The Gully-Gaza war

Published: Sunday | September 20, 2009

Ian Boyne

It had to come to this. I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so. When some academics were talking mumbo-jumbo and making all kinds of absurd excuses and rationalisation for the decadence in the dancehall, engaging in pathetic shadow boxing, I confronted their intellectual cowardice

The 'violence' that middle-class people like me saw in dancehall lyrics was more a reflection of our literary philistinism and reflexive bourgeois condemnation of poor people's cultural expression. The violence which we deplored was just harmless metaphor. We were using a hammer to kill a flea and engaging in the usual middle-class - and in my case, 'fundamentalist' - hysteria.

Now the followers of the gun hawks themselves - Vybz Kartel (Gaza) and Mavado (Gully) - are shooting, stabbing up and beating one another - not metaphorically or lyrically, but literally, physically, actually. Now the fans themselves can't go into certain dancehalls and have the pleasure - and the freedom - to hear the two reigning kings of badmanism and gangsterism played without threats to their own personal security.

What a life!

If your car is even passing one of these sessions and you don't happen to know whether it is Gaza or Gully territory, you are in danger. You don't even have the right to play the opposing gangster in your own car or SUV. What a life! Schoolchildren are having fights over Gaza and Gully, not over who is taking away whose girlfriend or boyfriend. Selectors who could formerly demonstrate their mixing genius by playing the toughest thugs now have to choose between the thugs they play, or they can be beaten and their expensive equipment damaged. This is what it has come to. But this is one man who is not surprised - and it has not reached its zenith in madness yet.

Let's be clear: The Gaza-Gully war is symptomatic of a larger aggressively intolerant, divisive and tribalistic culture. It is not dancehall music which caused what is happening in the dancehall today. The foundation was there before dancehall - a well-laid foundation built by our politicians and ruling class. But dancehall has reinforced and given strength to it. This is a distinction that my detractors have never been able to see.


Negative dancehall promotes and legitimises a subculture of violence and aggression. There was rivalry between ska greats Prince Buster and Derrick Morgan and each had his following. There was no report of people stabbing up one another over who was playing Derrick Morgan songs or who was playing Buster. Rivalry is not bad in itself. Rivalry can promote creativity, innovation and productivity.

But because Mavado and Kartel are self-identified gangsters and fellows who promote badmanism and violence, it is natural that their hard-core followers would use violence and aggression to show their loyalty and to punish dissent. I bet if Sean Paul and Shaggy developed a rivalry and separate following, even their ardent followers would not do violence to one another. Things did not deteriorate as badly between Bounty Killer and Beenie Man because while the Killer built his image around his name and gangsterism, Beenie did not market himself exclusively that way. He was the Girls Dem Sugar, the lover man.

Not that Beenie did not have his thug followers but they were outnumbered by the Killer's dog-heart followers. What has happened with Kartel and Mavado is that the shotta, garrison-type thugs are split in two camps and so you must have war. None is willing to back down. None is afraid. And just as the possession of sophisticated weapons by superpowers tempt them to create opportunities to use them, the violence-obsessed lyrics internalised seek expression. Why not carry out the violence glorified and lionised in the songs of these gun hawk lyricists?

We are generally intolerant of dissent as a society and we can't bear to see others having preferences different from ours. But because of social conditioning most of us don't inflict violence on one another, though if you check our hearts violence and resentment are definitely there. But socialisation keep us from manifesting the violence. Not so in the dancehall. In the dancehall you are socialised to idolise violence, to do this and that to a 'bwoy'.

Violence does not have the social stigma in the dancehall that it has in the general culture. It is not abhorred; it is glorified, eulogised and magnified.

So it is not surprising that violence breaks out among those who love Gaza and Gully music. So while their high priests can justifiably claim that they are not telling people to hurt one another, their music has already done the job. No need for direct fat was.

The Gleaner published another feature last Sunday, heavily promoted before, which rehashed the usual canard and manifested the diversionary tactics which have become a stock-in-trade among dancehall defenders, academic or artiste. Vybz Kartel, who is one of the most intelligent and articulate dancehall artistes, was on with the usual sideshow argumentation: "All these areas that these Gaza or Gully incidents occur are the same areas that were violent from day one." Excellent point.

But the music, rather than helping these youth with 'upfulness and good livity, further downpress' them with negativity and 'almshouse'. They made a bad situation worse. Youth and youth who were formerly divided, exploited and tribalised by the People's National Party (PNP) and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) are now being further divided by dancehall, as though the JLP-PNP divide in the garrisons were not bad enough!

guidance and hope?

Hear what Kartel went on to say, tripping up himself unwittingly: "We in the garrison need guidance and hope and a way out and the society doesn't provide the youths with constructive development tools." So, Kartel and other uncritical dancehall defenders, if you acknowledge that the youth need "guidance" and "hope", tell me, how do these songs which promote thuggery, badmanism, violence and "busting bwoy marrow" give guidance and hope?

Can Kartel and Mavado look themselves in the mirror and say that their music is giving guidance to the youth? Then if you, Kartel and Mavado, are not prepared to give any guidance to corner youth; if you are just in it for "entertainment" (what is joke to you is death to youth and youth), then why should others provide the guidance?

What the uncritical dancehall defenders have failed to understand is that it is mainly ghetto youth who are suffering and being victimised as a result of the 'almshouse' promoted in the dancehall. These Gully, Gaza incidents, as Kartel has pointed out, are taking place among the same poor, exploited ghetto youth. It is largely ghetto Gaza and Gully supporters who are being hurt and who can't enjoy themselves at dances. You think when middle and upper-class highbrow and stush youth who are partying in Norbrook, Cherry Gardens, Orange Grove, Stony Hill and Queen Hill, or at Fiction and Plush they can't freely enjoy both Gully and Gaza music?

It is poor ghetto youth who are robbed of the freedom to hear who they want to hear and to support who they want! Uptown youth spray one another with Hennessey and expensive champagne, 'go on bad' and leave safely in their SUVs, while ghetto idiots are shooting up and chopping up one another! The uncritical defenders of dancehall have failed to see that it is the very poor, ghetto people whose cultural expression they are ostensibly defending against people like me who are suffering through negative dancehall.

violence and aggression

I am the one defending the rights of poor, unemployed, marginalised ghetto youth, whom I am saying must have the same right to enjoy their dancehall music as the uptown stush youth dem. The violence, intolerance and bigotry which are promoted in dancehall music foster and nurture a subculture of violence and aggression.

Don't come with your nonsense argument about social degradation deterministically causing the mayhem we are now seeing in the dancehall. Correlation and causation are not the same. While we can forgive Mavado for not understanding that nuance, we can't forgive the academics.

Hear Mavado, not to be outdone by Kartel in the game of sideshow: "There is no work, high school youth a drop out of school, no social development in inner-city communities: a suffocation."

So what you do as a dancehall artiste is to say the people not suffering enough, let me let loose my violent lyrics, lyrics which promote aggression, hate intolerance and tribalism and that will help? Dancehall music is not the source of our problems. Our problems are deeper, more structural and have to do with our inequalities, class antagonisms, plantation legacy, economic structures and low social capital.

Dancehall is a symptom. As Marx said of religion, dancehall is a both a protest and a sigh of distress. We must look at what has given rise, to and what continues to sustain, negative dancehall. And it is not just the lyrics of people like Kartel, Mavado and Bounty Killer.


But while we work to fix those issues, we can't neglect a critique of the dancehall, for our poor, oppressed brothers and sister are suffering. My middle-class friends and I can go to safe places where Kartel and Mavado can play without our safety being threatened, but we have to be concerned, too, about the freedom of our brothers and sisters in the garrisons and on the various corners.

We must struggle for the right of selectors to play any music and for people to be free to play any music in their vehicles. People are going into people's homes now and telling them to turn off Gaza or Gully music - not uptown where I live. The struggle against the aggression, intolerance, bigotry and violence promoted in the dancehall is a struggle for the freedom of dignity of our poor, exploited black brothers and sisters in our ghettos and garrisons. We must attack the violence promoted in the subculture of dancehall for it encourages and motivates the violent attacks.

It is the spirit of the dancehall - meaning negative dancehall - which you are seeing manifesting in the flesh-and-blood violence today. It's time to liberate the dancehall!

Ian Boyne is a vetern journalist who may be reached at or

Vybz Kartel and Mavado