Gunman Lyrics and Reggae Music
by Frederick R. Dannaway (Riddim Magazine, July/August 2011)
Survival of the fittest, or the strongest, enshrined the warrior as king and shaman in Neolithic societies. The deftest hunter also yielded his weapons in warfare mingling blood and magic in the incessant rites of battle. Warrior-monks can be found from Shaolin to the military religious orders of Europe. The Bhagavad Gita is a justification of violence from the god Krishna to the reluctant warrior Arjuna who doesn’t want to kill his own family in tribal war. Old Testament prophets often led the militant Hebrews into battle and Jah himself chose to reveal himself to the murderer Moses (Exodus 2:11-14). Recent scholarship has demonstrated that yogis of India, usually thought of as pacifistic, were involved in wide-scale combat as similar research contextualizes the earliest Christians, and the apostles themselves, the Sicari (derived from the word for dagger), as violent radicals. Islam was spread by the sword and even Buddhism, which would dogmatically shun violence, inflicted death and violence in the Tantric wars of Japan and Tibet. The tree of liberty must be watered with blood, from the birth of America or revolutions in France, to the resistance of Shaka Zulu or insurrections of the Maroons. The use of guns by anti-apartheid rebels was in the same spirit as in the Civil War and of the Buffalo Soldiers. The moral imperative to act “when good men do nothing” blurs with the revolutionary abominations of oppressive dictators and Red Armies or preemptive invasions that would be “greeted as liberators” of Iraq. The dichotomy is fully manifested in the spiritual ultimatum of “do the ends justify the means?” to the non-violent stance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. The bullets over ballots response from Malcolm X “by any means necessary” clearly resonated in the ghettos of the America and South Africa as well as the garrisons of Jamaica.
The early Rasta communes, which were linked to four famous patriarchs, were largely non-violent. But one of these patriarchs, the charismatic mystic Leonard Percival Howell, who was the first to preach the divinity of Haile Selassie, was charged with cultivation of ganja and stockpiling weapons. The militant and prophetic Rev. Claudius Henry, R.B. (for “Repairer of the Breach”) who whipped crowds into repatriation madness was the subject of a Time Magazine article from 1960. This article states, that raiding police “found a cache of firearms and cement-packed conch shells (obviously intended as missiles) in a Ras Tafarian Church. Henry’s son, Reynold, according to the same Time Magazine article, led a guerrilla group in ambush to an unarmed British patrol that were summarily executed after taking heavy machine gun fire. The Rev. Henry and nine other followers were arrested on April 7th 1969 with “a large number of weapons.” Garvey repudiated mob violence but a reading of his works seems to indicate that it was necessary only as a last a resort. As Garvey wrote, “Black people will not know themself until their back is against the wall.”
Certain sects of Rasta identified with the esteemed tribe of warriors, the Ashanti, who were known to decapitate their enemies, and with the fiery but sublimated religious militancy smoldered under the surface of both Rastafarian and Jamaican culture. Of course many of the great icons were shot down in cold blood like Peter Tosh and Prince Far I, and the attempted assassination of Bob Marley on the eve of revolutionary political acts. So many bright stars lived and sung by the gun, only to die in a hail of bullets such as Pan Head and Dirtsman, the latter of which was said to be over political endorsements that he refused.
All this becomes relevant to reggae music in the subgenre of slackness, the “gun tune.” The almost comedic violence and sex of Prince Buster (hard man fi dead) tunes, or bragging of Shabba and Supercat, seem innocent and removed from reality compared to the hardcore verses of Kartel, Mavado and the Gully and Gaza squads. The militancy of the Tuff Gong Bob Marley (“feeling like bombing a church”) or Dr. Alimantado (Gimmie My Gun) simmer in a spiritual violence that is largely figurative, like the laser beams of Don Carlos. But the lyrics became more hardcore as already poor and violent ghetto life came even more under pressure. The heavy manners of police and thieves, of soldiers and road blocks pressed down upon the island nation from White House initiatives and CIA drug running. The Rudie became the badman, and the consciousness and unity that brought all generations to the dancehall fractured into a culture of guns, girls and ganja. The pragmatic gun tunes of the early nineties (Nuff Man a Dead), like the asking for legal weapons as in Sign In Fi Gun by Supercat, devolved into lyrical violence that was merciless and savoring of killing an enemy and his innocent families. In a sad twist of irony it was Supercat who shot former friend Nitty Gritty in New York, allegedly to protect his younger brother Junior Cat. Nitty Gritty’s gun was said to jam, from a version I have heard in NYC, and someone in the crowd put a gun in Supercat’s hand thus leading to his exoneration on a plea of self defense. The violence is essentially, and sadly, black on black, and when artists like Sister Souljah of Public Enemy, whose comments might have shifted a U.S. Presidential election, said it should be directed at oppressors she went in for a media lynching.
Bobo artists like Anthony B. sing against the foreign gangster and Western gun movies and their glorification of murder and resultant desensitizing to violence. A good deal of nomenclature was derived from these movies, such as posse, used in the Western sense as a gang that deals out justice, to the adopting of famous gunslingers or Western actors for reggae singers (Josie Wales, John Wayne, etc.), to the incorporation of horse-opera soundtracks and cinematic violence alluding to movies. The spaghetti-Westerns provided much inspiration for riddims and themed albums in the early 80’s and maintained in the lyrical feuds between Beenie Man and Bounty Killer into the 90’s. Likewise the Mafia and gangster films were source of the title of a Don who ran the streets like a ruthless Godfather. These swirled with the tribal violence of the PNP and JLP culminating in the deaths or arrests of most of their leaders. “Illegal gun bust more than license gun,” which prompted many to kill to get a gun, and such was thought to be the motive in the murder of King Tubby, as his jewelry and money were untouched, yet the gun he was legally allowed to possess was stolen (according to a David Rodigan memorial to Tubby radio broadcast describing the killing). The harder they come the more guns are needed and the shanty towns, urban cities and rural areas of Jamaica endured, and continue to endure, a ghetto arms race from the revolver to the M16 to the SLR. Cutty Ranks sings that “.38, .45 – that a rudeboy number.” Marley doesn’t specify the caliber of the gun used when he “shot the sheriff.”
Some listeners of Sizzla feel betrayed from his increasingly violent lyrics and his 2005 arrest, along with 31 others, with a cache of weapons stashed under the chicken coops of Judgment Yard and Jungle 12. Indeed the rhetoric is far removed from the consciousness of his early albums but times have changed and the situation has become even more precarious. Yet, as mentioned above, the earliest Rasta communes were also arrested on stockpiling weapons. Parallels can be drawn with some of the American Black street gangs that emerged from the government-subverted Black Power movements such as the CIA/FBI-infiltrated Black Panthers. Black gangs that formed to fill this void, or to protect their blocks and check police, like the Los Angeles Crips and the Universal Blood Nation or Black Disciples of Chicago, were theoretically instigated for positive community activism. Groups like the P Stones Nation of Chicago organized in a blend of power structures that resembled a hybrid of Fortune 500 companies and Freemasonic lodges. The charismatic gang lords gave almost religious invectives against rival gangs and society, forming a mystical union on the gangs’ activities and spiritual jihad against enemy crews. This same dynamic can be found in a Youtube interview with Bounty Killer on the Gully and Gaza feud which he passionately characterizes as being at war with “deeply Satanic” and “demonic 33rd degree Mason (Vybez Kartel)” that are intentionally attacking dancehall for infernal purposes. Although artists like Bounty Killer try and straddle the line between badman and righteousness, it seems more jarring when a Bobo Dread artist like Sizzla suddenly sings about murdering and gun shots, bragging about being the ultimate hustler, and laying punani tunes. The imperative of being “born to be free,” the old gangster, or gangalee, Louie Culture embodies that holy freedom fighter that still has a bit of that badman swagger.
Tupac Shakur, whose ghetto proverbs bounced from L.A. to Brooklyn to Kingston blocks, was born to a family of black radicals, many imprisoned for their revolutionary lifestyles. As Tupac matured in the sex and money world of hip hop, he never lost the black power foundation of his mother and extended family. The notions of T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E. (The Hate U Gave Little Infinites Fucks EveryBody) initially vexed his elder, dreadlocked stepfather Mutulu Shakur, doing a long bid in prison for robbing an armored car as a Black Panther-type radical, until they established a code of conduct outlawing slinging drugs to children and pregnant women, carjacking and rape, and other moral codes of conduct to keep gangsters from being savage killers. The acronyms abound, such as for N.I.G.G.A. (Never Ignorant Getting Goals Accomplished) which sought to transmute negative associations, language and stereotypes into a new militant radicalism that wasn’t going to bow and shuffle for its “slice of the cake.” Mutulu Shakur would express some reservations for songs that glorified sex and violence and drugs but Tupac countered that it was a different world now, and the message had to be based on a reality that reached the streets in order for the deeper message to register. One can speculate such a rationale in the choices of certain conscious artists to release gun tunes. The pacifist, almost hippy image of the Rasta has never been accurate, as a strain of militancy, even if only spiritual, has run through the culture since the beginning. The reality of waking up with a gun nozzle to your jaw becomes more and more likely from the days of Michael Prophet’s massive tune Gunman to Beenie Man and Barrington Levy’s iconic Murderer. One wonders with Junior Reid “why the youthman turn murderah?”
The manifesto of T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E., which is black power strained through the modern reality of ghetto living, reemerged as Gangsta For Life of the current Gully-side starbwoy Mavado. The skeptical may cast aside the lyrical wars as ingenious marketing ploys, as Mavado and Kartel’s bizarre laughing and intimate peace-meeting when the government intervened might indicate, but the lyrics are far beyond casual braggadocious, diss records. These center on the perceived badmind and innate spiritual evils of the respective enemies. Family members are not off limits and the allegations speak to some of the most fundamental moral foundations of Jamaican culture (sexual taboos, bleaching out, informing) and indeed Kartel can be said to have introduced the subject of sex acts and norms that none have dared discuss before.
Artists like Bounty Killer would allege, like the O.G. in the hoods of Compton, that this isn’t just about a block or dollars but that these foes are evil and have to “kill them dead before they spread.” This spiritual gunman theme was born in the late 80’s to early 90’s where many slack artists converted to Rastafari such as Capleton and Buju Banton and Spragga Benz. “Sometimes roots and sometimes slack,” artists like Shabba Ranks inherited a gun legacy from artists like Ninjaman and Supercat but took it to another level. A new leaf turned over, Shabba and others like him bridged the gap in the dancehall between lovers rock singers like Maxi Priest and Richie Stephens to natural mystics like Cocoa Tea. Similarly artists like Cutty Ranks, declaring Six Million Ways To Die, could record with Marcia Griffiths and Dennis Brown and Beres Hammond, who seemed to normally stay above recording with artists singing violent lyrics. One wonders what the elder Marley would think of a son portraying one of the Shottas in a movie that arguably and inevitably glorifies violence. Artists like Beenie Man slip into various personae, like Ras Moses for his cultural conscious offerings, while never fleeing the badman notions that epitomize the Gaza mindset of street life. Spiritual militancy is expressed in the soldiers of Jah Army with artists taking on ranks such as, Brigadier Jerry, Colonel Josey, Admiral Bailey to General Degree, and the officer’s dress among artists such as Cocoa Tea. Artists like Ini Kamoze, a lyrical gangster, and Carl Meeks and Ed Robinson confront badbwoys with the alternative way of the “heartical gangster” like the heartical Don tunes of Frankie Paul and Pinchers, Ninjaman and others. The Robin Hood or community-motivated outlaw aided to the mystique of the real Dons who were worshiped and protected, as the recent case of Christopher “Duddus” Coke demonstrated, with the garrison of people taking up military grade weapons against law enforcement. The Don, a product of violently opposing political parties, soon became deep in international narcotics trafficking, which in turn brought even more guns into the island. The Don built concrete fortresses and represented the life blood to the close communities, being the only real source of income, food, and security. Vicious and ruthless, the top-down management ruled by excessive violence and punishment for disrespect of any kind.
Yardies exported this culture of drugs and violence everywhere, especially to the streets of England, where traditionally the police didn’t even carry arms. Garnering headlines and newscasts aghast at their brutality, the yardie gangs quickly established footholds in the cities of London as well as rural areas. Echoing the themes of Baba Brooks and The Valentines, UK roots singers like Pablo Gad sang of the imported “gun fever” that “easy squeezed” in the dances and corners, causing pure panic in the community. The trend unfortunately continues in the United Kingdom with acts such as Sandeeno and King General imploring the youth to put down the gun. Yet Gappy Ranks, struggling to be Stinking Rich, says “he nah go suck none, he rather bust gun.” The humorous and intellectual Solo Banton delivered an entertaining take on the paradoxes presented of gangster and conscious living with the thunderous Walk like Rasta mocking the battle cries of “I got sixteen gun inna mi pocket.” One feels this message is directly to singers like Sizzla who continues to release tunes, such as Gun Shot on the Black Rose Riddim mixing the Bobo rhetoric with aggressive gangster threats. In Harder Than Them he warns against dissing gangster and taking lives and how much he runs yard. The Ultimate Hustler has come a long way from Black Woman and Child, just as the zinc fence jungle went from ratchets to full clips and automatic weapons. Fellow Bobo Junior Reid, once purely cultural in Black Uhuru days, cuts tunes with Mavado about Dutty Gun, and duets with rapper Fabolous such as in Gangsta Don’t Play, where he sings in the chorus, “real warrior don’t play,” a subtle blending of the two concepts seeming to justify the gun packing lyrics. The violence is a last resort and pragmatic, as is hustling a strange fulfillment of Garvey’s emphasis on black economic liberation and autonomy. Black detractors of gangster rap in the USA are reminded by hiphop moguls like Russell Simmons that rap music has created many young black millionaires. “Haffi bling, and haffi clean” is not just nouveau riche materialism, but the triumph of “something from nothing.”
The rebel music of reggae, threatening to burn down sugar and cornfields if the ganja fields are destroyed, echoed in Tienanmen Square as tanks rolled in and wafted from boom boxes and tape decks from anti-apartheid fighters. It is born of a people stolen from their homelands and sold into slavery, who fought valiantly in rebellion upon rebellion, fighting off colonialism that still held bondages in “mental slavery.” To turn the tables on the slave master, the necktie man, the bossman is part of a larger spiritual struggle against the forces of his Majesty or Christ against Mystery Babylon. Although Messianic in theology the Rasta doesn’t look to some god from the sky to intervene. “Until the basic human rights” are according to all people “without regard to race” its “War.” The “burning and looting tonight” of Bob Marley may be more artistically palatable to intellectuals, but the real frustrations and violence of Jamaica casts gun tunes into a different light. The beautiful bare-breasted female with gun in soldier’s attire on the cover of Soul Rebels mingles sex appeal and militancy in a very real way that links guns, Rastafari and freedom-fighting together. The brash anger that seems to mingle fast-living with Bible quotes and gunman lyrics seems hopelessly contradictory, but the reality of the situation is that here art is unfortunately imitating life, but perpetuating a new definition of “culture” to the next generation.