Gangs of Jamaica: Babylonian Wars
Calling all reggae fans, dancehall fans, Jamaicans, American tourists, Americans in general, hippies, policemen, gangsters, journalists, politicians and academics: If you belong in any one of these groups, then you’ll find something in Thibault Ehrengardt’s book Gangs of Jamaica: Babylonian Wars¬†that will make you angry. If you can hold back the bile, though, you’ll also find this book highly entertaining.
Life on a small island
Anyone who comes from or lives on a small island knows well of the suspicion we hold for foreign ideas and the particular sensitivity that islanders have towards outside criticism. Part of our cultural make-up is the faith that no outsiders can really understand us, yet we know deep inside that this isn’t true. We’re fascinated by the opinion of outsiders who can see our lives with a clarity that eludes us because we’re too close to the story. (I’m Irish, so I’m thinking here of Jeop Leersen’s Mere Irish and Fhior Ghael, the brilliant book about Irish identity by a Dutch academic. Leersen’s book brutally and comically exposed the manner in which anti-Englishness guided national policy in post-colonial Ireland. Our passion for doing precisely the opposite to whatever the English were doing is partially responsible for the institutionalised abuse of both an historical and modern nature which turns up here on a regular basis.)
Speaking in code
With that caveat out of the way, let’s turn to¬†Gangs of Jamaica, which was published in French in 2012 and in English last year. The book was inspired partly by Ehrengardt’s¬†translation into French of Laurie Gunst’s Born Fi’ Dead, itself an outsider’s view of Jamaican gang culture in the island and in America. Ehrengardt took on the project of writing a book after being asked to accompany a French TV crew to Jamaica in the aftermath of the arrest of the country’s most notorious gangster Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke. Due to Jamaica’s particular history, there’s a strong connection between political leaders and gang leaders in Jamaica, and Ehrengardt argues that the entire country has been (and continues to be) engaged in a sort of cover up, or at least, of speaking in a code that refuses to name names.
“He never crossed Seventh Street”¬†
Ehrengardt takes a Marley song as an example: the classic ‘Natty Dread’/’Knotty Dread’. “He never crossed Seventh Street,” says Ehrengardt, referring to the Trenchtown street. “He stopped at 7th Street, which is the border between the PNP and the JLP[the two main Jamaican political parties].” And I think that when he tried to cross that border, he got shot, and he got scared.” (More on the Marley shooting later.) Ehrengardt’s thesis is that despite the volubility of Jamaicans, there’s a conspiracy of silence on the island, from the singers to the journalists. Gunst’s Born Fi’ Dead was effectively banned in Jamaica, and former Prime Minister Edward Seaga unsuccessfully sued the author for defamation. Athough the Jamaican Gleaner gave Ehrengardt’s book a positive review, it’s safe to say that the Jamaican ministry of tourism won’t be promoting this particular book anytime soon.
You French journalists are the worst ….¬†
Ehrengardt’s insights come from an approach that removes the character of the Rastaman from a central role in the Jamaican narrative and focuses instead on the gunmen and policemen who battle it out daily for control of the streets of Kingston. His book comes about as a result of an invitation he received to take part in a French TV documentary about Jamaican gangs following the arrest in 2010 of Christopher Dudus Coke. Ehrengardt and the TV crew sought and received permission from Minister of Security Peter Bunting to travel with the police force. The police officers were less than thrilled as they are used to being cast as villains and human rights abusers in any foreign documentaries. As one policemen tells the author, “We know about you foreign journalists. You French are the worst.” A policewoman tells Ehrengardt that they had previously hosted a group of “lovely” journalists for four days. Those journalists, she tells him, subsequently made a documentary titled “Killer Cops of Jamaica.”
Policeman and gangster: two sides of the same coin?
It is unusual for a foreign author to spend so much time with the Jamaican police and their adversaries, the gangsters. For more than 70 years, music journalists and anthropologists have been making their way to Jamaica and seeking out Rasta camps in cities and countryside, where dreads will happily trot out a combination of philosophical nuggets and baffling smoke signals, so it’s a change to see the police and gangsters taking centre stage, and they appear here as two sides to the same coin. Some policemen work their day shift, hand in their guns, and take the bus home with the same gangsters that they’ve been fighting during the work day. There’s grudging respect too among the adversaries: “We fight badman all day long, but we love their music,” says one policewoman, singing along to Vybez Kartel. On the other hand, one of the dons interviewed by Ehrengardt hopes that his children will escape the gangster life. He wants them to be soldiers or policemen.
“I tell you trainer, I pass up man pon corner, that I know is some old murderer”
- Michael Smith, ‘Trainer’
One of the effects of Ehrengardt’s book is to humanise the Jamaican police force. He told the website Camera In The Sun: “… In reggae music for instance, it’s always easy to blame the police. But it’s harder to blame the gunman, because he lives next door. And no matter what he says, he’s far more dangerous than the police. Because the police won’t shoot you for what you said. But a gunman will shoot you for that.” Ehrengardt laughs off claims that his book has given Jamaica a bad name and it’s an insight typical of the book that Ehrengardt notes how talk of badness is a daily constant in Jamaica.
The politicians appear to be closer to the gangsters than to the police force. A local member of parliament hands out application forms for work on a new building site, and the local gangsters eagerly fill in the forms, happy at the thought of some legitimate work. (Thug for life is only a slogan until a job appears.) The politicians work through the ward bosses, the local dons. No cash changes hands: favours are exchanged. Votes are paid for by authorisations for building projects or the sale of building materials. The power of the dons is absolute in a small area, but one don in particular, Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke, grew so powerful that figures ranging from the prime minister to Bunny Wailer felt compelled to defend him. Much of the book’s material revolves around the arrest of ‘Dudus’ and the story of ‘Dudus’ Coke and his predecessors reaches back several decades, back even to the story of the Wailers. As Ehrengardt observes, few musicians could escape the pull of a system where the politicians and the dons were co-dependent. The musicians grew up in the same ghettos as the gunmen and the gangsters, and sometimes the musicians were the gangsters.
The Peace Committee
Ehrengardt argues correctly that it’s impossible to understand the history of reggae music without knowing something of the political history of Jamaica. It’s commonly misunderstood that reggae artists rejected politics, but in the early 1970s, many young artists supported the socialist PNP party of Michael Manley, which in turn was engaged with Cuba and Pan-African politics. Manley traded on Rasta language and imagery and promised to legalise marijuana, attracting the support of Marley and the other Wailers and several other singers. Manley subsequently rowed back on the promise of legalisation and wealthy Jamaicans almost crashed the economy by fleeing the country with their money, resulting in an IMF bailout, but the likes of Marley stuck by him. It was the perception that Marley was supporting the PNP by playing at the Smile Jamaica concert in December 1976 that resulted in his near assassination by still unknown gunmen. Manley’s PNP was re-elected though the elections were marked by hundreds of killings.
Two years later, another controversial concert with the intention of bringing peace instead set a fuse that smouldered for the next thirty years. In 1978, following a meeting in jail between opposing enforcers Bucky Marshall and Claude Massop, a peace committee was established and resulted in the Peace Concert. Jacob Miller brought Marshall and Massop together on stage. In retrospect, Peter Tosh was one of the few that saw the concert as a sham. Invited to play, Peter Tosh took the opportunity to lambast politicians on both sides from the stage, which soon afterwards earned him a savage beating from the police. Marley appeared and invited Manley and Seaga on stage, where he made them join hands. Seaga looked decidedly nonplussed: JLP gunman Claude Massop had defied his political master and was murdered soon afterwards. Within a couple of years all of the members of the ‘peace committee’ were dead. Jim Brown aka Lester Coke took over Massop’s gang, which would become known as the Shower Posse. The 1980 elections were the most violent in Jamaican history with 800 people killed, and resulted in the end of Jamaica’s flirtation with socialism and a surplus of armed gangsters on the streets. Many of the gangsters were dispatched to the US after the elections, where they rained havoc on US cities and grew famous for their violent ways. In 1990, the US demanded the extradition of Lester Coke, who was duly arrested. In prison in Jamaica, Coke threatened to tell what he knew: he was at the centre of an operation where the Jamaican prime minister was working with the CIA, the DEA, Colombian druglords and top American politicians. He burned to death in his cell before being extradited, and his adopted son Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke took over. Did Seaga orchestrate much of this? Ehrengardt thinks so. It’s one of the things that he says are widely known in Jamaica but little spoken of, except in code.
A fuse burning for 30 years
Three decades later, in 2010, the events of the 1970s finally came to a head. The American Drug Enforcement Agency demanded the arrest and extradition of ‘Dudus’, and the JLP prime minister Bruce Golding rowed in behind Coke, to the amazement of many outsiders. Nothing excused the brutality visited on the residents of Tivoli Gardens by the Jamaican authorities, and more than 70 people were killed in the attempt to capture Dudus. Still, many reggae fans wondered why Bunny Wailer, who claims the throne of living legend of reggae, penned a song warning the authorities to leave Dudus alone.
Where does reggae and Rasta fit into all of this story? Ehrengardt is a huge fan of 70s roots music like many a Frenchman and woman who have been major supporters of the roots genre; many of distributors of 70s music are French. For him, reggae is dead: “The genre is dying. Despite the democratisation of the tools of investment, it remains costly to make an album and the return on investment is almost non-existent.” No-one has told that to the younger generation of singers from Jah9 to Protoje or to Gabre Selassie and the Dub Club crew, but¬†they know themselves that although they’ve got international support they’re relatively marginal in Jamaica. Few artists escape Ehrengardt’s wrath: he touches on the violence meted out even by Marley, laments the stupidity of Garnett Silk, and writes openly about the criminal activity of several dancehall artists which may be known to insiders but is not widely known to reggae fans.
From Haile Selassie to Sizzla ¬†
Some of Ehrengardt’s critiques are odd, but we can allow him the occasional lapse. Lamenting¬†Sizzla’s slide into badness, he observes that Sizzla got involved in the gun business “just like Haile Selassie during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930s.” There have been myriad criticisms of Haile Selassie but I’ve not heard many people criticise him for fighting back against the fascist invaders. I doubt that flowers and prayer would have been much use against Mussolini’s army. Still, there’s no denying that Jamaica has produced several singers who were also gunmen: maybe that’s part of the fascination for many fans. It’s the hypocrisy that vexes Ehrengardt. Several hip hop artists trade on violent reputations, but hip hop doesn’t broadly preach peace and love, does it? For all that, his sentiment is not wildly out of place: read Angus Taylor’s interview with Earl Chinna Smith and you’ll come across similar ideas.
¬†Reggae fans: you have it all wrong. Right?
Reggae fans, brace yourselves: Ehrendardt goes on to claim that the international body of reggae fans have fundamentally misinterpreted the message of the music: “The Western offspring of the flower power culture mistook it for a universal message of peace and love. But reggae music has never talked about anything but Jamaican political warfare. Evoking peace, it never meant in Vietnam but between Jungle and Rema. Talking about love, it meant between Tivoli and Downtown. Reggae music is an endless cry against all these senseless killings orchestrated by politics… Rasta is not a progressive movement; it preaches strict Biblical principles and awaits Judgement Day.” (It’s worth noting here that Ehrengardt’s topic is Jamaican reggae, which is why he makes these claims. African reggae, British reggae and reggae from elsewhere takes different subjects as their topics, and have little or no concern for local Jamaican politics.) Rastas outside Jamaica might chafe at this characterisation; do remember that this book takes Jamaica as its subject matter.
Don’t call us¬†men!¬†Ehrengardt knows quite a bit about life in Jamaica, and he’s right that much of what passes for discussion about reggae and its themes is hypocritical and at best unexamined. Constant debate about reggae and its attitude towards homosexuality drives many people nuts, but it’s a topic that can’t be buried. Artists who need to make a living in Europe or America have to apologise if they’ve incited hatred against gay people but they’re committing commercial suicide in Jamaica. In one incident, Ehrengardt accidentally offends his Jamaican drivers when does a radio interview and graciously thanks the “men” who have been driving him around the island. (The word ‘Men’, he later realises, refers exclusively to gay men.) Outraged, one of the drivers bursts into the studio and grabs the microphone to explain to the audience that the author is a “foreigner”. “Him nah know what him talk about,” the driver explains, terrified that he’ll be cast as gay. “We are MAN!” But Ehrengardt notes that¬†this homophobia finds its highest expression¬†in the offices of the country’s¬†leaders, who shamelessly exploit homophobia for political purposes.
Death stalks this book. It opens with the story of Duane Waxteen, a ghetto don who agrees to let the author into his life for a few days. Waxteen is a sort of small town Pablo Escobar, a neighbourhood pimp and smalltime gangster who seems amazed to be still alive at the age of 37. He shows porn movies in the yard of his rum bar one night, and holds spelling contests for the kids the following night. By the time Ehrengardt sits down to write the final chapters of his book, he receives word from Jamaica: Waxteen has been murdered. Even the gangsters fear those who are coming up after them. Ehrengardt rides in a car that judders to a stop in Waterhouse one day, narrowly avoiding hitting¬†a ten year old boy. Leaning on the hood and eyeballing the three adults in the car, the youth draws a finger across his throat and warns them: “For a hundred dollars mi cut your throat, you pussy hole.” Jamaican men, notes Ehrengardt, don’t easily sit and take this kind of abuse, but something about the boy unnerves them and they make no move.
In the end, Ehrengardt doesn’t shy away from acknowledging that many of the people he interviews, while powerful in their own little kingdoms, are little more than puppets in a grander scheme. Journalists tell him off the record about suspicions that the most powerful families grow rich in the cocaine and marijuana trades. Most mainstream journalists willfully ignore the evidence that colossal-scale drug dealing can’t take place without support or direction from politically powerful interests, and many Jamaicans have drawn the lines connecting the cocaine trade, the US intelligence agencies, Jamaican politicians and the wealthy Jamaican families whose names rarely make the newspapers. If the lives of gangsters make prurient reading, all the better.
Who is winning in this game? A clue: Their names are rarely in the papers
One finishes this book with the impression that Ehrengardt is not a big fan of the USA, and the role it has played in shaping Jamaican culture. Yet he’s not naive in this matter. The hope of many Caribbean countries now is China. The Panama canal is being widened, and Jamaica’s bauxite is of interest to the rising power of the east. What else, along with bauxite, will be travelling in those shipping containers, he wonders. Some might call this cynicism: but isn’t it really mainstream journalism that is cynical to the extreme while masquerading as objective and balanced reporting?
Far too much reggae-related journalism is bland and uncritical and while I don’t agree with all of Ehrengardt’s conclusions his book is agreeably provocative. Reggae fans, get this book and you’ll have enough material to annoy your friends with for months to come.