February 10, 2009
IN DEFENSE OF DAGGERING
The Broadcasting Commission's decision to ban daggering is laughable at best. The commission issued a release to the media last week to the effect that programmes managers "should take immediate steps to prevent the transmission of any recorded material relating to daggerin' ... ", a move that would effectively ban the word 'dagger' from the airwaves. Further, the commission said that radio, television and cable companies should not air songs or videos containing daggerin' lyrics or scenes.
We stand on the lip of a worldwide recession that is threatening to send Jamaicans into the clutches of back-breaking poverty? And this is what the government is advocating? I am tempted to believe that this a red herring to distract the nation from the difficult times that lie ahead. Because after all, which century are we in? The Middle Ages. Why stop there? Why not ban the word 'wine'? And that offensive three letter word, sex? We should close down all the massage parlours and go go clubs, and ban all that is delightful to man then. Ms. Tyson et al should have a big book-burning, condom-searing bonfire in the middle of HWT Square.
I have never been a big fan of the daggerin' songs and have always been surprised at the number of sexually explicit songs that actually make it onto the radio. But why go about it in such an asinine way? Each song should be examined on a case by case basis instead of an across the board ban. The Broadcasting Commission now needs to be consistent in its stance and the public should bombard them with emails and letters if they slip up. The BC should also frown on the beaming of flesh-flashing carnival revelry of young and old into the living rooms of the nation this Carnival Sunday, certain rap and R & B songs, and the airing of commercials that use explicit sexual references to hawk consumer goods. If they intend to be fair and consistent about what they choose to ban, then I say go for it.
In the wake of Nikki Z's firing from ZIP FM, it is clear that nothing can fly under the radar anymore. This latest thrust by civil society is just an indication of mainstream society's shifting priorities and taboos. Daggering is just the updated version of rent-a-tile, or rubbing from the 1970s, so it clear that this is an attack against dancehall, or a subgenre of dancehall which has earned a reputation for bad language and bad behavior.
Civil society still hasn't learned anything after all these years. If you ban something, you are promoting the idea to impressionable kids that certain dancehall artistes have something useful to say, when it doesn't really matter that much in the struggling middle class lives of Jamaicans battling to keep their jobs, and pay their mortgages. How will the ban of daggering help to slow the financial meltdown and decay of our society? All they are doing is to ensure that daggering lasts an additional six months in the psyche of the people instead of allowing it to die a natural death, usurped by some new exciting craze from the teens themselves.
Here's a terrible but true idea: what if dancehall doesn't matter that much to our society. Ask yourself:
What if dancehall's lyrics shifted from tough talk and crude jokes to socially conscious music and nothing changed? What if the controversial gun-toting lyrics quieted down, but the crime figures of rape, carnal abuse and domestic violence did not even register a blip in response to this new dancehall? What if dancehall were defanged, and became all soft ballads, kid-friendly bubblegum pop music and positive lyrics, and there was still carnage and death in the streets, and the society was still going to hell in a handcart. What then?
This whole thing is a damn Shakespeare novel, Much Ado About Nothing.
In her February 1 column in The Sunday Gleaner, Esther Tyson said the Ramping Shop song impacts negatively on youth and called for a shutdown of corporate support for dancehall artistes and events until the genre cleans up its act. I think Ms. Tyson totally missed the mark. What corporate interests need to do to try to use the enormous popularity of dancehall -- the language, the dances, and the clothes, the stars -- to spotlight some of the political issues that most directly affect its fans and try to inspire change.
Consumers have learned to live with all sorts of semi-voluntary censorship, including the film rating system, the self-regulation of basic cable networks and the Broadcasting Commission's monitoring of media broadcasts. This is not the first time that the Broadcasting Commission had tried to get rid of songs with bleeps in them, a ridiculous notion when you consider that dancehall fans, in particular, know that their favorite songs will reach radio in expurgated form with polysyllabic swear words, sexual references and trigger-pulling deleted. How can someone voluntarily remove a swear word and then you still ban the song? That smacks of the worst species of stupidity, the self-righteous kind.
In the 1980s, I remember the NFFAP tunes like Two Year Old and Shabba's Love Punaany Bad and their amazing popularity in the streets. The banned songs were clearly a part of the rebellious subculture and were celebrated as such and these songs achieved incredible popularity because of the ban. Dancehall has been dismissed as noise, and accused of glorifying crime and sexism and greed, but it still lingers on. Critics say it has popularized an anti-snitching informer-fi-dead ethos that undermines the police and allows criminals to operate with relative impunity.
Just like with previous dancehall controversies, there is a villain with a villainous song, and this time it is, drum roll please, the Ramping Shop. Vybz Kartel has always had an uneasy relationship with the mainstream media because of his maverick attitude and biting rhymes. I don't agree with everything that he has to say, but I do defend his right to say it. So I believe that this debate is not really about Vybz Kartel, it is about dancehall's vexed position in the Jamaican mainstream. The boundaries of public and private space keep changing along with the multiplying standards that govern them. The Gleaner newspaper had a headline two weeks ago that screamed: Sex in Recession. This sort of thing means that mainstream culture in becoming more crude, and it's harder to keep the sordid stuff out of the media. The traditional gatekeepers are becoming increasingly irrelevant as the Internet and other media hold sway, and that vexes a lot of powerful people.
But with all the hullabaloo about a song in the media, the real question remains: Why is this what sells?
What does it really say about our society? Daggering is clearly not the problem. Jamaica is besieged by the twin tigers of violence and unemployment and it is clear that we have a societal problem, but we must examine creative ways of changing the behaviour of our people and this can only be done by changing the environment and the conditions in which they live, by beefing up our schools, by equipping our police force and by reaching out to the disenfranchised and downtrodden. Anything less is futile.