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Ragga and the silent race war

The media criticism of ragga music is not as worthy as it might appear, says Kate Lawrence

Since ragga artist Shabba Ranks received a public dressing down for defending anti-gay lyrics on The Word, the sentiments expressed in black popular music have once again become a focus for widespread criticism in the media.

The gay protest group Outrage is campaigning to have ragga stars banned from the airwaves. Less predictably, many mainstream commentators have also complained loudly about songs such as Buju Banton's 'Boom Bye Bye', which suggests that gays should be shot. But why should the media have suddenly become so concerned about reactionary song lyrics?

'Tribal rites'

Behind the 'politically correct' (PC) criticisms of the prejudiced images of gays and women in ragga songs, the debate is serving as a new focus for demonising young blacks. It is the latest episode in the silent race war. The hidden message implicit in media attacks on ragga is a familiar one; you can take black people out of the jungle, but you can't take the jungle out of black people. Or, as one journalist wrote after a visit to a ragga event, 'In this nightclub in Croydon, and in the slum dancehalls of Jamaica, the rites of tribal Africa are still being acted out' (Sunday Times, 2 May 1993).

In the liberal press, critics have focused on ragga's aggressive and sexually explicit lyrics about women, its celebration of guns and its macho image. Guardian music critic Caroline Sullivan complains that ragga 'tends to dwell on the male preserves of guns, money and girls, especially "slack" (fast) girls....Ragga is further sullied by a vein of homophobia' (16 April 1993).

When rap artist Ice Cube came to Britain in March commentators expressed a similar mixture of concern over violence, anti-gay sentiment and explicit sexual images of women. A bitter Playthell Benjamin typified the tone: 'Instead of frankly identifying the excessive posturing of hardcore rappers like Cube for what it is - the testosterone-driven rhetorical aggressions of ego-maniacal and intellectually under-developed young males - legions of misguided pop music critics have become willing apologists for their transgressions against reason, manners and civility' (Guardian, 11 March 1993).

Strangely silent

In conservative newspapers never known for their progressive views on women or gay rights, journalists have expressed the same apparent concern to protect minorities from being abused by rap and ragga. In the Sunday Telegraph, James Munro quoted at length both the anti-gay lyrics of Buju Banton's 'Boom Bye Bye' and a spokesman from Outrage who claimed that Banton's lyrics have increased intolerance towards gays among British youth. British ragga artists, added Munro, 'are also guilty of using misogynistic lyrics to put across their "slackness"' (18 April 1993).

Despite the sudden upturn in concern about ragga lyrics, the mainstream press have strangely shown little interest in other songs which offer a reactionary view of the sexual roles of women and men. Take the recent song 'Born to Breed' - hardly an advert for greater sexual freedom or a rebuttal of prejudice about a woman's place. Yet it climbed the charts with hardly a raised eyebrow. And white cock-rock groups like Guns 'n' Roses continue to broadcast their neanderthal opinions on women and gay men, without attracting serious heat from the new PC pundits.

The real issue

Meanwhile, writers in every national newspaper are going to great lengths to translate Caribbean patois for their white readership, so as to enable them to get properly outraged about the most reactionary lyrics on slack records.

The fact that song lyrics are less than liberal about women and gay men is incidental to the current mainstream media preoccupation with ragga. What commentators are really reacting against is the expression of black aggression towards white society.

Ragga's macho posturing and the celebration of violent images is a degraded form of black pride. Within the culture of the black ghetto, homosexuality in particular is regarded as a disease of wealthy, white society. When Buju Banton says gays should be shot, it is a perverse way of those at the bottom putting two fingers up to the standards of polite society. An aggressive sexual attitude towards women, with frequent reference to 'bitches', is another reaction against the dominant culture.

Slack artists couch their rejection of white culture in the reactionary language of prejudice. Equally the real concerns motivating mainstream criticism of ragga have become mystified by the focus on anti-gay and sexist lyrics.

Shabba Cliff?

After a shooting at a ragga concert in West London's Le Palais in April, the media was full of images of young black club audiences as seething, volatile masses. Pundits place great emphasis on trying to explain the 'rules' of ragga, which are somehow beyond the comprehension of normal white audiences. The Sunday Times journalist quoted earlier, who suggested that ragga is all about African tribal rites, also found it necessary to interview an anthropologist to find out why a lot of young black women like dancing to slack records.

Even the more sympathetic articles about ragga maintain the sense that it is all incomprehensible. 'Jamaican dancehall DJs carry the hopes of a dispossessed underclass in a way it is sometimes difficult for Europeans to understand', writes one music critic: 'This is a musical culture that expects vying DJs to clash: it is hard to imagine, say, Phil Collins and Cliff Richard battling for lyrical supremacy in front of a baying crowd, saluting them with live ammunition.' (Independent, 15 April 1993)

The underlying concern in all this is that the 'baying crowds' of the 'dispossessed underclass' are in danger of spilling on to Britain's streets, Los Angeles-style. In an article after the Le Palais shooting, an Independent on Sunday journalist carefully pointed out that most ragga fans were bewildered as to why anyone would take a gun to a concert. Yet he thought it necessary to remind them that 'while reggae fans are angered by the media reports, it is easy for the casual observer not to be too surprised by what happened' (Independent on Sunday, 18 April 1993). In justifying the remark, he managed to dig up three examples of shots being fired at ragga concerts in Britain in the past three years. Clearly it's not that easy.

Ragga is not the first kind of music to serve as a focus for demonising the black population. It is hard to imagine in these days when Bill Clinton embraces jazz in the White House, but jazz was once a focus for anti-black hysteria. So was rhythm and blues, and so, too, was reggae music.

Dangerous message

It is ironic that now, in an article headed 'Ragga: the music of guns and sex', the London Evening Standard can describe ragga as 'the malevolent child spawned from the cheerful woolly-hatted rastas of the late seventies', and argue that ragga 'has little of reggae's dreadlocks and brightly coloured charm' (14 April 1993). It is barely a decade since those cheerful, colourful, charming and reggae-loving rastas were being criminalised as drug-pushing rioters in the same newspapers. Yet today they are described as if they were as traditional and unthreatening as the boy from the Hovis ad, in contrast to the uppity young blacks who adhere to what the Sunday Times calls the 'foul-mouthed machismo of slack ragga'.

There is a dangerous message behind the row about ragga. The implication is that the prejudices of black men from the ghetto are somehow responsible for creating chauvinism against women and gays; that some of the least powerful people in society are to blame for social problems. In this scenario, the way that a racist system forces many black people to live degraded lifestyles is not the problem. Instead, the problem is the degrading outbursts of young blacks themselves. Or, as Playthell Benjamin said about rap star Ice Cube's anti-police response to the Los Angeles riots, 'one could argue that he is part of the problem rather than the solution'.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 56, June 1993

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