Dred Scott!

Reggae Entrepreneur

It's a familiar story in the music business: bright ideas, no money for studio time. A finished CD but no cash for distribution. Throw in just the notion of hiring a publicist to help push the finished product and the outlook is bleak.

The dilemma cuts across the board. Label heads, distributors, promoters, record stores — just about everyone involved in the biz is trying to find creative ways to stay afloat.

But help could be on the way — at least, if you're smart and live in northwest Pompano Beach. Last week, the city held a graduation ceremony for a small but focused group of students in a "microenterprise" program designed to give prospective business owners a hand up and possibly a handout. Students who complete the program and turn in a cohesive business plan are eligible for a small-business loan of up to $25,000, a nice chunk of coin.

The program is only a year old, but, amazingly, no one from the music industry has ever taken part in the course — until now. That would explain why, on a sleepy Wednesday evening last week, officials from Pompano Beach seemed taken aback as artists from local reggae imprint Dashanty Music took over the E. Pat Larkins Community Center for half an hour and put on a show. An impressive show.

While it was a relatively short performance, Vice Mayor George Brummer looked shocked to hear shoutouts to Emperor Haile Selassie I and Marcus Garvey at a city-sponsored event. As the artists rocked out to dancehall and foundation tunes, the look on Brummer's face seemed to say incredulously, "This is who we're going to be financially supporting?" Little did he know that the Pompano-based reggae label backing the performance had produced one of the strongest business plans in the history of the program.

Roots-reggae singer Shanty Plus, a resident of Pompano Beach, has been trying to put out an album since he moved to Florida from Jamaica in 2000. He and his wife, Dahlia Baker, started their own label, Dashanty Music, the following year; they have worked doggedly to see Shanty release an album. He hit the local reggae scene hard after arriving in South Florida — performing live shows, recording singles and dubplates for other producers, and hiring musicians to play on his album, even when it meant traveling back to Jamaica to do so.

By their estimates, the couple spent thousands of dollars of their own money to see Shanty's album, Boundless, come to fruition. But they had enough to complete only 90 percent. Financially, the project had hit a brick wall. By 2003, their personal savings were depleted.

As a result, Shanty's album, with tracks from Luciano, Black Am I, and a host of other Jamaican artists, is currently shelved. His consciously charismatic and seductive "sing-jay" style of reggae crooning and powerful lyrics were trapped on a master demo that didn't seem that it would ever be anything more than just that — a demo. Boundless seemed bound for failure. But late last year, Baker signed up for a microeconomics course slated to serve underrepresented communities like northwest Pompano Beach. Dashanty Music qualified as a small business, and for 11 straight weeks, Baker showed up and learned. She has now completed the course.

As the first step as a certified microentrepreneur, she's diversified her product line to include reggae-influenced clothing and she has plans for Dashanty to open a storefront in the soon-to-be-revitalized downtown area. Unknown to city officials, Pompano Beach Business Fund may be in the process of funding an independent reggae label.

"It's very different for us to have a reggae business as a part of the microeconomics course," says Dr. Lynn Allison, who heads the program. "But it's a good thing, and they've got a really good chance of getting a loan and moving forward. It's exactly the type of diversity we need in the program."

Allison herself is no stranger to reggae music. Not only did she live in Barbados for 25 years but she's also the aunt of popular Hassidic reggae singer Matisyahu. She introduced Shanty to Matisyahu last month, when he performed at the Langerado Music Festival, and the two plan to record together in the near future. Dashanty Music also wants to see the community involved along the way. The term shanty is a Caribbean synonym for ghetto, and Shanty feels it's only proper that folks from Pompano can work on the album.

Shanty himself is ecstatic. "Finances have been the biggest slowdown that we've faced thus far," he says. "And this shows that we can do things ourselves — even if it takes long, it won't be forever." It brings new meaning to the Caribbean expression "Soon come."

 
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