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Welcome to Jamrock

 

By Mtume ya Salaam of Kalamu.com

 

Damian Marley’s “Welcome To Jamrock” is massive. If you listen to mainstream R&B or hip-hop radio, you’ve heard it. If you watch BET or MTV, you’ve seen it.

 

Like  everyone else, I can’t get enough of “Jamrock.” The hardcore roots groove, the ridiculous Ini Kamoze sample, the hyper-descriptive lyrics—all of it is addictive. But while Damian says he wrote the song to show a side of Jamaica and the Jamaican people that most outsiders never see, the song and the video leave me with more questions than answers.

On the surface, “Jamrock” is an auditory tour of the slums of
Kingston, Jamaica
. The lyrics are meticulously crafted and intimately detailed, yet the overall effect is about as subtle as a hand grenade. Damian’s delivery is as expressive and as vivid as his lyrics.

 

Adding to the effect—to non-Jamaican ears, at least, Damian’s patois is sometimes so indecipherable that by the time you’ve figured out what he just said, he’s hurled two or three more bombs at you. I had to hear “Jamrock” several times just to get a good idea of what the song was about.

The video, which was shot in black-and-white, is every bit the equal of the song, image after image matching the lyrics in both impact and expressiveness. When “Jamrock” is over (either song or video, they’re equally intense) you feel yourself involuntarily exhaling, not having realized you’d been holding your breath. Even for those of us who were born and raised amid the claustrophobic intensity of inner-city life, “Jamrock” is one hell of a ride. But check it, there’s more to this story.

From the beginning, even as I was awed by the gritty, soulful feel of Damian’s new music, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was at least an undertone of incongruity at work. In other words, something wasn’t quite right.

 

After doing a little research on Damian’s musical and personal history, and after reading several interviews and articles by those whose opinions are more informed than my own, I realize that there is a lot more to “Jamrock” and Damian Marley than what is presented in the song and video. Let’s start with the most obvious.

1. Damian is a child of privilege.

Damian is the son of the most famous Jamaican in the history of
Jamaica
, Bob Marley. When Damian’s mother, Cindy Breakespeare, met Bob, she was a student from a well-to-do family and a nationally-known beauty queen. Cindy would go on to be crowned Miss World, her entry into the international contest reportedly financed by Bob himself. Both Damian and Cindy were well provided for in Bob’s will. Damian attended private school and when, after Bob’s death, Cindy married, Damian became the stepson of a prominent politician.

2. Damian didn’t grow up in Trenchtown or any other ghetto.

“Jamrock,” both the video and the song, is ostensibly an ‘insider’s view’ of hardcore
Jamaica
. The images of the video are presented with an almost cinéma vérité-like intensity. The viewer feels as if they are literally riding through the streets of the Jamaican slum, seeing the images, hearing the sounds, smelling the smells and feeling every twist and turn of the road as they speed by.

 

Despite growing up in an upper-class environment, did Damian spend so much time in the ghetto that he feels as if he knows the streets he shows us? Or is he himself one of the poseurs he dismisses? “Some boy na know ‘dis,” he chants at one point, “’Dis” meaning, one presumes, the ghetto. “’Dem only come around like tourist / On the beach with a few club sodas / Bedtime stories / An’ pose like ‘dem name Chuck Norris.”

3. Damian isn’t ‘black.’

 

If you were to hear “Jamrock” on the radio without knowing the identity of the artist, you would assume, understandably, that you were listening to Bounty Killer, Sizzla, Beenie Man or one of the other black stars of Jamaican dancehall. True, there are popular dancehall artists like Sean Paul or Shaggy who happen to be light-skinned.

 

Also true, Damian named his 2001 Grammy Award-winning album Halfway Tree, a double-entendre playing on both his mixed parentage and his mixed social status (he claims, dubiously, that his father is from the ghetto while admitting that his mother is upper-class). Note that Halfway Tree is a Kingston street which divides downtown from uptown, the affluent from the unfortunate.

The problem is this: while Bob Marley himself may have been able to convincingly claim ‘one foot in and one foot out’ ghetto status both racially and certainly economically, Damian’s claim is a little less believable. As ‘illegitimate’ children, both Bob and Damian grew up with their mothers. But while Bob was raised by his mother, who is black, in the impoverished area of Trenchtown, Damian was raised by his mother, who is white, nowhere near the ghetto. Picture this: if we could line up Damian’s four grandparents side-by-side, we would see two white men, one white woman and one black woman. Yet Damian’s voice, style, look and his overall vibe are all very, very black.

4. Damian is a flosser

In both the song and video, Damian positions himself as a champion of the poor, castigating the rich politicians for the lack of opportunity faced by the ghetto youth. He also talks about the way the ghetto youth turn to violence in ill-fated attempts to achieve economic status. A noble sentiment, certainly. Yet, in the video, Damian and his posse motorcade through the
Kingston slums with Damian at the wheel of a 7-series BMW while his posse circles about on Japanese racing bikes.

 

Damian’s visit, it seems safe to assume that he is only visiting, has a regal, almost presidential vibe to it, as if Damian has come down from the hills to mingle with the common-folk. Will the sight of Damian and his German car and all of Damian’s boys riding their shiny bikes lead the ghetto youth of Kingston to renounce their violent ways? Will their glimpse of his obvious wealth sate their desire for a little of their own? One thinks not.

5. Damian is non-violent. Selectively.

In an interview with journalist Clover Hope, Damian says that he is anti-war. “There’s no justification for people fighting on behalf of leaders,” Damian says: “If leaders have a discrepancy—you guys went to the highest colleges and schools and all a this thing—you tellin’ me that they can’t find an educated way to work out their problems…?” True enough. Then Hope quotes part of “Jamrock” and asks Damian to respond. 

“Police come inna jeep and ‘dem can’t stop it / Some say ‘dem a playboy, a playboy rabbit / Funnyman a get drop like a bad habit.”

 

Damian answers: “A lot of times, police who have a problem in Jamaica can turn to violence. And then, there’s no room for nonsense, is what the rest of [the phrase] is saying. Your lickle gimmicks and ya lickle ego, there’s no room for that.”

 

So far, Damian sounds like a true-blue pacifist. But, for whatever reason, Hope doesn’t ask Damian to expound on the last line of the quoted lyric, a line which originally (and allegedly) was: “Batty boy a get drop like a bad habit,” an obvious reference to one of Black Jamaica’s most-treasured obsessions - gay-bashing.

 

For our tender ears, the phrase ‘batty boy’— which translates roughly to ‘faggot’— was first changed to the apparently less offensive ‘funnyman’ and then was edited out altogether.

In sum, I’m left with mixed feelings. Does all of this make me like “Jamrock” any less? No, I still get hype every time I hear it. But I guess the feeling I have now is similar to the way I felt back when Michael Jackson dropped “They Don’t Care About Us.” Great record, great message, but all I could think was ‘us’? Us?! Who the hell is ‘us’? Rich, skinny white ladies who’ve had way too much plastic surgery?

 

Similarly, it’s a little hard to stomach Damian shouting down Babylon once you realize that he’s the privately-schooled son of a rich, womanizing mulatto superstar and a white beauty queen.

 

Mtume ya Salaam is a published writer and an expert on contemporary Black music. He lives in New Orleans, USA and can be reached at mtume_s@yahoo.com.

 

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