A recent (2015) US Hollywood movie/film I saw in the cinema was ‘(Never Lose) Focus’, featuring among others Will Smith. The film was entertaining, helped perhaps - as so often - by overwhelming imagery, and by the presence of humour. It had, however, many of the main flaws I mentioned concerning Hollywood movies: it was superficial, immoral, and probably unrealistic. It was a movie about a group of “smart” criminals and thieves, using many cunning tricks to rob money from all kinds of people (no, not only the rich). Definitely not original this theme, and I am afraid that in this romanticizing, clear echoes of Quentin Tarantino’s movies show. I find Tarantino as a filmmaker – despite his hip “cult status” – overrated.
There is a danger in this that has of course been acknowledged before. The movie ‘Focus’ conveyed as main message that “weakness”, apparently defined as being unfocussed – or in turn too attached - emphatic or emotional, had to be punished and profited from. In short, the basic, cynical, criminal logic: weakness leads to victimization. This message might influence life style choices by young, susceptible people who search a solution but lack a solid moral grounding, intelligence, or empathy. Like I said, this has been acknowledged and commented enough in the past, also academically. It has been exaggerated perhaps by some, or criticized selectively with own agendas, but I am afraid such spectacular, if cynical and “criminality romanticizing” movies do influence people toward wrong life choices. Probably many people seeing such movies are intelligent and moral enough to put all this in perspective, but many others are – I think – not.
The same applies of course to the much-criticized “gangsta rap/hip-hop” and the values this seems to promote. I recognize that there is also a danger of “bad influence”, but not less than Hollywood or Tarantino films, I argue. The only added psychological risk is that the “racial underdog” image of this type of hip-hoppers who happen to be black, attract copying by vulnerable (racial/ethnic) “outsider” groups who, for lacking proper moral and social guides, get taken away by this commercialized hip-hip presenting (like Tarantino) crime as a “cool” way of life.
The risks involved in a life of crime – being punishable by law, having to hide etcetera – are a deterrent, but some have not much to lose, or lack other options in life. Some people are more easily influenced by media images and portrayals than others, of course. Even if in such movies, criminals kill, fool, or act violent toward each other, the life style portrayed is one of suspense, spectacular parties, wild and rough sex, instant satisfaction, and fun. All part of the illusive life and false pretence criminals prefer to create around them, perhaps to cloud their shame and guilty conscience. This was also the case in the movie ‘Focus’.
It was also the case in another movie I saw on criminality called ‘Rude Boy : the Jamaican Don’, somewhat older, from 2003. This film portrayed Jamaicans and was set in the US and Jamaica, and featured appearances of some musical artists (Beenie Man, Marcia Griffiths, Jimmy Cliff, and Ninja Man). The leading part was by an actor who I have seen before, called Mark Danvers. Danvers seems to be a fine actor and also has I think a nice, expressive face, which might help.
JAMAICAN FILM GENRES
Meanwhile (let’s say the last two decades) there has developed a whole subgenre of Jamaican or Jamaican-set movies involving criminal life, mostly through the plot of a criminal working himself up in the gangster hierarchy. Movies like ‘Kingston 12’, ‘Garrison’, and ‘Third World Cop’ all deal with criminality and are (more than the ‘Rude Boy’ movie) set in Jamaica itself. They mostly are entertaining, although some seem to be aimed more at the international market, than others (spoken only in Jamaican Patois/Creole). ‘Third World Cop’ - internationally marketed - is for instance worth a watch (it’s on YouTube). It’s probably from his role in 'Third World Cop' that I remember the mentioned Mark Danvers from. There are –admittedly – what some might call “B-movies” among these Jamaican “crime” movies, but also several better or okay ones. A sub-sub genre of this genre are movies involving also Jamaican migrants in the US. That Jamaica is a country with relatively much violent (gang-related) crime makes this – one might argue – realistic, but I ask then: what is the causal relation?
Typically Jamaican developments also find their ways to movies/films. The mixture of partisan politics and crime and violence is one such aspect: political parties JLP and PNP funded (and armed) supporters to “control” certain areas, such as downtown “ghetto” areas of Kingston. This was meant to secure patronage – financial dependency on policians – as well as to ensure votes and loyalty from areas. This is enforced by gangs aligned with certain parties. Eventually, some of these “Dons” (criminal leaders) became more powerful than politicians, or even “the state” in certain parts of Kingston, though political patronage remained.
This following opinion might come close to sacrilege, according to some, but I will state it anyway: I find the first internationally known and much heralded 1972 Jamaican movie ‘The Harder They Come’ – with a young Jimmy Cliff as main actor - not so good or “classic”, as many claim. It was nice and entertaining - the plot was clear, the acting not bad, and the imagery nice-, but in it was my opinion too superficial to be really impressive. I commented before (I believe on this same blog) that one of its messages - or at least what the plot expressed – that an aspiring singer/musician became more interesting because he had become a gunman killing people, is simply immoral. In reality, I found the sound track of ‘The Harder They Come’ – with the “title track” and the good, emotive song ‘Many Rivers To Cross’, both by Cliff, better and more enduring than the movie itself.
In many Hollywood and other films/movies for a long time now (since the time of Western movies), the cheap thrill of an entertaining movie with suspense and spectacle and a clear plot and story, has taken precedence over sociological explanations of crime or violence in the same film.
Overall, Hollywood (including Tarantino) is in this case even worse than that Jamaican subgenre of “crime movies”. In Jamaican films, such social backgrounds of ghetto life and deprivation and exclusion – stimulating crime – are often at least hinted at, albeit seldom very “deep” or philosophical. In that sense ‘The Harder They Come’ reflected a reality: people from rural areas go reside in poor ghettos of Jamaica’s capital, but do not make it as they hoped, and turn somewhat cynical (and criminal). Disillusioned youths turning to antisocial behaviour, or simply crime, is a common fact in Jamaican (and indeed worldwide) history.
RUDE BOYS AND JAMAICAN POPULAR MUSIC
The aforementioned movie from 2003 was named ‘Rude Boy (the Jamaican Don)’. The slang term ‘Rude Boy’ has a longer history in Jamaica, as does the term “Don” for a gang leader of the subtitle. The term “Rude Boy” for an unruly, or delinquent, youth goes back to at least the early 1960s in Jamaica. Songs in the Jamaican music genres Ska (which arose around 1960) and Rocksteady (around 1966) attest to this. The next Jamaican genre that developed from these earlier ones, Reggae, continue the discussion of the “Rude Boy” phenomenon in many of its lyrics. .
Interestingly, and many more knowledgeable of Jamaican music already know this, this commenting of “Rude Boys” is often critical of these criminals and criminality. It is true that there are also “glorifying” and “romanticizing” lyrics regarding crime and rude boys (also called “rudies” or “bad boys”), but the balance tends toward critique of it and them. Positively, this critique of rude boys at least points at the presence of a solid, moral and humanitarian foundation in Jamaican culture. Criminals in high and low places – including those with a “criminal mentality” in powerful places – are often specialized in intimidation, manipulation, and power play, and can therefore be more influential in a society. Both intimidation and manipulation (or “lying”) are part and parcel of the criminal life style. Without exception, I would say. Somewhat simplified I can state it like this: not everyone who once in a while lies is by definition a criminal..but all criminals lie commonly. To the people around them, and also to themselves. They also tend to be specialized in manipulating the truth.
This is what I noticed in the ‘Rude Boy’ movie I mentioned before, and likewise in other such Jamaican films on criminals. Rastafari-derived imagery and terminology is used in Rude Boy and other movies, also by people involved in a criminal, gangster life style. This is evidently hypocritical and false. I personally object to it too, and find it immoral.
JAMAICAN SOCIAL CONTEXT
Still.. There is a deeper sociological layer behind this which is worth to delve into. I am talking about the specific Jamaican social context. Now and historically. The choice for a criminal life style is often related to degrees of poverty and exclusion. This makes sense, though of course not in an absolute sense. There are correlations though. If one could earn enough money (through some regular job) to live well, without having to be calculatedly violent against people, or hide from the police and other criminals, many would not turn to crime. That is self-evident.
The popular music genres that originated in Jamaica – Ska, Rocksteady, and Reggae (the latter existing since about 1968) – are interesting lyrically in this regard. I argue that where there is a lack of “depth” and analysis in Hollywood (and some Jamaican) film portrayals of criminals and criminality, in Jamaican music lyrics the contrary is true: crimes and criminality are analyzed with depth throughout the several lyrics. This is helped by the fact that in Jamaican music genres, lyrics tend to be topical and socially conscious, unlike genres focussed lyrically mainly on love, parties, or sex.
Jamaican popular music developed especially among the poorer part of people in the ghettos of Jamaica. In Kingston, but with rural influences: many musicians settled in Kingston ghetto’s from rural parts of Jamaica. Not just musicians, of course. The migration from impoverished rural areas to main cities is a worldwide phenomenon, being more intensive and enduring in developing countries like Jamaica. These migrants sought opportunities for work, and many got disillusioned over time with “mainstream” economy and working as labourer in companies, often lacking stable incomes, or ending up unemployed. This context – or you might say: vacuum – is an intensive and multidimensional one, albeit ruled by despair. Life choices then become more urgent and significant, directly connected with human dignity and survival. There are less “positive progress” possibilities in such a context. Out of pain comes the best art; it is in this disadvantaged “ghetto” context that Jamaica’s music originated and developed creatively, with all its versatility. It is in this same context, that Rastafari provided a moral and spiritual, righteous answer to life’s problems and limitations. Yet, sadly, it also is the same context in which popular crime and violence increased.
The good and bad are thus intertwined or at least close to each other, and this has several dimensions. One is a confusing one: sharing a context/situation, but different life choices. On the other hand, exactly this contradiction improves a genuine and veracious analysis of crime as phenomenon. Better, arguably, than some scholars with a middle-class status who grew up in a family and neighbourhood with likewise a middle-class status, and for whom crime is “something far away from them”, no matter how much “field work” or study partly compensates this.
JAMAICAN LYRICS ON CRIME
The interesting question I try to answer in the remainder of this post is this one: what do Jamaican music lyrics (Ska, Rocksteady, and Reggae) say about crime and criminals among common people in (this case) Jamaica, and what does this teach us external studies cannot?
Ska arose as one of the first “own” music genres developed and originated by Jamaicans themselves around 1960. There were political changes then that promised social changes: Jamaica became independent of Britain in 1962. This lead to optimism among many common people, including a more assertive presentation of identity. Ska was part of that, and expressed this “joy” more or less in its musical and dance characteristics, especially “Early Ska”. As social inequality however remained, and a new, local elite largely took over from the British, this optimistic feeling largely waned over time. Unruly and criminal youth, despair and violence in poor areas all came to the fore, appearing also in lyrics. The Rude Boys were perhaps a nuisance but were at least part of the common, poorer folks, some artists reasoned. This includes the Wailers who wrote some more or less “apologetic” lyrics about “Rudies” too long in jail, although the first big Wailers hit, ‘Simmer Down’ (1964) warned the Rude Boys also to beware and not disturb anymore.
Another artist starting in the Ska era, the legendary Alton Ellis, objected to this defending of violent Rudies by the Wailers and others. Apparently he found this to be immoral, and advised the Rude Boys to leave violence and criminality and pursue other life choices, boxer, preacher etcetera. Titles of fine Alton Ellis songs like ‘Dance Crasher’ (1965), ‘Don’t Trouble People’ (1966), or ‘Cry Tough’ (1966) say enough. These are musically great “Late” Ska songs, a bit slower and “bluesier” than earlier Ska. I also like Ellis’s soulful singing, of course. .
Stranger Cole’s ‘Rough and Tough” (1963) is known as one of the earliest released, critical lyrics on rude boys in Jamaican popular music, dated 1963.
Other artists like Prince Buster, Desmond Dekker, the Rulers, and Derrick Morgan wrote in this period also about “rude boys” (continuing partly in the following Rocksteady and Reggae periods), mostly – but not always – critically. Another nice, later example of lyrics criticizing crime is Bob Andy’s soulful, “Late Ska” of ‘Crime Don’t Pay’ (1966), in which “Rudie” is rhymed with “cops might get moody”..
Later that decade, around 1966, another, slower genre developed from Ska, called Rocksteady, after a transition period. By 1966 the Rude Boy has become a common phenomenon among youth in Jamaica, and became part of the music audience, according to some even shaping tastes. Celebratory, noncritical songs and lyrics were also made and released by artists like Prince Buster targeting (and thus positive) about the Rudie market and audience. Also Desmond Dekker, the Clarendonians, the Pioneers, the Rulers and others had such apparently less-than-critical songs on the Rudie culture (albeit not always explicitly), with a title like ‘Hard Man Fe Dead’ (Prince Buster) showing this kind of rude boy bravado.
Again, this shows that the rude boys belong to the same social (under)class as most of these musicians: both the uncritical identification, as the “fatherly” or “motherly” advise and critique combined with care as one has toward siblings. Either way, criminal and violent youth in a community affect that community most: wealthier people have means and ways to protect and remove themselves from this annoyance. Unfortunately, a common strain in human history is that “crime” and “criminality” (with differing definitions at times) is used by such elite classes to keep lower classes in their place. Jamaican musicians mostly criticize from a lower position, as likewise victims of the system, but prefer to act wiser and more moral when compared to the violent rude boys. Some artists wrote both celebratory and (later) critical songs on rude boys.
One of the first songs in the Rocksteady genre (that title is contested) is by Derrick Morgan, the groovy, catchy song ‘Tougher Than Tough (Rudie in court)’ (1966). Its lyrics seem to defend the rude boys, but Morgan later explained that such positive lyrics were “forced or intimidated out of him” by one notorious gangster or rude boy. Ironically yet tellingly, this particular gangster Morgan wrote the song for, could hear the song played in the dance once, but soon after was shot to death in a dispute.
Several “reggae historians” point out that the rude boys influenced the development toward Rocksteady as a slower, more “cool” music genre. I heard other explanations as well: Rocksteady developed in a studio, strictly among musicians experimenting with slowing down Ska. Another contender for first Rocksteady song, and also a nice one, is Hopeton Lewis’s ‘Take It Easy’ (1966), who attributes this songs then unusual characteristics to music studio experiments, and thus not rude boy demands.
Other sources claim that increased violence in Jamaica, persisting poverty, and disillusion with progress even after independence, changed the musical mood from “joyous” to “reflective” or “sadder”, which sounds plausible to me. This is, I think, one of the explanations, but perhaps the rude boy audiences and tastes and – on the other hand - musicians innovating also had influences. Truth is not always one-dimensional. Besides, explaining the slower Rocksteady beat through rude boy tastes also puzzles me a bit. Are criminals or gangster inclined to “slower” music? I doubt that for some reason.
Still, in the by the way very readable and educational guide to Reggae music (which is much more than a annotated discography) called ‘The Rough Guide to Reggae’ by Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton (published 2001) the authors go as far to term “Rude Boy music” as an influential subgenre in the period between Ska and Rocksteady, pointing also at a generational issue, as Ska for some youth had something “adult” in some way. I myself however still insist that Rocksteady originated from different influences, not just rude boys.
Critique of gangsters and rude boys continued in many Rocksteady lyrics – besides love and socially themed songs of course – although there continued to be some celebrating of them as well.
Around 1968 Reggae music developed from Rocksteady, also due to a combination of social and musical influences. Early Reggae from the period 1968 to around 1972 was faster than later reggae. Some “reggae historians” point out that in the transitional period between the end of Rocksteady and Early Reggae a more “pro-Rudie” feel was expressed in songs, probably due to the faster pace reggae had . Reggae was initially even faster than Rocksteady. Later reggae slowed down, and became (lyrically) relatively more spiritual and socially conscious.
Another readable and educational – but broader and more chaotic – guide to ‘Reggae & Caribbean music’ by Dave Thompson (2002) also points at an influence of rude boys on developing rocksteady, but also discusses “Rude Reggae” as part of the faster, Early Reggae, before increased Rastafari influence in the 1970s. The other work I mentioned, by Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton, and this one also discuss Skinhead Reggae, referring to reggae’s internationalization in Britain. In some way the violent and aggressive “skinheads” can be seen as white, British versions of Jamaican rudeboys, perhaps they copied it, who knows. Skinheads became known as racist and anti-immigrant as well, although this is disputed and applies according to some skinheads only to certain subgroups: other skinhead subcultures in parts of Britain were multiracial, with white and black Britons socializing.
Apparently, the slower tempo, but also the increasing influence of Rastafari, Black nationalism, social critique, and spirituality of later reggae, since around 1973 – known also as Roots Reggae – were not appreciated by most skinheads. I imagine that in Jamaica itself a similar social process occurred, at least among a part of the music audiences and lovers. Rastafari represented a worldview aimed at moral Black upliftment, including spirituality. This was against – an antidote you might say – immoral crime, wickedness among Jamaican people, as criminals victimizing their own people only (at the end) support the oppressive “Babylon” system, ultimately based on violence as well. Justice and law were criticized by some Rastas for anti-marijuana laws or discrimination or unjust persecution of poor ghetto youth, but murderers, rapists, thieves and others attacking (also for political/partisan reasons) and abusing members of their own community were criticized strongly by Rastafari-inspired Reggae artists.
Many, many lyrics of course attest to this of virtually all reggae icons. This shows that crime, gangs, and violence were common problems in poverty-ridden areas of suffering, excluded people in Jamaican ghetto’s. Rastafari provided a better "answer" and identity (based on Black pride) according to these artists and other Rastafari-adherents. This was from the perspective of people from the same poor community thus affected by it, again: not by politicians or others powers that be, using the presence of crime in poor areas as divisive or oppressive mechanism.
I can give examples of reggae lyrics criticizing criminality and criminal ways of life, but in reality there are too many to mention. Some have “Rude Boy” in the title, a term that has proved to be enduring. The recent “club favourite” (at least in clubs I frequent here in the Netherlands) ‘Rude Boy Shufflin’ (1995) by Israel Vibration being a recent example, as is Don Carlos’s 2010 but rootsy song ‘Rude Boy’ (from the album Changes), Culture’s ‘Cousin Rude Boy’ (from the 1989 album Good Things) and Bushman’s (dancehall) songs ‘Rude Boy Life’ (on Bushman's 1996 album Nyah Man Chant), and ‘Rude Boy’.
The term Rude Boy or Bad Man, or broader “bad mind” or “wicked” people, is mentioned throughout much of 1970s and 1980s Roots Reggae, as I said: too many to mention. “Wolves in sheep clothing”, who live as criminals but have taken on Rasta imagery are also understandably vilified. That one wants to join a movement without proper knowledge is odd, that one does not show it too much in one’s life style (working for the system, no dietary restrictions) is a pity and superficial, but false Rastas “fighting against their own brethren and sistren” (stealing, warring and otherwise) are even worse.
Ghetto life and criminality all recur throughout these Roots Reggae lyrics as part of the common social critique in it, crucially: “from within”. It is here that the deeper “wisdom” lies of Roots Reggae lyrics on rude boys and criminality and gangsters, be it by Bob Marley & the Wailers, the Wailing Souls, Culture, Hugh Mundell, Dennis Brown, Bunny Wailer, Israel Vibration, Black Uhuru, Horace Andy, Twinkle Brothers, Junior Delgado, the Mighty Diamonds, the Itals, Mutabaruka, Ini Kamoze or any other reggae icons: “who lives it knows it”.
I can name some classic songs I liked on this theme, but there are so many that an explanatory “bird view” seemed more appropriate. Alright, I’ll name a few: ‘General Penitentiary’ by Black Uhuru, the beautiful 'Are We A Warrior' by Ijahman Levi, ‘Lift Up Your Conscience’ by Israel Vibration, ‘Why Me Black Brother Why?’ by the Mighty Diamonds, or less well-known, Gregory Isaacs’ ‘Way Of Life’, are examples from 1970s and early 1980s Roots Reggae that self-respecting reggae fans should at least know, but these are but examples of many, and I probably still forgot some crucial ones.
These lyrics mostly depict ghetto life, and therefore recur in the lyrics of most Roots Reggae artists, alongside more spiritual and “international” or historical themes (that of course are all interrelated).
Lyrically interesting are in this regard, besides singers and groups, certainly songs by ”conscious” rhythmic vocalizing (“chatting”) “toasters” and dee-jay’s like Big Youth, I-Roy, Jah Stitch, Prince Fari and others.
The extent and form of violence and criminality even increased in severity in the 1980s and 1990s, especially related to gangs with power in certain quarters, aided by political patronage and active in the international cocaine trade, being much more violent and extreme than the ganja/marijuana trade longer common in Jamaica. Of course these changes in social reality reflected in lyrics of musical artists, but Jamaica’s music kept evolving and changing as well.
DANCEHALL AND NEW ROOTS
The earlier 1980s was the period of Early Dancehall – with still much Roots Reggae influences - , and after 1984 Digital Dancehall arose, and the reworking of existing instrumentals/riddims (out of economic restrictions) became more common. These are all musical changes, but lyrically comments on crime and ghetto life continued by some artists, but in this regard came also changes.
Roots Reggae artists, or often Rastafari-inspired artists in later Dancehall, since the 1980s, were as said critical of crime and criminals troubling people of their own community and therefore part of the system (Babylon). This critique of crime and violence continued in fine songs by artist like Barrington Levy, Michael Prophet , Half Pint, Don Carlos, Gregory Isaacs and others. In the later 1980s, however, some artists started celebrating “slackness” and “badness”, which included sexual braggadocio, excessive “bragging” and self-aggrandizing (often with some humour, must be said), but also seemed to glorify violence and crime at times. This often had irony and deliberate exaggeration for effect, but could be called even then “celebratory” of a “Rude Boy” type of mentality or life style.. Such lyrics unfortunately partly reflected the reality of increased and extended (gun) crime in Jamaica by the later 1980s..
Such “Slackness” lyrics remained a time dominant in Jamaican popular music (think of artists like Cutty Ranks, Ninjaman, Yellowman, Shabba Ranks, Tiger, Mad Cobra and others), but as more often in Jamaican and world history the balance kept swinging: action-reaction, and a more “conscious” Rastafari (often of the Bobo Ashanti mansion: a sub-group within Rastafari)-influenced current arose within Dancehall Reggae in the course of the 1990s, including artists like Sizzla, Anthony B, Junior Reid, Tony Rebel, Turbulence, Jah Mason, Warrior King, I Wayne, Lutan Fyah, Luciano, and later converts Buju Banton and Capleton (who actually started with some lyrically Slackness-and Rudie-like songs). This Rastafari-influenced current is called the Rasta Renaissance or Revival in Dancehall/Reggae – some call it: New Roots -, and is still very present and active in Jamaican popular music and among international reggae fans by 2015 (as I write this), represented by said and others artists, both dee jays/chatters as singers. Other artists inspired by Rastafari (apparently not so much associated with the Bobo Ashanti subgroup) like Tarrus Riley, Bushman, Richie Spice, Chronixx, Protoje, Jesse Royal, Jah9, Queen Ifrica (a biological daughter of the mentioned Derrick Morgan by the way), and several others, followed in this current and are active and popular now.
In the lyrics of these latter artists a more ”righteous” moral stance is taken when discussing local conditions, against wickedness and crime/criminality in high and low places, alongside (again) lyrics on related themes regarding history, inequality, spirituality, Marcus Garvey, Africa, and Haile Selassie I.
Other artists still tend to Slackness lyrics (Vybz Kartel for instance), or confusingly mix Rasta terms and imagery with Slackness or “Gangster-like” terms and imagery, but the balance seems to have swayed in this time to another, more “conscious” (crime-condemning) direction, which I think is a positive development. Beyond the Jamaican context, I think it also is a very “human” development, when actions and movements are countered with different actions and movements, including contrasting mindsets alongside shared variables.
On a final note, I come back to my earlier point and argue that studying all these lyrics in Jamaican music overall will provide a realistic, deep, and extensive insight in the development and beackground of crime and criminality among disadvantaged people: its context, complexities, and consequences. Not just in Jamaica, I opine. I further contend that this social insight is better and deeper - not to mention more realistic - than that gained from studying Hollywood or similar movies/films on more or less the same theme.