Over the last few weeks, the Jamaican music vlogging space has been buzzing with the conversation of album sales with Popcaan’s FIXTAPE averaging 600 units in the first week, not to mention Vybz Kartel’s 1k and Buju’s 3k. A very pertinent conversation indeed, and good that it is being had. It was important here, to provide some contrasting, but supporting points to the conversation on the Nightly Fix between the hosts and Jeremy Harding, then later Nigel Clarke.
The first point is that people often complain about dancehall music being too violent but that’s not true. So let me start there because it’s very much a part of the sales vs streams conversation as well.
Dancehall music is diverse. For every popular hit song, you can find a song in the underground from an undiscovered artist that is about something else and just as good but maybe lacks the polish that funding can easily bring. For the people who complain and whitewash the genre, take some responsibility, and turn up your music discovery.
Stop waiting until you can’t ignore a song because it’s always on the radio. Consider the fact that we, as the audience, have a say in what the music looks like, but oftentimes when we imagine the music reaching new heights in the international space (i.e album sales), we imagine our favorite artists doing it, or at least the most popular artists. This then plays out in a kind of control complex where we can’t see the possibilities of it happening in a different way than we imagined. Meaning we can’t see any artist who hasn’t broken into the local space as viable internationally in terms of being able to sell records unless they’ve already proved it by selling out abroad. We wait to be told about our own music. We wait for others to discover the gems that we are in search of. That’s generally the mindset of the typical music consumer in Jamaica.
Now more than ever, with the access we have to technology and music publishing platforms, it’s possible to use our individual voices to select the artists with the messages that we want to see thrive, and yet here we are complaining but we didn’t really cast our vote.
Democracy gave America Trump, so we can see that it’s not a system that is all good, it’s a system that’s meant to work. It’s important to understand how democracy works because if we do not choose, the choice will be made for us. The less active we are as listeners, the less likely it will be that we might find another diamond in the rough like Koffee, before she is introduced to us. All the stakeholders in music, collectively decide what it looks, feels and sounds like. Stakeholders like, musicians themselves, distributors, publishers, managers, record labels, media and of course the audience. If the audience does not use its voice on the decision-making platforms, then the music will be defined by the other stakeholders and fed back to us for consumption.
Perhaps we should create our own billboard, our own grammy, but then again we already have charts on the island and throughout the region. The fact is, some people want to see their favorite artist performing in the international space, some fans want it for the music and so do stakeholders. Even this ambition is important, and I think that’s why the good lord gave us Koffee. In fact, we have several artists who compete in that space, Junior Gong, Morgan Heritage, and Stephen Marley to name a few.
The second point is that there’s something about trying to change an adult that just feels like running in place. A lot of our popular artists are now adults or getting there, which means their philosophies and morals are already set for the most part. It’s much easier to creatively nudge or suggest things to child artists than adult ones. Popcaan for example is an adult who used music, like many, to raise himself from abject poverty. His visa situation along with the numbers from his new FIXTAPE make his career the perfect case study.
After breaking into the local mainstream under the wings of Vybz Kartel’s Gaza, Popcaan saw a musical success that allowed him to change his life and those of his loved ones in a sustainable way. This happened before he gained musical fame on the international market. He’s been denied entry to the USA, which severely injures his ability to consolidate and develop his fanbase there and that is still currently the case. He does have a strong UK following, however he subsists on that, and the European and Caribbean circuits as well.
It’s a set up which has allowed him to live comfortably, to be free with his music creatively and to help other artists. Now, you’re asking this grown man who is feeding his family, creatively fulfilled, and free, to change his fundamental brand, because you imagine that he’s the one that will earn Dancehall the respect it deserves by giving international artists a run for their money with album sales. It’s actually unreasonable when you think it through.
You stand a better chance with Koffee, and that’s why we have her, that’s why she’s the grammy kid. While we empathize with the feeling of wanting the best for the music, especially in the case of those who have contributed and achieved so much for its sake. It might be difficult to watch but the important thing to remember is that the music was there before Popcaan, it was there before you and me as well, and it’s managed quite fine. If you in some way, perhaps feel let down by this generation, that can be rationalized, but the music will also be here after they are gone as well. Music is a force and it is far beyond us to destroy it.
For the third point, consider the idea that the same way in which trap dancehall appears to be pandering to US music culture, measuring success through merit badges (gold,silver, platinum), grammy’s and the like, is a similar brown-nosing culture. Let’s note here that while we commend and recommend the mindset of artistes who seek to go beyond the borders of the region, what is extracted from the music in order to make it sterile enough for foreign consumption; is often vital culture itself.
In other words, if an artist like say Rytikal decided to sterilize a song like My World, what we would have is a considerably less inventive track as it relates to the use of patios specifically. Say for instance Skillibeng sterilized his first verse on Jakal’s Sound Like, it would be less. Much of the potency in these songs is due to the innovation in the lyricism and the flow, things that would lose some of their appeal if sterilized. To further this point; the extent to which we’re able to experiment, manipulate and possibly evolve how we use our own language is dependent on whether we’re allowed the space to even practice it in our art and music.
The next thing is understanding how the process of “breaking” or “bussin” works for Jamaican music. Artists abroad who are attempting to break into the international music scene as reggae dancehall acts, most often come to Jamaica in search of some kind of musical “christening” that will grant them the street cred they need to rep the culture on the big stage. This is not for just looks. The music is democratic, and it has always dictated that the community who said music serves, must cosign the bearers of the music in some way. What this also means, is that a lot of the artists who potentially have a more pliable philosophy, a more positive message or maybe even more creative content, and never break into the local mainstream, will have a hard if not impossible time breaking into the international mainstream. That would require skipping a step, which our system of music does not easily allow. Many of them are caught in the catch 22 of needing money to polish, present and distribute their music, in order for it to reach enough people so they can sell more tickets. Here, again the importance of supporting and sharing local acts becomes important to the growth of the culture.
The final point is in reference to the point of “95% of artistes don’t love music.” This is a fair deduction and if you are a practitioner who does indeed love music then it is also fair that dispassion might be uncomfortable. Yet, by no means are we in any position to deny people entry into music and a chance to feed themselves and their families, because we feel they are less passionate about it. Not only is it not up to us, but there have also been people that have done well and contributed a lot to music and found their love for it after it delivered them from a stagnant life.
Many artists become transformed and so does their relationship with their craft as the work of performing opens up the world and thus their perspective. Music and sports have been a means of escape from poverty for black people for a long time, and I don’t suspect that will change anytime soon. But to be clear, it’s very difficult to live from a place of love while living in survival mode, which is the only thing a lot of these artists know when they enter music. Hence, their ability to see the real and true value in their craft is blocked by their drive to survive.
According to Maslow’s Hierarchy, the base needs like food, shelter, or clothing must be fulfilled before the human can ascend the pyramid for more socially complex feats in pursuit of actualization. Therefore, it not only makes sense that many artistes don’t love music, it also stands to reason in some situations it just takes time to realize they do.
In closing, many points made in these interviews and vlogs were solid, but at the end of the day; how much can album sales really matter to creatives who are used to performing or using business to make most of their money anyway? Perhaps we stand to benefit more by leaning into our language and refusing to sterilize it, perhaps it is possible to build a complex enough industry within the region, that can be sustainable enough to create the kind of opportunity and platforms that we dream of having internationally. It might be possible to even attract foreign investment, but it’s definitely worth it either way. It was necessary to bring some of these supporting points into the discussion and I hope it can continue.