The Sound and the Fury

image by imp kerr

Politics in the Dance

The 1970s brought a whole new atmosphere to the dancehall. Politics began to creep into every aspect of life in Jamaica, including music. “In the ‘60s, when we celebrated our independence, when we came out of the colonial era, it was really nice,” explains producer Clive Chin. “After that 10-year stretch that just went past unnoticed, like the turn of a page—everything just started changing. People became more self-conscious of who they are, what they were defending. The music started to change as well. Then, you had certain Jamaican artists picking up the team of the socialist system, where they would sing about Joshua, ‘Better Must Come,’ and things like that. There was a big change. The rock steady, which had that sweet melody, went by and more political and social material came into effect.”

This is an excerpt from Beth Lesser's Rub-a-Dub Style: The Roots of Modern Dancehall available to download as a .pdf here.

Both “Better Must Come” by Delroy Wilson and “No Joshua No” by Max Romeo were written in reference to Michael Manley, leader of the People’s National Party (PNP). In 1972, Manley had been elected with 56% of the vote. Appealing to the downtrodden and disenfranchised, Manley had sought out the help of musicians in his campaign, like singer-producer Clancy Eccles, who recorded several songs in support of Manley including the crucial “Rod of Correction.” He also organized the traveling Bandwagon shows that took Manley’s message to every parish. Singers included Bob and Rita Marley, Junior Byles, Dennis Brown, Judy Mowatt, Scotty, Marcia Griffiths, Tinga Stewart, Brent Dowe, Max Romeo, Derrick Harriet, and Ken Boothe.

Although true Rastafarians eschewed political involvement, the PNP began a campaign to co-opt the Rastafarian movement by incorporating Rasta symbols, ideas, and music into its campaign. Manley portrayed himself as the Biblical Joshua and carried a stick he referred to as the ‘rod of correction’. Claiming the rod has been given to him by the Emperor Haile Selassie, Manley courted the Rastafarian vote with considerable success.

But the euphoria of his election victory quickly dampened. Many had climbed aboard the Manley bandwagon, believing that change was possible. But when faced with continual interference by the U.S. and its allies, the only change that came was that the rich got richer and the sufferers suffered more. Jamaica was indeed, as Prince Far I put it, “under heavy manners.”

During the ’70s, life in Jamaica was much the way it was described in so many songs from the period. People were suffering. Jobs were scarce, wages were low and essential goods were in short supply. In 1980, inflation was running at 28.6%, with unemployment at 27% with an estimated 50% for young people, according to a 1986 Heritage Foundation report. The economy was unstable and factories were closing because the lack of foreign exchange made it impossible to buy parts and raw materials from abroad. The middle class was leaving as quickly as they could find a way around the restrictions on taking money out of the country. Because of the import controls, store shelves were bare and something as simple as a can opener could run you $25 Jamaican in the supermarket. The music industry suffered also under import controls. Coxsone Dodd had to stop repressing his material in Jamaica and Jojo Hookim of Channel One had his import license reduced, making it hard to get parts for his jukeboxes and gaming machines.

In the ’70s, life proved so difficult that many Jamaicans, including Clive and his family, moved to the U.S. DJ Dennis Alcapone was one of the many who, like the Chins, abandoned the country. “At the time, Jamaica was just turning violent [because of] the political situation. Guns were firing in the dance.”

Manley was a strong supporter of Third World solidarity and aligned himself with Cuba and other revolutionary governments, setting off alarms in Washington, still shaking from the Cuban Missile crisis. Jamaica’s close proximity to Cuba was a concern, and the U.S. did not want to see communism spread. As Mark Wignall noted in the Jamaican Observer, “At a time when Cold War tensions were being played out right across the globe between the U.S. and its NATO allies and the Soviet Bloc and its satellites, Michael Manley’s political direction placed Jamaica, a small island in America’s backyard pond (the Caribbean Sea), in the cross-hairs of hostile U.S. policy action.”

The CIA, according to ex-agent Phillip Agee, began processes of destabilization in Jamaica. Guns began coming into the country. “In the period leading up to the 1976 general elections, violence took off in earnest. It was then no secret that new guns had come upon the Jamaican landscape, and it was argued that the firepower of the JCF [Jamaica Defense Force] was inferior to those of the gunmen aligned to the political parties,” Wignall reported. The inevitable result was an escalating arms race between the two opposing political factions — the PFP and the rival Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) — in which many innocent lives were lost.

Garrisons, Communities, and Political Violence

Throughout the ’70s, politically inspired violence affected everyone. “You get up this morning and you wonder who you know was killed,” recalls producer Dudley Swaby, a.k.a. Manzie. “Every day, I know somebody who was killed. Or if I didn’t know them, I know of them or know about them.”

By the 1976 election, Jamaica was on the brink of an outright civil war. The contest between Manley and JLP leader Edward Seaga pitted two determined men, and battles were being fought on the street of downtown Kingston. Travel around the city became perilous. Sound systems had to stay within their own neighborhoods. Dancehall DJ and producer Jazzbo recalls, “Before that we used to play seven nights a week. But there was a time in the middle ’70s when the sound couldn’t play at all. Because it was political administration and violence against leaders and opposition. No sound. 1975, 1976. No sound couldn’t play.”

Violence and poverty weren’t anything new to the streets of Kingston. For decades, people had been fleeing the hard life in the country for the hope of better employment opportunities in the city. But when they arrived, they soon discovered that the infrastructure wasn’t there. The farmers arriving daily in Kingston found that there was neither affordable housing nor land on which to build for themselves. So many made their homes squatting on what came to be known as capture lands or in shantytowns where the dwellings were mere shacks of cardboard and zinc.

These lawless lands appealed to the politicians, who would go in with favors and buy control of the area. Or they could take down the whole thing and build up their own community to replace it. Public housing schemes became a powerful tool to manipulate the people. Once built and filled with party supporters, that area could be counted on as a loyal constituency. From 1962 and 1972, Seaga “built Kingston West into a fortress, with a centerpiece in Tivoli Gardens”—Concrete Jungle—“Jamaica’s first government housing scheme, which he built on the bulldozed site of the then Kingston dumps and a dreadful area named Back o’ Wall,” Philip Mascoll reported in “Jamaica: The Guns Of Kingston” in the Toronto Star. Tivoli Gardens, which came compete with schools and health care centers, supplied first jobs and then dwellings for supporters of Seaga.

Such neighborhoods, once connected to a particular party, became known as garrison communities. In the Corporate Area, they cropped up all over—Rema, Arnett Gardens, Olympic Gardens, Wareika Hills in East Kingston, Tel Aviv, Payne Land and Southside—all to insure a good turnout for the party at the ballot box. It was in these overcrowded ghettos that trouble started. Often communities were only a few blocks wide, making it hard for opponents to avoid each other. Many songs dealt with the reality of having to live inside a war zone. For example, Sugar Minott used the metaphor of crossing the border to talk about his spirituality in “Can’t Cross the Border” and Barrington Levy’s ‘Be Like a Soldier’ talks about defending your area. As Sleng Teng singer Wayne Smith put it, “In Jamaica, in those times, you know seh, if this side is PNP and this side is Laborite, most of the politicians would pay some guys over there right now to intimidate those people to vote for us. Kill them! Do anything! But make them vote for us.”

The reach of politics extended into the daily lives of even those who never gave political parties a second thought. “They used to label you in them time there,” recalls DJ Ranking Trevor. “Cause the second owner [of the sound] was a politician from Jungle, one of the top guy, Tony Welch. But because I was sparring with them, they start label the sound and label me, say me is a PNP. You have to be careful, cause in those days, those guys want to kill anybody.”

On May 19, 1976, a tenement building on Orange Lane, where PNP supporters were meeting, was set on fire. The gunmen blocked the exits and prevented firemen or police aid from reaching the conflagration. Rumors blamed both sides for the tragedy. No one trusted anyone anymore, and no place was completely safe. Manley declared a state of emergency and 500 people were detained.

“In that time it doesn’t matter what,” Selector and producer Jah Screw agreed. “If they think that you are ‘leaning’. Because it takes nothing to think you are leaning to the next side. You have be careful if you’re wearing green [the JLP color]. You have fe be careful if you wearing orange [the PNP color]. It was easy to get branded.” And, of course, “If you were branded PNP”, Welton Irie remembers, “you couldn’t go into JLP areas and vice versa.”

Sometimes choosing a side was the only way to stay safe. Smith, a resident of the Waterhouse district—known then as Firehouse on account of the rampant violence—recalls, “When I was growing up, my grandfather was JLP and my grandmother was PNP. So, you have the PNP people in the area used to drive round in the cars with the [megaphone] and say, ‘Wayne, junior, leave out of Waterhouse!’ And then the JLP would come and say we must leave too—me and my brother Junior and my brother Christoph fe leave.”

Pressures on Sounds

The vast majority of sounds were apolitical and carried entertainers of every social, political, and religious group on the island, united under music. However, no matter what an individual DJ’s opinions may have been, circumstances sometimes called for him to bring politics into his lyrics, like when the sound was performing in an area with a party affiliation. Jah Screw explains, “When you was in an area, sometimes you have to take the chance and ‘big up’ somebody in that area, because you have to do it. You have to send out requests to everybody. You have to send out to Jim Brown. You have to say, ‘Big up father Jim Brown’, Claudie Massop. If you’re in his area you have to say something. When you reach up a Jungle, you have to say, ‘Yes, Mr. Welch.’ You have to.”

It was expected, and it worked. Political lyrics were well received because they were specifically local and aimed at the particular community. Zaggaloo, the selector for Arrows, recalls, “We keep a couple of dance out in Ashanti Junction and it was like that—political. I was even talking to Sluggy Ranks and I tell him, ‘When you singing, try sing anything that’s talking about what’s going on in the community and you will see how your song really reach out to more people than anything else.’”

Going with the leanings of the area they were playing in at times meant coming up with some incendiary lyrics. Ranking Trevor recalls, “I don’t know how I do it all those years, cause so much guys did wan’ kill me. We had so much politician song, like you say, ‘Two sheet of Gleaner fe go bu’n down Rema”— the neighborhood Wilton Gardens. “Cup a cup fe go clap Up Massop’”—Claude Massop, the Tivoli Gardens strongman. “That way the other side wan’ kill you! That’s what we used to DJ. You have certain rhythms that you put lyrics on. Father Jungle Rock [became] Concrete Jungle Rock. But the guys them used to stay down a Rema love it. They used to say, ‘Uuhhhh! If I get a hold of Ranking Trevor, gonna blow off him head! But he’s one of the greatest DJ. Him bad.’”

Sound systems came under tremendous pressure to play out in support of one side or the other. Jah Screw remembers having to cancel a prebooked date to take the sound down into Tivoli Gardens when one of the community leaders insisted. “Guys used to come to us and put gun to our head to go and play,” Arrows owner, Sonny, remembers. “That was before the peace treaty. We just say, ‘Okay, no problem, you name the dance and we’ll be there.’”

The pressure was on individual DJs, too. DJ Crutches, who had carried Arrows through the ’70s, was forced to leave in 1980 “due to political friction.” Zaggaloo explains, “Crutches couldn’t play the set no more. Because the area where the sound come from, they said it was a PNP area. They accused Crutches of putting up JLP posters and it caused a conflict where they had beat him up and they threaten his life.”

Singer Sammy Dread was once the victim of a kidnapping. “Those times, I used to sing but I never really used to go and hang out because of how the politics was going on. Early one Sunday morning, three gunmen juke me down and take me to Rema and was going to kill me.” Luckily, someone who recognized him as a singer arrived in time and they let him go. In the 30 years since, he hasn’t set foot in Jamaica.

 Still, singers and musicians were largely considered politically exempt. “Most of my little friends them get dead,” Smith recalls. “You have Tower Hill man a come over to Waterhouse, pure shot a fire that night there. While the shot them a fire, me come out and me say, ‘Me live around here so me have to defend around here too’. So, my brother look pon me and say, ‘No, man. You are a singer. Go on in back!’ So them time there, me did a try. But me breddah say, ‘You a singer, you cool.’”

In the ’70s and ’80s, music was the one thing that could cross borders and unite Jamaicans. People loved their music, and the artists and the sound-system personnel received the best celebrity treatment a ghetto could offer. Singer Anthony Redrose moved from Spanishtown to Waterhouse and found that, despite the bad reputation of both areas, as an artist, he was safe. “In those days nobody na kill no singer. And nobody na shoot no singer. Them love you. From them find out a you can sing and a you sing that song there, them honor you. From you sing songs, you can go anywhere. Safe passage. And you no need nobody to walk with you.”

But some openly politically active musician died for their allegiance. In “Don’t Shoot the Sheriff: An Overview of Rastafarians and the Legal System” Geoffrey Alex Domenico lists some:

Mickey…Simpson was stabbed to death after getting involved in a ‘neighborhood dispute.’ Dirtsman, a dancehall star, who lived in a PNP stronghold, was shot after refusing to publicly endorse the party. Pan Head, another dancehall star, was killed in an incident disguised as robbery. Nothing was taken from him … Massive Dread was shot for publicly speaking out against the political authorities. All these performers lived in so-called “garrison communities.” These are ghettos controlled by political gunmen who are loosely linked to Jamaica’s two main political parties, the JLP and the PNP. None of these murders have been solved.

Peace Treaties

In 1976, despite the worsening economy, Manley was returned to office with a substantial majority. But the violence didn’t stop. Smith, who lived in the politically sensitive area of Waterhouse, recalls, “That time there, it wicked, wicked. Worst, worst, worst! Even one time, when me come out of Tubbys and me run, me a see some people come down a fire gun, a fire gun and a come ina our turf. One of the persons was a pregnant girl. She was firing a gun. And some of the man them from over our side now, shoot, shoot, shoot. And then she get a shot ina fe her chest. All them a do is take her up and throw her in the truck. And keep on coming!”

People were growing weary of living in fear, and the public pressure for peace was growing stronger daily. To support a moratorium on violence in a particular area, sound systems began crossing the borders to play in territories previously verboten. For a brief period, the treaty would hold and people could walk freely between two warring communities. One of the best-known downtown Kingston peace efforts was between the neighboring districts of Jungle (Arnett Gardens) and Rema (Wilton Gardens), both hardcore garrison communities of Trenchtown. Leroy Smart’s song, “Jungle and Rema” (Well Charge, 1977) made the two neighbors famous all over the world. When the leaders of the two neighborhoods proclaimed a cease-fire, the whole area celebrated at a peace dance where Papa Roots played. Ranking Trevor recalls, “The famous Claudie Massop, and the famous Tony Welch, they were on the front line and some guys must have fire some shot in the crowd. One gunshot fire and, for the whole week, it’s pure gunshot. The peace break up for a couple of months until you reach the real peace.”

The real-peace movement also began at the grassroots level. Jah Wise watched the peace process begin by his home. “Peace just start one night. My corner, Beeston Street, me just stand up. Everybody come across and people say, ‘Peace.’ The west—Beeston Street, Regents Street, Oxford Street. Everybody say ‘peace’. And I wasn’t sure. I take a little walk and I can’t believe it. I walk right over to Duke Reid’s studio and see if everything is alright. Peace was there. Then dance start keep.”

A decision was reached to hold a concert to officially proclaim the peace. The One Love Peace Concert was held on April 22, 1978, at the National Stadium, with Bob Marley headlining. Jacob Miller sang his “Peace Treaty Special.” Dillinger deejayed “The War Is Over.” Trinity appeared along with Peter Tosh, Big Youth, Dennis Brown, Ras Michael, and others. The high point of the evening was when Bob Marley was joined onstage by political rivals Manley and Seaga and, in a dramatic moment, joined their hands together in a forced display of unity.

But even before the big concert, sound systems had been holding peace dances all around Kingston as part of the burgeoning movement to end the bloodshed. It was a very exciting time for dancehall. While the truce was in place, it allowed people to cross borders and learn about new deejays with lyrics and patterns that still hadn’t reached very far “out a road.” Jah Wise began to travel with Tippertone into areas he had never been before. Ranking Trevor, then a DJ with Socialist Roots recalls, “The way how it get so united, we have some politicians from the other side following the sound now! Them time there, we just learned about General Echo. That’s the first time I hear Tappa Zuckie and General Echo.”

The peace idea struck a chord all over Jamaica. For the week ending April 11, 1978, the Daily Gleaner’s Top 10 hit parade included three songs about peace, two of which were specifically about the peace treaty. At No. 4: “Peace Treaty Special,” by Jacob Miller. At No. 5, “Tribal War” by George Nooks on Crazy Joe. No. 10: “War is Over,” by Dillinger, on Joe Gibbs.

But DJ Trinity, who recorded the song “Western Kingston Peace Conference,” remembers peace time mainly for its brevity. “It never last. You know, politics come. The whole thing just stir up back. It was just for a time. It was a nice little time, but it just come and just gwaaaann, and you have Claudie Massop dead and then Bucky Marshal go ‘way a foreign,” he says. “Cause most of the big politicians dem didn’t like peace cause them know that when peace and people come together, then people get smarter. They use it to divide the people. It never last, as I say, because corruption, violence, cause they prefer that. Because once you live [in] violence, them get stronger than before. So it didn’t last long. But it was a good thing.”