Redemption Songs

Gangstas 0, Consciousness 1.

  • Buju Banton. Photograph by Brian Cross
  • Chaka Demus and Pliers. Photograph by David Hindley
  • The irreplaceable Robert Nesta Marley. Photograph by Adrian Boot
  • Luciano: king of consciousness. Photograph by Adrian Boot

How can you be so ungrateful/After all that God has done for you . . . Unlikely lyrics for a contemporary Jamaican smash hit? Only a year or so ago, when celebrations of ghetto gun battles, cocaine culture, and “slack” sexual lubricity ruled the dancehall, it might have seemed from another time altogether.

But now, as Luciano’s soul voice intones the religious words of praise of his latest local hit for a video shoot, he is surrounded by almost the entire community of the holiday town of Treasure Beach. It’s as though he’s fulfilling a very precise need.

Which he unquestionably is: Luciano, a hitmaker with a seemingly endless supply of spiritual songs, is Jamaica’s king of “consciousness”, a musical shift in thinking that seems too important to be merely a trend. “Conscious” means exactly what it says: being awake, having your eyes and head open, embracing the numinous rather than the negative.

It is music whose subject matter dramatically reverses the glorification of the badman lifestyle that for almost a decade has dominated “dancehall”, the commercially guaranteed digital blend of reggae and rap favoured by artists from Shabba Ranks to Ninjaman. (But how could those ghetto DJs write about anything else?” Luciano said to me. “That was their world, all they knew, they were victims themselves.)

Luciano offered an explanation, with humility. “It seems that of late consciousness in mankind has raised up to a higher dimension. For some reason myself and other artists began to feel a need to ameliorate the subconscious human condition down here in Jamaica: we realised the impact that music has on young minds.”

No more crucial a time than now. In the controlled anarchy of the Kingston ghetto, life is tougher and deadlier than ever. And the gun toting braggadocio of much dancehall subject matter, mired in the grim reality it’s dealing with, has offered no way out.

Can optimists hope that the appearance of “conscious” music really does reflect a collective need in Jamaica for a new direction? For this new “conscious” culture has wider implications: extreme styles and attitudes are emulated internationally by both inner city and suburban youth, especially in the United States, from where “Yard” drug posses support Kingston’s ghetto economy.

The cutlass strokes slashed worldwide by Jamaica’s cultural buccaneers have always been double-edged: on one side, dysfunctionally, dangerously wild; on the other, earth-shatteringly spiritual.

And like many rural Jamaicans possessed of pure faith, Luciano palpably emanates positive energy. Moreover, in the Caribbean he has a Joseph Campbell-like package of mythology working for him. Physically, he is the template of not one but two Jamaican heroic archetypes: his broad build and reddish-brown complexion recall the only known drawings of the legendary Cudjoe, the Maroon hero who brought the English redcoats to their knees; and Ferry Henzell, the director of the classic film The Harder They Come, was so struck by the musician’s resemblance to Marcus Garvey, also of Maroon origin, that he wanted to cast Luciano as the black prophet in a biographical musical.

“I have previously manifested in many forms,” Luciano claimed, suitably matter-of-fact and mysterious.

This then has been the prevailing mood in Jamaican music in 1996. Although one of the most popular acts of the last two years, Bounti Killa, still adheres to the old thoughts and mores, it can’t be long before he too is hymning praises to Jah.

Beenie Man, for example, his closest contemporary rival for hottest Jamaican DJ, does precisely that, wearing his soul on his red, gold and green sleeve. Despite superb paeans to downtown life like the anthemic Slam, tunes like his powerful reality song Freedom and Blessed, the title track of his invigorating LP and a tribute to Haile Selassie, are dedicated pretty much to the creator.

A man of the ghetto as Luciano is a man of the hills, Beenie is a consummate professional: although only 21, he has been performing for 15 years — at the age of six he was already guesting on records as Boy Wonder. Five years ago he could be seen at sound system events like the celebrated House of Lee, dancing on his own, a one-man posse — though at that stage Beenie Man had less recognition than he had had almost a decade earlier.

Now, however, as is also the case with Luciano, Beenie Man’s infectious music is bubbling in the United States. At the Gavin Black Music Convention in Atlanta, he was called onstage during the performance by Top Five US album sellers The Fugees to add his DJ prowess to their mix. The crowd, as they say, went crazy.

“Mi nuh jump pon no bandwagon ting,” insists Beenie Man. “Yuh just have to deal with life like yuh supposed to, seen? Cause some youth nuh really understand the concept of Rasta. They just a sell Rasta, put on some locks and jump up and down saying ‘Selassie I’. Mi not into all that, it no really mek sense. Yuh have to be creative, love original stuff at all times.”

Along with producer Patrick Roberts, Beenie Man helped establish the Shocking Vibes label, which features, among others, fellow DJs Snagga Puss, Silver Cat (with whom Beenie duetted on the huge hit Chronic), and the highly rated up-and-coming Frisco Kid.

In Jamaica today, in fact, there is a wealth of talented new conscious DJs: Louie Culture, Determined, Jesse Gender, a fairskinned Rasta DJ and acapella Biblical preacher, part of the Exterminator Crew. And especially Anthony B, nominated as the Best New Act of 1995.

A 21-year-old from Portmore, the Kingston dormitory town now nearly as large as the capital itself, Anthony B began his career seven or eight years ago by simply heating pans on the street-side. At the African Star outdoor nightclub in Halfway Tree, where he was shooting an onstage performance for the new film Dancehall Queen, Anthony traced the almost archetypal career progress that has led to the extreme success of his song Fire Pon Rome — and a reputation for songs whose subects are matters of social concern.

Not finding that a career in accountancy exactly suited him when he left school the age of 17, he began to hang out with the Black Scorpion sound system posse, grabbing the mike whenever the opportunity came his way. After an unsuccessful first record, Just Sniff Coke, he was inspired by Rastafari, and as 1993 turned to 1994, his songs One Thing and Hurt The Heart put him in the eyes of the public. “Consciousness is truth,” Anthony emphasised. “And people of the world like truth.” It is Luciano, he insisted, who is his main contemporary inspiration — “a man with a work.”

But some of the most exemplary Jamaican music of the decade his been produced by older dancehall acts who have experienced Biblical-like conversions to “consciousness”. None is more remarkable than Buju Banton, once the personification of Jamaican homophohia — his Boom Bye Bye tune virtually pronounced a death sentence on gays.

Now, however, he has “locksed” (grown dreadlocks), and last year produced the 1990s’ finest reggae album — Til Shiloh, a work of mature spirituality. Where did the record’s title come from? “I started reading the scriptures where it said, The sceptre shall not depart from the tribe of Judah till Shiloh come.’ I penetrated the word Shiloh and fell in love with it. I found it an infinite word. It not only means forever, but it also means the heavenly, mystical presence of the glory of the Holy Spirit of Truth.”

And how did this extraordinary shift in lyrical subject matter come about? “Inside me, there was a musical rage to let out. I went out and gave Jah thanks and praise, because the inspiration was so strong, so much so that I and I even shed tears as the words came together. It was even more than I could imagine — that I and I look pon myself and say, Boy, God really love me.’ I was in a pensive mood, looking at the situation we’re living in.”

Almost as surprising is Capleton, a newly dreadlocked raucous dancehall DJ. Early tunes, like Bumba Red, were not very Politically Correct. But Capleton’s later songs, like Babylon Judgement and Chant, are conscious anthems. Even dancehall queen Lady Saw, whose most memorable hit carried the title of Stab Up Mi Meat and whose legendary stage-shows are both raunchy and extremely funny, threatens a conscious LP. As a pointer in this direction her AIDS-awareness song Condom was a number one single in Jamaica last spring.

The feisty Lady Saw — whose name is a tribute to the late Tenor Saw, an early inspiration — also had a number one single on the New York reggae charts with Give Mi A Reason, a beautiful country-ringed love song. “What is consciousness?” she asked. “Is it conscious that they ban my shows in Montego Bay, yet can’t even repair the roads for the people to travel on or give them a decent transportation system?”

Among male artists the recent “locksing” is a significant detail. The rhythm of conscious reggae is the kete drum, the basis of the “nyabinghi” music performed by devout Rastafarians: this is the beat of, for example, Beenie Man’s song Freedom. Conscious reggae is inextricably interlinked with Rastafarianism, the interpretation of Christianity in which large segments of the Jamaican population ardently believe. As the millenium grows closer, its apocalyptic predictions seem daily more relevant.

“Rastafari has come back, even with the youngsters,” asserted Luciano. “They feel as I do. I decided to look below the glittering surface and find the truth: and I realised all you need is a love of God and you feel clean and comfortable.”

How can you think of Rastafarianism without hearing the name Bob Marley? What happened in Jamaica to his words of warning? Were the lessons of the prophet no longer being heeded in his homeland?

Irie-FM, the national reggae station, began daily broadcasting pleas to gunmen not to go to work: and somewhere in the nation’s collective psyche it must have seemed time to return to the grace once bestowed on Jamaica by Marley’s music and presence. “I thank God every day for this return to consciousness,” Rita Marley, his widow, told me. “All respect to Bob in setting the pace. This kete rhythm has allowed cleaner lyrics: they lick the drum and the heartbeat feels like one.”

Since Marley’s death in 1981 there has been an embarrassing number of not-the-next- Bob-Marleys. With one exception: the only Jamaican artist for whom such comparisons were never risible was Garnett Silk. Thanks to seminal albums like It’s Growing, and a classic high soul voice, Silk was recognised as the finest new Jamaican singer of this decade. But he was also a devout follower of Rastafari who recorded songs of coruscating social criticism, with the result that he became the First Prophet of the new “Consciousness”. Hinting at that curious sense of paradox with which Jamaica is riven, however, it was the gun that brought about his end: a loose shot hit a gas cylinder outside his house, bombing him to death. His tragic end seemed to be felt by all of Jamaica.

“Garnett Silk bring it all back,” said Jah Stitch, the celebrated DJ of the 1970s. “Bob was dealing with something original, but it was music to personally experience, rather than dance all night in a club to. But Garnett Silk brought consciousness into dancehall music: he used the rhythm of dancehall with cultural lyrics that were very deep. Right now, it can’t turn back. Everybody just have to follow the trail. He gets the message across through dancehall — him a great teacher.”

Once upon a time reggae was considered by non-Caribbeans as a kind of joke music. The international influence of reggae during the 1990s, however, has been immense; as well as the reggae riffs and samples that are omnipresent in rock and especially dance music like Jungle, Jamaican music has experienced a host of international break-outs.

Last year saw the colossal worldwide success of Diana King, whose blend of r’n’b and reggae styling made her Shy Guy song, strongly featured in the hit movie Bad Boys, perhaps the most perfect pop record of 1995. Shaggy, Inner Circle and Chaka Demers and Pliers have all sold records on a huge scale worldwide, giving the lie to the silence of the music on a global scale during the 1980s — a stunned response, one always felt, to the death of Bob Marley in May 1981.

Chaka Demus and Pliers, for their part, came back strong this year with the release of their follow-up to the million-selling Tease Me LP, including a version of the Harry Belafonte classic Man Smart Woman Smarter — a hit in recent times for Robert Palmer. Learning that Jamaican-born Belafonte was on the island filming a documentary, Harry’s Life, for PBS, Chaka Demus and Pliers asked him to come to the studio and work with them on his own song. Harry obligingly complied, bringing with him his entire film crew.

In the summer the two-man DJ team toured major European and American festivals with a name from the past that is certainly worth reckoning with — Jimmy Cliff. The erstwhile star of The Harder They Come, who has been negotiating with Perry Henzell over the script for a sequel to the film, produced Positive Energy, his first major album in many years, and put together a Greatest Hits package set for the shops.

Also appearing on this European and American project was the redoubtable Luciano, the man who picked up the mantle cast down by Garnett Silk’s tragic death. In Jamaica there is now something akin to Luciano-mania. Everywhere from darkest downtown to the highest hills, his addictive songs of devotion are adored by the local population; you can hardly turn on the radio without hearing the sweet, lilting tunes that make up Where There Is Life, his debut album on which every song is a celebration of adoration for God — It’s Me Again Jah, Lord Give Me Strength and He Is My Friend are just three of the titles. It came as no surprise that Luciano was named Vocalist of the Year at Kingston’s annual Rockers Awards.

A humble poet at heart, Luciano has a clear view of both the reason for his popularity and the source of his inspiration. “This system requires a lack of love and understanding to work,” he insisted. “Mankind is still living like hooligans: if the wealth of the earth is not fairly distributed, there will inevitably be chaos. Those nations that take wealth to their countries alone cause an imbalance. And so we have earthquakes, cyclones, and hurricanes.

“I’m happy to be part of this musical renaissance. There was a decadence in the music, part of the global thing of materialism taking over mankind. And in the same way that the music has changed, so there will also be a breaking down of this present world order. Even world leaders know this current system is collapsing. Any system that isn’t based on equality and justice simply cannot last.”

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