Sounds of the Citizens: Dancehall and Community in Jamaica

Sounds of the Citizens: Dancehall and Community in Jamaica

by Anne M. Galvin


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Dancehall: It's simultaneously a source of raucous energy in the streets of Kingston, Jamaica; a way of life for a group of professional artists and music professionals; and a force of stability and tension within the community. Electronically influenced, relevant to urban Jamaicans, and highly danceable, dancehall music and culture forms a core of popular entertainment in the nation. As Anne Galvin reveals in Sounds of the Citizens, the rhythms of dancehall music reverberate in complicated ways throughout the lives of countless Jamaicans.

Galvin highlights the unique alliance between the dancehall industry and community development efforts. As the central role of the state in supporting communities has diminished, the rise of private efforts such as dancehall becomes all the more crucial. The tension, however, between those involved in the industry and those within the neighborhoods is palpable and often dangerous. Amidst all this, individual Jamaicans interact with the dancehall industry and its culture to find their own paths of employment, social identity, and sexual mores.

As Sounds of the Citizens illustrates, the world of entertainment in Jamaica is serious business and uniquely positioned as a powerful force within the community.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826519795
Publisher: Vanderbilt University Press
Publication date: 02/15/2020
Pages: 238
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Anne M. Galvin is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at St. John's University.

Read an Excerpt

Sounds of the Citizens

Dancehall and Community in Jamaica

By Anne M. Galvin

Vanderbilt University Press

Copyright © 2014 Vanderbilt University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8265-1978-8


"Money Move"

The Sociality of Circulation, Violence, and Respect

Now tek out some money for all your bredren ...
Make a move, make a move
Make a conscious move

—Barrington Levy, "Money Move"

Giving and generosity in Jamaican ghetto communities are markers of reputation and respectability where other cultural markers, including the use of Standard English, European marriage patterns, and success through education, have been largely unattainable or deliberately rejected. These socialized values shaped by gender roles and access to employment are fundamental characteristics of ghetto culture, and, I would add, necessary ones, under circumstances in which the majority of the population is not regularly employed and in which the pool of state resources for the provision of necessary basic services has dried up. However, these crucial practices are rooted in a prior political moment. Before the neoliberal turn of the late 1980s, which dramatically reduced the social welfare resources available to community residents, there was an extensive period of democratic socialist policy on the part of the Jamaican state as envisioned and executed by the People's National Party under the leadership of Michael Manley.

This strategy, explicitly pursued by the party as of 1974, was not without its detractors, both within the People's National Party itself and on the part of the opposing Jamaica Labour Party. The Cold War was in full swing, and, given the dependent nature of the Jamaican economy, a communist label could have had a significant impact on foreign investment. Although Jamaica was openly an adherent of the Non-Aligned Movement, the country's warm relations with Cuba and democratic socialist domestic policies stirred up fears among the capitalist class and created hesitation among international investors and lending agencies.

Even given the controversial nature of the democratic socialist path, the People's National Party was able to cultivate a base of mass support through a party ideology that successfully incorporated previously marginalized segments of the population into the Jamaican nation, leading to heightened political engagement and electoral involvement. For the first time, impoverished black populations were made to feel like full citizens through the party embracing, and at times advancing, aspects of their culture and their class interests in a heavily elitist society (Stephens and Stephens 1986).

Normative giving practices, extant throughout Jamaica, are part of a moral economy deeply impacted by Christian values and decades of democratic socialist policies marked by a state-led, mixed economy and state-sponsored efforts to encourage egalitarianism and social inclusion. These giving practices, prevalent in the daily lives of ghetto residents, must be considered in order to understand the patronage practices of members of the new black middle class. They shape local understandings of giving and receiving and, therefore, the social relations that are produced through acts of giving and receiving. Additionally, the practice of giving and sharing is imbricated with community-rooted social distinctions based on the evaluation of community members' conduct toward others as a measure of social status.

Such modes of social distinction, once characterized as exclusive to a masculine behavioral repertoire, were first identified with the label reputation within Caribbean anthropology (see Wilson 1973). However, the categories of reputation and respectability, insightfully introduced by Wilson in the 1970s in order to explain distinctly Caribbean understandings of social status within poor communities, have greater analytical utility when understood not as disparate status categories but as part of an arsenal of personal strategies utilized by Caribbean subjects in order to attain social mobility through the creation of social capital. Rather than being the property of particular gender groups or economic classes, reputation and respectability can be more fruitfully seen as interpersonal strategies employed based on deep cultural knowledge and selected from a wide range of possible approaches in order to gain the greatest benefit within a specific social context (see also Ulysse 2007; Freeman 2000). With this revised undemanding, reputation and respectability are demonstrated to be porous rather than distinct status types that are the exclusive domain of highly specified social identities. Here, respectability, which often references values of propriety originated by the British and that has been heavily associated with Christianity and traditional European marriage patterns, is used alongside reputation as necessitated by the social setting of the interaction and the specific parties involved. A person's reputation will, in part, be shaped by his or her willingness to give to others in a socially appropriate fashion. Members of the new black middle class, as patrons, were socialized within these moral economies of redistribution and continue to take part in them even now that the democratic socialist model has given way to a neoliberal free-market capitalist one.

Moral values around the mutuality of people's needs have remained intact, and the need for wealth redistribution is at its height at a moment in which the state has sought to turn individuals into "entrepreneurs of themselves" and citizens into potential "allies of economic success" (N. Rose 1999, 142, 162). Along these lines, according to the Social Sector Strategy Report on Jamaica drafted for the Inter-American Development Bank, social protection programs "are now viewed as active mechanisms that can assist the poor in investing in their own productivity" (Inter-American Development Bank 2001, 18). One of the limitations of this strategy, which relies on skills training and the cultivation of citizens into human capital, is that there are simply not enough jobs for the portion of the population that already possesses adequate training. Though the supply of trained and credentialed labor has steadily grown, limited national economic growth has created a situation in which there has been no simultaneous increase in the demand for skilled labor (Inter-American Development Bank 2001). Within this context of limited economic possibility and a heavy domestic debt burden, poor populations are caught in a deadly bind. While the state is drastically reducing the social safety net for its citizens in the interest of austerity, privatization, and the instilling of self-sufficiency, there is only limited access to employment opportunities that would allow people to actually become self-sufficient.

By 1998, the 62 percent share of the gross domestic product dedicated to debt servicing was drastically greater than the reduced amount of 18 percent made available for social-sector spending (Inter-American Development Bank 2001, 19). According to the same report, even though 90 percent of the funds dedicated to social services were targeted for education and health initiatives, the most well-funded nutritional program, the Food Stamp Program, assisted only 15 percent of the poorest quintile of the population, and those who did receive benefits were relieved of only 1 percent of their total food expenditure (Inter-American Development Bank 2001, 19–22). Is it any wonder that informal redistributive practices continue to exist in this new political moment? This period of economic transition and uncertainty, as I will demonstrate, is marked by a sense of betrayal among the urban poor at the retraction of the state from their care. Contradictorily, in this period of transition, the population's redistributive actions can be simultaneously recast in the terms of neoliberalism as private initiative supplanting the care once provided by the state.

Downtown Kingston

A collection of newspaper articles published in the late nineteenth century is a valuable resource for understanding the long-standing condition of downtown Kingston (Moore and Johnson 2000). In one article, originally published in 1892, fifty-eight years after emancipation, and titled "A Disgrace to the City," an area in the vicinity of Guy Town is described as follows:

The water tables along the centre of the streets besides being a perpetual eyesore, become blocked with dirt of every description and the water, which should run down freely, is in consequence stagnated and most offensive. On a dark night it is almost impossible to proceed any distance without repeatedly stepping into some sort of these pools and progress is as difficult as it is dangerous. When the rains are on, the road is a quagmire with mud almost to the knees.

One would imagine that as a means of locomotion are so inconceivably bad, precautions would be taken by the City Fathers to provide plenty of light to make some amends for their neglect. This, however, is far from being the case. The village boasts two lamps, both on the Spanish Town Road, the rest of the district being in complete darkness. Is it any wonder that Smith's Village bears a bad name for evil deeds? To a great extent, the members of the Council are responsible for the outrages which are constantly being committed in the neighborhood as by their want of attention and carelessness they practically place a premium upon crime. Everything is favourable for those who have any inclination to break the laws. The streets are to a great extent lonely and deserted at night, and even where more thickly populated, the people are so thoroughly accustomed and inured to deeds of violence, that they take comparatively little note of what is going on; on nights when there is no moon the darkness can almost be felt and as the police are about as numerous as the gas lamps there is absolutely no protection. (Moore and Johnson 2000, 13–14)

After emancipation, migration from rural areas to Kingston was heavy, based on a lack of available cultivable land in the country and the attraction of high wages that were purportedly available in the city. This population growth was not matched by heightened city planning efforts until the early twentieth century (C. Clarke 1975). Robotham has identified settlement in Kingston as heavily class based, with inhabitants dividing up the spaces of the city by populating distinct areas according to their membership in particular economic strata (Robotham 2003). By the late nineteenth century the wider area in which Guy Town is now situated had become a major settlement, and by the 1920s the area was comprised of "densely populated tenements" (C. Clarke 1975, 34). According to Colin Clarke, in the 1940s "the vast majority of the accommodation in Kingston and in St. Andrew consisted of only one room, and more than half the population of the city lived in minute, single room dwellings with less than 150 square feet, and averaging 2.5 occupants" (C. Clarke 1975, 60). These conditions resemble the overcrowded environment that currently persists in Guy Town, where population pressure is coupled with poverty. While I am not able to offer a complete account of the development of the city of Kingston to the present, the ethnographic account that follows is situated within this setting.

Everyday Forms of Exchange

In Guy Town it is not uncommon to hear a passing neighbor say, "Beg you a twenty dollar?" asking for a coin in order to buy a soda or small snack. In most cases the giver provides the money assuming that the next time he or she "begs a twenty dollar" some equivalent person will, in turn, give it to him or her. Variations on these types of transactions take place on a regular basis and create a system that aids the poorest members of society in meeting basic survival needs through passing small quantities of money from one person to the next.

People who don't take part in the sharing of resources often enough earn poor reputations for being "mean" (miserly). Meanness is often discussed in local gossip, which is not taken lightly. In one instance I witnessed, a middle-aged woman who sat on a scrap of carpeting on a Guy Town street corner asked her friend for a little money to buy some flour. Her friend replied that she didn't have any. The woman covertly turned to me and under her breath whispered, "She never have nothing yet." Vocalized with a tone of critical disbelief, the speaker indicated the improbability of someone lacking resources to the extent that they are never able to help out when asked. In another instance, a local woman socializing on the same corner accused another, on an adjacent corner, of meanness. The accused's friend came to her defense with, "She not mean! When she have, she give." This interaction demonstrated the severity of being labeled mean, which required a friend to offer up a defense because of the accusation's damaging effect upon the person's personal reputation as a community member. The exchange also laid out the rules for attaining an upstanding social status in the community. When it comes to sharing, when you have, you give.

Because of widespread exclusion from mainstream production through regular wage employment, giving has become one way the community reproduces itself. Though there are residents of Guy Town that take part in formal employment and can, therefore, be considered producers, and there are patrons affiliated with the community who are also producers (some quite literally, record producers), a large portion of the community's residents are able to survive because of the redistribution of resources over time, which is a fundamental aspect of life among the Jamaican poor. Whether these resources come from remittances made by friends and relatives "aforeign," by residents who have relative to the rest of the community, or through relations with locally recognized patrons like merchants and don figures, there is a dependence on the redistribution of resources.

Open-ended exchanges like these are not conducted tit for tat and are rooted in the assumption of a "timeless human commitment" that suggests relations will continue into the future (Graeber 2001, 225); that is, the transactions I described above are open-ended, based on the supposition that obligations and the mutuality created by these obligations will continue to exist. Additionally, these economic relations of mutuality are embedded within the ongoing social relations that create one's reputation. Open-ended transactions can be contrasted with ones that are expected to eventually dissolve into autonomy and thereby require expenditures to be recouped immediately and in kind. This is a basic, but illuminating, distinction. It has been suggested that closed exchanges are predicated on an idea of individuality; obligations are to be kept to a minimum in order to maintain autonomy (Graeber 2001). From a Jamaican perspective, these are the sorts of exchanges that Euro-Americans are noted for. One day during my fieldwork, a woman from Guy Town attempted to explain the practical difference that I am indicating here to another community member. She told her neighbor that if a person aforeign borrows a tin of condensed milk from their neighbor, they are expected to also return a tin of condensed milk as soon as they can afford one. This scenario was seen as an absurdity within the cultural milieu of the ghetto, where a person would usually give the tin of condensed milk without any expectation of ever seeing it again, thereby, consciously or unconsciously, helping to create an open-ended system of exchange. The exchange systems I observed in Guy Town are based on social tendencies in which individuals are less concerned with autonomy than with understanding and responding to each other's needs (Graeber 2001; Mauss 1990 [1950]). By understanding the needs of others, community members can maintain reputations that confer social status on participants for their contextually appropriate manner of social interaction. This system is an important feature of Guy Town and other poor communities, in part because much of the population is not engaged in regular wage labor. The unemployed often contribute informal favors to wage-earning neighbors, like trips to the market downtown or the provision of childcare, as a way of accessing the monetized economy and accruing social capital. In this setting, capitalistic individualism has not uniformly won the day. Christian and socialist values of mutuality remain pervasive and aid in sustaining marginalized communities.

I am not suggesting, however, that Guy Town is some sort of egalitarian utopia. While there are open-ended exchange practices that regularly take place in the community, there are also points at which this system breaks down, as well as limits to people's willingness to give what is theirs. This breakdown is widely described using the Jamaican adage that speaks of poor people as "crabs in a barrel," with each pulling the other to the bottom in a competitive effort to reach the top. This adage can also be linked to values around reputation and respectability, where breaches of mutu ally through either meanness or excessive greediness—sometimes characterized using the epithet vampire, as in one who feeds off of others—are equal targets of social condemnation. Clearly, the socially accepted range of daily exchange practices in Guy Town is not purely self-maximizing but, as demonstrated by residents, contains elements of both socially incorporative and economically transactional behaviors (Barth 1966; Paine 1976).


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1 "Money Move": The Sociality of Circulation, Violence, and Respect 25

2 "Give thanks for that man deh fi di place": Patronage, Power, and Shifting Burdens of Care 47

3 Dancehall Dilemmas: Sounds from the Disquieted Margins 46

4 "Got to mek a living": Dancehall as Industry 111

5 The Contradictions of Neoliberal Nation Building in Jamaica Community Development through Dancehall 142

6 The Long View 167

Notes 177

Bibliography 187

Index 211

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