Convicted of murder last Monday, Ninja Man became the latest dancehall entertainer to be found guilty of a major crime. His demise follows Vybz Kartel’s 2014 conviction for murder and Buju Banton’s 2011 conviction on cocaine distribution and conspiracy charges. With three major dancehall artistes now behind bars in connection to major crimes and others having been arrested and jailed at some point during their careers, the connection between dancehall music and crime is again being discussed.
Dancehall music has often been blamed for contributing to the country’s high murder rate, and entertainers are considered enablers. And with Kartel and Ninja Man’s murder convictions coming a mere three years apart, it doesn’t paint a glowing picture of a genre already under the microscope. However, industry insiders with whom The Sunday Gleaner spoke warned against hastening to condemn the genre and the creative minds who give it life.
Explaining that dancehall music is an art form, Copeland Forbes, veteran artiste manager, told The Sunday Gleaner that it would be unreasonable and unfair to judge the genre based on recent misfortunes. According to Forbes, the music is only a means of expression, like any other art form.
“The music has nothing to do with them being incarcerated. Whatever happened, happened of their own will, and it has nothing to do with dancehall,” he said. “I don’t think people should try to tie music to what has happened, because music is just a tool. It has no power unless it is being used by the artiste.”
Forbes went on to say that although the link is perhaps commonsensical based on recent developments, the artistes’ desire to live up to an image they created for the sake of music is perhaps more at fault.
“If you notice the names that are out now, the ‘Unruly One’, the Vybz Kartels, the Ninja Man, they chose names that have a certain persona and when they push that person out into the public through the music, they are pressured into living up to their names,” he explained.
“These images were put out there because they figure if they go that route, they will get attention, so they create these personas to ‘buss’ and then somewhere down the line, they became these persons.”
Psychologist Dr Leahcim Semaj pointed out that these entertainers spend so much time being a ‘Ninja Man’ and not Desmond Ballentine, or a ‘Vybz Kartel’ instead of Adidja Palmer, that over time, their musical alter egos become the dominant one.
“Music is not neutral. Music provides entertainment, excitement, encouragement and, whatever you consume, you metabolise, and whatever you metabolise, transforms and becomes a part of you,” he said. “Adidja Palmer created Vybz Kartel, then he became Vybz Kartel, but who is in prison? Adidja Palmer is in prison while Vybz Kartel’s music is free and running the world. We’re seeing a similar thing with Desmond Ballentine. He created Ninja Man, but then, he, too, became Ninja Man. We see this in hip hop, too, where a number of the artistes whose lyrical content is extremely violent oftentimes end up taking on the persona of the music they have created.”
Based on this reasoning, these experts are suggesting that entertainers create a catalogue of music that allows them to be their alter egos but themselves as well.
According to Semaj, it would be unfair to ask entertainers to put a lid on their creativity because they singled out as a wrongdoer. Therefore, he is encouraging artistes to make a clear distinction between their dancehall personas and who they are in real life.
“The fact that somebody sings about something doesn’t mean that is who they are. It is not illegal to sing or write about violence or sex, and these creative minds should be allowed the freedom to express themselves,” he said. “But with the association being made between criminality and the art form, self-editing is useful. Build a broader catalogue and do not become purely typecast.”
Forbes agreed. “We live in a radical world, where anything even close to radicalism is looked at very closely. When people categorise you as something because of the image you put out there, it’s hard to turn around and convince them that you are not what you sing,” he said.
“But if you make the distinction between your stage persona and who you are as an individual, certain lines will not be blurred and there is less temptation to become what you created for the music.”