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JM | Nov 7, 2022

Attack on dancehall: An outsider’s perspective

Shemar-Leslie Louisy

Shemar-Leslie Louisy / Our Today

Dancehall artistes Skeng and Shenseea.

The treatment of dancehall music by many Jamaicans and regional members of public office as some type of bogeyman that’s responsible for moral decay is disingenuous and prejudicial.

In recent months, dancehall has been labelled by some as the cause of Jamaica’s high levels of crime, and now the Broadcasting Commission of Jamaica (BCJ) has banned all “recorded material on tv, radio, or cable that glorifies, promotes, or otherwise encourages illegal activities”.

Last month, Aubrey Norton, Guyana opposition leader, called current dancehall heavyweights Spice and Skillibeng, “the worst of dancehall” and accused them of “feeding the people a diet of lawlessness”.

Officially crowned ‘Queen of Dancehall’ Spice delivers at Catherine Hall in Montego Bay, St James, during night one of Reggae Sumfest on July 22, 2022. (File Photo: OUR TODAY)

Dancehall music, separate from the riddims and the antics, like Blues music, is a genre that found a way to turn unheard, unpopular or pained lived experiences from depressed communities into an art form that has managed to spread itself across the world.

The BCJ said: “Songs that promote and glorify illegal activity can give the wrong impression that criminality is an accepted feature of Jamaican culture and society.”

The negative stigma

The pain, anger, fear, lack of conflict resolution or mediation skills that would push a person to lash out is not caused by dancehall; that comes from other societal issues that have been gradually getting worse for decades, which in itself has normalised the view that you need to leave Jamaica to prosper economically.

Anything that is popular in media is a representation of what society on some level believes should be accepted. However, it is also often a reflection of what society already accepts.

It is largely and reasonably agreed that repeat exposure to stimuli lessens a person’s anxiety response. Simply put, the more you see, hear or become familiar with something, even if it is traumatic, it will gradually become normalised to the brain. If you hear about people being murdered every day in music, you are likely to be much less affected if you hear about someone murdered in a similar way in real life.

Artistes are not all prophets, they are mostly megaphones.


I would be shocked to find any artiste today who thought at the start of their career, “I want to erode Jamaica’s moral values one day”. For most, their work is an attempt to speak about whichever of their experiences overlap with whatever is popular in an effort to earn income.

Despite dancehalls penetration of international markets, and the contributions the genre has made to Brand Jamaica, it has never been given the respect locally as a significant part of Jamaican culture and society. Instead, there is a classist sentiment that the music is somehow “less than”.

What we do instead is attribute moral erosion to dancehall and say the artistes should risk their livelihood and magically just create something different that falls into arbitrary guidelines.

My issue with the moral erosion angle is not with its validity, it’s that I have never heard it tied in with the state of the economy, rising cost of living, and brain drain. How can we as a society ask people to uphold anything when they are having difficulty meeting their basic needs.

– Shemar-Leslie Louisy is a Jamaican journalist who spent his formative years in St Lucia.


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