The Influence of “Foreign Music”: How foreign are dancehall and hiphop?

I grew up in the 80s. I remember one day coming home and we had Cable TV. I never thought about how common it might have or might not have been on my street at the time. I assumed at the time it was not very common as many households lacked some very basic amenities such as running water. Later I could tell to some extent where many my age developed their taste in music by the music that was most prominent in their taste. Before coming home that day, my taste for music was dancehall, soca and reggae music alongside the love tunes(R & B) etc which dominated the radio. In retrospect, I have always pondered whether those who did not pay as much attention to hiphop as I did and were interested exclusively in soca and dancehall music were depending mainly on radio for the nurturing of their musical tastes.

In the early nineties when I entered secondary school, I could also tell those who had Cable Television longer than I and who had the means to nurture that interest more than I could by actually purchasing cds(something I could not do really until I started to work –apart from the rare single and bootleg tape from Mastermix music store). By the nineties the radio stations caught on and were blasting hiphop. It took some time for hiphop to become a big thing in parties. I remember some years ago, noting with disappointment that they played so much Hiphop music since, even as an avid listener of hiphop, it really was not my party music. I liked to wine and grind and wuk up etc and hiphop did not really go well with any of that.

The nineties was also the time when hiphop music had begun getting a lot of negative publicity for what was called “gangsta rap”. Dancehall too has lately gotten this rap for its “negative” influence. As a result there have been those who have raised concern over the influence of “foreign music”.  I have been recently wondering about this expression. How foreign is foreign? And if foreign, then to whom? And in what way is it foreign?

The history of Africans and their descendants in the West as well as the wider community has never been restricted by the boundaries on identity which nation-statehood has attempted to set between them.  It is not a simple picture and indeed there are commonalities and common issues affecting the various groups which make up the individual nations however this does not negate the commonality of experience which seems to traverse nations among African descendants. As a result it has never posed too much difficulty for one group of Africans to feel the others music, assimilate it and later adapt it to their locality.

Let us look at a few. Calypso and Soca developed into a popular music in Trinidad and from there spread throughout the Caribbean. There have since been adaptations in the various islands and even the re-export of ideas and further developments back to Trinidad. Soca by persons such as Bunji Garlin and Maximus Dan is clearly influenced by dancehall.  Between Calypso and the development of Soca we have Ska and Reggae making waves in the Caribbean. Calypso has at some point or other been influenced by rhythms and forms from both the French colonized and Spanish colonies countries. Hiphop, Dancehall and Soca music have continue to share influences. If one wants to go further back Jazz had its sweep through the African Community all over, influencing the development of Afro-beat as well as influencing Calypso and other forms in the Caribbean and entertaining Africans all over. Zouk developed through “folk” music of African descendants in Martinique and this music went on to influence the development of Soukous music on the African continent.  In St. Lucia today one is not disqualified from being called local music if one plays Jazz, Reggae, Calypso or Soca which would have formerly been considered “foreign music” but that guarding of the gates is now attempted with dancehall and hiphop culture, the youngest forms developing in the urban centers of African experience in Jamaica and the United States respectively. In its time Reggae was the one which would have been foreign culture.

Where is St. Lucia’s popular music?

Calypso, Soca and Reggae have come to sit comfortable as local music and our artists have developed their own styles and content. Some feel some disappointment that popular forms of music have not developed out of our traditional music. I think there are a number of reasons why that did not happen and I also think that not all music needs to go that way. One reason for the absence of a locally developed popular and commercialized music I think is that perhaps before this music could respond to the new urban environment and the issues there and elsewhere on the island, there was already a music in the air which was doing that which the urban youth were already engaging. Reggae, calypso, dancehall and konpa music have all served that purpose. The music was on the radio and people were hearing their issues being articulated and they could listen and sing along. Later they would sing their own more precise rendition of their particular local version of these problems, concerns, joys etc. The point is however, although the settings of these songs were different, the issues were not that foreign to those listening here.

Recently, around the time of Hot FM’s Love Fest and the delay of one of the headliner’s, Popcaan, and St. Lucians’ legitimate anger at this and previous no shows by some Jamaican artists, I recall conversing with a Jamaican national at a favourite eating place of mine. She was making a point which is valid but one I felt a bit short-sighted. She was saying instead of St. Lucians complaining and persistently bringing down these artists to perform we needed to develop our own music. I had to point out to her that that was indeed happening and is a process which takes time, and further she should not take it for granted that Jamaican music gained popularity merely because Jamaicans were more creative or inventive. I felt it would have been important to understand why Jamaican music would have been popular before that of many of our islands and what are the consequences of that in the face of persons accepting queues from the broadcast media as to what to listen to?  What does the record industry and their pursuits, the broadcast media, charts and the market and listenership have to do with where music reaches and its popularity. A further consideration is “how do these factors mediate our image of these various music forms and the people who produce them?”

Who mediates our exposure to African music and their creators from elsewhere in the diaspora? And what is the wider picture?

Jazz is now marketed in St. Lucia through the St. Lucia Jazz festival (a means by which to fill hotel rooms in the off season) and the tickets are nearer to $200 now leading many to see Jazz as a “bourgeois thing”. To look at the history of Jazz one can see that was far from the case in its early development. One of the major innovators of Jazz grew up in New Orleans in a community called “the Battlefield”(much like Kartel’s “Gaza”) notorious for gambling, drunkenness, fighting  and shooting. As a teenager, he was arrested for firing a gun in the air on New Year’s Eve and sent to reform school. He later went to be a well-known cornet and later trumpet player. That was Louis Armstrong. The music of course has gone through the commercialization and appropriation stage and is in some ways now far removed from the class of persons who produced it and now largely entertains a class of persons who would have stayed far from it in its early phases. Jazz had an earlier introduction here with the U.S soldiers and later with persons like the St. Lucian saxophonist Luther Francois who presented the first Jazz concerts in St. Lucia before the advent of the Jazz Festival. However as with the engaging of other forms  produced elsewhere in the Diaspora, the knowledge of the roots of the music and its diversity is lacking as is our image of one another beyond stereotypes of the Jamaican Rude Boy, the Ghetto boy of the U.S and others associated with the various music forms and beyond them into the lives of those who create them.

The nature of the dancehall and hiphop music largely being marketed here and elsewhere is of concern with good reason, particularly because many are engaging these music forms probably without adequate appreciation of their context or the wider range of content and style within the music. What are the factors which determine the nature of the music our radio stations play and therefore become the most visible examples of these music forms? Further, what are the consequences of this for how we view those from which these music forms come?

How does the music get to us? The music becomes commercialized because someone sees profit in it. They do not necessarily have an interest in the people who produce the music or those who partake in it. In the case of hiphop, a very diverse and in many ways politically potent music is commercialized and marketed by a white dominated music industry to a majority suburban white audience who imbibe certain basic images of what represents African-Americans and these images top the charts. Our radio stations follow the charts and the top twenties and such, on programs such as 106 and Park on BET, entertainment news and simply passes on what is determined to be worth hearing based on these. Therefore much of the more constructive hiphop becomes what is now termed “the underground”.  Even the free music released on the internet via mixtapes by artists such as Talib Kweli, Dead Prez and Immortal Technique is missing from our airwaves. The history of the music and the dynamics which determine what gets airplay is seldom discussed neither is the fact that before it “blew up” it grew up in very small communities in the US and gradually expanded, jumped to other parts of the US and similarly grew from something small into something larger and more commercialized(quite the same story with Jazz). That takes away some of the wow of it and makes it seem more like something that can be accomplished by what some like to term “small” island people. This is not to say that this is the a desirable route to be taken with our music forms however it takes away some of the blind admiration. This wider knowledge also allows the music, even those considered “negative” to make more sense and allows the listeners of this music to approach it in a more informed and conscious manner.

The same can be said for dancehall and its development and popularity. And it should be said that most of those who raise alarm about the music barely listen to it. Apart from the fact that the music is more diverse than what is represented by the radio and charts, an understanding of the origins of the music and a purging of the awe caused by something coming from the radio or TV screen, persons can assess the music differently.

Where does the appeal come from?

Having said that, the appeal of the music comes from a range of things. We identify at least to some extent with some of what is expressed in the music, even when we may not agree with the particular response the artist may present to challenges faced. Also rhythmically, musically, we feel it. In these senses, they are hardly foreign. What is lacking is a wider representation of the music forms and an understanding of its historical, cultural and socio-economic origins and the dynamics of its distribution and rating. The reality however is, diversity in images of African people which many engage in the broadcast and print media is seriously lacking and what is available is reduced to the most negative aspects and distortions. Perhaps the combined effect of all of these is to make us foreign to each other. Depending on media controlled by or dependent on persons whose primary interest is profit to inform you is a waste of time. With greater access to information persons can now widen their perception of the music forms we engage and the people who produce them. Then we would be in a better position to determine which music is foreign, to whom, why and how?



~ by iandiyanola on February 7, 2012.

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