The Changing Role of Jamaican Radio: My Two Cents

I started taking note with some anxiety a few years ago, regarding the changing role of radio in Jamaica and the fact that many didn’t seem to understand the major implications for our music business. I attempted to have some discussion on this at the first State of the Music Symposium (SOMS) in 2014 but it didn’t quite go as I had envisioned it. By year two of the SOMS, the matter was again raised but we remained on the outskirts of the issue while speaking from the perspective of the disc jocks who today are themselves producers and promoters.

 

A few days ago while listening to a particular station, I had to ask – who is the programme manager?!? I received a response and decided for the first time to air my concerns which I have expanded here.

For the purposes of confession, let me state here that I am an academic, have been involved at various levels of research on Jamaican music and culture and now serve in various capacities within government run entities based on my expertise. It is important to confess all this because, as many of you may have realised, in spite of all that, I use this blog (and social media accounts) as a space to say it as I see it, unencumbered even by my academic / social image and biases. So here we go.

When I was growing up, radio was a huge part of my experience and pattern of music consumption. It was radio that introduced me to Tappa Zukie’s ‘Rocksteady’, Half Pint’s ‘Greetings’ and Air Supply’s ‘All Out of Love’. As I grew older and delved into the history of radio in Jamaica the following became clear. Access to radio period was limited and stations from the USA were periodically available so much so that U Roy told of listening to disc jock, ‘Jocko’ Henderson from whom he learned a few announcing techniques. Further, Jamaican music didn’t always have a space. Producers had to buy expensive radio slots to have their music aired. By the 1980s therefore when I became a real consumer and began listening to favourite artistes such as Madonna, Michael & Janet Jackson, Peter Tosh and Whitney Houston, we had entered a different, and more democratised radio era.


But there was something important about what was and was not being played on radio. In the period around the early 1970s to 1980s there was little opportunity to hear on radio Jamaican music which had not made its mark in a dancehall first via live performances. Whether it was U Roy, Yellow Man, Josey Wales, Lt. Stitchie, Shabba Ranks or Lady G, touching the dancehall stage and making a mark there was important success for transitioning to radio. Radio disc jocks therefore played music which had currency inside the dance and therefore among the populace. My grandfather’s shop with the Juke Box he bought after returning from England was one such space, redubbed Shanty Town soon after the song ‘007’ made Shanty Town a popular nomenclature. Records cut were acquired and played ad nauseum inside the shop as patrons came to dance and celebrate. This was before radio became a space of consumption for Jamaican music which still had not received the respect it deserved by the 1970’s.

Shanty Town (1967)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZqgWuMcHc3g
With that as a simple background, there is a huge difference in what obtains today. I tune in periodically and get discouraged like many others from listening radio. First, what plays on radio comes directly from an artiste or his/her team to the disc jock and often these tunes go unvetted without any intermediary to determine their suitability for radio. This is what results in complaints to entities such as the Broadcasting Commission, Jamaica, which has been making attempts to regulate the anomalies  of radio. But let’s focus on the intermediary for a moment and ask why such a person/s would be necessary. Many stations operate without programme managers. Where there is a programme manager, that person is unknown or does not have a substantial role that he/she can hold any sway in the organisation with disc jocks. Programme Managers often exist as de jure operants while de facto disc jocks are in charge walking in when slated with laptops afforded by the technological shifts which have made playing the domain of an individual and not a radio station.

Secondly, there are no repositories systematically organised for accessing selections, or playlists used by disc jocks, and where they exist access to them can take months. This has become such a challenge for rights holders and collective management organisations such as Jamaica Music Society that software is used to determine play in order to fairly calculate royalties for rights holders. I have identified a problem in the management around radio play and the way in which music is accessed beyond the domain of a ‘dancehall tested’ system. That is not all.

On occasion I have during particular slots tuned into radio and heard consistent play of anywhere from 6 – 11 tracks from one artiste as if there was an attempt at promoting such artistes while in some cases using tired playlists repeatedly, same format, no variation. Most critically, you can’t hear or develop an appreciation for what is being played because it is not announced or back announced, and as I explained earlier in some cases already removed from the dancehall because the radio disc jock has been entrusted with the task of breaking the tune.  This makes for radio that is not even as useful as a YouTube mix, and certainly not one which is interested in the promotion of Jamaican music.

Radio’s distinctiveness is partially defined in the ability to communicate with an audience, take them on a journey through music or whatever means. To achieve this it cannot become monotonous by repeating playlists and playing certain artistes without even as much as meaningful interaction around what is being played and why. Where did the possibility for engaging with the audience about the provenance, distinctiveness or quality and reach of a song go? This is the 21st century. Not all disc jocks use the same style but whatever the hour there is just as much potential for engagement of an audience. That is radio’s effect. I dare say it is not being effectively used in Jamaica. I might as well listen to a YouTube mix. 

While there is an understanding that radio is about a particular sound, number of spins and making of hits today, with structured playlists determined by strategists who are interested in increasing appeal consistent with the business of music of which they are apart, Jamaican radio which forms the source of my concern because it highlights so much of what is currently wrong with radio, has to rethink its role. Radio has taken over as a space for artistes to ‘get a buss’ whether through payola or not, for some artistes to be promoted over others, instead of a space for sharing the rich repertoire of music available from Jamaica first and then elsewhere. Radio has eclipsed the dancehall as the space to break artistes and their music, while disc jocks are sometimes the very persons producing such music. 

Sadly, there are destinations inside and outside the Caribbean such as Bermuda where Jamaican music which is not played in Jamaica, somewhat forgotten or not accessed by our disc jocks, is heavily consumed. This is a travesty considering the seemingly unlimited repertoire of Jamaican music, even before we get to pop generally, which is available to disc jocks. These and other challenges also explain why within periods such as Reggae Month visitors to Jamaica wonder if they have landed in Malibu or Kingston.

I was the chair of the subcommittee that worked on the submission to UNESCO for Kingston to be designated a creative city for music. That application’s success had less to do with the application than with the facts about Jamaica’s contribution to a global music landscape. Kingston was already on the map and assessors had to contend with other city presentations  that used reggae even while Kingston was a contending city. The projects within Kingston’s submission did not identify radio but it is no less significant in the scheme of Kingston’s entertainment culture. Something is wrong if people are choosing to consume music via YouTube while radio stations continue to push at the limits of what is viable in an era made for millennials who are not interested in radio.  What we do with music on radio and elsewhere is of great concern to me especially because we are the nation that has given the world seven distinct genres of music in the latter half of the 20th Century.

We must get it together and the ball is certainly not solely in the regulator’s court.

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Kingston – The Sacred (Dancehall) View

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There are some moments of impact which are priceless. This week I was reminded of what I consider to be one of my most important reasons for being in this world at this time. It started with a telephone call from a friend who wanted to talk about the redevelopment of Downtown Kingston. The details of the call led me to a vision of Kingston which came rolling back to the forefront of the memory, indeed, the one I had written some years ago. Here is what I said about Kingston and my understanding of its place as a sacred space, a sacred space for rhythm, life and style.

While the history of popular music and dance culture in Jamaica, particularly the emergence of mento, ska, rocksteady and reggae, has to acknowledge the role of rural-based traditional music and dance forms, a cartographic representation of reggae and its contemporary expression, dancehall, would locate its central nervous system within the city of Kingston. Most of the musicians, sound systems, recording studios, DJs, dance venues and patrons, were and still are located in the urban complex known as the Kingston Metropolitan Area (KMA), which includes the parishes of Kingston and St Andrew. The citizens who have inspired, performed and consumed dancehall lifestyle include dancers, such as the late Gerald “Bogle” Levy, a foremost dance master, or Denise “Stacey” Cumberland, Dancehall Queen 1999; the early DJs U Roy, Tappa Zukie, Brigadier Jerry, Tenor Saw and Yellow Man; and today’s DJs such as Elephant Man, Bounti Killa and Capleton, [Lady Saw, Cham, and Konshens] whose practice reveals strong ties to what is loosely known as inner-city Kingston.

The inner-city communities are mostly located around Kingston Harbour and along the gullies entering it. The Harbour operates as an aquatic drum on which the sounds from the inner city are amplified and sent out to the world. While this is a figurative rendering of how reggae music and later dancehall spread globally, it is also a visual representation of the sacred drum, the echo chamber that Kingston Harbour has become for Kingston’s sound systems. Kingston, with its backdrop of mountains overlooking the natural harbour, is both physically and metaphorically the amphitheatre in which daily life is performed for both the self and the world as its spectator. I argue that performance is the lifeworld of actors: they are not merely subjects in a postcolonial script but agents in the creation and recreation of their own urban life stories.

When Elephant Man proclaimed “Me an’ my crew got di whole city lock,” he was referring to the fact that, from high to low, from uptown to downtown, in clubs and streets, and on radio and television, dancehall has the attention of the entire city. Kingston is one of the spaces where New World Africans settled their minds on the task of performance, enacting their being in that space between violation, ruptured roots and self-(re)construction….

Kingston—King’s Town, “Jah Jah City”, amphitheatre and once auction block—is where the drum and later the drum machine beat one of the world’s most popular musics, to which bodies the world over move, a signal of something new and ancient. It is the city that Jah made, that garden with the Hope River running through, where rhythm signals the pulse of life in the redefinition of violated selves that are renewed in the complex process of re-enacting memories from a ruptured past. The development of the parish and city of Kingston was a consequence of the destruction of Port Royal by earthquake in 1692, and the move on the part of colonialists to capitalize on the trade made possible and strategic by the world’s seventh largest natural harbour, Kingston Harbour. The city, modelled on English-style residential squares, grew slowly, with the population being concentrated in the southern sections from its inception.

From the days of Captain Morgan and other pirates in Port Royal, life and style in Jamaica attracted world attention even before the development of Kingston, mostly for the negatives of corruption, piracy and violence. The “high life” of Port Royal, Jamaica’s first metropolis, attracted so many explorers and exploiters that it soon became the den of iniquity that history recalls it to have been. In some ways, the disasters that plagued Port Royal and southern Kingston were the only solutions to a history gone bad. The harbour between Port Royal and Kingston today stands as a kind of spirit glass or mirror in which memories lie, as it is simultaneously a drum’s echo chamber. The harbour could also be seen as a goblet or cup, from which the somewhat bitter-sweet wine of celebration is drunk, especially by those closest to the rim. Indeed, dance venues at the edge of the harbour, such as Jamaica Gates (now defunct) or the New Little Copa Club, have functioned in this way for countless celebrants. Today life and style in the KMA are reminiscent of Port Royal: politicians exploit the poor, violence is the Achilles heel, and agents come as explorers wanting to find the latest pulse of the reggae beat. The DJ Capleton (a.k.a. Clifton Bailey) says this of “King’s-to(w)n” in his song “Jah Jah City” (2000): “Jah Jah city, Jah Jah city, dem a tu’n it inna dead man town.” The Rastafari rendering of Jamaica is “Jah mek ya” (“God made here”), which is consistent with notions of sacred space heralded by DJs such as Capleton.

Excerpt from DanceHall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto, pp. 39-41.

Buju Banton | Prophet. Believe it or not!

Too Bad! For those who don’t know (I don’t know how you couldn’t know), I am a Buju Banton fan. Unequivocally so. Albeit the recent Banton trials, now a feature on the Jamaica Gleaner’s online site.

Buju Banton aka Mark Myrie

The journey with Buju as an artist began (before I knew the word ‘groupie’) in a moment of deep respect and appreciation when I felt compelled to introduce myself to the artist backstage at Superjam 1994 after his spellbinding performance. Where did dis yout’ come from, with such raw passion and an embarrassment of talent? I am still to answer that question in a profound metaphysical sense, but were I to give the quick ‘off the cuff’ response, I would say he’s Made in Jamaica. His meteoric rise to dancehall prominence in the late 1980s and early 1990s holding such records as most number one hits on the Jamaican charts, or touted as the next Bob Marley with his Til Shiloh release are just some of the fruits of his labour of love. This is an artist with profound contradictions in his experience: so much positive has been said of him, so many people love him, yet so many negatives abound and so many have come to question their appreciation of his talent. A so life go….mi nah sell out mi frien’ dem or mi artist!

Well, it was an October day in 1995 that the telephone in my room rang, on the other line a voice I immediately recognised. The husky cooner travelled into my world in a real way: I can say now it was ‘Destiny‘. I livicate this blog posting to Buju, my favourite DJ and fellow traveller on the reggae dancehall life path. As I matured, I became witness to the maturation of Jamaica’s popular indigenous music with DJs such as Tappa Zukie, Yellow Man, Shabba Ranks, Little Lenny and Buju Banton as some of my contemporaries.

In an unqualified facebook post over the past weekend, I stirred a discussion on Buju, asserting his status as a prophet. Afterall, for those who know his music and have moved beyond the Boom Bye Bye saga, statements about Buju Banton being a prophet might not stir any outrage. This was my Facebook post: “Buju Banton is one of the biggest prophets to have walked the earth. ‘Supporting him in his struggles….”. And, these were some of the responses: “Define big, just curious”; “Predicting in lyrical content many of the events in his life is big, major, huge…. Or another way to look at it is that his prophesying has been big…has had big impact for all the world to see”; “I only know one Buju song, ‘Boom Bye Bye,’ and I hope that one is not a prediction”;  “We will soon find out”; “Truth – a prophet indeed”; “I thought he did some atrocious things to a woman AND was arrested for drug possession. AND, the one song I remember most starkly is Boom Bye Bye. Prophet?”; “After all is said and done, what did he do that is so different from those who went before? Maybe he is keenly aware that he hasn’t walked a different path at all, just did so in a different moment”; “Really? A prophet?”; “Everyone has lessons in life to learn, some more publicly than others. The reach of his life is what makes him and his actions or lyrical contributions recognizable. His lyrics have shown the major plots in his life. Listen and you will hear. Its not enough to make a comment based on a lack of knowledge on the subject or based on propoganda. I have listened and have documented my listening. He has prophesied about his own demise and the rise that will come based on his transformation(s). We are lucky to be witnesses”; “I guess that we are conditioned to associate the word “prophet” with a religious figure, especially one that espouses the tenets of morality as construed through Judeo-Christian lenses. I suppose that we can view the term ‘prophet’ within a different context and apply it to Buju (or perhaps even the same context). To be honest, I don’t know enough about him personally to have an opinion either way. All I know are the songs I have heard him perform. He has never been a figure that has ever had any significant influence over my thought process, nor have I ever aspired to be like him in any way but I will definitely acknowledge his reach and influence not only in Jamaica but worldwide. My question is: If he is truly a prophet, is HE aware of this? Also, would you consider other musical figures such as Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh, or even Bounty Killer prophets as well?”; “WOW! What a rash statement without putting thought to it…..Prophet???????…I think not….”; “I am as liberal as they come, but I wish the energy that was put towards Buju being freed was put towards pressuring the government(S) of Jamaica to do the right thing. Coke? DESTRUCTION.”

I ended the facebook discussion by imploring those who were joining the discussion in the middle to read my comments carefully before passing judgement since it was easy to miss the quotidian sense in which I was using the word prophet; sort of removing it from its esoterical place in the sky living among saints beatified or pardoned by the Pope to apply it to local contexts among our immediate ancestors and even our peers. You can tell me what you think after really listening to his lyrics. For now, the fact is Buju Banton’s life has been an open book through which any walk through the colourful lyrics will reveal profoundly impacting life lessons. Buju’s lyrical walk through issues of love, deportation, safe sex, drugs, curfews, life changing experiences, supreme creator, Rastafari, touring and many many more, have made indelible marks on many a man and woman. Personally, Banton has taught me a lot, and my book DanceHall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto could easily have been dedicated to him. In lieu of my book I here today offer this poem as I pay homage to my DJ. Stay tuned for an excerpt from my book about the Gargamel on Tour.

For the (real) DJ…
‘Long time mi nuh have nuh nice time’
is the tune playing in my heart
for my love sponge from eternity.
Hey, I wanna dance with somebody,
that DJ that saved my life
who makes me sing
‘I’m fascinated by your love boy’.
Can you play my song tonight,
fill me up, … give me love
make me feel like a virgin?
I wanna see your true colours
shining in my eyes,
create magic and mystery,
for I am your lady
until you say goodbye,
and if a loving you want
a loving you gwine get
right here in the middle of the day
when birds are awake to join in my song.
Mr DJ, wake me from sleeping,
this must be a dream…
a daydream of love –
an’ if loving was a crime
dem would haffi incarcerate mi,
and then, you’ll have to play me a lullaby
like ‘don’t worry be happy’
when I hunger for your touch
and need your love.
You see, the thought of you
does things to me
can take away all my sadness,
there’ll always be sunshine when I look at you
Yes! Sun is shining, and suddenly I’m melting into you.
Take my hand mi say, my whole life too
‘cause from the first time ever I saw your face
I thought the sun rose in your eyes
carrying your spirit of calm intensity
round the universe all the way to me.
Well right yah now,
you put mi inna trance and
mek me want to sing,
but even though I don’t know much
I know seh you inna mi heart Mr DJ,
play your tunes in my world.
©Sonjah Stanley Niaah 2008

Buju Banton | Prophet. Believe it or not!

Too Bad! For those who don’t know (I don’t know how you couldn’t know), I am a Buju Banton fan. Unequivocally so. Albeit the recent Banton trials, now a feature on the Jamaica Gleaner’s online site.

Buju Banton aka Mark Myrie

The journey with Buju as an artist began (before I knew the word ‘groupie’) in a moment of deep respect and appreciation when I felt compelled to introduce myself to the artist backstage at Superjam 1994 after his spellbinding performance. Where did dis yout’ come from, with such raw passion and an embarrassment of talent? I am still to answer that question in a profound metaphysical sense, but were I to give the quick ‘off the cuff’ response, I would say he’s Made in Jamaica. His meteoric rise to dancehall prominence in the late 1980s and early 1990s holding such records as most number one hits on the Jamaican charts, or touted as the next Bob Marley with his Til Shiloh release are just some of the fruits of his labour of love. This is an artist with profound contradictions in his experience: so much positive has been said of him, so many people love him, yet so many negatives abound and so many have come to question their appreciation of his talent. A so life go….mi nah sell out mi frien’ dem or mi artist!

Well, it was an October day in 1995 that the telephone in my room rang, on the other line a voice I immediately recognised. The husky cooner travelled into my world in a real way: I can say now it was ‘Destiny‘. I livicate this blog posting to Buju, my favourite DJ and fellow traveller on the reggae dancehall life path. As I matured, I became witness to the maturation of Jamaica’s popular indigenous music with DJs such as Tappa Zukie, Yellow Man, Shabba Ranks, Little Lenny and Buju Banton as some of my contemporaries.

In an unqualified facebook post over the past weekend, I stirred a discussion on Buju, asserting his status as a prophet. Afterall, for those who know his music and have moved beyond the Boom Bye Bye saga, statements about Buju Banton being a prophet might not stir any outrage. This was my Facebook post: “Buju Banton is one of the biggest prophets to have walked the earth. ‘Supporting him in his struggles….”. And, these were some of the responses: “Define big, just curious”; “Predicting in lyrical content many of the events in his life is big, major, huge…. Or another way to look at it is that his prophesying has been big…has had big impact for all the world to see”; “I only know one Buju song, ‘Boom Bye Bye,’ and I hope that one is not a prediction”;  “We will soon find out”; “Truth – a prophet indeed”; “I thought he did some atrocious things to a woman AND was arrested for drug possession. AND, the one song I remember most starkly is Boom Bye Bye. Prophet?”; “After all is said and done, what did he do that is so different from those who went before? Maybe he is keenly aware that he hasn’t walked a different path at all, just did so in a different moment”; “Really? A prophet?”; “Everyone has lessons in life to learn, some more publicly than others. The reach of his life is what makes him and his actions or lyrical contributions recognizable. His lyrics have shown the major plots in his life. Listen and you will hear. Its not enough to make a comment based on a lack of knowledge on the subject or based on propoganda. I have listened and have documented my listening. He has prophesied about his own demise and the rise that will come based on his transformation(s). We are lucky to be witnesses”; “I guess that we are conditioned to associate the word “prophet” with a religious figure, especially one that espouses the tenets of morality as construed through Judeo-Christian lenses. I suppose that we can view the term ‘prophet’ within a different context and apply it to Buju (or perhaps even the same context). To be honest, I don’t know enough about him personally to have an opinion either way. All I know are the songs I have heard him perform. He has never been a figure that has ever had any significant influence over my thought process, nor have I ever aspired to be like him in any way but I will definitely acknowledge his reach and influence not only in Jamaica but worldwide. My question is: If he is truly a prophet, is HE aware of this? Also, would you consider other musical figures such as Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh, or even Bounty Killer prophets as well?”; “WOW! What a rash statement without putting thought to it…..Prophet???????…I think not….”; “I am as liberal as they come, but I wish the energy that was put towards Buju being freed was put towards pressuring the government(S) of Jamaica to do the right thing. Coke? DESTRUCTION.”

I ended the facebook discussion by imploring those who were joining the discussion in the middle to read my comments carefully before passing judgement since it was easy to miss the quotidian sense in which I was using the word prophet; sort of removing it from its esoterical place in the sky living among saints beatified or pardoned by the Pope to apply it to local contexts among our immediate ancestors and even our peers. You can tell me what you think after really listening to his lyrics. For now, the fact is Buju Banton’s life has been an open book through which any walk through the colourful lyrics will reveal profoundly impacting life lessons. Buju’s lyrical walk through issues of love, deportation, safe sex, drugs, curfews, life changing experiences, supreme creator, Rastafari, touring and many many more, have made indelible marks on many a man and woman. Personally, Banton has taught me a lot, and my book DanceHall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto could easily have been dedicated to him. In lieu of my book I here today offer this poem as I pay homage to my DJ. Stay tuned for an excerpt from my book about the Gargamel on Tour.

For the (real) DJ…
‘Long time mi nuh have nuh nice time’
is the tune playing in my heart
for my love sponge from eternity.
Hey, I wanna dance with somebody,
that DJ that saved my life
who makes me sing
‘I’m fascinated by your love boy’.
Can you play my song tonight,
fill me up, … give me love
make me feel like a virgin?
I wanna see your true colours
shining in my eyes,
create magic and mystery,
for I am your lady
until you say goodbye,
and if a loving you want
a loving you gwine get
right here in the middle of the day
when birds are awake to join in my song.
Mr DJ, wake me from sleeping,
this must be a dream…
a daydream of love –
an’ if loving was a crime
dem would haffi incarcerate mi,
and then, you’ll have to play me a lullaby
like ‘don’t worry be happy’
when I hunger for your touch
and need your love.
You see, the thought of you
does things to me
can take away all my sadness,
there’ll always be sunshine when I look at you
Yes! Sun is shining, and suddenly I’m melting into you.
Take my hand mi say, my whole life too
‘cause from the first time ever I saw your face
I thought the sun rose in your eyes
carrying your spirit of calm intensity
round the universe all the way to me.
Well right yah now,
you put mi inna trance and
mek me want to sing,
but even though I don’t know much
I know seh you inna mi heart Mr DJ,
play your tunes in my world.
©Sonjah Stanley Niaah 2008