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A reputation is not an overnight achievement: it’s something that you have to work on over time. Jamaica has a bad reputation, especially for being a violent society and for having loose morals. It hurts.

My wife’s niece, who’s just turned 18 and in her first year at university in Canada, stated bluntly “That’s Jamaica’s culture.” She meant that the image of the dancehall ‘culture’, with violent, hate-filled, sexuallly explicit lyrics, and sexually suggestive dancing, was how many people saw Jamaica. “But that’s not Jamaica’s culture,” I told her, explaining that a segment of the population and what it liked, was not representative of the true whole. It’s true that this genre has become popular nationally and internationally, and has perhaps been marketed for its nastier aspects–eg, anti-homosexual, misogynistic attitudes, promotion of killing, sexual suggestiveness, and ‘blingism’ (if I can use a phrase to capture the idea of conspicuous wealth as reflected in gold chains, flashy cars, etc.) as this would distinguish it from almost all other styles. For many, dancehall seems like the natural picture to fit with the images of a murderous country, where the value of life seems to be low.

My saying that it hurts doesn’t capture the real pain that it’s inflicting. Shaggy, a Jamaican-American musical entrepreneur, can speak to that better than me. He has an annual charity event in early January–Shaggy and friends–and complained that trying to promote it internationally is difficult because of Jamaica’s (especially, Kingston’s) negative image regarding safety and security. People are fearful and reluctant to attend. A few days ago, tourism officials were ready to lay garlands of roses around the necks of the island’s two millionth tourist arrival. Montego Bay and the north coast are the real pull for tourists, but its reputation is quickly changing because of the rapid escalation of violence in the western parishes of Jamaica. Tourists have not yet been the major target for violent crime, but the perception of insecurity can move faster than the reality, and it wont take much fact, or more-likely, misinformation to see tourists keep their dollars for other locations.

Another way to capture the pain of the violence that is also part of this so-called culture of Jamaica, is to look at what it means in terms of financial costs. A Bloomberg analysis reported last year on the cost of gun violence in Chicago, which came up with the staggering figure of US$2.5 billion. Another study in 2012 had put the collective cost of violence on Chicago at US$5.3 billion. Chicago has a population of 2.7 million, not much different from Jamaica. However, for all its violent reputation, it recorded ‘only’ 413 murders in 2013–just over one a day. Jamaica, by contrast, recorded 1,200 murders in 2013–just over three murders a day. We cannot just multiply the Chicago costs of crime by three to see what effect crime is having on Jamaica, but you get the idea that it’s a whopping millstone around people’s necks.

The World Bank looked at the cost to development of crime and violence in the Caribbean. Jamaica is in a region with the highest rates of murder per head of population–the figure was 30/100,000; Jamaica no longer has the lead in that unenviable race, but still has horrifically high murder rates. The data (now outdated) showed that crime cost Jamaica about 4 percent of GDP in 2001, most of that going on security, but the medical costs would also have been high. The study also showed that annual economic growth could increase by about 5.5 percent if crime could be reduced to the level of the best performer in the region.

To the extent that dancehall ‘culture’ focuses on hardships that ‘the system’ imposes and how people’s lives are constantly challenged by the economic reality of a failed economy, where are the conscious lyrics that point out that some of these hardships are imposed by what is being promoted?

If my feeling that the view of our culture is wrong, what can be done to change that? In recent weeks, the escalating scale of murders in Jamaica has been met with many words from politicians, media, law enforcement agencies, and the general public. But, what has actually been done? New policies have been mentioned. New action to deal with certain forms of crime and criminals have been mentioned. They will take time to have their effect. However, I have seen little from within the ‘culture’ to suggest that a need for change has been acknowledged there. Dancehall artist, Vybz Kartel, under arrest and facing murder charges, put out a new song last summer, called ‘School’, which focused on youths needing to change their behaviour (“Pull up you pants and put it pon you waist/Tuck in you shirt an dont bleach you face”). Smart marketing or sincere change of heart? However, I was struck at the weekend by the reaction to a major musical event, Sting, which celebrated its 30th anniversary event last December. For the first time, it was supported by the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB), which helped millions of patrons worldwide to watch via pay-per-view. The Deputy Director of JTB had said “It’s a showcase of unprecedented scale of Jamaican culture and we look forward to another 30 years.” Jamaica’s Minister of Youth and Culture, Lisa Hanna, who sold herself as a long-time supporter of Sting, said she attended her first Sting, in the 1990s and has been hooked since. Well, the political support may go as fast as it came.

Some artistes–Sizzla Kalonji and D’Angel–have now been banned from Sting by its promoters for the manner in which they acted at the event, with Sizzla attacking homosexuality and D’Angel (not invited to perform) having an onstage tirade against the organizers and engaging in some raunchy lyrical exchanges. Let’s see if this distancing from some staples of the industry sticks. What was behind the artistes going rogue? For promotional reasons? For personal reasons? Who knows?

Bans may not be what works, but may send signals about which way people want to see things go. They symbolise that inaction cannot lead to meaningful change. The same could be said for policy statements, though they have the danger of being deemed worthless if they are never accompanied by actions that really start to address their intended targets.

Legend has it that a Danish king, Canute, tried to turn back the tide of the sea by sitting in his chair and ordering the waves to break.King Canute Defies the Waves When this failed, he declared that kings (man in general) did not have the power to do that; only God had such power. Some have used that story to say that people must rely on religion and their beliefs to effect change. Many see that as passive and hopeless in its hopefulness. Arguments go on about the real meaning of Canute’s gesture, but I’m a believer that sitting and watching the tide roll in wont change a thing.

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