Jamaica's spate of femicides raises perennial questions about the influence of dancehall music

On April 8, Jamaica Constabulary Force investigators searching for missing teacher Natalie Dawkins confirmed that they had found a body they believed was her. Dawkins was last seen by a neighbour on the night of March 30.

Though police insist that according to their statistics, femicides are not on the rise but rather, that the numbers have remained consistent, the discovery of Dawkins’ remains is the latest in a string of murders and attacks on women this year, a trend that has set society on edge and sparked an emotional response among Jamaican netizens, especially since the recent murder of 20-year-old accounting clerk Khanice Jackson.

Reacting to Jackson's murder, Prime Minister Andrew Holness in a media interview pointed a finger at the perceived influence of dancehall music, fanning the flames of an issue that intermittently resurfaces in the local blogosphere, and on which Jamaicans remain quite divided.

The crux of the matter rests on whether dancehall lyrics merely reflect the society that created it or instigates violent behaviour among those who listen to it.

In addressing dancehall artists, the prime minister asserted:

In our music and our culture, in as much as you are free to reflect what is happening in the society, you also have a duty to place it in context […] And though you have the protection of the constitution to sing about it, you also have a duty to the children who are listening to you.

There were mixed reactions to his comments. In his newspaper column, one young doctor observed:

The glorification of violence in a society beset by murder and violent crime has some impact on how the listeners see themselves. Without a doubt, it breeds toxic masculinity […] It may be tempting to use one’s own personal experiences to say ‘I never felt the need to be a badman after listening a gun tune’, but are you representative of the subset of society from where the majority of perpetrators of violent crimes originate? In examining our crime situation, we need a proper analysis of this subculture […]

Of course, nothing critical can be said about our music without the fanatics running out and screaming that we are uptown people fighting dancehall and that it is our culture. But when exactly did glorifying violence and denigrating women become my culture? It wasn’t always like this.

Popular deejays, singers, and even their fans are themselves quite divided on the issue. Several high-profile entertainers sharply criticised the prime minister's comments.

Maintaining that “an artist is a mirror of society,” Babycham shared a video that pointed to poverty, poor leadership, illiteracy, and lack of opportunities for youth as the push factors for crime—”not the music.” He also named other sources, such as Netflix and social media, as possible violent influences:

One music practitioner agreed, suggesting in an interview that there are many other media influences besides dancehall, and that if a person wanted to commit a crime, they would do it anyway.

Music selector Foota Hype blamed the politicians themselves for the rampant gun violence that began in the 1970s, as the rivalry between the country's two main political parties, the People's National Party (PNP), then led by Michael Manley, and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), then headed by Edward Seaga, heated up in the wider context of the Cold War. The PNP had socialist leanings, and Manley's closeness to Cuban leader Fidel Castro made the United States uncomfortable. Hype insisted that it was only when politicians own up to their role in the trade-off of guns for votes and the ensuing bloodshed that happened within Kingston’s garrison communities, that they could dare point a finger at the influence of dancehall.

Another dancehall figure, Mr. Vegas, supported the prime minister's views. He also placed Babycham in the line of fire, observing that he “refused to accept responsibility that our music […] is also impacting society when it comes on to crime and violence.”

Mr. Vegas ascribed this to the fact that the Jamaican dancehall genre is “influential,” using language that puts images in young people's minds—images many of them gravitate towards. He even gave examples of how artists, through their lyrics, have influenced behaviour by encouraging fans to wear certain clothing brands or engage in specific sexual practices.

On Facebook, social activist Damien Williams excoriated what he saw as the prime minister’s hypocritical stance since he regularly used popular dancehall music as a backdrop to his most recent election campaign:

Dancehall is everybody's scapegoat. I understand that we find the wanton murder of our young people and in particular the assault on our women — Khanice Jackson's being the most visible in recent vintage — [disturbing]. But we must approach this with a level head and clear eyes.

Everything can't be Satan's and dancehall's fault. At some point we have to hold ourselves and our leaders accountable! PM Holness […] betrays his own hypocrisy. How convenient that dancehall is now the issue, when he deploys dancehall at his own convenience to come across as charismatic […] The studies are there and countless recommendations. Show leadership and implement them so that the issues that give rise to violence and the underbelly of dancehall, will be mitigated. Dancehall doesn't shape the culture, but reflects it. Dancehall exploits the culture just like politicians. I'm tired of the political theatre that Holness defaults to when pressed for evidence-based strategies to run the country — a job he promised to do in service of the people.

On the other hand, cultural commentator Wayne Chen opined on Twitter:

One Twitter user suggested that dancehall entertainers are too “thin-skinned”:

Another tweeted—with a video of deejay Mavado, as if to prove his point:

Moreover, several dancehall figures have had serious confrontations with the law. Two exceedingly popular deejays, Ninjaman (Desmond Ballentine) and his son, as well as Vybz Kartel (Adijah Palmer) are currently serving sentences for murder.

Recent court cases involve deejay Tommy Lee Sparta, who was arrested with an illegal gun in his car, for which he has been sentenced to three years in prison, since police say the gun was found to be linked to two murders, and the teenaged son of Mavado, who was sentenced to life in prison for murder. In response, his father launched a verbal attack on the police, blaming corruption for his son's conviction.

Mavado was among those dancehall artists who severely criticised the prime minister's remarks on social media. In a lengthy Instagram post, he railed:


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by David Brooks (@mavadogully)

As fans often do, dancehall lovers are ready to defend their favourite deejays, prompting one Twitter user to comment:

Others take a live-and-let-live approach. Pointing out that he personally avoids negative influences, singer Kabaka Pyramid waxed philosophical about the perceived nexus between crime and dancehall culture:

For me still, everyone accountable to themselves and them a go get them judgement.

Some dancehall stars have already got their judgement. The debate continues on both sides, and the relationship between dancehall artists and politicians remains a complex one.

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