An Insight into Jamaican Music: Interview with Carolyn Cooper

October 2010

Carolyn Cooper holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of the West Indies, Mona, and a Master of Arts and a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto. Professor Cooper is a creative and innovative Jamaican scholar whose work in Jamaican life has generated a tremendous interest in the fields of Cultural Studies, Gender Studies and Caribbean Studies. Among her numerous publications, Noises in the Blood: Orality, Gender and the “Vulgar” Body of Jamaican Popular Culture (1993) and Sound Clash: Jamaican Dancehall Culture at Large (2004) must be mentioned. Carolyn Cooper is an indisputable authority on dancehall culture. She is currently Professor of Literatures in English at UWI, Mona.

The following interview was conducted on 27 November 2006 by Jérémie Kroubo Dagnini with Carolyn Cooper in Kingston, Jamaica, during his doctoral research on the history of Jamaican popular music.

Jérémie Kroubo Dagnini © 2006.

Jérémie Kroubo Dagnini: So let’s get to the heart of the matter. Do you think that there are some links between African orality and the DJ phenomenon that emerged in the late 60s in Jamaica?

Carolyn Cooper: There is absolutely a clear link between African orality and dancehall styles of performance. I believe as one of our writers, Vic Reid, who says: “culture passes down through the blood.” He has a wonderful line in a novel which I later used as the title of one of my books: “knowledge comes to [you] like an echo in the bone or a noise in the blood.” So I believe that dancehall performance must be connected to African oral performance traditions. We have taken these unlearnt traditions across the Middle Passage.

JKD: Am I right if I say that African-American rap music partly derives from the Jamaican DJ culture?

CC: Absolutely. Not only African-American rap but also African-American discourse styles because their African diasporic culture also has that organic link to Africa. All of this now comes together with the impact of the Jamaican sound system culture brought to New York by DJ Kool Herc. So you get hip-hop and rap style as the re-emergence of African diasporic styles in the US, in Jamaica and they come together in New York.

JKD: In other respects, do you think that there are some connections between the change of government in Jamaica in the early 80s and the arrival of the new form of dancehall music?

CC: Well, I’m not sure. What are you calling the new form of dancehall?

JKD: Well, I mean the former form was DJs like U-Roy, Big Youth and the new form is the next generation of artists, from Yellowman to Capleton.

CC: Well, I don’t know. Paul Gilroy was the person who, I believe, first advanced that argument that dancehall also called slackness was the response to the oppression of Edward Seaga’s JLP government which came into power in the early 80s. But slackness has always been in Jamaican popular culture. In mento, in my first book, I looked at how Yellowman’s song “Waan Mi Virgin” is exactly the same song as an earlier mento song, same riddim, same everything. So what people called slackness, attention to sexuality or talking about women and women’s body parts, is something that is part of our popular culture. I wouldn’t see the 1980s as a period when it emerged; and Yellowman is a very important DJ. He was talking both culture and slackness, but I saw in a recent interview Yellowman saying that he was used to slackness but what the youth is doing these days that’s nastiness. So it’s very ironic! Yellowman was seen as slackness, then he’s now reclaiming that slackness and says it is better than what the young fellows are doing. Most women are calling that nastiness and I think each generation just tends to romanticize the past and says whatever happened in the past was better than what is happening now.

JKD: And what about lyrics dealing with violence or, you know, the “bling bling” culture?

CC: Well…gun violence has been a part of the Jamaican society for a long time. But I don’t think we must underestimate the role of American films, the Western Spaghetti, Westerns, all those gangster, mob movies which really brought in that romanticized culture of violence and so on. In the 60s-70s, there was already, in Jamaican music, the parallel between the power of the gun and the explosive lyrics of the reggae singers. I’ve got lots of 45s that can illustrate it, the Ethiopians for example. And the Ethiopians are now a real Rasta-oriented band as the name will tell you. But, yes there is an increasing number of songs around gun violence, but again it speaks to the social reality. Imani Tafari-Ama released a powerful book called Blood, Bullets and Bodies (2006) in which she is looking at the way politicians brought in the gun violence to mobilize political parties and to control other things, and the music is really representing the social reality, talking about these kind of things.

JKD: So in a way, could we say that violence in Jamaica is partly linked to Americanisation of Jamaican society?

CC: I would say that the media images that come in, particularly through the films, those images contribute to the glamorisation of gun violence. And we don’t often hear people making that connection. Normally, just few people keep on saying that we have to look at the role of Hollywood cinema.

JKD: And what do you think about writers like Norman Stolzoff [Wake The Town And Tell The People,2000] who attribute the rise of modern dancehall to the death of Bob Marley?

CC: I have the same problem with, you know, people who say that Seaga coming to power made dancehall the way it did. You know, people always try to put things into neat categories. Even if Bob Marley had not died, we might have had this emergence of a new wave within the music with new generations, we might have had the emergence of Rastafari DJs, you know Capleton and Sizzla and so on. They are using the dancehall; look at somebody like Damian “Jr Gong” Marley, he’s using dancehall as a medium to chat reality. So things like “Welcome To Jamrock” is an important critique of social, economic trauma in Jamaica and it is using the dancehall riddim. So dancehall riddim is not necessarily synonymous with the conservative politics. It’s a tool.  

JKD: And, you know, dancehall music is often labelled a homophobic style of music. How can we explain this presence of homophobic lyrics?

CC: Well, the homophobic lyrics speak to the homophobia more broadly in Jamaican society. You come back to the fundamentalist Christian genesis of these discourses. But you know, the irony is that people are using the Bible to burn down homosexuality but they are not using the same part of the Bible when it’s talking about adultery. So people are very selective. Adultery is too nice for some people to be criticized but they jump onto homosexuality. So I think it’s the fundamentalist Christianity, but I also believe it comes out of West Africa. It doesn’t mean there are not gay people in West Africa but there is a kind of conservative gender politics that we see in Middle-West African societies where males and females are recognized as what I would call “natural,” and other sexual behaviours are seen as what I would call “deviant.” So I think, for example, the proverb “Two pot cover can’t shut,” that we hear in Jamaica, could be more widely extended to suggest something about the way in which the pot female and the cover male are seen as naturally going together. And then the other combination is seen as the more problematic. So it’s in the culture and I think the DJs raise up this theme to another level of decibels. So it’s an exaggeration!

JKD: But it seems that it appeared quite late in the history of Jamaican music, doesn’t it?

CC: No, no, you’ll find early references to homosexuality in reggae, in the 70s. One other thing I believe in is that the constant references to men and women is also a kind of covered reference to homosexuality; by keeping on saying men and women, God made men and women is like silently condemning the alternative, namely homosexuality.

JKD: Is it possible that at some points, certain politicians implicitly encouraged this homophobic atmosphere to harm their political opponents?

CC: Well…yes it is clear that, even if not the politicians but their spokespersons have used the alleged homosexuality of political rivals against them. For example, the former Prime Minister P. J. Patterson could be gay, bisexual, I don’t know, but at a political meeting (in 2001), the opposition labour party was playing TOK’ s “Chi-Chi Man” as a way of trying to discredit the Prime Minister. In fact, he came on TV, as I mentioned in my book, Sound Clash, he came on TV and radio to say “[his] credentials as a lifelong heterosexual person are impeccable.” You wouldn’t think that a Prime Minister would need to credentialize his sexual orientation in that kind of way but it says something about the way in which sexual politics plays into politics more broadly.

JKD: Otherwise, many writers tend to say that dancehall put Patois in the limelight. But don’t you think that Patois has always been part of Jamaican culture and music?

CC: Yes, Patois has always been in popular Jamaican music. But if you listen to some of the early songs in the 60s-70s, lyrics were mostly in English. But dancehall is the space in which the DJs, as one said, have burst out into Jamaican which I prefer to Patois because it makes the link between the language and national identity. They just use their other tongue and for me that is one of the most powerful aspects of dancehall culture that celebrates in fact Jamaican identity. When I hear these DJs talking like Miss Lou… It was Anthony B, in fact, who made the connection with Louise Bennett, Miss Lou, a real Jamaican culture nationalist who is a person that’s done the most to make us proud of our Jamaican language; and here is Anthony B putting himself in a line of affiliation with her saying that “I talk like her not like foreigners, I’m making the distinction between Jamaican culture nationalism, cultural identification and imported ideologies,” which is fantastic!

JKD: But most dub poets also perform in Patois or Jamaican?

CC: Well, most dub poets perform in Jamaican, but many of the dub poets also have poems in English. So it’s not entirely accurate to say that dub poetry is exclusively performed in Jamaican. Jean Breeze, whom I’d call a dub poet or a performance poet, has poems in English as well as in Jamaican.

JKD: You know, today, reggae roots artists from the 70s, like Max Romeo or The Mighty Diamonds, are more popular in Europe than in Jamaica itself. What’s your view on that particular point?

CC: I think that when you export a culture, a product, sometimes it gets arrested at the stage of importation. So a lot of reggae fans in Europe may have discovered reggae in the 70s and so for them reggae is what they first experienced. Also, maybe, they cannot deal with the beat and the speed of dancehall. Perhaps, a lot of reggae fans in Europe are aged and can’t deal with young people’s music. And I think because of the language too. Indeed, dancehall is so much more Jamaican-specific in its language and some of that language may be inaccessible whereas the stuff in reggae that was…well, Bob Marley was practically all English. So perhaps the language makes the dancehall stuff less accessible, the age of the reggae fans in Europe makes it difficult for them to deal with dancehall because it’s really youth music. And then it’s just what you get accustomed to, what you feel, that’s it! And I keep telling people, twenty years from now, people will look back nostalgically to the good old days of Bounty Killer because something different would have replaced what we are lamenting now. Look at the way people say Bob Marley, a little youth from Trench Town, now he’s practically deified as a culture.

JKD: So my last question is what’s your point of view on the evolution of Jamaican music and the new generation of Jamaican artists?

CC: Well, I believe that music and culture will always evolve as things and times change. Artists are going to respond differently and I don’t feel that reggae is dead. The same DJs perform with reggae musicians. Buju Banton, Beres Hammond, you know, and if you go to a dance they’ll play DJ music but they will drop in reggae, they will drop in religious music. The dancehall thing is very eclectic but people only focus on the “bling bling,” the sensuality, the violence and they don’t look at the whole range of issues that are explored in dancehall. I don’t have any worries about the future of Jamaican popular music because we are making it. What I’m concerned about is Jamaican culture and what’s happening in the society, the increasing violence and so on, and I don’t think it’s just to say “blame the DJs” because if the DJs were to stop singing now the violence wouldn’t go away!

JKD: Well, thank you very much Professor Cooper for giving me a bit of your precious time.

CC: You’re welcome Jérémie, you’re welcome and nuff respeck!


Jérémie Kroubo Dagnini holds a Ph.D. from the University Michel de Montaigne Bordeaux 3 in France (originally from Cote d’Ivoire). His dissertation was entitled Histoire emblématique des musiques populaires jamaïcaines au XXe siècle: folklore, politique, spiritualité (2010). He is also the author of a book, Les origines du reggae: retour aux sources. Mento, ska, rocksteady, early reggae (2008).