Sound and fury

Kwame Dawes on Sound Clash: Jamaican Dancehall Culture at Large, by Carolyn Cooper

Carolyn Cooper

Sound Clash: Jamaican Dancehall Culture at Large, by Carolyn Cooper (Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN 1-4039-6424-6, 348 pp)

In her introduction to Sound Clash: Jamaican Dancehall at Large, Carolyn Cooper thanks profusely, and with seemingly overly polite generosity, all her detractors, all the people who wrote articles criticising her, all the radio talk show speakers, all the folks on the streets — all her critics, that is — for their help in making the book possible. At first I assumed there was an edge of irony in her tone, that she was assuming the self-deprecating tone of one who felt supreme disdain for those who would dare to disagree with her, but by the end of the work I realised she was serious. In many ways, this book is a quarrel.

Cooper — professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona, and head of UWI’s Reggae Studies Centre — finds great occasion and motivation when she is tackling someone’s take on an issue. She is articulate and incredibly democratic in the care she takes to respond to her critics. In essay after essay, we realise we are dealing with an author who has mastered the posture and tone of the embattled. At the end of the day, there is little doubt that Cooper is on to something important, that she is breaking new and significant ground in tackling Caribbean literary discourse, but one is also left with the impression that her essays are as good as the critics she challenges. And, either because of generosity or because she knows how much she feeds off the wayward musings of her many detractors, Cooper is not discriminating about who she takes on and the quality of the ideas that she tackles.

She is just as likely to square off against the writers of The Village Voice as she is to devote an entire chapter to a Barbadian woman writing a letter to the editor. Sometimes her critics seem to be onto something, they seem to be intellectually capable of making a good counter-case, but these are rare. Cooper’s critics appear to articulate a quite easily reduced view: dancehall music is not music, it is a fall from the grace of reggae, it is dangerous, misguided, and a whole lot of noise. It is slack, it is misogynistic, it is not art, and it is roundly homophobic.

Cooper begs to differ. Very often, this is where the work pivots. Needless to say, one cannot be blamed for thinking that such arguments could be dispelled in an extended article, and do not require an entire book to dispatch them appropriately. But Cooper helps us to see that her task is somewhat broader, and you can’t help but admire the quality and force of her writing when she begins to open ways for us to interpret and understand dancehall music. When she, for example, proposes that the rituals of female performance and female sexuality in the dancehall can be tied directly to fertility and feminine rituals of empowerment in West African religious and social practice, it becomes clear that Cooper is chopping new grounds of inquiry into what dancehall represents. Here she is not taking on anyone in particular — here she is establishing legitimate and compelling critical ideas that are groundbreaking. And in Sound Clash there are several such moments.

In each of these instances, however, Cooper is never exhaustive. In fact, the metaphor of forerunner who clears the ground for more lasting cultivation suits Cooper’s work here very well. She manages in each chapter to propose just enough of a case to warrant further study, closer reading, and more comprehensive engagements in a subject area. In that sense, she functions as something of a public intellectual who is far more animated when she is being provocative than when she is engaged in critical analysis. Her language is brisk, witty, and often wont to engage in combative playfulness. Her digressions, one imagines, work brilliantly when in the performative space of the stage or the lecture hall, but on the page they can sometimes come off as trite and easy.

In her first chapter, “Border Clash”, she presents dancehall as a beleaguered musical genre fighting a battle against those who seek to bring it down through misguided attacks on its perceived homophobic discourse and its slackness. Cooper makes a compelling case that dancehall and the politics surrounding how it’s engaged create a fitting space for discovering some of the fault lines of post-colonial discourse, imperial critique, culture clashes between the periphery and the centre, and ideas about what is culturally acceptable and what is not. But she goes further, using DJs like Buju Banton and Anthony B to propose that dancehall is engaged in a serious act of class critique in Jamaican society, challenging the status quo. For Cooper, then, the war metaphors and motifs in dancehall are only mistakenly seen as the musical renderings of Jamaican thugs out to kill each other; they are in fact a continuation of the revolutionary critiques that were so important to reggae music in the 1970s.

Then, in “Slackness Personified”, she argues that Shabba Ranks is far more liberated in his view of women than Bob Marley was in his lyrics. It is a valiant attempt to argue that Shabba, an artist often accused of misogyny, holds, in fact, quite positive views about women, and that his discourse of sexuality can be empowering to women. Again, Cooper is attempting to shatter misconceptions, and succeeds at being provocative. Even though her arguments can appear thin at times, we are left with the feeling that she is discovering in dancehall something more complex than many would want to recognise. Yet one cannot help thinking that a more extensive study of Shabba’s work — involving not simply the reading of a few lyrics, but a closer look at his use of rhythm, his syntax, and his metaphor — might reveal far more about what the artist is doing, and may, in fact, complicate the arguments over how he needs to be read in terms of issues of misogyny and slackness. But this, like all the book’s chapters, must be brief. The salvos are teasers.

Cooper’s essay on Lady Saw, which promises to look at themes of fertility in Lady Saw’s lyrics, is one of the most exciting chapters in the work, less so for what it achieves in its argument than for what it begs us to do beyond the paper. Crudely put, Cooper argues that Lady Saw’s explicit sexuality emerges from, or is an extension of, a tradition of female sexual empowerment contained in the fertility rites of West African women. Saw, of course, does not openly embrace such a reading — she herself seems to regard her slackness as a means to an end — but Cooper offers rich possibilities for study. For her, it is too simplistic and patronising to dismiss Lady Saw as a misguided women who is simply encouraging the objectification of the female body. Her chapter which looks at the position of women in dancehall through a study of two dancehall films continues this argument of seeing in dancehall and its culture a process of female empowerment through masquerade and role play.

In her chapter “Lyrical Gun”, Cooper’s basic argument proposes that reading the violent lyrics of dancehall on a purely literal level is misguided, an act of disrespect to the artistry of the dancehall artists. This is a study of the function of metaphor. It is a good point. But — in much the same way that efforts to make clear that American hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur’s metaphorical use of the gun in his songs amounted to acts of literary intelligence seem to run up against the actual violence that marked Tupac’s life — Cooper’s argument is strained. Nonetheless, her point is critical, as it represents one of the few moments when she spends a great deal of time treating the lyrics to some rewarding literary analysis, ultimately revealing the sheer artistry and genius of many of these artists.

In “More Fire” she tackles a simple case: that of the idea that dancehall artists represent an ideological departure from the peace and love vibes of Bob Marley and his contemporaries. Cooper traces the uses of “fire” as incendiary text, and makes a credible case for the idea that Marley was as much a figure of dangerous rebellion in his time as Sizzla and Capleton are today in Jamaica. In the chapter “Vile Vocals”, Cooper takes on some people in Barbados who argue that the exportation of dancehall into Barbadian culture is a terrible thing. The essay is a polemic against a narrowed view of language, and a challenge to the often xenophobic and decidedly dated quarrel against the use of Jamaican in dancehall music.

In the next two chapters — the first tracing the connections between dancehall and hip-hop music, and the second looking closely at a British-based DJ, Apache Indian — Cooper begins to build her case for the “transnationality” of dancehall and the extent of its influence. In these chapters, she starts to tease out some of the implications of a musical form that seems translatable or adaptable to other cultures. But this is little more than a tease. More often than not, Cooper is cataloguing interesting facts here, rather than proposing an argument. And in the final chapter of the book, “The Dancehall Transnation”, Cooper attempts a courageous proposition: something of a dancehall aesthetic. She locates the pervasiveness of dancehall in world culture and music, and argues further that in dancehall is contained a poetics that can become a genuine literary force in the Caribbean:

The DJ phenomenon has helped create an environment in which the production of literature in Jamaican Creole can flourish. A body of poetry has developed that is written to be performed to the same kind of musical accompaniment as that used by DJs. Several dub poets, as they have come to be known, have attracted public attention, and a significant body of dub poetry has emerged. Some of the outstanding poet performers are Linton Kwesi Johnson, Oku Onuora, Jean “Binta” Breeze, Mikey Smith, and Mutaburuka.

Cooper then takes this idea a step further. She proposes that the most significant contribution that dancehall makes to Caribbean society is in its use of language. And here she begins to erect a quite weighty and lofty edifice on the foundation of dancehall:

States have emerged before as a result of national consciousness triggered by the appearance of an oral rather than a written body of creative material in a language. The oral epics of the Iliad and the Odyssey, attributed to Homer, formed the bridge between the collapse of the Mycenan Greek state and the reconstitution of a Greek state system some five hundred years later. These oral epics, performed to musical accompaniment in a tradition that seems rather similar to DJ music, formed a basis of preserving the Greek language and national identity over the centuries when no state existed. These epics were a focal point of national identity when the Greek state was reconstituted. The oral epic has served similar functions among groups as diverse as the Malinke and Songhay of West Africa and among the Serbs and Croats of Yugoslavia.

Ultimately, she proposes that there is in Jamaica a grand “border clash” between “the legal and the illegal, between competing moral codes.” She argues that “the alternative national identity and national language” shaped by dancehall amounts to a battle between “English and Jamaican, between ‘high’ versus a ‘low’ language in diglossia, and thus, ultimately between literature and orature.” Cooper is marshalling an argument around fairly loosely organised ideas. The various oral traditions she lists, particularly those that entail long traditions of memorisation and the passing on of the same narrative from one generation to the next, while sharing some affinity to dancehall, cannot be read so simply as precursors to dancehall. This is a slightly lazy argument, really, because it fails to account for the almost necessary disposability of the dancehall lyric in the quite tyrannical economics of dancehall music production. Cooper is faced with a dilemma that foregrounds the failure of criticism: she is seeking to use models of national identity and formations of state to articulate the peculiar dynamic of dancehall.

The problem is that while she does reveal that dancehall unearths some of the complex issues of race and class in Jamaican society, what she is not so successful at doing is examining in greater detail and with full care the very lyrics of the music. Rather than allow the texts to generate their own ideology, Cooper tends to harness them to support her ideological position. The difference is important. The reader does not leave this book with a greater understanding of the range and scope of the artistic achievements of Buju Banton, Lady Saw, or Sizzla. Instead, we get smatterings of what these artists are doing, but only in the context of some larger argument that Cooper is attempting to make. But, in fairness to Cooper, she never claims to be doing a close “reading” of dancehall lyrics. She champions that activity, and thinks it ought to be done, but her agenda is different. She is defending dancehall, proposing that there is more to it than many think. And all this is good, except when it seems as if her quarrels with largely inarticulate critics of her work gets in the way of really seeking out meaning in the dancehall art itself.

So if there is a weakness in this book, if, then, it can be said to be flawed, the reason is locked in the very fact that Cooper spends too much time and space responding to people whom she sees as disagreeing with her. Her essays, rather than being classic articulations of new positions, emerge as skirmishes in a larger battle that we only hear rumour of, but do not actually see. There are quite practical reasons for this. Carolyn Cooper has, for the past ten years or so, been at the centre of much controversy concerning the validity of the study of dancehall and the validity of the championing of Jamaican speech as a genuine language worthy of use in educated society. For several years she wrote a newspaper column in the Jamaican language, and was subject to much ridicule by many Jamaicans. She is an outspoken public figure who has a presence on radio, television, and in print at a level that we have not seen in a long time from a professor at the University of the West Indies who is not, quite clearly, a politically partisan figure. And, even among the political intellectuals, she is especially unique for her championing of women, her gleeful leaps into issues related to popular culture, and, most importantly, her decision to demonstrate to Jamaicans that dancehall is a sophisticated art that deserves careful scrutiny and intellectual engagement.

As a result of this public persona, Cooper has been in running debates with so many Jamaicans and non-Jamaicans that it is hard to keep track of every argument. And this book of essays comes to us with that narrative as a backdrop. Cooper has said something in public, someone has retorted, and now Cooper is going to take on that person, word for word, to make a key point. Her book is that third stage of the discussion. Those of us who are not in the loop of the entire drama find ourselves caught up in a swirl of punches without a real sense of what the argument may have been in the first place.

But the problem is exacerbated by the fact that many of the views she tackles are so obviously lightweight and so easily refuted that one is left wondering why she gives them such so much time and attention. Cooper, as it happens, is like those boxers or tennis players whose genius only appears when their opponents are impressive. When they are faced with bums, they, too, fight like bums. Good fighters tend to pick their fights. They will not take the chance of besmirching their skills with two-bit brawlers. Cooper might have benefited from such judiciousness.

But I won’t make too fine a point of this. After all, in many ways, she uses some of these figures as useful straw men — figures who, of themselves, appear to have no intellectual fortitude, but who, Cooper seems to be saying, represent a certain branch of thought that she needs to address and destroy before it becomes really dangerous. However, using them becomes a way for her to continue to employ the rhetorical approach that she does not stray from in the work — that of the debater. The difficulty with debaters is that while they may offer fresh insight, they have too little time to give such insight the attention it deserves, nor are they able to turn such insight into matters of depth.

But Sound Clash is important, because it does chronicle some of the important work that has been going on around dancehall. And it is far more convincing than some other studies of dancehall that have come from people who have not been able to contextualise the music in Jamaican society. This is an old problem, and Cooper’s book manages to redress some of the danger done by other, less informed critics. The book is important, also, because of what it fails to do. What I mean is that Cooper has now effectively delineated some of the key areas of dancehall music that require serious study. She has proposed a daring thesis — one that situates dancehall on the cusp of social change. By taking on dancehall as a subject for serious academic scrutiny, Cooper does the heavy lifting that has, already, led to some quite engaging work that constantly returns to herself as the one who opened the door to such inquiry.

Most tellingly, dancehall and popular culture move at such a rapid pace that, already, much of Cooper’s work has started to seem dated. Buju Banton, Shabba Ranks, Lady Saw, Capleton, Sizzla, and Anthony B, who all feature in Sound Clash as fresh and cutting-edge voices, are now veteran dancehall artists, and no longer the voices defining the sound. We are left, then, with the challenge of seeing whether Cooper’s essays offer us models of inquiry for examining the more contemporary voices in dancehall today.


Reproduced with permission from the Caribbean Review of Books (CRB), May 2005. Copyright Media & Editorial Projects Ltd (MEP) and the CRB.