Bans, stop orders and incarceration. Is Jamaican music, or more specifically Dancehall, under threat? Are forces hostile to certain strains in popular Jamaican musical expression conspiring to suppress what they deem a cultural contagion? As I indicated in one of my recent articles in which I supported Charles Campbell's position that overseas opportunities for Jamaican acts are dwindling the doors are closing. Many reasons are being adduced and much blame is being ascribed. Whatever the reasons and whoever the culprits there is one inescapable fact: we are running out of options. This is certainly not a matter on which I take any pleasure reporting.
The recent announcement of a ban restricting Bounty Killer, Beenie Man and Mavado from travelling to the United States is the latest in a series of what must now be worrying developments in the Jamaican music industry. The bans come in the wake of a temporary stop order (subsequently rescinded) imposed on Elephant Man from leaving the island. Are the two issues related? Is this all part of grand international conspiracy involving domestic and foreign actors to destroy Dancehall and perhaps Jamaican music? I believe that except amongst the most febrile conspiracy theorists this would indeed be a stretch. Yet one must admit that, when viewed against the backdrop of Vybz Kartel's inability to travel to the United States and Buju Banton's present incarceration in a Florida jail, the current ban on these acts paints a most troubling picture of Jamaican music. What is more is that the Europeans are becoming increasingly reluctant to grant visas to Jamaican acts due to what are reported to be homophobic concerns and the Barbadian government (through the intervention of Prime Minister David Thompson) recently cancelled a show featuring Mavado and Kartel in Bridgetown, pointing to an accelerating trend to restrict Jamaican artistes from performing in Caribbean territories.
There are those who contend that the Dancehall acts -- with their fratricidal feuds -- are to be blamed for the troubles they now see. Supporters of this view point to the fact that to date the exponents of Reggae have been largely spared the travel inconvenience being experienced by their Dancehall counterparts. This argument would perhaps suggest that Dancehall acts are more often associated with violent or criminal activities and this could be the cause of their imminent professional demise. Yet this argument is deserving of further examination. Bushman, Mikey Spice and Luciano would not be considered typical Dancehall acts and they have had their brushes with the law. Garnett Silk, another icon of the Roots music crowd, would perhaps have had problems with the law had he not perished in the fire on that fateful night in Jamaican music history. It should be noted that neither Beenie Man, Bounty Killer nor Mavado (to the best of my recollection) have ever been charged with a felony. Could it be that there is more concern overseas about what our artistes say than what they do? The sad reality, though, is that the Jamaican music scene, and not just Dancehall, is a dangerous space to navigate. Artistes by the nature of their visibility (often brought about by conspicuous consumption) are high-profile targets for robberies, and worse.
It is possible that Dancehall has become the victim of a global warfare being waged between different factions of the same generation. In fact, what we might be seeing is a war being waged about the rights to expression. The dancehall acts are pitted against liberal elements of their own generation who in a previous dispensation would have been their allies. What is happening in Europe seems to support the position that a liberal social agenda which countenances greater freedom of sexual expression is trumping concerns for artistic licence. In this epic battle, artistic licence is losing, especially in the case of Jamaican music, which is not an indigenous form of expression in these territories. Are concerns about homophobia behind the recent travel bans? We do not know and the United States will not say. After all, they owe us no explanation. The granting of a visa is a privilege, not a right. Of course, the current detention of Buju is seen by many in Jamaica to be part of a grand homosexual conspiracy.
Yet there might not only be moral, legal and political considerations which have prompted the current phase of travel restrictions in a number of overseas territories. I strongly suspect that these decisions could also be driven in some instances partly or wholly by commercial imperatives. It is no secret that Jamaican music dominates the airwaves of the English-speaking Caribbean territories. This poses a serious threat to the development of indigenous forms of expression in many small Caribbean territories. Some would say that the behaviour of some Jamaican artistes provide those who seek to prevent them from entering some Caribbean and European borders with the perfect excuse for excluding them. The fact is that governments can be very skilful in circumventing free trade provisions. Visa restrictions and other objections are some of the tools employed by some nations to get around free trade concessions they might have given to other territories in treaties and agreements.
What, then, are the options available to Jamaican acts? Well, there is always the matter of integrity. If an artiste deems his message to be integral to his identity then he has the right and the option to eschew financial considerations and adhere to his beliefs. An artiste will have to decide which is of more importance -- his being able to secure a visa or his having the ability to say what he believes. Assuming that this might be the main reason for the ban in some territories. In this present scenario it might well be unlikely that he can eat his cake and have it. Strategy is about choice. It might very well be that a body of work which is now deemed offensive will find future redemption. There sometimes has to be a trade-off between longevity and immediate gratification. It will be incumbent on each artiste and his management to make the determination of which path they will take.