Dancehall music is not just noise

It is often the case when popular musical patterns shift – roughly every 15 years or so –  that the adults of the mature generation, who are left behind yearning for their music that is now passé, will generally turn their backs on the new genre or even shut it out completely.

“That’s not the music,” is the common refrain, “that’s just noise.”  The pattern is predictable, it will happen several times in a lifetime, and here’s the unfortunate thing: adults in the generation past treat every new music that way – “it’s just noise” – and in every case they are wrong; if we take the time to listen there is great music in every new popular format that comes along.

Elvis Presley was lambasted when he broke the popular music world wide open with his moans and grunts, but years later we know him for established songs such as “Love Me Tender” and “Don’t Be Cruel”. Bob Dylan, dismissed as “a talker not a singer” has given us “Blowing in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’ “ and “Make You Feel My Love.“  The point in those cases, and there are many others, is that if we give these new musics a fair shake, when they appear, we will find invariably that, although there is trash, there is value, as well. From Bing Crosby to Michael Jackson, it has been that way.

Which brings me to the popular Jamaican genre, known loosely as dancehall, which is today’s recipient of the “that’s not music” label, here and elsewhere, and once again the bald truth is that the people who present that judgement have really not listened to the music enough.

Going in, be clear that I’m excluding from this discussion the dancehall songs that delve into such horrors as misogyny, murder, racism, etc.  That degrading side of dancehall should be condemned at every turn, even in the face of the popularity that often attends it.

My point goes beyond that to the wider genre that is dancehall; investigate that, and you will find an array of perceptive and ingenious lyrics, often dealing with societal conditions much in the way that calypso once did.

Indeed, that captivating mix of social topics and sensual rhythm that is the essence of calypso, while generally missing in the modern soca and chutney forms, is very much alive in dancehall with its combination of fine lyrics over pulsing music that forms the foundation of popular music in any era.  Trust me, it is there in dancehall. I concede that the dialect can bewilder the newcomer, but the musical quality is there.

I don’t ask you to trust me on blind faith.  Simply look at the lyrics below; they are from a hit dancehall tune from a few years back by Stitchie; it is one of my favourites but there are many such examples to be found.

The song is called “Fast And Pray” and it is about Stitchie, who has found peace of mind, praying that his fellow performers be blessed the same way.

To avoid any possible confusion, let me emphasize this is no ballad to be sung in church on Sunday. This is a break down dancehall tune that sets patrons rocking; the verses read like drum patterns.

Take a few moments (the Jamaican dialect is not that difficult) with the words on the paper. Notice that the lines don’t just rhyme, they pulse, and that the writer is using all kinds of clever references to other famous dancehall singers and is also touching on a variety of emotions.

Read the lines to the bottom, then read them again, and judge for yourself whether what Stitchie is singing can rightly be dismissed as “just noise”.


Mi fully saved under the blood inna di churchhall
Can’t forget about mi friends in di dancehall
Joy and love mi have, and great peace of mind
And a dis mi want mi dancehall friends dem to find

[Chorus] Fast and pray, fast and pray
‘till Christ all a mi friends dem find
Stitchie a go fast and pray, fast and pray
until di devil get thee behind – me
Fast and pray, fast and pray
‘till Christ all a mi friends dem find
Stitchie a go fast and pray, fast and pray
until di devil get thee behind

Awesome, powerful, and great mighty Father
save, protect and bless Bounty Killer
‘cause you bless him with the voice of a warrior
and mi want plea the blood against Lucifer
Faithful, righteous, holy one
in the name of Jesus Christ mi call Capleton
because you bless him as a talented young man
an mi want him burn the fire ‘pon Satan

Grace and mercy, grant it oh Jesus
save and prosper, bless Mr. Lexus
help him to study daily your holy book
and no take another look in a cookbook
Remember Moses Davis, yes Beenie Man gong
inna his mouth, Lord God, put a new song
Talented excellent entertainer
help him to accept Jesus Christ as him Saviour

[Chorus] Fast and pray….
[ Lyrics from: ]

Father you just, you give mercy to everyone
grant some more to brother Desmond, the Ninja Man
let him return in your divine time
use the Rod of Correction to get him back in line
Precious Jesus, bless mi friend Professor Nuts
save him, Lord, and help him to be serious
help him to study Exodus and Leviticus
and over Satan head run the mini-bus
I pray for Baby Cham, bless him with a miracle
mi friend Buju and mi friend Tony Rebel
Mi know the enemy can be wicked and terrible
so save Spraga, Shaba, Cobra from the devil

[Chorus] Fast and pray…

Jesus, remember Bling Dawg, Elephant Man,
Shocking Vibes Crew by your Spirit
change them lives and make them brand new
Alozade, Captain Barky, Wickerman and Sizzla too
save them, change them, then use them to serve you
Touch Shaggy with your blood and set him free
when you bless him make him bawl out, “It is me!”
In need of prayer now mi gone down on mi knees
give Sean Paul di light, and make him get busy!

(Right now!)
As I pray to you, Jesus Christ
Mr. Vegas, mi brother, transform him life
I declare inna sin he will not die
In your kingdom help him hold him head high
General Trees, Brigadier Jerry, Chaplain, Yellow Man
Ricky Stereo, Daddy Blue from Stereo One
Father, remember Wolf Man was mi right hand
and fi their lives, Lord, let me know you have a new plan
Admiral Bailey, Tiger, Josie Wales and Super Cat
dispatch your angels and protect them from all attack
Holy Spirit, lead them ‘pon the right track
in the name of Jesus none of them a go turn back
[Chorus] Fast and pray…


Passion is required

Some time in the near future I will be doing a session with arts students at the University of Guyana (as part of my Artist in Residence work with UG) as well as a Moray House talk, sometime in May, on being an artist. 

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Following two recent columns in this space touching on the decline of calypso as popular music, I have heard from several readers in some very interesting exchanges on this subject. 

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Laughter as medicine

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