Carolyn Cooper’s Sound Clash sees contemporary reggae as rebel music, still. Tom Jennings is mightily impressed
A (New) Message from Rudy by Tom Jennings
Britain, the 1970s: skinheads rocked steady to ska and punks embraced reggae as their dance music of choice. Disaffected white youth across the UK embraced these Jamaican ghetto fables set to irresistibly pulsing beats, primarily due to the resonance they felt with the incendiary politics woven into the lyrics alongside spiritual yearning for unity, love and relief from suffering. Then – after Bob Marley’s international canonisation and the multicultural populisms of two-tone and UB40 – UK roots, dub and lovers rock production, recording and performance thrived for a while among Jamaican diasporans and the new converts. Over time, though, much of the youthful energy dissipated into trip-hop, jungle, bhangra and drum and bass, leaving reggae as another nostalgic niche commodity for collectors …
… Except in West Indian communities, where the explosive 1980s Kingston dancehall style known as ragga quickly took over – paralleling the rise of hip-hop in America, and sharing its cutting edge minimalist aesthetics, vocal gymnastics and scandalous lower-class content. Largely ignored or dismissed by the commercial mainstream and critics, reggae dancehall is now entrenched in urban club playlists, and strongly influences R&B and rap on both sides of the Atlantic. Even better, like its predecessors, it embeds uncompromisingly radical sentiments in its profane and sensuous sound and fury (1).
Carolyn Cooper’s Sound Clash: Jamaican Dancehall Culture at Large (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) is the first book-length critical examination of ragga’s ambivalent cultural politics. The social space of the dancehall is contextualised as an authentic and vigorous response of the postcolonial Caribbean urban poor to their repression by vicious governmental gangsterism bolstered by utterly regressive and hypocritical class/race elitism and reactionary official Christianity. The author captures the ways the dancehall vibrates with tensions juggling acceptance of the status quo (such as in scapegoating unacceptable lifestyles or glorifying consumerism) and containment via the safe release of frustration (hedonism and the carnivalesque traducing of authority) – a dialectic common in genuinely grass-roots cultural forms.
What elevates Sound Clash beyond academic interest, however, is its careful attention to the emancipatory potential arising from this unruly environment. Drawing sustenance from the mismatch between the hatred and disgust shown by their ‘betters’ compared to their own passionate enjoyment, audiences and performers mutually nurture and reinforce each other’s prowess. In the process abolishing boundaries between production and consumption, success is measured concurrently as a dance event for punters and in the lyrical and musical dexterity and creativity of selecters and DJs, so that experimentation, provocation and excess are (within the collectively agreed rules of the sound clash) required on both sides.
As a scholar of literature, the author carefully inscribes superstars like Marley, Shabba Ranks, Bounty Killer, Capleton and Lady Saw in their backgrounds and milieux rather than the unique creative geniuses preferred in bourgeois worldviews. Their sophisticated poetics evoke and evolve the oral, rhetorical strategies and devices originating in Africa and plantation slavery so as to encapsulate modern versions of impoverishment (2). Dismissing Western politically correct liberal distaste as merely high-and-mighty ignorance echoing Jamaican elite class hatred, Cooper interprets the lyrics’ grounding in Jamaican ghetto life, where even the most troubling themes – such as violent macho, homophobia and misogyny – reflect ‘border clashes’ negotiating the deepening fractures and fissures in the island’s increasingly brutal and desperate body politic.
The dynamic of border crossing also illuminates the global migration of ragga and its adherents, smuggling its intrinsically oppositional stances into local fusions with rap and Asian styles, for example (3). The metaphorical patois allusions to guns as verbal weaponry, the righteous burning of Babylon merging revolution with hardline Bobo rastafarianism, and, especially, the obscenities of sexual slackness, all serve as ‘hidden transcripts’ defeating the understanding of detached observation – allowing and reinforcing flights of free expression in a heavily policed party scene: “simultaneously resisting and enticing respectable culture” (p.2).
The close analysis of sexual politics in dancehall lyrics will surprise many readers the most. Despite both forms reserving their harshest critique for middle class morality, classic reggae largely conforms to traditional patriarchal conventions whereas ragga celebrates realistic and egalitarian relations between the sexes. True, male performers seem to gleefully and duplicitously wallow in the objectification of women’s bodies while also urging strength, pride and independence. But the personification of all these traits by hugely popular and immensely powerful women artists like Patra, Tanya Stephens and Lady Saw – who are, if anything, even ruder while fully maintaining integrity and class clarity – demonstrates that the language of display, pleasure and erotic commodification is deployed precisely to subvert the sexual (and the social, economic and political) status quo.
Of course, formations such as reggae cannot map directly onto political struggle and movement. But whether in Jamaica, the Caribbean diaspora or via wider influences in popular genres and subcultures, the achievements of this music can continue to inspire out of all proportion to the clout of its humble downtown creators. Their exhilarating reformulations of the contradictions inherent in our increasingly polarised world under barbaric 21st century capitalism transform daily life emotional and material agonies into collective imagination and possibility – when the sneering of the superior denies such potential altogether. Respect is due to Carolyn Cooper for going against the prevailing grain, arguing so fiercely and cleverly on behalf of the dispossessed.
1. see Norman Stolzoff, Wake The Town and Tell the People: Dancehall Culture in Jamaica (Duke University Press, 2000) for a comprehensive history of the dancehall industry. Reggae’s general significance for today’s urban music is discussed in my ‘Dancehall Dreams’, Variant No. 20, 2004 (www.variant.org.uk).
2. the literary angle being fully covered in Cooper’s equally groundbreaking Noises in the Blood: Orality, Gender and the ‘Vulgar’ Body of Jamaican Popular Culture (Macmillan 1993).
3. and in films such as Dancehall Queen (dirs. Rick Elgood/Don Letts, 1997) and Babymother (dir. Julian Henriques, 1998).
Book review published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 6, March 2005.
For other essays and reviews by Tom Jennings, see: