Tanya Stephens’ new album Rebelution is subtitled ‘a movement without denial or regret’ – making class-conscious ethics central to reggae’s message. Tom Jennings rides its rhythms.
No Woman Definitely No Cry
Tanya Stephens’ fourth album, 2004’s Gangsta Blues, arguably moved contemporary reggae onto a new level – both lyrically, with its critical (and self-critical) intelligence and hatred of oppression; and musically in combining the passionate lower-class panache of the ragga dancehall with roots, Lovers Rock and lighter, singer-songwriter instrumentation. Rebelution (VP Records) is even better, so I’ll suspend my usual overheated overinterpretations and let the artist speak for herself.
Sure enough, the opening ‘Welcome to the Rebelution’ sets an agenda for present conditions in culture and politics:
‘Came to pass in the days of glorifying everything wrong / That the standard for girls became a bra and a thong / Wholesome values like curling up with a good book and a bong / Went out the window along with making a good song / … So I say to you now, the Rebelution is urgent / Stand before you not as queen, but as your humble servant / Fake leaders claim thrones without building kingdoms / Same as the music business in Kingston / We need to fight for the future for our daughters and sons / Instead you’re tripping your brothers, fighting for crumbs / But we will not be deterred by knives or guns / Go tell it on the mountain; the Rebelution has come’.
Such pronouncements are placed pithily in the history of Black struggle in ‘Come A Long Way’:
‘Tell me now Malcolm, do we hurt your pride? / Can you hear me Rosa, was it worth the ride? / Can you see me now Marcus, we’re still not unified / So tell me now Martin, is this why you died? / So we’ve come a long way from picking cotton / Many never thought they’d live to see the day when Bush pick Rice / But if all you’ve become is another house nigga, baby / Tell me, was it worth all the sacrifice? / Get outa my way while I climb to the top now / But be sure to catch me if I fall from grace / Cause heaven forbid if what I chase should reject me / You know I’m gonna need a warm black embrace / We used to stack guns, prepare for revolution / Was the only way of getting wrong put right / Now we think all our problems can be solved with shooting / And we’ve forgot why we started to fight’.
Meanwhile, ‘Do You Still Care?’s interlocking stories amplifying the implications of prejudice weave together the baleful power of dominative discrimination – from a white cracker offered a liver transplant but whose donor is black, to justifications for war exploiting culture and ideology. More controversial in the Caribbean context is Stephens’ consistent public stand against homophobia:
‘Bigga was hustling on the corner, making some cash / When he bumped into some beef that he had from the past / He watched the guns raise and the bullets fly / In disbelief as his friends all jumped in their rides / Left him in the gutter, didn’t care if he died / He was rescued by a car with plates that said “Gay Pride” / It would have been fatal, the shot in your head / They saved your life, though you always said “chi-chi fi dead”.’
Then, having obliquely critiqued organised religion’s mystifications in ‘You Keep Looking Up’ (‘Don’t be compelled to look above / Look around you, look with love’), ‘Warn Dem’ muses furiously on ghetto poverty and desperation – with its video (on the DVD accompanying the album with unplugged performances and interviews) showing a young blood carjacking before robbing a pharmacy, finally using the proceeds (an oxygen mask) to save an asthmatic baby’s life:
‘Things bad now but, trust me, them could get worse / Unless of course we come together and do something first / And all the mothers just gwaan pray / Cause it go tek a lot more than a politician fe save the day / When we actions nuh mirror what a come from we lips / Simply means we must be a nation of hypocrites / Politicians come from among us, as far as I can see / If somen wrong with them, somen must wrong with we / A we mek them, a we elect them, and all the crap them a dish a we a take them / So it’s a little insane when we start complaining when the bullets start raining / When a we a the creator fi the harm them …’
This song’s epilogue characteristically reiterates Stephens’ trademark humility and humour to heighten and season her most trenchant insights: ‘You know what? Me can’t promise you say the youths dem a go drop the Beretta / Hell, me can’t even promise you say ME a go act better / But one thing’s for sure, we can mek a effort / And that a the least we can do before we lef earth’.
Tanya Stephens’ first three albums (Big Tings A Gwan, 1994; Too Hype, 1997; Ruff Rider, 1998), incidentally, were among the best – and most pleasurably barbed – of the obscene ‘slackness’ subgenre popularised back in the day by Yellowman and Shabba Ranks (1). Here again several tracks explore the pragmatics of sexual relations, emphasising womanist strength and autonomy and emotional and sensual directness and honesty – with no politically correct pieties and the sharpest tongue and most hilarious wit ever put on wax on the subject. The lyrics of ‘Spilt Milk’ give a characteristic taste:
‘You’re spilt milk, no use crying over you / It’s only natural that a rogue will do what a rogue will do / And besides goodbye there’s really nothing left to say / Cause if you never spilled, then you woulda gone sour anyway / … Swearing I’d be lost without you, but it was your loss / I’m not even angry any more / I’ve mopped bigger messes than you up off my floor / You’re just another chore’.
But whether expressing lust, anger, affection, bitterness or sympathy for ghetto men and women, these personal narratives reliably correlate naturally, unpretentiously – and, apparently, effortlessly – with other levels of analysis too.
Nevertheless it’s rather early, on the strength of two albums, to compare her significance for this era with Bob Marley’s previously. She certainly has high-profile support (including leading Bobo DJs such as Sizzla and industry heavyweights like Dr Dre); however, Rebelution’s sonic backdrop does sound slightly anodyne (searching for crossover appeal?), and the decided dearth of club-friendly beats behind the down-to-earth lyrical populism risks losing touch with the grass-roots (2). However, if the musical development only matched the patter, Stephens could well surpass Marley in chanting down Babylon – not least in her appreciation of the complexities of class, gender and race with recourse neither to righteous mysticism nor simplistic faith in better leaders.
[music review published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 13, June 2007]
1. as greatly illuminated in Carolyn Cooper’s crucial book Sound Clash (reviewed in Freedom, 19th March 2005).
2. as also noted in my review of Gangsta Blues in Variant, No. 22, 2005.
[for more essays and reviews by Tom Jennings, see:]