Jamaica’s sleeping giant

Artiste performing
Artiste performing (Photo credit: Antoine Julien)

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In a 1996 National Industrial Policy Paper, the Government of Jamaica identified the island’s music sector as a “winner” in its export strategy for the next millennium. The statement represented a departure from what had transpired over the more than 35 years, previously, which saw Jamaicans, particularly those at the grass roots, creating what we now know as the Jamaican music sector. The fact is that, by themselves, ordinary Jamaicans have created an important asset that has since served to place the island in the international cultural spotlight without the support of any meaningful policy framework.

From the very beginning music was for many Jamaican artistes a way out of the ghetto. Most were woefully under-educated, the direct result of the failure of colonialism of the 1950s and the early post-independence period of the 1960s and 1970s. Efforts were made to redress this situation during the second half of the 1970s but were scuttled in the 1980s when we returned to the disinvestment in developing Jamaica’s human capital, a step that has been continued by successive political administrations.

Jamaica is blessed with a strong, creative musical folk culture imbued with various African retentions dating back to slavery. From a historical perspective, many of the artistes and musicians who came into the business were driven largely by their overburdening talent and fierce desire to find a means of earning an income. More importantly, the music scene was always driven by live audiences due largely to the role played by the plethora of sound systems and dancehalls, both of which provided the foundations of the popularity of music from as far back as the late 1950s.

By 1961, the sound system had become the pre-eminent marketing vehicle for Jamaican music and an important avenue for upcoming Jamaican artistes to promote their songs among the local audience. The sound system either made or destroyed their popularity.  It could also enhance their fame, increase recording/studio or paid performance opportunities. As a later step, it helped to boost sales of their recordings locally and even abroad. It should come as a surprise to none that in countries outside of Jamaica, there developed a vibrant market for fans willing to purchase Jamaican music, helped of course by the 1970s popularization of Robert Nesta Marley and his internationalization of reggae music.

Consequently, the music developed as a hustle for most of the players. At the lowest level of that hustle was the singer. He/she developed in an environment where they collected a cut for the record once it came off the press. They collected a cut for the stage show and given their generally inadequate education, sold themselves short. They made a money today to address immediate needs and the associated ‘bling.’ Years later, after that money dried up, many of these artistes fell by the wayside and descended into poverty. It does not have to be that way.

Music is big business globally and it should be no different in Jamaica. I believe that attitudes formed at the genesis of the industry, in the late 1950s, have followed it into the twenty-first century. The wealthy would never touch the industry even with 10-foot poles. Twenty-five years after the1996 National Industrial Policy document, big businesses in Jamaica will go overseas and import franchises back into the island but turn their noses up at Jamaican music which is making multiple billions of dollars for non-Jamaicans elsewhere. Kudos to Magnum Tonic Wine who grabbed Spice and watched their sales numbers triple, proving that our local personalities are winners and can positively impact balance sheets.

Listening to Shaggy, and dancehall queen, Spice, on “The Breakfast Club” with ‘Charlamagne da God’ this past week where he made the point about the un-mined earnings that artistes, because of a lack of education and exposure, are never able to access. He spoke about his own success and the income streams that he accessed then, versus the gazillion of income streams that he became aware of after connecting with Sting. As I listened to Shaggy, I became more convinced of the extent to which we stand in our own way. I recall the love-hate (mostly hate) relationship that wealthy Jamaicans have towards dancehall music for the simple reason that Jamaican music is made by people who, ostensibly, emanate from the dregs of the Jamaican society. While Jamaican music accounts for just under three per cent of global record sales, it is still influential globally. Perhaps, too, we ought to pay attention to the fact that Jamaican music has spawned the multi-billion-dollar hip-hop genre in America, and reggaeton in Latin America which is now a billion-dollar genre. It has also spawned Afro-beat which mimicked 90s dancehall and drives the danceable rhythms across Africa and Europe and has given rise to a newer generation of reggae artistes, some of whom barely know where Jamaica is on the world map but are comfortably mining the opportunistic value of a music created by “salt of the earth Jamaicans.”

Can you imagine where we could have been if our policymakers developed the will to put together a policy for developing a Jamaican Music Industry and made the effort to push towards the policy’s goals?  

Richard Hugh Blackford is a Jamaican creative artist residing in the United States.

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