NEW YORK (Billboard) - With reputed drug kingpin Christopher “Dudus” Coke in custody and Jamaica’s state of emergency officially over, many dancehall stars are turning their backs on the violent lyrics that have characterized the genre in recent years.
The trend has been bubbling under the surface since before the state of emergency but received its biggest boost in late July at Jamaica’s 35,000-capacity Reggae Sumfest festival, when veteran dancehall star Bounty Killer — best known for blood-spattered anthems like “Coppershot” and “Gun Down” — publicly renounced violent lyrics.
Other artists have followed suit, with popular Jamaican radio stations like Irie FM, Fame 95 FM and Hot 102 FM spinning “conscious” anthems from formerly gangster-friendly artists, including Mavado’s “Change Right Now,” Vybz Kartel’s version of the Beatles’ “Let It Be” and Bounty Killer’s own “Mi Tired.”
“My nation is going backward,” says Bounty Killer, aka Rodney Price. “So instead of prostituting my fans by singing foolishness, it’s time to enlighten and educate. I think they will embrace my transition.”
That transition will be heard in full on his next album, “Anger Management,” due in early 2011 in the United States on New York-based indie VP Records. VP director of A&R (artists and repertoire) Neil “Diamond” Edwards is convinced it won’t harm Bounty Killer’s commercial potential.
“He’s balanced commentaries with hardcore tunes before,” Edwards says, “so his real fans will accept it.”
Bounty Killer’s best-selling U.S. album is 1996’s “My Xperience” (VP), which has sold 141,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. While Shaggy and Sean Paul racked up huge international success in the ‘90s and 2000s, dancehall’s reputation for violent, homophobic and sexually explicit lyrics has made crossover success more difficult in recent times. That’s led some to suggest the current conversion may have more to do with financial concerns than with social consciousness.
“There’s pressure throughout society for artists to clean up their music, so I hope their changes are genuine,” says Tony Rebel, promoter of January’s 20,000-capacity conscious reggae festival Rebel Salute in St. Elizabeth, who says he will consider true converts for slots at future festivals.
Others, however, insist the 80 deaths resulting from the authorities’ attempts to capture Coke, plus the May murder of O’Neil Edwards of dancehall trio Voicemail, have contributed to a genuine change of heart from local acts.
“Artists must cater to the demands of the populace,” says Ainsworth “Big A” Higgins, senior presenter on Irie FM. “And there is clearly an outcry: We need a break from the violence.”
Graphic sexual content is also off many artists’ lyrical agendas after a 2009 clampdown by the Jamaica Broadcasting Commission. And many are hopeful the new, cleaned-up approach could lead to increased commercial opportunities, at home and abroad.
Kacy “G City” Rankine, promoter of the New Jersey Reggae Festival, held August 15 at Newark’s Edison Park Complex, says his event struggled to book dancehall artists after Bounty Killer, Mavado and Beenie Man had their U.S. visas suddenly revoked March 31.
“We don’t know why these artists’ visas were seized,” Rankine says. “But singing positive lyrics can only help get them back.”
Back in Jamaica, Diageo-owned beer brand Red Stripe returned as a Sumfest sponsor in 2010 — a deal worth $150,000, according to the festival. Red Stripe withdrew as a sponsor in 2008, citing disapproval of “performers who propagate violent, antisocial lyrics.”
Now, however, Jomo Cato, Red Stripe head of marketing for Northern Latin America and the Caribbean, says the constructive atmosphere at this year’s festival “signals a new day for dancehall.”
“If we continue to make positive music,” he adds, “our artists will receive positive reactions at home and abroad.”