Kinky Reggae: The Agony And The Ecstasy Of Sex In Jamaica

In its 50th year of independence, Jamaican music scholar Frederick R Dannaway charts the ebb and flow of a nation’s sexuality through its music – from mento, rocksteady, reggae, dancehall and more.

Blue Beat

Although there are more churches per capita than anywhere else in the world, Jamaicans are not, and never have been, puritanical. Perhaps it’s the island heat that makes clothing superfluous, combined with the seductive riddims that infuses Jamaica with sexuality. Sex and music go together like ackee and saltfish, and Jamaica is saturated with both from the rent-a-dreads trysting with white women, to the orgies of the Hedonism resort and the indigenous sexuality of the dancehall. The rhetoric and fundamentalism in Jamaica emerged when foreigners descended en masse into military guarded enclaves for the rich – otherwise known as resorts – which overtly broke Jamaican laws of decency in an orgy of neo-colonialism, debauched materialism and racial elitism, expressed in fortified tropic paradises firewalled from the island poverty by razor wire and military guards.

Mento, the musical precursor to reggae, abounds in playful double entendre and sexual innuendo with jokes like ‘dig dig’ (still a popular term for the sex act, as in to ‘dig out a pum pum’) or the ‘big bamboo’. Songs like “Night Food”, by Alerth Bedasse with the Calypso Quintet from the early 1950s, humorously relates a young man’s initiation into sex by an older woman frustrated by his lack of experience. Attacks from Parliament on musicians for corrupting decency did little to hamper the public’s appetite for risqué topics, which continued to be sung about by groups like the aptly named Jolly Boys. This demand was met and expressed in ska music with codes like ‘rukumbin’ (recombine) for sex, sung of by Shenley Duffus or Lord Creator (like in “The Big Bamboo” for Studio One) to the overt slackness of Prince Buster. Prince Buster, with brilliant odes like “Wreck A Pum Pum” – over the melody of “The Little Drummer Boy” – and “Stir The Pot”, expressed a playful sexuality found in similar offerings from Lord Brynner (of Trinidad) with “Wrecker Pum Pum” or the female response from the Soul Sister’s “Wreck A Buddy” (‘buddy’ being the slang for male genitalia) and on the flip of the 7", “Put It In”. The ‘wrecking’, or intense intercourse, of buddy and pum pum, takes part in the ‘it hurts so good’ sexuality of ‘the agony’ sung about by later dancehall artists like Angie Angel, Pinchers and Red Dragon.

 

Is This Love?

The rocksteady era, when a heatwave forced the frantic pace of ska to simmer down, was mostly innocent of sexual themes. This is a sweet, romantic and gentle music, like the tender soul ballads that inspired them. Singers like Ken Boothe, Alton Ellis and Dawn Penn created immortal classics in this period, tropically interpreting American R&B themes into Jamaica. Around this time more and more musicians were lured by the sound of Count Ossie’s nyabinghi drum into the Wareika Hill, where the Grounation ceremonies of the Rastafari and the early reggae artists met. The music and culture that many of the ska and rocksteady artists – like Rico Rodriguez, Don Drummond and Tommy McCook from the Skatalites – learned there imbued them with a new sense of culture, and the Rastafarian revelations penetrated to the core of the old island music and birthed roots reggae. While some artists, like Lloydie and the Lowbites, continued x-rated lyrics into the early 70’s, the decade saw the creation of this highly ‘conscious’ music: militant, uplifting and intensely spiritual. As some have noted, reggae’s divine lyrics and heavy basslines destroy the rock ‘n’ roll assertion that the devil has the best music. Reggae’s righteous fire, rebellion and morality (at least in theory) were sustained for an entire decade in the face of poverty, subversion, persecution and even the ‘death’ of Haile Selassie in 1975.

These artists followed the old calypso and mento traditions of puns and innuendo in truly amusing scenarios of innocent topics like woodworking that took on slack overtones, defiantly pointing out the futility of censors.

In this era, one is hard pressed to find even the slightest inkling of ‘slackness’, or vulgar lyrics. Singers competed lyrically for devoutness and Rastafarian piety and the few love songs of the period are decidedly lacking in any sexual content, overt or otherwise, although artists like Gregory Isaacs always included lovers tunes in their repertoire of ‘roots and culture’ music of pan-African and Rastafari theology. After the death of Selassie, Rastafarians still retained much of their faith, yet there is no denying that things had changed. Artists like Bob Marley and Burning Spear asserted that “Jah Live” and “Jah No Dead”, and Rastas concluded that Selassie was hiding deep in Ethiopia awaiting a triumphant apocalyptic return, but the religious fervour of the golden age of reggae would ultimately be unsustainable by the masses. Marley exploded into international stardom that year with the hit “No Woman, No Cry”, and took the conscious roots message abroad.

In this period the purely romantic ‘lovers rock’ emerged in the UK, with smooth vocals that captured all that was good in the breezy productions of 70s pop music, filtered through reggae styles. Female singers like Carroll Thompson, Ginger Williams and Donna Rhoden, and male vocalists like Winston Reedy, Trevor Walters and Paul Dawkins created a subgenre of reggae in England that influenced Jamaican singers in their own explorations of romance and relationship. Jamaicans came to England to have a second incarnation as lovers rock stars – such as Sugar Minott, or in the mid-80s, (a personal favourite) Peter Hunningale. The old time sexual puns and innuendo did not fit into this ethereal form, born of American soul, R&B and British northern soul, which in many ways began a slow and regressive healing process between Caribbean immigrants and their adopted England’s racial tensions. Marley’s tours of Europe still preached Rastafarian teachings, but the productions were not that popular in Jamaica, as they were geared to the mass-appeal of non-Jamaican audiences.

On the island the roots music continued, but the amount of love songs increased and even took on a primary place in topics of certain singers. 1978 was a landmark year for the drift away from conscious lyrics, and a song like “Natty Dread A Weh She Want” by Horace Andy (and a crucial version by Tappa Zukie) sings of the sexual attraction to dreadlocked men. This same year, a new style of deejay (Jamaican MC) emerged, with artists like General Echo introducing a new rub-a-dub style of partying into the music. His first album, People Are You Ready, was a black fist over the African continent in 1978 and was mostly conscious – though in “Angelina” he does “tally” his “banana”. But 1979 brought a change from the General Echo of the conscious Rocking And Swing LP to his alter ego Ranking Slackness, one of the first ‘slack’ artists. (Slackness, as opposed to conscious or spiritual music, is generally sexual, violent or secular.) As such, he issued some of the first of those tunes over the same riddims that used to praise God – cutting songs like “Cocky Tribulation”, “Cocky No Beg Friend”, “Lift Up Your Dress Fat Girl” and “Bathroom Sex” on the Slackest album. Singers like Madoo got in on the act, ushering in the era of Joe Grine, or Joe Grind, who would cuckold men while they were at work.

Echo was a local hero from his days on the Stereophonic soundsystem; his murder by police was mourned by the whole island. But the police bullets didn’t stop the slackness, and Echo’s success encouraged more and more artists to take their turn with raunchy lyrics in the dub versions of various love songs. The subject matters are a far cry from the playful but conscious rhyming of early deejays like U-Roy and I-Roy, as well as toasters like Big Youth and U-Brown. Veteran deejays like Ranking Joe made tunes called “Slackness Style” and “Lift Up Your Frock”. Yellowman burst on the scene in 1982, and gets the brunt of the attack for degenerating reggae, but his humorous releases are really quite tame compared to Echo and Lovindeer, although songs like “Big Dick” are as raunchy as any of the others. All of these acts were significantly slacker in their live shows and in the dancehall, where even some of the more Rasta deejays like Charlie Chaplin partake of some bawdy wordplay on sound-tapes. These artists followed the old calypso and mento traditions of puns and innuendo in truly amusing scenarios of innocent topics like woodworking that took on slack overtones, defiantly pointing out the futility of censors. Many veteran singers and deejays tried to clean up the dancehall and resist the growing trends toward sex and violence, such as Colonel Josey Wales, Super Morris and Brigadier Jerry. Somewhere in between these categories were acts like Nicodemus and Burro Banton, who embraced sexuality and badman culture, though there were lines it seems they wouldn’t cross.

Love Punnany Bad

It is to be noted that all of the sex acts described or alluded to from the early days onward is heterosexual and, to be explicit, vaginal. Listening to old soundsystem tapes from the mid-80s one can hear vehement rants against America as an x-rated country in many dances, with chorus erupting between songs, “no sodomite, no battyman.” This period, from about 1982 onward, begins the era of the “no licky, no licky,” rooting out certain ‘deviant’ slackness. This year is significant, as it is the year that the resorts changed their named to Hedonism, bringing in a new era of casual sex, orgies, drugs and diseases. It is also the year Bob Marley died of cancer. The infestation of crack and cocaine even among conscious artists led to a host of rumours, and allegations of artists and youths being molested, such as the (likely false) accusations against the legend Frankie Paul. The long time African, Christian and Rastafarian abhorrence to what are considered inherently evil practices made this culture shock seem like Sodom and Gomorrah had established a beach head at Negril. Lurid stories about prostitution and the sexual exploitation of young Jamaicans at the hand of foreigners, mostly true, swept Kingston’s newspaper The Observer. Jamaica had become a “Pimper’s Paradise”, full of “Midnight Ravers” (Bob Marley).

Year after year of new accounts and MTV shows on the island cast an image in the mid-80s of the resort fortress enacting scenes suitable for Eyes Wide Shut. The anti-oral sex songs began to appear, as did songs against gays, as Jamaicans felt this imported ‘evil’ lifestyle was being shoved down their throats. The confluence of Biblical notions of sodomy, which is all non-vaginal sex, with the street and prison culture suspicious of gays, and the emasculation of poverty made a perfect storm for reactionary attitudes against the perceived foreign sexuality. Poverty commodified sexual favours for goods or money, and the influx of overseas cash caused a backlash from the culture bearers in the dancehall. The ‘bowcat’ who bows down before another – sung about by Ninjaman, Shabba Ranks, Pan Head and literally countless others – was seen as someone who lowered themselves for material goods, and as deviant. This extends to heterosexual fellatio and cunnilingus, as in the old school Biblical law, but it can be no coincidence that these topics emerged when sexual tourism erupted in Jamaica. Critics of dancehall, including Jamaican scholars, write of the culture’s hypersexuality – as expressed in the objectification of woman in the dancehall queen culture to the ‘daggering’ dance craze – but they do not offer much context. It must be said that all of the lewd dancing in Jamaica does not come anywhere close to the mapouka dancing in Africa, which itself has ancient, sacred origins.

Dancehall artists have been banned from certain countries, concerts cancelled and artists boycotted over the “burn battyman” invectives sung against gays. Due to the religious and cultural traditions of Africa, plus the link with AIDS and bisexuality as disease spread on the tiny island of Jamaica, the homosexual lifestyle was seen to be the epitome of the evils warned about in the Bible of the end times. The New Testament prophesies that when homosexuality is openly practiced the end is near, fitting into a deeper eschatological notion of Selassie’s opening of the seven seals of Revelations and the wrathful return of Christ. Artists like Buju Banton and Shabba Ranks lost international status for songs like “Boom Bye Bye” – though Buju, a teenager at the time of the song, swears it was against predatory pedophile gays. The latter is seen to be a deep, concealed evil of Jamaica going back to slave-era rape and sexual domination as expressed by the merciless dons (local crime bosses), who are described as pleasing themselves with male and female youth.

 

Dem Bow

As psychologists have noted of the macho symbolism of guns, the refusal to bow is similar in its context of the masculine lowering itself to ‘service’ another, man or woman. The badman culture of Jamaica then must be seen in this light, not as apologist but for context, as reflecting a complex situation of religion and manhood. There is an underlying principle belief that the only reason a man would really bow to another is to get something, or in domination – a prison-like power dynamic. Church-going Lady Saw can sing about “life without dick” and be considered a goodie-goodie for not giving out blowjobs “Under The Sycamore Tree”. Woman’s sexuality is a powerful force, and is slightly feared, from the days of Nanny Maroon who repelled bullets with her pum pum. Legion are the songs about infidelity, inability to perform and mockings of the two-minute man, who should avail himself of the island’s countless tonics and elixirs with names like ‘Put It ‘Een’, ‘Anaconda’, and ‘Cock Shot’.

Perhaps the most talented of those forever chastising the sexuality of Jamaica is Mr Vegas. His high-pitched stylings are infectious, and he is fixated on the underbelly of Jamaican sex-life, cheering women who do not have sex for taxi fare or Nike Air shoes. Outsiders that try and contextualise this all-too-real situation risk a host of neo-colonial generalisations, but the role of poverty in these considerations cannot be overstated. Something of a modern Caribbean sexual ethos is found in Notch’s “Nuttin No Go So”, which is basically a list of the sexual acts and taboos that may or may not be indulged. These are the written rules of the culture that has defined itself, in many ways, by what its enemy is not. So, the many changes – from badman wearing tight-pants Versace and Rastafarians and homosexuals being friends – makes Bounty Killer exclaim that he “can’t believe mi eye.” All of which confronts a people’s right to cultural integrity with a new order of political correctness. It is to be remembered that sodomy and homosexual activity are still illegal in Jamaica with punishments (rarely enforced) of up to ten years. Many feel homophobia negates the “one love” message at the core of the music, but even the most vehement artists are reconsidering the ‘murder music’ intolerance of dancehall. Beenie Man recently issued an apology on YouTube to gays, and then clarified himself in the Jamaica Observer: “Gay in Jamaica is not like it is in America. It’s mostly big men with money going down in the ghetto and turning the local youths so you call that statutory [rape] or child molestation. They convince the youth that they are this way and me know enough youth this way. That’s why when it comes to gay murder in Jamaica, it’s so vicious.” There are also many conscious artists like Tarrus Riley and Luciano who stay above the fray, but the Bobo Ashanti (an ultra-orthodox Mansion of Rastafari) will likely continue to burn fire on practices that do not accord with their orthodox faith.

The paradoxes of a struggle for black equality amongst sexism and homophobia makes reggae much more than about music.

Hot Wuk

Associated with these topics is the ‘ever clean’ bling, swagga culture of dancehall that stressed sharp, ultra-clean clothes of Clarks booties and diamond socks and the conspicuous consumption of expensive drinks like Guinness. The achievement of just a clean shirt every day, sung about to great effect in the breakout hits of Popcaan, is considered a victory against a dirty, oppressive ghetto life. So, even acts like Vybz Kartel, who “burn battyman”, sung to not bow down to get life’s luxuries. Kartel, before incarceration for multiple murders, was perhaps the first artist to promote receiving oral sex in the song “Freaky Gal” that spawned an oral sex revolution allowing females to service men and not be considered a whore. Songs abound against men that go down on women, like Busy Signal’s “Pussy Face” or the epic “Soon You Will Find Out”, to Mavado or Beenie Man’s constant reiterating that they don’t “nyam [eat] pussy”. Assassin or Agent Sasco’s recent tune “Bun Freaky Act” is about burning Rastas who “eat the cat” but Khago, in an ongoing feud, accuses Sasco of bowing down, in a familiar pattern where Gully and Gaza – two opposing sides of Jamaican gang and social culture, split on political lines – accuse each either of sodomite acts back and forth. Khago may also have been the first on the island to introduce group sex into the music with “Three Sum”.

Reggae’s image of a peaceful, almost hippy veneer is countered by a deeper listening to the revolutionary, militant and apocalyptic nature of roots reggae. Prior to the revelations of Rastafari, the music was largely romantic and sexual subject matter yielded to the mostly conscious music – faltering at Selassie’s death and barely lingering on upon Bob Marley’s passing in 1981. Jamaica’s location as a nexus in drug trade and pawn in the Cold War – combined with poverty, violence and corruption – does not pardon bigotry or prejudice. But it does explain a people and a culture, with backs perpetually against the wall, who seek to insulate and preserve the shreds of their identities in the onslaught of globalism (see the documentary Life And Debt) in an all-out full-spectrum culture war against the moral laws seen as divinely ordained. The paradoxes of a struggle for black equality amongst sexism and homophobia makes reggae much more than about music. Reggae is played in the slums of South Africa as well as during the Tiananmen Square massacre. The acceptance of oral sex and, increasingly, gays in the dancehall, signals that old traditions are being uprooted. It’s hard to see artists like Capleton or Sizzla ever changing their position, but a look ahead says that the next few years will define the direction that dancehall decides to take in the struggle for the soul of the island. “It’s strange how the dances are changing…”

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