a fans’ favourite during the musical scenes of the 1930s and 1940s in England; however, he eventually faded at the onset of the 1950s with the advances made by the growing popularity of more contemporary genres and his own falling out with British high society that manifested in the form of a shunning, resulting from his salacious affairs with members of the British Royal Family. Unlike Small’s, there hardly was much of a fanfare at his passing. His loyal fans for the most part mourned his passing privately, as reported by several sources. So there certainly can be exception to the rule as far as celebration of one’s achievements and overall contribution made to the arts, in this case. But to be most fair, Hutch reigned as England’s heartthrob, however, his appeal was not as international as Small’s.
Music, we are often told, is a business, and can be a cutthroat enterprise for those artistes and musicians investing their time, energy, talent, and material resources. But more interesting to note is the market-orientation or forces that pervade the industry, irrespective of the disposition of particular managers or record labels. My objective in penning this article is to illustrate the impact of wider market forces originating from the greater economic life of a society as it is influenced by external forces, namely market-society or market-based society. Such forces will eventually come to rest in both the music and value system in the society; thus, seeking to shift the cultural landscape. The Jamaican story is most demonstrative of this dynamic, of the convergence and impact of these wider market forces, which I will seek to delineate momentarily. A similar trajectory to that of Jamaica’s is the evolution of Hip Hop culture in the American context. As the history goes, Reggae/Dub itself is foundational to Hip Hop music; they both were music created by members of the lower rung of society in their plight to protest the suffering and injustices in those societies. Unmistaken is the representation of a son of Jamaican soil being principally positioned at Hip Hop’s inception in the mid-1970s in the Bronx, New York, DJ Clive “Kool Herc” Campbell.
As mentioned earlier, Ska, a more upbeat and faster-paced rhythm pattern to Reggae, served as Reggae’s forerunner. Ska’s successor is Rocksteady, a mid-range rhythm pattern compared to both Ska and Reggae, with a bit of Jazz flair and overall a subtler of a difference to Reggae. It is Reggae that would prove to be the ideal genre for its versatility, with its one-drop rhythm pattern that some have described to be in perfect timing with the people’s own rhythm to life. The slowing down of the entire musical arrangement with a notable emphasis on the bass guitar and the drums would serve as the winning formula. Such was consequentially the reason why Ska, the dominant genre in the mid to late 1960s, was supplanted by Reggae. Reggae basically incorporated them in its fold.
The music industry in Jamaica in the 1960s and much of the 1970s and 1980s, though it had an eye for the international market, was primarily sustained by the local music industry – a testament to the industrial base of that society. Every aspect of the production process was being facilitated to put out the proper product as far as vocals and musical arrangements by local producers and studios; not to mention the island’s many radio stations (these stations were not always embracing of Reggae and its predecessors), its own billboard chart, and a marketing machinery to ensure heavy rotation of those sounds on the radio stations, in bars, and other social venues were vital to the elevation of Reggae. No Eastern Caribbean country has ever come close to that achievement, in spite of the downsizing of that vast infrastructure, as the large vinyl presses started disappearing or reducing their capacity in later periods due to market forces from within and outside the country. As more artistes gain traction in the UK and US markets, and started signing recording contracts in those markets in the 1990s and onwards, less pressing of vinyl was done on the home soil. To make matters worse for the industry in terms of productive output and ownership was the advent of new and more portable technology such as CDs and at this stage electronic-based file sharing using a multitude of formats and platforms such as iTunes and Sound Cloud.
Sometime the influence of the market is obvious, especially for an individual artiste or group attempting to enter a genre or particular market, or seeking to promote a particular song. It is much harder, on the other hand, to grapple with the wider market influence on the overall culture. One of the reasons for the difficulty is that often we as observers employ the same individual level of analysis utilised when seeking to gauge the success rate of artistes and thus their impact on the genre vis-à-vis fans’ general acceptance of that particular song, album, or genre. There is absolutely no question that the artistes, groups, management companies, and record labels through their own navigating of the industry get to influence the said industry in shaping the taste of fans. Nevertheless, the superior influence no doubt emanates from market-society itself, which is to say that the existing market-orientation of the society is such that through its heavy reliance on markets in regulating social actives and interactions that little is done outside such influence. In other words, an order that prioritises capital and capital gain trumps or influences virtually all other interests. As such, the music industry represents a machinery that creates interests in those who come in contact with it from all standpoints, both directly and indirectly, in a very keen manner.
Artistes instinctively understand such demand vis-à-vis the music industry; their job is to manoeuvre the spaces and contours of that environment where more than a song is given life but the introduction of values and value systems embedded in those songs. Admittedly, a great many fans and artistes can be unsuspecting of the values or value system being transmitted or their true destructive capacity, especially when one has already adopted the sentiments and messages of certain songs or genres as their own. The obvious lines of demarcation between genres and even cultures can become blurry in a person or artiste’s mind; again due to his/her own personal interest or investment in a particular genre. After all, there is an accepted normalcy that is insisted by each genre. Such an important feature can be attributed to the identity-forming process that is engaged within each genre in relation to others. The genre itself is a regulatory and therefore a validating mechanism that artistes interact with, in producing the kinds of music that they do. Each genre has its own motif insofar as rhythm pattern, general musicality, and overall posture towards lyrical content, among other things. Therefore, genre serves to limit the creative process as much as it provides spaces or opportunities for artistes and production companies. Moreover, genres are reflective of the time periods they were given birth, musically and socio-economically speaking. The very popularity of a particular genre speaks to the current outlook of a nation in terms of the socioeconomic welfare of the people and the dominant values in that environment. The wider its base audience, added emphasis is given to that genre by the music industry, in realising the faster horse in the race, so to speak: adding to the efforts of individual record labels.
By no accident, the preeminence of market forces remains where it belongs in a market society, as the appointed engine of productivity. The rise of Hip Hop music first in the US and now globally has much to do with the great hijacking of the mission of Hip Hop culture by vulture capitalists waving the banner of neoliberalism and its chief value, rugged individualism, in a society that is historically and deeply stratified. But I rather not spend much time analysing the American music scene and socioeconomic context, for the intent is to stay in the Caribbean region. Their parallelism is not lost, though the contours of those lines (if you will) would vary as far as one having a closer and more direct relationship to market-society and thus the manner transactions are manifested would differ.
Before the eclipsing of Rhythm & Blues by Hip Hop in the 1990s in the American context and similarly Reggae by its offspring, Dancehall, in that same era, Ska and Rocksteady were seeking to gain space in a Jamaican market dominated by American music with little success until the arrival of Reggae, and equally important to mention is the prevalence of the portable stereo and radio. Vaster access to music through those means significantly assisted in tilting the scale in favour of the local artform, as more laypersons could now afford what was a luxury. The biggest push, however, would come from the advent of the large soundbox as part of the sound systems used by disc jockeys in parties and other live events. That phenomenon got exported to the UK in the 1960s and throughout the Americas. Roots man or rebel music had surely set its sight on the international market, in infiltrating the UK market where a sizeable number of Jamaicans had taken up residence starting after the Second World War with other West Indians to aid in the rebuilding efforts of the then mother country, as it was proclaimed.
If for one thing, in the local market, the commercial success of Reggae was recognised by capital investors in control of the music infrastructure in Jamaica: it would mean doing more than seeking to remake or mimic the songs from the US. For those investors, nothing could or would prove to be more ideal than having an authentic sound embraced by the local population, with a growing export market as Reggae became more prominent and eventually part of the UK mainstream in the mid-1970s. During this period, Reggae would be recognised as an international genre with the growing popularity of Bob Marley and the Wailers, as well as England-based groups such as Steel Pulse, Aswad, and Matumbi. Reggae remains quite relevant even in the current era, though its offspring, Dancehall, has the wider market space and influence. How that comes to be is most revealing of the impact of market-society on a population and the music it seeks to produce.
Dancehall would not only come to be heavily influenced by synthetic sounds with the use of more contemporary and electric instruments, its motif and in particular its lyrical content would be shaped in a socioeconomic reality that seems totally hopeless to people on the margins of that society. The generation of Dancehall artistes to come of age in the 1990s were the children of the 1970s and 1980s when the economic conditions on the ground were rather bleak, a period when the IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programme did very little for Jamaicans. Instead, it made the country more dependent on foreign imports, chiefly food products, resulting in many farming families losing their livelihoods. The sharp spike in violent crimes and the overall crime rate from the late 1970s onwards is a signpost of the increasing lawlessness and hopelessness experienced and continues to be experienced by poor and working-class people by and large. Partisan or garrison politics would serve to equally incite and galvanise the violence in the population.
In spite of the notoriety and international acclaim at that juncture of Reggae (and Dancehall), including having its own category in the Grammy’s Awards (1985), the country that gave birth to both was and is hardly any better off compared to when it had gained independence in 1962. In fact, it is worse off as far as social relations. The society had become evidently more divided in the midst of the economic strife that hardly seems to go away. One will think that Jamaica with all its endowments will be an economically developed nation as opposed to having one of the lowest income per capita in the western hemisphere. There is nothing in the people’s commitment to producing that we can attribute for the horrific reality witnessed on that nation; credit ought to be rightfully given to the economic development model that that country’s leaders adhere to in the current and for the greater portion of its post-independence history: neoliberalism, with its promotion of private interest over government social interventions. The value of competition is elevated in the culture and so is ruthlessness. In such an environment, both insecurity and violence run rampant. Hence in the 1990s, we came to witness Dancehall’s embrace of lyrics that sought to further marginalise women and members of the gay community with song heavily laden with chauvinistic and misogynist lyrics. The rebel spirit and militancy of Reggae had officially been lost on Dancehall, which was very innocent in its inception (one must remember, keenly), as was reflected in its incorporation of nursery rhymes and childhood frolic in its early renditions and hits. As its devotees unapologetically like to put it, gun and woman lyrics dominate Dancehall.
Today, in 2020, the songs being produced and exported are even bolder in both respects. These lyrics are commonly colder and more explicit in their violent and misogynist fervour. The highly explicit vulgarity of the lyrical content of an inordinate sum of these songs leaves no question about the singer’s signalling posture or intentionality towards women sexually and otherwise. I am not particularly compelled to quote any of those artistes, in making this essential point. It is pervasive, to say the least! Another aspect of the shift that needs highlighting is the degree to which the individual singer has become not merely the narrator of a given story but himself the centrepiece of the story, with an obvious celebration of egotism, in recounting the proverbial exploits. This very quality is indicative of a major shift, as is the diminishment of large musical groups that once dominated the music scene in earlier periods. What we are witnessing is a grander presence of market-based or market-society in the culture and therefore cultural products: with its emphasis or high demand for the promotion of the individual over the collective. In other words, rugged individualism continues to have more sway with the masses as neoliberalism becomes more entrenched in Jamaica and other similarly-situated societies in the Caribbean and beyond. The best description for this macro process is cultural displacement. Such is the power of economics and ideology.
Unremarkably, that is precisely the process that certain Soca artistes from Grenada and elsewhere, whether cognisant or not, are seeking to speed up with their adoption of Dancehall at this juncture. There has been an interest in Dancehall and Reggae by nationals from the other Caricom countries for as long as those genres have existed, and a very few thus far have attained success for a number of reasons, one being the lack of local support. Dominica’s Nasio Fontaine, Trinidad & Tobago’s Marlon Asher, UK and Barbados-based Guyana’s Eddy Grant with his fusion of Soul and Reggae, and the contemporary Natural Blacks also from Guyana have made the biggest splash, to date: all conscious artistes. It is fair to state that crossover interest is in tandem with the wide appeal of the current hit makers of Dancehall (by that token, no different than in the earlier period). Consequently, nothing is off limit as far as subject matter or delivery. Explicit vulgarity is the new trademark.
Even before the cancellation of carnival for this season, I have noticed a marked interest on the part of a few notable Soca artistes in following that lead, which took me off-guard for two main reasons: one, the trend usually goes in the other direction for Soca artistes, as was the case with Tall Pree and Mr Killa, who come to recognise and appreciate the bigger reward for them personally in embracing Soca after trying their hands at Dancehall. The other has to do with the fact that these current individuals already have huge fan followings as Soca artistes, albeit without the material success of a Tall Pree or Mr Killa who have taken their acts regionally and internationally with wide acceptance. My word of caution for these individuals whose name I rather withhold would have to be a simple and direct one: It is one thing to be exposed to Dancehall and it is quite another to embrace it by seeking to engage it as an artiste, coming from a society that does not promote violence in the wholesale manner as is done in the Jamaican society and depicted in its dominant genre. The erosion of cultural practices meant to make members of the society whole again (which Mento, Ska, Rocksteady, Reggae, Calypso, and Soca represent), given the very traumatic experiences endured by our people from slavery and beyond, would serve to be the cost, which could then lead to engineering of an entire shift in the culture. Therefore, reversing what little gains were made over those decades and centuries in the West. The forces of market-society are no doubt impacting the economic and social reality of the Grenadian society; however, not to the extent it has in Jamaican society.
Grenada is still very much a safe and peaceful place. Thus, the dramatisations encountered in many of these Dancehall songs is very foreign to the host country. It is not worth it imitating or embracing a genre that is existing at a wavelength that denotes that itself needs resuscitating. The current state of Dancehall and the overall situation facing a people made to be dependent on foreign cultures is perhaps best articulated in the lyrics of the song “Contradiction” by Alborosie featuring Chronixx. I leave you with its very poignant chorus:
“Too many idolised badness
Island in the sun
Just falling in ah darkness
One love and one heart
Where the heart dey
Nowadays to be cool
You must be heartless.”