“Slums” or “shanty towns” are words to describe informal and irregular housing settlements, generally close to urban areas, but outside its urban planning realm. Public services tend therefore to be absent. These are more extensive and widespread in developing countries than in France (or entire Europe). This made that news item about slums near Paris – as so often news by Western media – very selective in perspective.
Known as “bidonvilles” in French-speaking areas, or as “favelas” in Brazil, these shanty towns are in reality a persisting and omnipresent reality in this world. Recent estimates argue that about 33% of the urban population in the developing world live in such “slums”. Percentages are even higher for many African countries, where in certain cases over 80% of the urban population live in such slums/shanty towns.
Its evident connection to poverty, inequalities, and lack of policy cohesion in societies, make the “shanty town”also a common theme in music genres with socially critical, or “protest” lyrics. This is certainly the case with Reggae, a genre I am a fan of and kind of specialized in.
Reggae is from Jamaica in the Caribbean, and developed especially in the poor, ghetto (“downtown”) areas of its capital Kingston, under different, also rural influences. So, among poor people, and many of the early reggae musicians and artists were not necessarily “city slickers” (a few were born Kingstonians, many not), but came from rural areas and poor families, hoping for more possibilities in Kingston. Shanty towns and slums this way certainly developed around and in Kingston, and other urban areas, with self-made houses, often using zinc (“bidon”in French, hence: bidonvilles), poor conditions, but at least some kind of dwelling or makeshift facilities.
Many of these shanty town houses were temporary, because government policy in Jamaica, since the 1960s, tended to replace them with more formal low-income housing, as happened in the ghetto area of Trench Town in Western Kingston. Still a ghetto – as a broader term for a low-income, poor neighbourhood – but now with government-built houses (hence the “government yard”, Marley sings about on his song No Woman No Cry).
At present (2017), 20% of Kingston is made up of “squatter” or informal settlements, i.e. “shanty towns” or “slums” in the strict sense of the term. A larger percentage includes “ghettoes” or “poor neighbourhoods”, including government-built houses, but often without maintenance or public services, sharing those characteristic with the squatter settlements.
These houses replacing slums – such as happened in Trench Town - were small yet new, but deteriorated over time, due to neglect, and not so much of the local inhabitants. The same happened with central parts of Spanish Town, Jamaica's former capital, a bit inland from Kingston. I visited Spanish Town in 2006 and 2008. Large, British colonial buildings – pompous, but in a Protestant way – and an old Cathedral, remain within an area of total neglect, impoverished houses, poverty, and high crime rates, including gang violence (as in parts of Kingston). I have been to that part of Spanish Town, and experienced it – at that time – not very “dangerous”, but felt it to be a bit surreal, with the remnants of posh colonial history, oddly combined with small, decaying dwellings, and mostly African-looking people with very basic or old clothes and just a few, damaged cars. The whole history of colonialism, slavery, transplanted Africans, and persisting racial inequalities after slavery up to now… all noticeable on one location.
Desmond Dekker had a well-known song called 007 a.k.a. Shanty Town, in 1967, and later Reggae artists use the term “slum” in lyrics. Even more Reggae artists use the broader term “ghetto” or “downtown” for such poor, neglected communities (in many, many Reggae lyrics..), whether the places they refer to consist of makeshift/self-made informal, poor housing or basic government-built housing that deteriorated. These include also the deteriorated “flats” which I saw in Tivoli Garden, another downtown, ghetto area of Kingston. This was once a slum called Back-o-Wall, replaced with a housing project in 1966 by the then ruling JLP party.
The wealthier parts of Kingston are found historically more in the hills (uptown), with a cooler climate. Rich people – especially rich White people – “claiming” especially areas with relatively cooler climates in tropical countries occurred commonly throughout colonial history (also in Kenya and Zimbabwe by British and Boer settlers).
When I went to Kingston’s downtown ghetto of Trench Town in 2008, I noticed that the roads were very bad – big holes in them, decay etc. – , as were many walls, denoting years of neglect. The “state” or “city” government does simply not enter there. This absence of public maintenance is there in both shanty towns and “ghettoes”.
It may be quite known, that the ghetto areas in Jamaica have hardly improved or diminished in size up to now. Gang and gun violence has over time unfortunately increased, making crime now “harder” relatively, when compared to, say, the 1960s or 1970s.
Overall, the rich got richer, and the poor poorer, as elsewhere in the world. A middle-class only limitedly developed in Jamaica, due to prominent class barriers. Therefore these problems remained, and crime got harder.
The biggest shanty town (in number of inhabitants) is found today in Mexico, but there are many extensive shanty towns, all over the world, including Africa and Asia.
Okay, throughout the “developing” World, that is to be expected. Shanty towns are not absent in the developed, wealthy parts of the world, though. The mentioned recent news item on shanty towns near Paris, France hinted at that. At present, Newark (New Jersey) – for instance - has an actual “shanty town”, while many “projects” in US cities can be characterized as ghettoes in several senses. In some cases, they are – unlike shanty towns in the strict sense - included in some public services or city policies, but they still consist of “concentrations of poverty and unemployment”, often with a racial connection. We all may know the existence or even the names of such neighbourhoods from popular culture, the US being so dominant in the global film and television industry: Compton, Southside Chicago, Bedford-Stuyvesant (New York), Harlem (as it was, mostly), etcetera.
What about Europe? It is, I think, not widely known that the largest “slum” or “shanty town” of Europe, is at present a settlement near Spain’s capital Madrid, called Cañada Real. It is not included in public, government or city policies, and has no formal services (as many don’t pay taxes). It has never been part of any housing plan. Its currently about 80.000 inhabitants are varied, and do not consist mainly of poor, African, Roma/Gypsy and other immigrants, as in some other European countries (France now, parts of Greece and Italy), but include – alongside these immigrants - also many poor, local Spaniards. Spain has at present an unemployment rate of over 24%, which is high for EU standards (even much higher than of France and Italy, for instance).
The Italian city Naples also has a history of “slums” (including local Italians too), as some other parts of Southern Italy, and further also Athens, Lisbon, and parts of Eastern Europe.
In more wealthy, industrialized or “cohesive” parts of Europe (Northern Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Scandinavia, the UK) actual “slums” with local people (other than recent migrants) seem largely absent. There are of course “working-class” and poorer neighbourhoods in cities like London, Berlin, Brussels, Paris, and Amsterdam, with concentrations of relative poverty, unemployment, and certain social problems. Even these quarters tend, however, to be included in city policies and planning, even if at times half-heartedly or limitedly.
Certain countries – like the Netherlands - practice the good idea of “social housing”, enabling afforable (rental) housing for poorer people (and maintaining these houses!), of course limiting housing problems.
The lack of such “social housing” policies in Spain, and the unwillingness of its present Right-wing government to implement it more widely, have increased the quite massive eviction of people in Spain not able anymore to pay their house, increasing homelessness, especially among those unable to move in with family members. Some of these (including ethnic Spaniards) even ended up in slums like Cañada Real.
So, more intensive or extreme slum problems are not absent even in Europe.. Neither are malnourisment or other manifestations of extreme poverty, but these are of course limited when compared to developing countries.
Few other – if any – music genres around the world discuss “the ghetto” as much as Jamaican reggae music. Reggae originated among poor people in ghettoes or poor neighbourhoods, but that is not the only reason. Many other popular music genres – that later spread – originated among poor people. It is better explained by the specific lyrical focus in Reggae, toward socially critical messages. This is influenced by the rebellious stance of the Rastafari movement, but also by (related) Black Power influences. The later also influenced Calypso lyrics – also known for social comment –as well as hip-hop lyrics.
Despite this social critique in other genres as well, in Reggae it is relatively more strongly present, including many references to ghetto life. This reflects the local Jamaican distinction between (poor) “downtown”, and (wealthy) “uptown” Kingston. A distinction that is – nonetheless – easily translatable internationally. This recognition might have contributed to Reggae’s popularity – since Bob Marley’s fame – globally, such as in Africa. Reggae lyrics say what needed to be said, according to many poor people worldwide.
Of course, Bob Marley had several lyrics discussing Trench Town and the ghetto in general. Trench Town Rock was a local hit in Jamaica, but I found Bob’s song Trench Town and So Jah Seh – also about the ghetto – for instance equally strong tunes.
Beyond Bob Marley, many – in fact, virtually all – Jamaican Roots Reggae artists discussed since the 1970s in their lyrics “ghetto life”: Culture, the Mighty Diamonds, Black Uhuru, the Wailing Souls, Burning Spear, Dennis Brown, Israel Vibration, the Congos, Leroy Sibbles, Hugh Mundell, Junior Delgado and others, rendering it thus a common thematic “trope” in Reggae. Many of these artists gained some international fame – albeit more in “niche” (specialized reggae) markets than Bob Marley – so spread this necessary message about ghetto life beyond Jamaica.
This continued in later generation (arising post-1990) artists in what some call New Roots, with current also mostly Rastafari-inspired reggae artists, like Sizzla, Capleton, Luciano, Protoje, Chronixx, Gappy Ranks, Kabaka Pyramid, Tarrus Riley, Fantan Mojah, Iba Mahr, Jah9, Queen Ifrica and several others.
A “representative overview” of sorts, of lyrics on the ghetto theme in Jamaican reggae sounds like a wonderful idea. There are however so very much lyrics, that a full, balanced “overview” would be hard, if not impossible, to achieve. I can give a “quite representative” 15-song list of reggae songs (that I not mentioned already) about “ghetto life” I got to know and that I liked, and stood the test of time, in my opinion. These are still only some of those that I like.. I might have forgotten some too, haha.. Such a list can only be selective, and not fully representative. I will give the list though, because we must make use of the fact that songs are nowadays so easily checked/found on YouTube, elsewhere on the Web. Some nice song tips, for who don’t know them. I mention also some I hear at times in clubs (relative reggae ‘hits”), here in Amsterdam, by certain selectah’s.
1. Culture – Jah Rastafari
2. Max Romeo – Uptown Babies
3. Leroy Sibbles – Life In The Ghetto
4. The Wailing Souls – Ghetto of Kingston Town
5. Tetrack – Isn’t It Time
6. Freddie McGregor - We Got Love
7. Everton Blender – Ghetto People Song
8. Gregory Isaacs – Kingston 14
9. Dennis Brown – Ghetto Girl
10. Prince Fari - Survival
11. Richie Spice - Ghetto Girl (same title, different song)
12. Misty In Roots – Ghetto Of The City
13. Israel Vibration – Rude Boy Shuffling
14. Sizzla – Ghetto Youths Dem A Suffer
15. Lutan Fyah – Ghetto Living
Another term for “shanty town” (in the strict sense) is “squatter settlement”, to which Chronixx’s fine song Capture Land (the title being a local term for “squatting”) refers. This discusses not just impoverished areas, like ghettoes or slums in the broad sense, with concentrated poverty, (threatening) famine, and unemployment, but adds to this the aspect of lacking government control or planning, these “capture lands” or “squatter settlements” mostly developed aside from formal governmental plans, and often opposed by these. Public services are absent. So “capture land” is in fact a synonym for “shanty town” or “slum”.
The ghetto theme is – in other words – omnipresent “structurally” there in Reggae lyrics, even in non-Rastafari-inspired, with recent dancehall tunes by Baby Cham, Bounty Killer, Mavado and others discussing the Jamaican ghettoes, with a somewhat “gangster rap” influence, but milder, and more Jamaican. The cynicism of certain Eazy E, Dr. Dré, or NWA songs for instance – celebrating a life of crime – is luckily not so present, not even so much in “hardcore” Dancehall, in Jamaica.
In Roots Reggae, then and now, the ghetto is a structural trope, but it is also interesting to what it relates, and how each artist treats it in an own way. That is where the “art” of musical artists is after all to be found: their unique take on reality, and the surrounding reality in their times. To compare, especially in Catholic countries like Spain and Italy, there have been historically many painters portraying Catholic themes (saints, monks, scenes from the Bible, Christ etcetera), but each painter did it in their own way. Especially regarding the features of Bible figures – including Christ – the historical veracity can be questioned, though, as Christ, John the Baptist, and others (Mary, the apostles a.o.) looked remarkably European (among many painters) on the paintings, and probably not in reality..
Despite this just critique, I liked some painters – even with such Catholic themes – as art, for instance the devout Extremaduran Francisco Zurbarán, whose paintings I found atmospheric and who really could paint robes well, like few others, when he painted local, Sevillan monks and others. Interesting as art, even if one is non- or no more Catholic.
Likewise, the ghetto conditions in Jamaica are the building blocks for the way Jamaican artists express themselves. Of course, Reggae is protest music, and not just “art pour l’art”, but of the protest and social critique an artistic translation should be made to make it music.
Reggae artists did and do this through many, many good and great songs. I like how these express different moods: sometimes reflective, sometimes angry, sometimes sad, but always powerful.
Furthermore, for Rastafari-inspired artists, the harsh reality of the Jamaican ghetto – in Babylon – is interestingly contrasted to Zion in the homeland Africa, to where one should return. Back to one’s roots, a feeling that has a deep significance. The arguments that the dreamed Africa is also poor, and you don’t know if you will have it economically better there, are not enough to destroy one’s wish to return to one’s origins. This is namely a univeral, human – yes: existential - need, that also Marcus Garvey understood well. That the Africans were brought to the West and Jamaica by brute force (as part of the slave trade), of course influences this.
Some reggae artists discuss lyrics on the ghetto often, others at times too, but emphasizing perhaps more spirituality, the Bible, Selassie, or Africa (the “answer to the ghetto”, so to speak), Ijahman Levi for example. Yet, the theme is always there in Reggae lyrics, even if at times as the proverbial “elephant in the room”.
Even in (relatively poorer) parts of Europe, such communities exist, as the mentioned example of Cañada Real, near Madrid, in Central Spain, showed. Daily surviving mechanisms (tapping electricity illegally etcetera, drug trade, and other crime) are similar there to those in developing countries, like Jamaica.
More and extensive are such shanty towns and ghettoes of course in Jamaica, but also in the former colonies of Spain: throughout Latin America. The biggest shanty town in Europe might be near Madrid (Cañada Real with about 80.000 inhabitants), the biggest in the whole world is at present found in Mexico, while large percentages of the urban population in countries like Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, the Dominican Republic, and Brazil live in such “slums”. Also Puerto Rico, somehow emphasizing a “consumerist” modern image for some time now, knows relatively “poorer” neighbourhoods, often with racial connotations.
Cuba, to which I went several times in the period 2001-2006 (travelling the whole island), is a differing case, because of its Communist government and planned economy and strong social policies. Existing houses from old times tended to be reused there, and strong government control make “self-made”, informal housing futile exercises. Poor people are enabled to live in houses with limited costs, which seems like a good, social policy. These houses are – I noticed – however, hardly maintained, and often in decay. Especially in older parts of Havana and Santiago de Cuba, stone houses were decaying, and often did not have own running water (shared pumps or wells in the patio’s often), and knew regular electricity outages.
Other quarters were built by the government meant as low-income, basic housing, such as the East Bloc-style buildings of Alamar, a town with flats near Havana, which I visited. Small and very basic. Like in Spanish Town (Jamaica), I had a sense of a somewhat “surreal absurdity”, as the grey, “colourless” and industrial Soviet/Russian style flats - made up for cold, snowy countries - contrasted with Cuba’s tropical vegetation (palm trees and such) and weather, as well as with the mostly Afro-Cubans living there. I went into some houses, and rooms were small, and electricity outages a common threat.
So, the degree of wealth or even comfort should not be exaggerated, but at least this way the Cuban state avoided the need for informal shanty towns developing, as elsewhere in the region and Latin America.
All this makes it remarkable that a translation to lyrics in music about this problematic hardly took place in known music genres from these countries: Cumbia from Colombia, Salsa (based on Cuban models, spread throughout Latin America), Merengue, Samba, Bossa Nova, Bachata, Reggaetón etcetera. Some of these music genres obtained international fame, but are hardly known for “socially conscious” lyrics.
In the case of music from Cuba, it can be explained by censorship by its strong Communist state. This is still the case, as recording facilities remain strongly State-controlled. Cuba knows in addition the unpleasant phenomenon of “political/ideological snitches/spies”, for the State.
Elsewhere in Latin America, dictatorship, even if historical, might help explain the absence of “social critical lyrics” a bit, but often it is also a cultural preference, or “safe choice”, that I can – if I want to really be critical – label as “cowardice” or lack of courage. Yet, maybe it is better to use the neutral term “culturally common”. Song lyrics not often refer to social issues, but emphasize themes like partying, love, and sex. Apparently these are seen as themes in the same, appropriate realm as “music”, which seems a somewhat narrow-minded approach, but it might only be a (career-wise) “safe” choices.
In addition, ghetto or “barrio” living can be referred to indirectly in such lyrics, such as through more indirect social referrences, or in the very emphasis on partying (as a relief from daily pressures). Also as an “elephant in the room”.
To be fair, some more direct “socially critical” Salsa, Bachata, Merengue, or Samba lyrics can be heard more and more in songs, even by well-known artists. These, on occasion discusss ghetto-like areas too, or, as in Brazil, the “Favelas”, shanty towns in Brazil. This might be a lyrical Reggae or Hip-Hop influence (Latin American Reggae discusses the ghetto too), but need not be. It is the reality of most people. The majority of the world’s people is poor, we should not forget that.
You just cannot escape reality, as also said in the beautiful song Isn’t It Time (1978) by Jamaican Reggae group Tetrack. And of course : this song is also about ghetto life..
All this shows that the “prime-time” news item about the 120 shanty towns around Paris, France – with thousands of inhabitants (!?) - , I saw on Dutch television last 29th of July, is, well, very relative..