KINGSTON, Jamaica -- Men in tight jeans pounce up and down to the thumping beat, winding suggestively against scantily clad girls in neon-colored bikini tops and super short shorts twisting their bodies to the catchy lyrics.
As the DJ raps over the stuttering tracks, partygoers show no sign of the anxiety bubbling in this Caribbean cultural capital over the future of dancehall reggae, one of the island’s chief musical exports. Its sagging status seems particularly poignant as the nation looks back at how its music has evolved over a half century of independence.
“It’s hormonal music. It’s young, feisty, anti-parent, youthful,” said Josef Bogdanovich, who runs a recording studio, and is one of the few still gambling on the island’s signature, dancehall reggae. “Dancehall is real street and it’s real tough.”
After years of surging in popularity and enjoying mainstream U.S. radio airplay success in the ’90s, the music born in the underbelly of Jamaica’s urban culture in the 1970s as an edgy derivative of reggae is hitting a sour note as some of its biggest international stars — Buju Banton, Vybz Kartel and Busy Signal among others — fight criminal charges and others face visa revocations and canceled concerts.
Much like the drama that encircled hip-hop in the 1990s, dancehall reggae is accused of nurturing slackness, glorifying violence and negatively influencing a whole new generation of Caribbean youth with its sexually explicit, sometimes violent, homophobic lyrics. International organizations and gay rights groups have long complained that the music, known to celebrate the murder of gay men, incites anti-gay violence.
Now Jamaican culture critics are calling for a cleanup amid dwindling records sales here and in the U.S., and the increasingly bad rap it’s getting. Some blame artists’ legal troubles for the negative vibes, while others say what’s happening in dancehall is a larger reflection of Jamaican society and its highly competitive, unorganized music industry.
“It’s unfair to paint a situation that says dancehall is this renegade faction within the society doing [messed up] things,’ ” said Dylan Powe, a Jamaican music expert. “Dancehall and reggae music are indicators to some extent of an overall decline in the moral values of the whole society. There are politicians and police who have been accused of a lot of the same things as a lot of these acts who are currently in jail.”
Powe is one of the faces behind what was once Jamaica’s most popular and controversial street dance export, Passa Passa. These days, however, he barely attracts a crowd at the Wednesday night street party in Tivoli Gardens, the West Kingston ghetto that made international headlines in 2010.
Things haven’t been the same for the former tourist attraction, Powe said, since the police and army took control of the neighborhood in search of drug kingpin Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke, aka “The President.” While Powe attributes Passa’s diminishing pull to the police force’s refusal to issue party permits, he jokingly muses that it also reflects the current crisis state of dancehall and Jamaican music in general: struggling for a comeback.
“When you have the top brands and top earners out of the market, it’s the equivalent of Procter and Gamble pulling Crest, Ivory soap,” he said. “By virtue of having a Buju in jail, a Kartel in jail, a Bounty [Killer] who can’t travel, a Beenie [Man] who couldn’t travel, what you’ve done is taken out the top earners out of the game.”