September 15, 2007, was a bad night for local dancehall. After weeks of solid concert promotion and buildup for one of the liveliest dancehall shows of the year, a great concert was brought to a screeching halt because of bullets and ignorance.
Reggae rebels Mavado and newcomer Munga Honorable were performing at the Gold Coast Roller Rink in Fort Lauderdale — an odd venue for a dancehall concert but one that somehow worked out surprisingly well. Police were all over the place, the rudeboys seemed not to care, and good music, good vibes, and a cloud of ganja smoke kept the skating rink animated well into the wee hours. Despite all the craziness that perforated the show, Munga's set was as solid as ever. With thick locks, shiny gold teeth, hip-hop attire, and a brazen attitude reminiscent of Tupac or Tony Montana, Munga's stage presence that night demonstrated why he's undeniably the biggest dancehall star on the rise. He and Mavado performed together for ten or 15 minutes, ripping through up-tempo riddims that sent the crowd into a frenzy. Twenty seconds into each tune, the DJ would pull up the track and spin it again, all of which kept driving the energy of the crowd forward.
Just as the night's unannounced special guest, Bounty Killer, jumped on stage and the three artists started sending the crowd toward a musical orgasm, everything went to shit. Sounds of gunshots erupted, police stormed the stage with weapons drawn, and a concert that managed to surpass its own considerable hype was cut short just as it was going from great to incredible.
Munga was especially pissed-off after the shooting (in which a few rounds were fired into the air and nobody was injured), but he's able to laugh about it all now.
"That was a gun salute, ya know," Munga says via phone from Jamaica. "That was just a dancehall audience t'ing. It wasn't no disagreement or a fight. That was just a gun salute. The police rushed the stage and shut down the show, but de people dem were just welcoming us, ya know."
Well, I've been to a lot of concerts, and anytime an artist needs to be welcomed with a gun salute, it's going to be one hell of a show, but something is out of whack.
This weekend, Munga marks his return to Fort Lauderdale, headlining a show at Revolution. Things aren't expected to get out of hand at all. But Munga pulled a knife on dancehall troublemaker Deva Brat when the two got into an onstage fistfight. Popular singjay Sizzla was on hand that night to restore order to the concert, which is a sign that dancehall artists can themselves create peace. But two weeks ago, there was another altercation — this time Sizzla getting into it with Jah Cure!
With this string of recent incidents, it seemed like a good time to speak with Munga about violence in dancehall, since he's quickly and perhaps unfairly becoming the poster boy for all of the genre's problems.
"As a society, we always need somebody to blame," Munga offers. "I think the media needs someone to point the finger at. Right now, they want to point the finger at me. It's just my time to go through this. Artists have been blamed for violence in music before me, and they will be blamed after me."
His answer has merit. It is unfair to put all of this on the shoulders of a few rebellious rockers like Munga and Mavado, when the genre has had a bad reputation for years. But I press him on why there's so much violence in dancehall specifically — as the softer and more melodic genre of reggae tends to avoid such problems.
"Why is it that there's so much violence in society?" he answers back. "Art imitates life, not the other way around. Let's be clear about that. Dancehall is just music. Real violence is going on worldwide, in Pakistan, India, Israel, and especially America. Why are people afraid to talk about that?"
It's a good question. I'd throw out a response, but Munga is on a roll.
"Me say, even I, as a younger youth growing up in Jamaica, from the country to the ghettos of Kingston, I was majorly influenced by what I saw on TV as far as being rebellious," Munga continues. "Me see Al Capone on the TV and Gumshoe and Scarface. That influenced me way more than dancehall. We as artists are creating the music that the people dem want to hear, and we rhyme about what we see."
He's unapologetic about dancehall's rougher edges and takes the stance that, if people want to see less violence in the music, better living conditions for Jamaicans need to come first.
I wouldn't call him the Robin Hood of reggae, but he speaks up for poor people in Jamaica — and sometimes aggression comes with that perspective. And as for his fracas with Deva Brat, he's quick to add: "Me and him never had no beef. Him overstep him boundary, and me take care of that. Yeah, I pulled my knife on him, but what did I do? I put it back. That was a natural reaction, but cooler heads prevailed.
"This music goes through phases," he continues. "It was in the one-drop era for awhile, with Fantan Mojah and I-Wayne, and now it's going through a more rebellious, gangster stage. But it always changes. This is a new year. Before we start judging, let's see what happens."