Murder Music

Published: December 17, 2010

On a breezy evening in mid-April a committee boasting some of Jamaica’s most venerable citizens convened an open-air meeting under the auspices of the department of government at the University of the West Indies. After almost a year and a half of sifting through charts and listening to old vinyl recordings, the committee co-chairmen, which included the president of Jamaica’s National Gallery and a former finance minister, presented to several hundred members of the public their list of the top one hundred Jamaican songs. Pandemonium ensued.

Audience members objected to the choice for number one song, “One Love,” Bob Marley’s sweet paean to togetherness, as being too saccharine. People jammed the open microphone to point out the under-representation of female artists. Others testily questioned why so few of the chosen top songs reflected reggae’s subversive, anti-establishment politics. Several people demanded a more transparent process. But the most passionate complaint from the crowd—which included members of the media, faculty in the university’s department of reggae studies, music industry figures, and ordinary music fans—was voiced over and over again from younger members of the audience: Where on this top one hundred list were the dancehall songs?

Dancehall is a beat-heavy, lyrically-dense, energetic, and synthesizer-driven music that has much in common with American hip-hop. It evolved in the early nineteen nineties out of the classic reggae of Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff—the often feel-good, reefer-party music championing the Rastafarian visions of social justice and pan-African celebration, which had powered Jamaica to worldwide recognition in the nineteen seventies and had catapulted Jamaican musicians into the far reaches of global iconography.

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