From artists with names like Shabba Ranks and Bounty Killer to films like Shottas, dancehall has never been shy in its critiques, glorification and depictions of gun culture both within Jamaica and abroad. Buju Banton’s hit song “Murderer” helped secure his position as one of dancehall’s greats, while Vybz Kartel was sent to prison on murder charges at the peak of his career. Ninjaman also awaits a separate murder trial later this year. On the other side of things, back in 2010 dancehall legend Mad Cobra was nearly killed in the streets of Portmore just a day after O’Neill Edwards, a young artist from the dancehall group Voicemail, was murdered during a home invasion. In a country of just over 2.7 million people Jamaica has long solidified itself as the most violent island in Caribbean. In 2011 the reported homicide rate according to the United Nations Office on Guns and Crime (UNODC) was 41 per every 100,000 people.
It goes without saying that Jamaica’s tourism board has done an incredible job at creating peaceful enclaves that are far removed from the violent realities of garrison communities in Trelawny, St. Mary, Clarendon, and Portland. But it is important to note that while dancehall often challenges the perception of Jamaica as a giant resort that is open for business, gun violence has been a core issue on the island before the genre was popularized. Bob Marley’s legendary One Love Peace Concert in 1978 was an attempt to use his local and international fame as a means to bring peace to the country’s two major political parties that were in the midst of a violent political war. In September 1987 Peter Tosh became one of the most notable Jamaican artists to be gunned down. Beyond political violence, the 1980s brought about an explosion of criminal enterprises as Jamaica became a key transit point for cocaine trafficking out of South America and into the United States and Britain. In recent years changes in the international drug trade have softened Jamaica’s importance, but because criminal enterprises for the most part have not been replaced with formal employment there is an incredible amount of competition around illicit revenue that could partially explain the island’s sustained violence.
This brings us to two separate but very similar projects by two of dancehall’s biggest names: Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley and Vybz Kartel. Damian caught the world’s attention this past December with a powerful track entitled “Is It Worth It (Gunman World)” off of the Ghetto Youths International: Set Up Shop, Vol. 2, a compilation that showcases the latest music from the Marley family. The track powerfully illustrates the psychology of guilt and pain that haunts an unnamed gunman, and Jr. Gong carefully warns listeners that the gunman lifestyle is full of contradictions before rhetorically asking:
What will it cause to make a gunman rich?
How many life before a gunman switch?
The truth mi want the youth dem stop ignore,
Seh the majority a gunman poor.
What helped make “Is It Worth It” one of the definitive reggae and dancehall singles of 2014 was that prior to the compilation’s release Damian Marley linked up with director, Nabil Elderkin, for the track’s visuals. Elderkin who has previously worked with big names like Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, and Seal, among others, set the video in Morocco and featured Moroccan actor Saïd Taghmaoui to play the fictional gunman. The imagery compliments the song nicely and accurately depicts a man that is caught between his conscience and the prospects of illicit money, but if there is one major critique it’s that the visuals really could have been situated anywhere. Miami, New York City, Jamaica, Britain, and so many other places globally struggle with endemic issues of small arms trafficking and murder for hire, so the decision to film the video in Morocco at a time when Islamophobia often trumps more nuanced discussions of global social issues has sparked some mixed reactions. Alternatively, the choice to film the video outside of Jamaica and to even use the term “Gunman World” throughout the song implies that Jr. Gong wrote the song intentionally to deal with global gun culture and given recent regional unrest Morocco is far from an unrealistic setting.
Vybz Kartel also recently added visuals to one of his newer songs, “Up To Crime,” despite the fact that he is currently serving a life sentence in a Jamaican jail. The New York City based duo Daytrip (producers: DenZ and Hugh Cosby) came back from a recent trip to Jamaica with an unreleased vocal from Kartel and put it over a minimalist beat that blends a traditional dancehall riddim with gritty southern rap. The song is an unapologetic nod to a criminal lifestyle that Kartel knows all too well could end in prison or worse. The track originally released last July, but recently Robin Fraser of Act Natural Productions matched it up with a video depicting the illegal gun trade in West London. The video is laid out similar to a short documentary that follows a hustler selling illegal handguns while Kartel rattles off ominous warnings that “hollow tips make your skull crack like lobster tail.” Unlike other popular dancehall and hip-hop videos that glorify the gangster lifestyle and the fictional wealth that comes with it, this video takes a much darker turn towards the end. There is a not-so-subtle reminder that those who live by the gun often die by it as well.
While the lyrical content and the visuals to go with both tracks are unique to both artists and the directors that worked on each project it is notable that some of dancehall’s biggest names are beginning to look outward from Jamaica when it comes to addressing gun culture. Damian Marley has been a longtime critic of the glorification of guns in Jamaican society and even his most well known single “Welcome to Jamrock” offers biting commentary about the island’s issues with political violence and murder. Vybz Kartel’s situation is clearly more complicated, but it is not unthinkable that the past three years of incarceration may have forced him to rethink the merits of embracing a criminal lifestyle. Both videos are worth watching and raise important questions about how gun culture is perceived globally especially when the black market trade remains extremely lucrative.