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Wicked (Good) Vibes Blog

First Post: Empathy and Vibes

I am writing this as an introductory post to the Wicked (Good) Vibes Blog and I am writing from the North Shore of Boston.  If you don’t already know, in Massachusetts we say “wicked” way too much.  One of the most stereotypical phrases we use is “wicked pissah” which means something is great.  I wanted to echo the Jamaican use of “wicked” as a frequent adjective for something good with our use of “wicked” as an intensifier meaning very.   A Jamaican might say “wicked vibes” and us “Massholes” would say “wicked good vibes”.  So in naming the blog “wicked (good) vibes”, I’m trying to invoke not only the country where Dancehall Reggae was born and developed, but indicate where I’m coming from geographically and musically as well.  This blog is an extension of that title.

Let me state right off the bat, I am not Jamaican—though I was married to one.  I fell in love with dancehall and hiphop very early in my DJ career.  I originally came to DJing by way of battling and scratching, but I was also addicted to beats and rhymes.  Hiphop was my first love, when I was exposed to dancehall with all its intensity, drama, and rhythm, I was hooked.  I am a sucker for rhythm but I am also a language nerd.  Expression in hiphop and dancehall exists at the highest (and lowest) levels of language that can rival any type of academic poetry.  The metaphors, humor and inventiveness of some artists can make your head spin and make you say, “Damn”!

Dancehall and hiphop have always had a complex and influential relationship: sometimes linking up and running paralell, sometimes diverging.  It should be stated that for all practical purposes Hiphop was created by a Jamaican, Kool Herc, who got idea to play the hypest instrumental sections (or breaks) of a record back to back.  It should also be stated that Jamaicans were “toasting” or speaking over records in the 1960s, long before the birth of rap.  It speaks to this special kind of relationship that a number of the songs played in Beenie Man’s and Bounty Killer’s recent VERZUZ battle were collabs with rappers.  Of course some of that was intelligently playing to their US Hiphop centric audience.

As an educator and founder of a locally focused internet radio station, I wish to state emphatically that I am not trying to take food out of the mouths of Jamaicans, or others.  I am a DJ playing music I love for people I love and writing about some of my observations about the music.  I am not a selecta in the original Jamaican sense of that word as someone with an encyclopedic knowledge of Jamaican music and I don’t chat over the music.  I try to learn more about music everyday and apply that to what I do.  I realize that might bring me open to criticism from those who are masters of this craft and feel there is only one way to properly present Jamaican or other music.  The main audience I play and write for is casual listeners of urban music. So if anything, I would hope to be a gateway drug for those who want to know more about dancehall and hiphop,  perhaps even motivating them enough to attend a real dancehall “session” in Boston or New York with an authentic selecta, or even a sound clash.  The vibes from a great sound such as Stone Love or Boston selecta Junior Rodigan can give you the real dancehall experience.  I highly recommend that if we ever get to have real gatherings again that you make the trek to check out the vibes. 

   I am just a DJ trying to live my truth which for better or worse includes a mad love for hiphop and dancehall.  I do this to promote the culture to my little corner of the world.   In other words, I know my position, which is a supporting one.  Hiphop of course was born in the Bronx, but it has been exported all over the world and adopted by every country imaginable.  Dancehall is inseparable from Jamaica, though it has grown a following across the world, and strains of it have developed and morphed into new musical forms.  The question of what actually makes something dancehall music remain controversial, even in the country itself.  But what is inescapable is that on one level, promoting dancehall is promoting Jamaican culture.  For, even though producers and artists from other countries have risen to prominence, dancehall remains intrinsically Jamaican music at its core, and represents one of the most significant contributions ever to world music.

As I also am an American white male, I would be remiss not to say anything regarding the events of recent times, which are only the latest events in a long litany of this country’s inattention to pressing problems of race.  I was personally lucky to grow up and go to school in a privileged environment, and I was also lucky enough to see all the limitations of that elitism and racism that it embodied.  I left my home right after high school for NYC to see what the “reality” of America really was.  This began an odyssey of spending my time and learning from people who were different than me and my circumstances.  The inequities of race and class were front and center, whether I was living on an Indian reservation in New Mexico or in inner-city New York and Denver. 

I have done my own work over the years, and I have strived to educate myself and be aware of my privilege and racist policy since the days of Bensonhurst and Tawana Brawley.  I took awkward first steps to reach out to people across class and race and that has made all the difference.  For me, music has been a bridge that has connected me with many people I might never have met otherwise.  People looked beyond my race to see my earnest desire to learn and represent, and they helped me gain knowledge of self.  They gave of themselves, their time and experience to teach someone they had no obligation to care about, but still empathized with.

I believe empathy is something that is in such short supply in our racial politics.  I mean real empathy.  Not sympathy.  Sympathy is a surface phenomenon when we are emotionally affected by another’s suffering.  However it is still kept at a distance.  Empathy is the ability to try and understand another person’s feelings and experience. Empathy only comes through hard work and gaining knowledge of reality.   Empathy is no substitute for actual actions to change racist policies, but it is a step that can lead to action.  I will never fully know what it is like to be a black person in American society but empathy allowed me to truly connect with people who were.  It is every white person’s obligation to educate themselves and learn empathy, which if it is genuine, should lead to some form of action.

 I stand as an ally with all those who have helped me and those I have never met, not because they helped me, but because it is the only sane and right thing to do.  The racist policies of this society have persisted for an unconscionably long time and must be changed at all costs.  I would like to think this time what things are different and real significant change is upon us.  Things look hopeful, but then again they have seemed to have reached a breaking point so many times before.  Black lives and black bodies continue to suffer relentlessly.

So this, my first blog entry, is something of an apology.  Don’t read this blog or listen because you think I’m an authority on dancehall or hiphop; read it to learn about or consider something new about a culture and a music that has had such a huge impact on the world and on me.  Read it because it is another unique perspective.  Perhaps read it to empathize with me, and with those who have created this music.

My opinions are my own and are colored by my experiences as a DJ, and a teacher of the youth.  Whether it be in Jamaica, or the Bronx, inner city youth have defined popular culture for a long time.  That’s where a big part of the creativity and artistry of our consumer society really emanates from.  I should know, I’m privileged enough to spend 6 hours with those inner-city youth every day.  I’ve also been a teacher long enough to know that there is a lot that tests don’t measure, and that some of the things people shrink from in this music, are some of the things society needs to hear the most.

If you can see dancehall and hiphop through my eyes, you will see something beautiful, full of emotion and truth.  And isn’t that the real definition of art?  Undeniably, dancehall and hiphop are art, and this blog is here to help prove that to a culture and society that is still mostly deaf to what Chuck D called “Black CNN”.  Dancehall and Hiphop can be sophisticated, intelligent, and vital expressions of life in the inner city and beyond.  As Prince Hal reminds us in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, “Thou didst well, for wisdom cries out in the street, and no man regards it”.  It’s still crying out today.  I invite you to listen, and perhaps to listen with empathy.

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