Choosing Jamaica

In spite of some very profound book learning and mentoring from the intellectual masters of anthropology while I was a student at Stanford, I was still yearning for direct experience of my own. Like so many young adults, I felt like an outsider and was questioning the values of contemporary society and rebelling against the culture that I grew up in. Like so many teenagers, I found that outlet in a world conjured by popular music. In my case that was Jamaican reggae.

The more I dug into the music and studied reggae and its cultural roots, the more I had to consider the ethics of cultural appropriation and my predicament—could whites really be Rastas? Was I doomed to be a wannabe or was there some valid or acceptable way that I could publicly assert my identification? When I enrolled in a class on the African Diasporta with Jamaican Professor Sylvia Wynter, it opened up to me the possibility of going to Jamaica through her connections.

In the two trips I took to Jamaica as an undergrad, I ended up spending 6 months there. I was primarily in Accompong, a remote town formed by escaped slaves known throughout the New World as Maroons. With no running water, no grocery stores and no accommodations for outsiders, it was a deep first immersion into a foreign culture.

It was in Accompong where I first encountered the Jamaican dancehall. Like most foreign reggae fans, I never gave a second thought to where and how reggae music events took place in Jamaica. But during preparations for their annual day of celebration on January 6th, large trucks pulled into town and set up large mobile discotheques, what they called “sound systems,” in makeshift outdoor spaces they called “dancehalls.” (Briefly describe-the speakers, the economy, the dj’s, the fans) I had always assumed Jamaican youth went to concerts with live bands to hear music just like I did back in California. How wrong I was.

I wanted to understand the meaning of dancehall culture in its Jamaican context. In choosing this topic (for my PhD) many of the dots of my prior studies were connected. I was able to apply what I knew about the study of ritual from Rosaldo, Turner, and Girard, and the history, culture, and politics of Jamaica from Sylvia Wynter and the countless hours of reading I did on the Caribbean.

As a grad student, I went back and forth to Jamaica and became deeply immersed in all aspects of dancehall culture, which I did over a two-year period of fieldwork starting in 1994 as part of a PhD program at UC Davis. By becoming part of dancehall culture, I was able to offer a view and understanding of Jamaica through the lens of dancehall. And this research formed the basis of my book Wake the Town and Tell the People: Dancehall Culture in Jamaica as well as a feature-length documentary film titled, Louder Than Words.

What my research uncovered was that the dancehall cultural space has been an important arena of cultural creation and contestation since the slavery era. Jamaica’s primarily black masses have been creating counterworlds in the spaces known as dancehalls for more than two centuries. Its roots can be traced to the recreational slave dance of the late 18th century.

Since the slavery era, dancehall has played a critical role in shaping Jamaican public sphere. It has functioned as a space where the symbolic distinctions and social divisions of race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, and political affiliation in Jamaican society have been made, struggled over, and undone.

Dancehall is Jamaica’s most potent form of popular culture. It is a genre of music, but also a set of cultural practices that emerge from Jamaica’s dancehalls. Chief among these are sound systems, those sophisticated mobile discos which have been at the heart of dancehall since the end of WW II. After the War, most of the Jamaicans trained and working as musicians migrated overseas or started working in the north coast tourist industry in places like Port Antonio and Montego Bay. As a result, poor people in Jamaica did not have access to live musical entertainment. So when the sound systems emerged, they caught on like wild fire. At first, all the records played were imported from the US; R&B and dancehall Jazz were the most popular genres. However, local musicians started recording R&B tunes directly for the sound systems to play—since the one local radio station would not play local artists. The sound systems gave rise to Jamaica’s burgeoning recording industry, and to every major genre of Jamaican music that followed including ska, rocksteady, reggae, and dancehall.

Over the decades dancehall has spread all around the globe. As Larry Rohter, a reporter for the NY Time, cogently observed, “Every musical style to emerge from Jamaica over the last 45 years has eventually achieved international popularity. The disc jockeys known as toasters are now acknowledged as the earliest progenitors of rap, and ska has lately become the favorite of skateboarders and punk bands the world over.”