Some dancehall music makes ‘bad look glorious’

General Secretary of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) Glynis Beaton is sounding a warning about the normalising of violence through music, saying dancehall has been preaching the way of the gun to impressionable young minds.

“They make bad look so glorious,” Beaton told Stabroek News in an interview, as she described the influence of some dancehall music, “The right thing sometimes seems wrong.” As part of the activities to observe Global Week of Action Against Gun Violence, the YWCA planned to engage groups of secondary school children on the violent content of popular music, which she said holds significant sway over the clothes they wear, the gadgets they buy and the way they react to situations.

Beaton has noted that the gun has become attractive when armed violence becomes a means of gaining respect and security that may otherwise be out of reach. During a meeting with students of a city school on Wednesday, she urged that they pay more attention to the lyrics, rather than simply moving to the beats. “Enjoy the music but listen to the words,” she urged.

To illustrate the danger, Beaton played excerpts of dancehall artist Vybz Kartel’s ‘Gaza Commandments’ as well as reggae artist Duane Stephenson’s ‘August Town.’ While the contrast between the songs is stark—the former is an explicit treatise that strives to conjure a Jamaican parallel of the conflict-ridden Palestinian territory, while the latter is a soulful ballad that speaks to redemption—she pointed out that the students gravitated to the faster dancehall beats while some were mouthing the lyrics word for word. However, when asked about the messages in the songs, they did not seem to understand more than the superficial meaning.

Seduced by the fast beats, students hardly pay attention to lyrics that glamorise violence and degrade women, Beaton said. She suggested that in this way young people end up receiving unsavoury values that become ingrained. “It becomes natural, it becomes normal, after all, ‘Vybz Kartel said to do it.’ By the time he says, ‘Let’s get a piece [gun],’ it’s natural, you move to the state,” she explained. “I don’t think the young people hear it. But some of the music will stay with our children and it will lead them down that hill.”

Beaton explained to the students that she did not dislike dancehall music but was aware of its dangers, and especially in those songs that preach violence. In Jamaica last year, a feud between Kartel and another dancehall artist Mavado saw their fans engage in violent clashes. The two artists subsequently pledged to end the feud, after an intervention by the government, which was worried about the implications of the situation.

According to Beaton, resisting the pull of the culture is difficult for young people, especially those who might relate to it. She noted that the music does not emphasise the dangers associated with guns, and instead focuses on them as status symbols. “It is saying a man without a gun is like a man without a penis,” she explained, adding that the music can have a domino like effect on the lifestyles of the young.

Although she admitted that getting policy makers to take action on the issue is necessary, Beaton said they are never available. She said the YWCA would for now target students from several city schools and particularly in the depressed communities. “We need to prepare every youth,” she said, “We wanted to do it in every school and target the depressed areas but there is a lot of bureaucracy.”

She also said that it might also be worthwhile to engage musicians on the issue, at a regional level. She explained that she had urged her organisation to try to engage with musicians but some members were unwilling. “You must be able to relate to them because the young people listen to them, but some don’t want to be associated with ‘those people,’ and so they do what they have to do to earn their dollars,” she added.

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