There's change afoot in the Jamaican musical landscape where a slew of new artists are choosing to forego the digital sounds of dancehall and its often explicit themes in favor of a return to live backing bands and a more positive vibe. The movement seems to also be partially fueled by a mostly lackluster year for dancehall in 2012 that saw its reigning and controversial king Vybz Kartel remain incarcerated, leaving a major gap in its musical landscape.
The effect of dancehall’s “off” year and just how popular and sustainable this new, live band, "conscious" movement is within Jamaica remains a question that seems to be on the mind of music fans and industry types alike in the country's capital.
Dancehall Gone Amiss
After touching down at Norman Manley Airport in Kingston, one might expect to immediately hear the sounds of dancehall and reggae being mashed up across the airwaves and through a booming set of taxi speakers on your way into town. That's not necessarily the case, though. Don’t be surprised if the cab you take plays a slow jams mix of '70s and '80s American R&B instead. Or if a late dinner at Scotchies or a lunch at the popular, uptown Hot Pot fails to play a single lick of ska guitar, one drop or a dancehall beat.
Of course, this is a typical uptown vibe, where the soundtrack of establishments in neighborhoods like New Kingston and Liguanea are often of the easy listening type with Bob Marley added for the tourists.
Yet even the bars at night often mix the reggae with hip-hop, soul music and even indie rock. A Wednesday evening spent at Weddy Weddy; run by Stone Love, the longest running soundsystem in Jamaica, will dedicate a large portion of it’s set to music from outside of the island.
Jamaicans have always had an affinity for music made beyond its shores, though, particularly American R&B and pop.
"Jamaicans are emotional people. We love music that is emotional. We even love Michael Bolton," explained Mitchie Williams who runs Rockers International Record Store
in downtown Kingston.
And sure enough, just down the street from Rockers is Small World Studio, a bathroom-sized recording space where if giving the privilege to enter, you will see photos of Celine Dion and Mr. Bolton himself on the wall next to photos of reggae giants like Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs.
Still the absence of dancehall at times around the capital is particularly noticeable after its slow year. At the International Reggae Conference at the University of West Indies this year, the subject of dancehall's decline was a topic of much discussion. One paper's title, presented by Dr. Michael Barrett, explicitly spelled out the question that seemed to be on everyone's mind: "Has Dancehall Lost its Way or Have We Merely Transitioned to a Post-Dancehall Era?"
While another presenter noticed the differences from her last visit to the island three years ago for the conference.
"Last time I was here it was all Mavado and Vybz," she said outside Assembly Hall at UWI after a round-table discussion titled "Deconstructing Dancehall Performance and Literature."
"Now there's much more American music being played. It's definitely noticeable."
In late 2011, dancehall's most popular star Vybz Kartel was incarcerated in connection with two murders. Kartel has been awaiting trial since and despite releasing a few singles while locked up, his musical output has dropped off considerably. As a result, a hole has been left in dancehall's landscape that is akin to what would happen if Kanye West and Rick Ross suddenly disappeared from the American airwaves for over a year.
"Because Vybz is gone, dancehall has suffered without a doubt" said Trevor, a street vendor selling CD-R mixes of dancehall near the bustling transportation stop of Half Way Tree.
So far, no one has been able to replace Kartel's much talked about persona, controversy and clout leaving a space for other musical styles from Jamaica and beyond to fill up the airwaves.
On a beach near Port Antonio in the parish of Portland, a young music fan named JJ put it plainly, "When Vybz was popular, he buss up Jamaica. Now he's in jail but there is still no one who can take his place."
The Live Band "Conscious" Movement
One such movement that has come to some prominence during dancehall's slow year has been the rise of artists who seem to embody almost the exact opposite of dancehall's explicit and often controversial culture. Leading the way in this revival is 20-year old Chronixx, whose latest music video for his single "Beat & A Mic" showcases the young star far from the busy streets of Kingston, pedaling around on a bicycle with his friends and contemplating life near a quiet beach as he sings "Love is the key to uplift mankind."
Chronixx growing popularity is undeniable in Jamaica and beyond. In 2012, he dropped a mixtape with Diplo's Major Lazer along with a number of singles and has been headlining concerts across the island. Last Sunday at a free show in Hope Gardens hosted by Shaggy, Chronixx was the headliner and received one of the most enthusiastic crowd responses of the show.
"I love love love love Chronixx," said Casey Tingle enthusiastically, a 24-year old university student studying child development. Tingle's love for Chronixx and a number of other similar acts like Raging Fyah
and Dubtonic Kru
, she claims stems in part from growing tired of dancehall's blunt subject matter.
"Dancehall today is too explicit now. It used to be more implicit and creative lyrically."
Despite Chronixx's success, the popularity of the new movement and how long it will last is still a question waiting to be answered. While Chronixx remains popular, other acts like Protoje
and Kabaka Pyramid
are still fighting to gain real traction on the airwaves. But getting radio play in Kingston may not hold as much weight as it once did. As Tingle later admitted, she doesn't even listen to the radio but finds her music through websites like Soundcloud or what her friends post on Facebook like many tech-savvy twenty-somethings.
Not everyone is on board with the new movement as some remain skeptical. Emprezz Mullings, a cable TV show host and entrepreneur, questions the legitimacy of some of these artists who often use themes connected to reggae's long relationship with Rastafarianism.
"They say all these things about Jah and Haile Selassie but how much do they really know?"
Mullings also wonders how much these artists are just trying to appeal to the European market, which is one of the biggest consumers of reggae music.
"Europeans like to hear that roots reggae, one-drop music and they have money to spend," she assessed at Cafe Africa, a small food cart she co-owns. "so I'm not sure how much these artists are even trying to appeal to Jamaicans."
Back downtown at Rockers, Williams has similar sentiments. "I don't think Chronixx appeals to an older generation at all." Williams cited Chronixx boyish voice as one reason why the young star might not appeal to a generation that grew up on pre-digital era reggae.
Others in the music industry disagree, though. In the neighborhood of Waterhouse, storied producer King Jammy thinks the new movement is here to stay.
"It will continue because there are people who love to hear real music – musicians playing real chords and things like that."
Lindon Roberts, also known as the famed reggae singer Half Pint, had a similar view on the movement.
"I think it's a real rebirth here. Even if they don't take off like Bob Marley and the Wailers or other bands from Jamaica, I still think these bands and this new movement will have its place and time in Jamaican music as a whole. Jamaicans are musically inclined and when we hear a band, we're always going to go in and give it a listen."