It is not surprising, therefore, that in reggae lyrics “money” is a recurring theme. Yet, in fact, money is to some degree worldwide a theme in popular culture and music, also in the wealthy Western world. There are of course (relatively) poor people everywhere. “Money runs the world” as some say.
I choose in this post, however, to discuss how money is mentioned and discussed in specifically the Jamaican music genre reggae (including dancehall). I relate this to cultural and economic characteristics of Jamaica.
A characteristic of the lyrics in reggae (especially Roots Reggae), moreover, and which sets it apart from other genres, is the fact that social critique and social and topical issues are a common part of these lyrics. This is much less the case in other genres like soul, country, funk, salsa, Western pop, techno, and much of hip-hop and rock, wherein (overall) either love/romantic or "party" lyrics tend to be the norm.
This also makes that "deeper" lyrics on money and its meanings can probably be found more in reggae lyrics than in those of other genres.
A local Jamaican Creole term for money is “Dunza/Dunsa” (also “Dunny”). The origin of this term is according to linguists to be found in the Jamaican word for “done” (as in “finished”). It means thus that it – money - is always finished too soon. This in itself says something about its social context. It makes the term Dunza somewhat “fatalistic”, you might say. At least when compared to more optimistic “slang” words for money that also exist in the world. These often point at least at possibilities money give: e.g. the common “dough” in English, which has translations in several languages, including as “pasta” – slang term for money in Spanish, or the similar "blé" - meaning "wheat" - slang for money in French. Other slang terms for money seem neutral (e.g. "green" or "paper"). There is in US hip-hop slang also the somewhat enigmatic term “gusto” for money. It is enigmatic, because in Spanish “gusto” means “taste” (or "pleasure"), which perhaps denotes a social class characteristic.
In the world of today one hardly can live without money. It is needed. In poor countries like Jamaica, especially among the poorest people, it is even more urgent than elsewhere. Some cultures outside of the West tend to be heralded as less materialistic than the Western world, for maintaining certain spiritual values. That these values are more there than in the West is often true, but in daily practice it’s a struggle for survival there, and thus a heightened focus on getting money, seemingly belying the less-materialistic culture.
RICH OR WEALTHY
I saw recently a documentary on white, European reggae artists Gentleman from Germany and Alborosie from Italy, called ‘Journey to Jah’ (2013). Gentleman in it said how the materialistic focus in Europe/Germany was something he wanted to free himself from, and for this reason went to Jamaica.
Materialism in wealthy European countries like Germany (and North America) is of course more than in a practical sense searching for or making money: it is a whole life ideology and broader cultural and societal complex, historically shaped by industrialization, economically favourable circumstances, and being accustomed to wealth. It has I think in a sense to do with the difference between being “rich” and being “wealthy”. Chris Rock, the US comedian, said that black people can be rich, but white people are in fact “wealthy”, the latter being a more enduring, powerful way of being rich, passed generationally.
Chris Rock points at the instability of being rich, when compared to stable “wealth” spread from generations from generations. In the latter sense – Chris Rock asserts - there are no “wealthy” black people in the US, only some “rich” ones. The same can be said of Jamaica of course, where the majority - like US Blacks - mainly descend from enslaved Africans who for generations got no money for their forced work, and thus could not gradually acquire wealth to pass on generationally, unlike (albeit to differing degrees) most white, free people. One of the historical inequalities slavery perpetuated..
In today's world Black people are thus economically still dependent on white people, in Jamaica and in the whole world (British-Dutch company Shell "owns" all oil in Nigeria, whereas Arabs own it themselves, to give an example). A dependency on white men and their wealth that Marcus Garvey in his day sought to end, by making economic independence of Africans part of his program.
The quest for money, as part of the struggle to survive thus remains relevant, especially “inna di ghetto”, among other (like rural) poor, and also to degrees among the lower middle class, in the developing country that is Jamaica.
The lure of making “quick money” by going into crime is a temptation that not all poor people can avoid, amidst their desperation. This found a way into musical expressions, thus degenerating in lyrics more and more. Gangsta rap of US artists like NWA, 50 Cent, and others, moved far from lyrics on black consciousness, social issues or injustices, and discuss instead boastful their gangster ways, girls they get through their acquired money, sex, or lyrics on (expensive) parties.
Similarly, in Jamaica some lyrics in the Dancehall subgenre moved away from the African consciousness, and social issues, or spirituality, of the Roots Reggae from the 1970s that was more influenced by Rastafari. Many lyrics - especially since the mid-1980s - moved instead to “Slackness” (sex, boasting, violence, materialism). A difference is maybe that boasting about being a criminal or gangster is a bit less common – at least in a direct way – in Jamaican music when compared to US hip-hop, although there are here and there some lyrics that glorify violence or crime. More common were and are however “cheeky” lyrics about explicit sex. Already earlier dee-jays like General Echo and Yellowman in the 1980s, and later Shabba Ranks and others – or now e.g. Elephant Man or Vybz Kartel – made/make this their trade mark. Some of these made/make occasional references to Rastafari or Black history, but more as an exception than as a rule.
Materialism is also a part of this. Dancehall artist Vybz Kartel for instance had (with others) a big hit called ‘Clarkes’ about fashionable shoes. Vybz Kartel is reputedly connected to criminality and gang violence, though he does not refer to this too directly in his lyrics. Also some other artists were accused – justly or unjustly – of criminal connections, some even going through trials or spending time in prison. The possibility of unjust accusations is in this case however not so absurd: especially artists critical of established powers can be “set up” due to a corrupt police/political system, and may not be involved in crime at all. Some others might be, or more indirectly.
The slackness in non-conscious lyrics in dancehall reggae emphasize parties, sex, women, fun, ego, violence, vanity….in other words: what you can do with money, how to spend it. Or: how to get it as easy as possible.. This materialist focus is thus in essence a lack of a “broader” vision, and lack of a deeper intellectual or spiritual focus. The daily, practical takes precedence over the eternal and philosophical.
MONEY IN SONG TITLES
A telling example is dancehall artist Vybz Kartel who has at least 10 (!) songs with “money” in the title alone (let alone elsewhere in the lyrics). Mostly in a not very “conscious” vein, though he sometimes refers to social problems. If in the title it is given logically more significance than other issues, that’s why the fact that a word is in the title is important (as “main theme” after all). Mavado, an artist in a similar lyrical (slackness-like) vein as Vybz Kartel, also has at least 7 songs with the word “money” in the title.
Among the lyrics of the Roots Reggae icons since the 1970s, e.g. Burning Spear, Jacob Miller, Culture, Bob Marley, Wailing Souls, Dennis Brown, Pablo Moses, Horace Andy,- by comparison - money figured/figures much less in the song titles (at most one or two titles per artist), though it was/is discussed, mostly critically, here and there in their lyrics. I, for example, don’t know of any - not even one - song title with the word "money" of either Bob Marley or Burning Spear. Also New Roots artists (Sizzla, Lutan Fyah, Queen Ifrica a.o.) have the word “money” less or rarely in their song titles, though I know of at least three song titles by Anthony B. and several by, for instance, Jah Vinci.
Anyhow, in a general sense one can say that the word "money" in song titles is more common (i.e. more the main theme) in slackness lyrics when compared to conscious/cultural lyrics.
The artist Gentleman’s view of Jamaica as less-materialistic than Western Europe is still not entirely untrue though. In the documentary ‘Journey to Jah’ (2013) I mentioned before, his view of this also reminded me – on the other hand – of the overly romantic naïveté that some Westerners showed - especially since the 1960s - when they glorified (and simplified) e.g. India and its people as “really spiritual” when compared to Westerners.
Specific examples Gentleman gave, however, also showed he really knew the specific Jamaican culture to a degree, and not – or not just at least – romantically searched just any “spiritual exotic Other” in the vein of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s “noble savage”. Noble savages who, when involved in crime and trickery, can nonetheless turn out to be as cold-hearted and wicked when smelling money as European colonizers were back then. Similar to Columbus, his crew, slaving pirates, and other European colonizers for the last 500 years. Not for nothing reggae artist Winston Rodney, a.k.a. Burning Spear, called Christopher Columbus the “first gangster” of the so-called New World.
A very good and "to-the-point" summary of Black history in Jamaica and of Rastafari in reggae lyrics can be found in a song that is not too well-known, not even among many reggae fans. It is recorded at the Black Ark studio and produced by Lee “Scratch” Perry, and is the song ‘History’ by Carlton Jackson, from 1977. The lyrics include the crucial phrase: “the Rastaman a bring civilization on ya (Jamaica)”: that is: after Babylon’s/Western colonial robbing, wickedness, slaughter and enslavement. Money (and greed) were main stimulators of the colonial project of Europeans, combined with a racial and religious sense of superiority. In that sense a departure from Babylon/Western oppression and greed is a sign of civilization brought by Rastafari.
Of course these values are most notable in Rastafari-influenced, or “conscious”(or “cultural”) Roots Reggae from the 1970s and early-1980s, as well as in New Roots, coming up later in the 1990s with the “Rasta Renaissance”, including artists like Sizzla, Capleton, Lutan Fyah, Jah Mason, I Wayne, Buju Banton, Fantan Mojah, Richie Spice, Chronixx and others.
These latter artists are contemporaries to Vybz Kartel, Elephant Man, Shabba Ranks and others, but have overall a different lyrical focus. Specifically focussing on the theme “money”: they discuss money more philosophical and socially critical, - at a higher level, so to speak -. Not just what to do with it, or as part of mere “party or sex lyrics” (for which money tends to be needed). Of course there are exceptions to this general rule – Vybz Kartel’s strong song ‘Poor people land’ can be deemed socially critical.
MONEY IN RASTA ARTISTS' LYRICS
To be more concrete, in Rasta artists’ lyrics money is for example discussed as “the root of all evil” (e.g. Horace Andy’s song ‘Money, money’ from the 1970s), these lyrics also relate how “for the love of money brothers/men/people fight against each other”, and criticize “blood dunza/money” paid by politicians or other powerful groups to employ poor in violent power struggles (as is common in Jamaican politics), to kill, or for warfare. Further, “seeking vanity, and “having no love of humanity” recurs throughout lyrics. So does the lamenting of friends (or female partners) who seem only opportunistically interested in your money. The Biblical quote “it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to go to heaven” is also quoted by some artists.
Greed, including of those who do not want to share, or those in higher positions, is also a recurring theme (the Wailing Souls' 'Bredda Gravalicious' for example), as is stealing and robbing.
Also, “the best things in life are free” recurs – in these or other words - in several reggae lyrics, in the same vein as what Bob Marley said in an interview that “money does not make you rich”, conveying an anti-materialist approach, that can be associated with the spiritual Rastafari way of thinking. This can thus be found in lyrics of many Rastafari (-identifying) artists, and can mostly be considered sincere (with exceptions of course).
Overall, lyrics specifically on money help to exemplify two main strands – lyrically – in Jamaican music – in a simplified, general sense of course: Conscious, Rastafari lyrics on the one hand, and Slackness and party lyrics on the other. Of course, some artists switch between these two lyrical strands. One strand discusses the social effects of money, others do not discuss this, but only the practical, daily – superficial - effects of money. The word “conscious” for certain (deeper, broader) lyrics seems thus well-chosen. Like in other societies, in Jamaica and Jamaican music some focus more on the philosophical and deeper truths (“intellectuals” or “thinkers” if you will), others live predominantly for the moment, don’t think too deep, or want to learn or analyze less.
Such differences in mind-set are partly differing personal, individual dispositions or choices, but are often also guided and influenced by other people, social contexts and influences, or social and spiritual movements one encountered. Rastafari is one such movement in Jamaica. Jamaica is also a very Christian country, so the more formulaic warnings about money from the Bible (often also quoted by Rastas) can also have that source.
There is also some Christian or Gospel Reggae in Jamaica. That is another strand. Another strand is the “love song” strand – or “lovers rock” – dealing with romantic themes, but for this post on money lyrics and their meaning the contradiction between Conscious and Slackness lyrics seems more relevant to me.
Moreover, the specific history and current context of Jamaica makes a Black pride movement necessary for self-worth, that was long denied to Black people. Also poverty leads people into desperation, and at times crime, especially when moral values in oneself do not encourage empathy toward other human beings. Politics is also very corrupt in Jamaica: giving money and benefits in return to votes and power, hereby making use of criminal leaders and gangs, giving these more intimidating, power over citizens. Likewise the police is – as in other countries - often also very corrupt in Jamaica. Junior Murvin (who passed away recently as I write this) referred to his in his 1976 song ‘Police and Thieves’, with money showing visually in the cover art of the album with the same name (police stealing from thieves and vice versa).
This complex of problems largely explains the high crime and murder rates in Jamaica: a combination of historical racial subjugation and oppression, resulting in lack of racial and ethnic pride and confidence, power differences, political lust for power and corruption, and persisting poverty and social inequalities.
Rastafari arose as an “antidote” or alternative to all this, and specifically also against an (over-)emphasis on materialism/money, albeit out of mere necessity, among poor people.
RESPONSES TO POVERTY
What both strands – “conscious/cultural” and “slackness” - in Jamaican music’s lyrics share is that one’s poverty is – understandably - lamented. After all, like I said in the beginning of this post: reggae and Jamaican music is ghetto music, discussing ghetto conditions, and later spread to wealthier (or just richer) “uptown” in Jamaica, and internationally. Artists thus grew and grow up generally poor, maybe to differing degrees. Their response and “solution” to this poverty is a matter of life choice, of values one upholds. As an example, the great, classic Mighty Diamonds song ‘I Need A Roof’ from 1976 (a number one it in Jamaican charts) lamented poverty, but also referred to Marcus Garvey’s words and what “the Rasses” (Rastas) say.
A life of crime can be seen as the negative choice – as it is at the cost of others - , and on the other end Rastafari is the positive, rebellious choice. In between are the humble, hard-working poor, who just work for their family – in any way the system allows - and don’t want - or don’t have the time – to stand out in any way: in actuality these are most residents in the ghetto. These may on occasion be Rastafari-sympathizers (or not, or Christian), or sometimes opportunistically deal with Dons (local criminal leaders in their area) to get some financial benefits.
Yet, I opine that the Rastafari-inspired artists and musicians are also necessary: as messengers, to tell the world through their music about the plight of poor people (in Jamaica in this case), black and African history, and to get a positive, redemptive message across. Since Bob Marley this message was spread internationally, and it continues to be by current artists. Discussing many social ills and injustices, including those related to money as “the root of all evil”.