The gunman shift – ah so it set

Dancehall artiste, Skeng
Dancehall artiste, Skeng (Photo credit:

The issue of dancehall tunes promoting violence stepped once again into the spotlight after reports that upcoming dancehall DJ Skeng’s “Gunman Shift” had been taking the dancehall scene by storm. I first became aware of the tune a few weeks ago while I was interviewing former Third World Band member and current lecturer at the Edna Manley School for the Visual and Performing Arts, Mr. Ibo Cooper on my Sunday Scoops streamed programme on In the course of our discussion, Cooper made reference to a tune called “Gunman Shift” which he indicated was the rave within the current dancehall circuit. The lyrics for the tune was penned by new dancehall sensation “Skeng” and apart from providing him with the proverbial “buss-out,” has been dominating the YouTube charts with more than eight million hearts of many, including some, who claim to abhor violence, reciting the haunting and violent lyrics.

The criminal use of guns in Jamaica dates back to 1940s gunman Vincent Martin aka “Rhyging” on whom the 1972 Perry Henzell written and directed film The Harder They Come was loosely based. It can easily be argued that the proliferation of Western movies, including “Gunfight at the OK Corral”, an extremely violent flick by the standards at the time, served to elevate the value of having a firearm and to glamorize the raw power that a gun holder wielded. In the Kingston cinemas where the crammed-in patrons reveled in the violence and braggadocio of the men on screen, minds and appetites were opened. Months later, Franco Nero graced the screens in Sergio Corbucci’s Django, and the patrons went wild in response to the cavalier gunplay. The film would open the floodgates for other western flicks which seared Clint Eastwood into the imaginations of many Jamaicans, as well as the writers and directors of “The Harder They Come,’ who included a snippet of the Django film in its reels. 

One could make the argument that Jamaican’s love affair with guns was developed through the images shown on screen. The Harder They Come’s lead character Rhygin (played by Jimmy Cliff) gave more than a glimpse, in those early days, of a larger-than-life criminal who saw himself as a revolutionary. That his character was cut down in a hail of bullets failed to transmit any fear of death to real life wannabe bad men.

Drug trafficking

By the mid 1970s, Jamaica had begun to change as political ideologies presaged the division of communities supplemented with the raising up of political garrisons. Combinations of adversarial ideological politics, serious economic stagnation, and ganja smuggling created the conditions which mass-produced the ubiquitous gunman. Initially they bore the label of “political gunman” but, in time, they separated from politics to pay more attention to smuggling weed and later cocaine. As the trafficking expanded so, too, did the influx of guns into the island, a necessity for the protection of turf. It did not help that since that time meaningful investment in many of these communities disappeared. Itinerant hustlers, including the vending of drugs birthed the “Area Don” who quickly usurped the traditional community leader. The don had power and a kind of suborned prestige, and, in time, most youth not only aspired to be a don, but even more so, a significant number of these youths in these inner-city communities romanticized about being able to get their hands on a gun. 

Local film influence 

In 1997, the Jamaican film Dancehall Queen was released to popular public acclaim. Apart from fielding a cast of well-known Jamaican faces, the film capitalized on predominantly local themes of social and economic struggles that flayed the average Jamaican, not least of which was their desire for social and economic advancement and the dream of making it big through Reggae/Dancehall music. It exposed, as well, the underbelly of Jamaica, racked by drug distribution and gun running and it placed the spotlight on our biggest deterrent to curbing criminal activity on the island, the anti-informer culture. This was borne out by lead actor Paul Campbell’s chilling line “Walk and live, talk and b****-claawt dead.”

Unfortunately, the Jimmy Cliffs and Paul Campbell’s of my time have long been replaced by more forceful screen characters, all of whom have migrated from the screen and into the communities, and who are certainly more powerfully armed to protect turf-whether it is for drugs or the now ramped up scamming trade, a magnet for unattached youths engaged and armed to run the “gunman shift” and provide protection. 

As raw as “Gunman Shift” is, it is nonetheless a spotlight…a recitation of the unmitigated violence that is omnipresent in most inner-city communities every single day. It is a statement of acceptance not just by DJ Skeng who compiled the lyrics, but most youth who reside in that environment, that “a soh di ting set.” Skeng is doing what artistes within similarly affected communities 40 and 50 years earlier, had always done. They write and sing about those experiences and in the same way that we may not pray or wish away the violence, Skeng’s lyrics tacitly accept the state of affairs no less than the average Jamaican has accepted that “murder is a everyday ting.”

You’ll say this against the background of political hand wringing and finger-pointing that continues at home while the body count continues to rise. Last month, an average of four Jamaicans lost their lives to the unrelenting violence and over the 11-month period, January to November, a total of 1,285 Jamaicans have been murdered. It is no comfort that the police have predicted that by year end, they estimate that approximately 1,400 Jamaicans will die violently; a continuation of the reckless abandon that drives murder and the extent to which its omnipresence have made us so numb that we have accommodated the scourge of murder as a part of our daily regimen. It is the “Gunman Shift” ting… a soh di ting set.

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


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