Besides being a means of artistic or creative expression, music has always served as an almost tangible indicator of all that ails or positively affects a society; a pulse of sorts for the cumulative heartbeat of any group of people. One can very well make the argument that the same may be said for any of the various mediums an artist may use to voice whatever message they wish to convey, be it through the use of documentaries, literature, or even producing works of art. But it has always been my contention that lyrical expression far supersedes the others greater insight into any culture in history, all one has to do is examine the plethora of music created during that period in time.
There are few characteristics that this art form possesses that make it the true mirror of the masses more so than any of its counterparts. First, unlike painting, writing literature, of sculpting, music (with the exception of classical music) has not had the same elitist connotations attached to it. One does not have to attend any institutions of higher learning in order to learn how to do it, or have financial backing in order to produce it, or visit museums in order to be exposed to it. Its beauty lies within its simplicity and the knowledge that anyone can listen to, or sing, a song. Second, music has the ability to transcend the boundaries of culture, race and genre to permeate the consciousness of anyone who feels it moves them. From the soulful lament of the slaves on the plantation, to the use of spoken word set to a backdrop of base driven melodies which gave birth to the urban phenomena known as hip hop, good music has the power captivate the listener’s attention and can sometimes be so revealing about a subject, that it serves as not just an avenue of entertainment, but a wake up call.
Because we are bombarded by a variety of songs day after day, year after year, we are usually quickly able to recognize a good tune when we hear it. Who can forget John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, Eric Clapton’s ‘Heaven’, or better yet Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’? Did it not take hearing only a few verses to realize that it was much more than just good music? Such is the case with a recently released tune by Damien ‘Junior Gong’ Marley. I remembered where I was when it streamed into my consciousness. After spending the better part of the morning involved in a heated discussion with some business partners deep in the trenches of Manhattan, I decided to blow off some steam by heading uptown to meet my cousin for a late lunch at a little deli on Columbus Avenue. As usual, after lunch, we stopped in at the little shoe boutique two doors down. All I can say is, put two women in a shoe store with a sale sign on the front door and the rest is history! Three hours later, I was flying down the West Side Highway hoping to beat the evening traffic into the Lincoln Tunnel.
By the time I approached the entrance of the tunnel I was disappointed to see that not only was traffic coming to a slow crawl, but the late model BMW that had been tailgating me, was still there. With traffic the way it was, if I stepped on my brakes too hard, mi wouldda need a new bumpa. I picked up my cell phone and wound down my window in an attempt to get a clearer signal. At that precise moment, Mr. BMW decided to flex his musical muscle and show what four ten inch speakers can do. But my annoyance quickly dissipated upon hearing the readily recognizable accent wailing, “Out in the streets, they call it murrrdah!” The reverberation of the words created by the tunnel made it sound all the more poignant. A quick glance in my rear view mirror revealed the Jamaican flag dangling above his dashboard. I nodded my head in silent acceptance and acknowledgement. It was a yawdie. Now I understood both the bad driving and the loud music. I settled deeper into my seat and wound down all the windows in order to get a better listen. By the time Mr. Marley begins to warn about ‘….When Trench Town man stop laugh ‘an block off traffic….,” I was captivated. I had already stopped the modified shoulder skyank I was doing in my seat, becoming so enthralled by the story Junior Gong was sharing that I even slowed the pace of my fingers tapping against my steering wheel and just sat there, riveted by the words. Was he really referring to my Jamaica? Was this the same place I used to look so forward to spending my summer vacations as a child? The same place where I whiled away so many carefree afternoons savoring everything that represented being a Jamaican? The song had stopped being a means of passing some time in hot summer traffic and had quickly become a reality check. I found myself asking, “How did we come to this?”
We, as Jamaican people, have always been known for our fortitude, our tenacity, intellect, good humor, and frankly, a certain level of ‘badness’; and we were proud of it. The dual sides to our nature are what helped us shed the shackles of slavery and yet still be able to command an audience with royalty. From the time we discover the age old game of police ‘an teef, we have already been made well aware of the clear distinction between love and hate, right and wrong, hope and utter despair. Much like the rest of the world, Jamaica has always been embroiled in trying to find a balance between the two extremes. The difference was that we always maintained the notion that “…every likkle ting, is gonna be awrite…” But as Junior Gong almost hurriedly tried to open my eyes to all that is socially, politically and economically wrong with our Island, I realized that the line between the two realms has become very blurred. There seems to be more wrong than right, more hate than love, more despair than hope. You get welcomed to Jam Rock but after you arrive, you are in for a less than warm reception. No longer is crime, violence and poverty restricted to the confines of just ‘certain neighborhoods’ in Kingston, but it is now all over the Island; Cornwall, Middlesex and Surrey. Is this to be our legacy to our children? If we are not careful all we will have left to share with future generations are tales of badness, and hardship. The artist has done his job by illuminating the plight of the people of Jamaica. Ultimately, the rest is up to us.