what if it’s written in the wrong key?

Some may think that the manuscript paper, the vinyl, the tape, the cds, or even the digital mp3s will be what preserve the music of yesteryear so that future generations can be introduced to the songs of the past. But, that’s not the full. The music writer also sets the record. Crazy, no? Powerful? Yes. I mean think about it: for all the hundreds of music-makers to have emerged out of Jamaica, who has had words written about them? And what do those words do for or say about the music?

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Since forever, Jamaican artists have been written about in popular print by Brits (like John Masouri) and by Americans (like Pat Meschino and David Katz) and, more recently, by Canadians (like Erin MacLeod) or even Canadian-Jamaicans (like Sharine Taylor). Because of their access to readers, music writers often become artists’ gatekeepers and can make or break their careers. What writers say and how they say it, can increase or decrease an artists’ record sales and even influence whether or not a Jamaican artist is granted or denied a visa to do shows overseas. So while payola accusations have been made about radio producers and while corruption fouls have been called about party promoters and club djs, the music writers have been quietly sitting in the corner at the launch parties, or nodding gently in the studios, or going with pen and pad to concerts unchecked. So, if it wasn’t yet clear, I’ll say it plainly now: this post will be a critique of the state of music writing.

Too often when I read a music review about a Jamaican artist, I am just baffled by the rhetoric. What in the world are some of the newer music writers even saying when they call artists like Chronixx “new” or say Shenseea is “taking on topics like queer love” or that Spice is “one of the reigning queens of the [dancehall] genre” (my emphasis)?  Doesn’t that go against how a monarchy works? There can’t be multiple queens reigning in the dancehall at once! Aretha never shared her soul crown. Mary J. Blige didn’t share her crown either. But now I have to read in the NYT that Spice is “one of” the queens on dancehall’s throne? I was at Reggae Sumfest 2019. There’s only one queen. Further still, what do music writers mean when they describe a song with phrases like “sizzling like hot asphalt rain drops” or “spinal energy gold”? It seems that where critique would be useful, gratuitous and empty adjectives step in and weigh down the writing. I will never forget the Rolling Stone text that was erased from the digital archive (but has been forever emblazoned in my memory) because it erroneously called Rihanna’s music “tropical house.” (Lucky for you, dear reader, it is preserved in this informative Nerdwriter YouTube video.) But over-describing and mis-naming is not the only issue I take with the past or recent state of music writing. In fact, if we are being perfectly honest, a lot of music reviewing and writing about Jamaica’s music winds up sounding off-key.  

I understand that when writers are reporting on Jamaican music for audiences that may be less than familiar with the history and culture, these big-named news sources err on the side of coddling the reader. But in 2019, I say stop assuming the least. I will never forget when my Indian neighbor invited me over for a dinner that included “a kind of Indian tortilla.” When I said, “Do you mean roti?” she blushed and said, “Oh, I wasn’t sure that you would know our flat bread!” In that moment, I was insulted and she was embarrassed. It seems that a similar situation is happening with the Caribbean’s music writing. Music writers want audiences to understand them, but they are sometimes forced to make sticky editorial concessions to “appeal” to readers. My dear friend Erin MacLeod recently addressed some Twitter queries about this because of an article she wrote where she referred to Trinidad’s Carnival as “Mardi Gras” in order to appeal to the assumed unfamiliarity of the New York Times reader for which she was writing. But, at the end of the day, this kind of editorial catering proves unfair to the readers, the writer, Carnival, and Mardi Gras. The growing number of revelers that are participating in Trinidad’s Carnival tells me that more people know about Carnival than NYT might realize. You can read the article here and decide for yourself about the tone of the comparison.  But understand that editors sometimes make writers make difficult choices.

Looking again at the idea of catering to readers, Sharine Taylor took on the task of writing “The Essential Guide to Dancehall” for Red Bull Music Academy Daily.  But, for all that such an ambitious report says about the stage-show Sting, there is a lot that it leaves out (about sound systems, Yellowman, and the second generation hiphop artists who helped dancehall artists to crossover), a lot that it emphasizes unnecessarily (I repeat, Sting), and some bits that it just missed (like the fact that Dawn Penn sampled her own 1967 hit and turned it into a 1994 contemporary hit and, most importantly, that dancehall is a space first and a musical genre second). But, key points will be missed when tackling a huge space like the dancehall space, right? This is the latent danger in writing an “essential guide” to anything. The reader that is assumed to be unfamiliar is, more often than not, deeply familiar. But I still big up the writers who approach these grand projects with good intentions but impossible practicality over the writers who do the opposite and write with practicality but not an ounce of heart.

There’s no doubt that music writers are signing up for a lot of work when they tackle Jamaica’s music. Sometimes they are ready for the riddim and sometimes they can’t handle the ride. Max Pearl said this in a Resident Advisor review about Equiknoxx: “On ‘Corner,’ Shanique Marie shines on an otherwise plain instrumental, with a vocal delivery that’s dynamic and full of personality, moving effortlessly between singing and a dextrous dancehall chat. The song starts to veer off-piste when they introduce an overdriven guitar part halfway through, a symptom of cramming in too many ideas. Like the other tracks, it might have benefited from some kind of A-B-A-B song structure.” But what about the fact that Equiknoxx put a woman on the corner? Ain’t that badass and worthy of mention? Hell, if I were writing a piece on the “Corner” single, I’d remind r-11838549-1523232016-5820.jpegreaders of the doo-wop male quartets on the corners of history. I’d also educate readers to the fact that dancehall’s men are the ones who usually hold the corner space and that Richie Spice has an entire hit song about the corner being a masculine space for marijuana smoking.  So, for me, it’s quite a forward-facing, cultural disruption for the Equiknoxx squad to locate a feminine voice on the corner talking about how she “pretty like her mother” and she “smells like Estee Lauder.”  But maybe that’s just me wearing my cultural analyst hat.

This is why we need more music writers and more opportunities for good writers to do good work that won’t be limited by a writer’s ignorance or censored by an editor’s assumptions of readerly ignorance. Good music writing — whether in mainstream sources or Jamaican music magazines — ought to educate the reader about the songs, the artists, and the culture. The great music writers do this in ways that seem effortless, but are only so because the writers do the work. They do the research. They do the interviews. Then they compose a story.  Without the story, the words just fall flat. Pat Meschino is a sought-after music writer because she tells stories about this music. She has been in and around the culture for so long that she can listen beyond the songs.  Same for David Katz, who has interviewed all of the greats and he continues to listen beyond the songs. If you’ve read Steppin’ Razor, you know that John Masouri listens beyond the songs.  If you’ve read Erin MacLeod’s words on Rihanna, you know that she listens beyond the songs’ borders.  And me, well, I don’t call myself Riddim Writer for nothing. If you’ve read any of my music-focused posts, then you already know that I dive deep semajhallpressand swim wide, submerging myself in the fullness of the words, rhythms, and connections (read my posts on ‘Murder She Wrote’, Rihanna, Protoje, Jah9, just to name a few).  I am not a music writer exclusively, but I do love and explore music as a cultural analyst.

Here in Jamaica there is a dope writer by the name of Gladstone Taylor who is making himself known.  Just look at how in this article he introduces Fader readers to the artist Quada: “His baritone is distinct, bordering on scary when warped into a darker version of itself on tunes like ‘Virgin Mary,’ where he spits ‘PUSSY bury fus when di mac eleven buss, daaawwk, wild and devious, boy drop a ground when di 47 buss.’ There was perhaps a kind of familiarity to it, a flicker of the people’s champion who became the godfather of 20th century dancehall — the icon, Bounty Killer.” In these few lines Taylor tells a story — he introduces, gives an example, and gives a useful comparison — that leaves a rich impression in the reader’s mind. He is a writer to watch when he enters the dance. And, yes, I am putting an intentional spotlight on Gladstone not only because of his pen-work, but because he resides in Jamaica.

For half-a century or so, Jamaica’s musicians have been relying on the words of internationally stationed writers. Singers, deejays, producers and players of instruments have been relying on words-from-foreign-shores to help build their promo packages so that projects, visas, and tours can be greenlit. But beyond the immediacy of record reviews and concert promotions, we should think of the long-term, forever-archive. Who will write Jamaica’s music story for future generations to pick-up, hear, and feel? Who will guide future generations so they can know what it was like to be musically alive in Jamaica in 2019?

It’s all about making connections and securing the future. This is why writing about the music is such a critical support to the art of music and to the culture that produces it. This is the burden and responsibility.

There’s a saying that goes: if you want to live forever have someone write about you. In this digital music age, where artists are a proverbial dime a dozen, if you want to live forever you need to make songs that nod listeners’ heads, stir dancers’ bodies, climb music charts, and move writers’ pens.  Surely an artist like Vybz Kartel isn’t just prolific, he’s trying to be eternal. Maybe that’s why the World Boss didn’t just voice some of dancehall culture’s most telling songs, but he also wrote his own book. 

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As long as the music is being made, I’ll be here to critique it, not just for it’s relevance today, but for how its relevance today will matter in the future. Jamaica’s music can’t stall, so our music writers must do the work.

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