Jennifer Rodgers tries
to find out.
Beenie Man took his MOBO (Music Of Black Origin) `Best International Reggae Act', and playfully sang "MOBO, MOBO, MOBO," by way of a rhythmical acceptance speech.
At the Jamaican Embassy in London last week, the audience was given a sample of his witty and relaxed freestyle poetry-aka toasting which has won him Jamaica's reggae dancehall class for four consecutive years. Hailed as the new Bob Marley, Beenie Man is actually many musical moods removed. His spiritual message is measured out in post-Marley ragga and R'n'B. Generated from the infamous dancehall scene in Jamaica, he has attracted attention further afield thanks to the acclaimed current album Many Moods of Moses.
"Toasting is like what you call dj-ing except it has no plans whatsoever what you gonna do. You write out nothing, you have nothing on your mind. You go on stage, how's the world doing, the world is sick, the world is crazy, the world is jumping up and down. You feed off the vibes you getting from them. That is toasting," he says describing a unique showmanship with is completed with videos and lurid colours. It's a bit like an intimate Notting Hill Carnival.
Beenie keeps spirituality as constant and though his album traditionally name-checks Rastafarianism and hails Selassie, by putting Bob Marley and Steve Biko together Beenie makes a socio-cultural comment on the present. It was not always like this, progressing from teeny-bop hits from the age of eight to mould his broken voice to uncompromising gun lyrics.
"I am a father. I am a father and you can't have your kids singing aggressive music," says Beenie, and concedes, "I was trying to get listeners, and in them times the people were listening to those kind of music."
Describing the lyrics of this reggae-rap hybrid as violent and sex-obsessed is a well-worn accusation thanks to the outspoken nature of a few like Shabba Ranks who declared that homosexuals deserve crucifixion on television. Beenie won't be drawn into the debate. "You should wipe the matter from your eyes before looking at someone else's eyes. It's just straightforward and they can't deal with straightforward. It ain't only vaginas and penises they talk about, they speak about brain and education and history and all that."
At the award ceremony the Jamaican ambassador pointed to the distinction between the coverage of the relatively short-lived but metropolitan based drum'n'bass embraced by mainstream media and that of dancehall which is more likely to be found under shooting headlines. Beenie signals a change: it is the first time that the Embassy has been involved in such direct promotion of Jamaican music, and Beenie made reggae music history while teaming with Chevelle Franklyn on VH-1 music channel as the first dancehall artistes to do a live interview on this mainstream channel.
There is resistance from the mainstream because dancehall is hard to pin down, resting somewhere between sing-a-long harmonies and rapping (even the MOBO Awards confused reggae purists by giving Finley Quayle the award as Best Reggae Act). Beenie Man's music is not ganja-fuelled reggae which used to dominate the charts in the 1980s, but a more gentle and radio-friendly combination of reggae and rap.
"Reggae of the Eighties and now, there is not a lot of difference," differs Beenie. "It is just because we now in the third generation have three more beats and they had two. At one of my concerts people are screaming, jumping all night, raving. Quite crazy. It's like one time they used to sing," he breaks off into a rendition of Bob Marley's "I want to love you, and treat you right". "So it's like going faster. It's just because things in time are changed because back in the days of English music, back in the days the music was like this, `BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, My girl lollipop'. But now it's like faster all across all across the world. But in Jamaica you have still got guys that sing that one beat, do the older stuff because we have got to go over and keep the older songs alive. It's principle because you respect your elders."
Reverence to musical heritage is a constant element and Many Moods of Moses samples and covers songs unashamedly. It is probably not a coincidence that as dance music has become acceptable, the stain of plagiarism or lack of originality has been removed. A logical progression from this is the blurring of hierarchies within. "It's a family," says Beenie. "The star is the person who writes the song and sings. The drummer has its own respect, it's not like you alone is the big man.
"All you got to do is do it. If you is a cross-over artist and you want to please your cross-over fans just give them their music, or with your hardcore fans, given them theirs.
"The future for me I can't see 'cos you can't see the future, tomorrow comes tomorrow."
Beenie is on MTV Base, Sunday 8pm