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Jamaica sounds the alarm over its music

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.”

The U.S. government doesn’t confirm visa revocations, but the music scene here has been abuzz with rumors of Jamaican artists forced to cancel U.S. shows because they can’t travel. In 2010, one Jamaican music online site even printed what it says was a U.S. Embassy document informing airlines to prevent four top artists from boarding U.S.-bound flights.

The fallout couldn’t be clearer than during the recent Jamaica Golden Jubilee celebrations. The most talked about positive music story in the international media involved American rapper Snoop Dog preparing to release his first reggae album and changing his name to Snoop Lion in honor of reggae icon Bob Marley, whose music dealt with peace and love.

Earlier this year when reggae and hip hop fans gathered in Miami for an annual Memorial Day weekend concert, the event turned into a tribute to Banton, born Mark Anthony Myrie. Last year, a Florida jury sentenced the Grammy winner to 10 years on drug-related charges after a December 2009 cocaine sting. When details of the operations first surfaced, fans remarked how eerily similar they were to one of his music videos, Driver.

“The business of life imitating art, instead of art imitating life, goes back to that age-old debate about socialization,” said Sonjah Stanley Niaah, who teaches cultural studies at the University of the West Indies in Kingston. “There is a deeper problem in terms of how these artists see themselves.”

If Banton’s arrest stunned dancehall fans, that of Kartel — born Adijah Palmer — still has many in a daze. Currently the genre’s most celebrated artist, the jailed dancehall star is facing charges of obstruction-of-justice and murder.

Practices within the island’s music industry are contributing to concern about the genre’s future.

Radio deejays are “skewing their playlists” to only promote certain songs, says Stanley Niaah — a point the publicist of Kartel’s recently published book, The Voice of the Jamaican Ghetto, also raised as she sought to clarify that not all of his songs are laced with violence and sexual innuendo.

The situation is so dire that Stanley Niaah calls it “an implosion.” The way to salvation, she suggests, is for the government to regulate the music industry and for respected figures to mentor artists.

But where some see crisis, others see opportunity.

“Sometimes when you have to plant the seed, you have to first burn what’s there,” said Powe, who doesn’t believe Jamaica is making great music anymore. “Whether by being visa-less, by being locked up, whether just by being unsuccessful, a whole new paradigm of how you do business is going to have to be shaped.”

Bogdanovich, the promoter who moved to Kingston from Los Angeles to produce dancehall music and concerts, says it’s already happening.

But even as Bogdanovich talks about a rebirth, it’s clear some things may never change. Security at the studio has gotten even tighter in recent days after one of Bogdanovich’s up-and-coming artists got into a lyrical war of words with a veteran, Sizzla.

Bogdanovich’s office wall is decorated with life-size posters of once promising artists who couldn’t cut it.

“We leave these people on the walls so that we remember not to make the same mistakes,” he said. “When you see signs of an artist losing his focus and that he’s bigger than the incredible hype around him, you have to deal with it immediately.”

And while some are quick to sound the alarm on dancehall’s death, Bogdanovich isn’t ready quite yet to stage a send-off.

“A new generation of artists is starting to get the confidence and desire and strength to do their thing. That’s a different kind of generation. The words are shorter, not as long, get to the point quickly. You might call it Attention Deficit Disorder.”