Two weeks ago, I wrote what I then felt was a story of hope. Or, perhaps, what I then felt was the story that should be told.
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How Dancehall and Rap Define Today’s Youth
The music we listen to reflects our innermost feelings and our relationship with society, and if society does not offer opportunities for jobs and a meaningful life, then music won’t offer narratives that reflect hope and opportunity for loving relationships and acceptance into society. That is why we have hip hop culture infiltrating T&T. That’s why so many teenagers listen to violent dancehall and rap music that terrifies those of us who lock ourselves away from a certain faction in society.
If music does have a “reinforcing effect” as scholars such as Dennis Howard have observed, then society must take responsibility for this violent music, not the angry youth who listen to it. Music, movie and TV producers have a choice about the products they create and dump on society. Radio stations have a choice about the music they play. They feed a vibe; they push a vibe. They batter lost souls with a mind-numbing, relentless force that encourages violence and drug use.
As a teenager, when I switched on the radio, I heard a variety of music: pop, country, disco, rhythm and blues. Many teenagers in the Caribbean don’t seem to realise that other music exists.
The fact that there is an industry to package and promote rage is the real issue here because it is nothing more than a form of slavery meant to keep certain people in their place: at the bottom of the socio-economic rung. Those movie videos with pimps weighed down with ostentatious gold necklaces feed the imaginations of uneducated, angry youth.
A young man I’ll call Vaughn, who was once convicted of several counts of violent armed robbery, spoke of what dancehall music and rap means to young men in his circle. “The American media makes it easy to identify with rap music and hip hop culture. If you’re watching the life stories of hip hop artistes, you’ll see they have money. When we switch on the radio and TV we hear ‘money, money, money’. Those are the people in our world who have money,” says Vaughn.
Vaughn says that teenagers who listen to the music identify with the theme of success more than violence. “To me, dancehall and rap portrays the kind of lifestyle that young people would like to live with the partying, flashiness, jewellery, cars, girls and clothes. Everyone wants these things. The videos show that these rappers have succeeded. They got all of those things. It might look over the top, but that just symbolises success.”
To Vaughn, part of the problem is that people are bashing the music without really listening to it. “The words might be explicit, but the message can be deep, depending on your level of understanding,” he says. “The message is coming across in a form you can enjoy. Sometimes you laugh at the message.”
These days Vaughn says he listens to rapper Meek Mill. It’s a personal thing because he was locked up. He came out and decided he didn’t want to go back into drugs. He decided to use music as a vehicle for success because he had talent.
“I was incarcerated for a period of time. Everything got taken away from me. I’m trying to be honest and still do all the things I enjoy so I identify with Meek Mill. Before he was incarcerated, Meek Mill used to do all the things he’s doing now, partying and everything, but the funds he was getting were illegal. Now, he’s getting legal money through his music. That’s the message I’m getting from him. Most of the songs bring a message: Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t be this or that,” he said.
He also listens to The Game for the same reasons. “This fellow, The Game, was in jail. He studied all the rap music and came up with his own style. To me, rappers like The Game and Meek Mill come as assistance. They help you with your life. They give you a goal: success. They understand what young people are going through.”
Vaughn says, “The deepest way to get a message out is music.” He also says that people listen to the music they can relate to in their own lives. “You’re living a certain lifestyle and you hear a music that reflects your lifestyle and you’re attracted to that. I wouldn’t say that music can force people to be a certain way.
I could tell you from personal experience that if you’re doing half the things rappers are singing about and you’re not strong enough you can end up going the full way. I’m talking from experience. But I wouldn’t say any music could force you to do something you don’t really want to do. I can’t bring a certain genre of music and tell you be like this.”
Vaughn believes the biggest problem with rap music is that it “…triggers a sense of division. The message is clear: There’s one way for us and one way for you. All we’re doing is looking for a possible way out of a situation that feels stagnant. Rappers give us that.”
There’s no doubt about it: For many youths, rappers are the only role models they have.