Jamaica's Violent Political Divide, Bridged By a Song for Peace

Courtesy Photo
Nesbeth and Prime Minister Andrew Holness, together at the Prime Minister's inauguration in Kingston, Jamaica. 

Despite differences in their governing approaches, the leaders of Jamaica’s two major political parties, Portia Simpson Miller of the People’s National Party (PNP) and the now-incumbent Jamaica Labor Party (JLP) led by Prime Minister Andrew Holness, reached an unofficial and rare compromise during the early stages of the recently concluded 2016 election. The focus of this concurrence was a song: "My Dream" by Kingston-based singer Nesbeth. 

"In previous years, when one party realizes the other is using a particular song they would stop using it because each party wants a song for themselves, but both parties went crazy over 'My Dream' unlike anything we have seen in Jamaica’s politics," the non-partisan Nesbeth told Billboard in a mid-March interview at Kingston’s Courtleigh Hotel. Greg Nesbeth was born and raised in the same economically beleaguered west Kingston community of Trench Town, where Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh formed the Wailers in 1963. 

Prime Minister Holness invited Nesbeth to perform at his March 3rd inauguration ceremony and, in an unprecedented governmental decision, joined the artist onstage to sing a few lines of "My Dream," the video clip of their duet furthering the song’s already widespread popularity. "That was a once in lifetime invitation I couldn’t turn down," says Nesbeth, "so I went there with my reggae baton and made sure I came out the victor instead of the victim."

"Bob Marley provided the medium through music to carry the message of freedom, upliftment and self-assertion worldwide," declared Prime Minister Holness invoking the accomplishments of Jamaican music’s most famous son in his inaugural speech.

Despite the detente that "My Dream" seems to have inspired between the two parties, the history between Jamaica's music and its political and social climate is a dark one.

"In the 1960s, ska artists Prince Buster and Derrick Morgan sang for politicians but when political gang war started in the 1970s, many artists moved away from that, fearing repercussions if they openly identified with a party,"  says Kingston-born industry veteran Robert Livingston, former manager of dancehall superstar Shaggy. "At sound system dances held in communities controlled by one party, music by artists from areas associated with the rival party wouldn’t be played because it could cause violence." While election-related viciousness has sharply declined over the ensuing decades, two JLP campaign events and a PNP-sponsored dance held during the four-week 2016 campaign season experienced incidents of fatal gunfire.

Amidst the partisan brutality of the mid-'70s, Bob Marley was shot by thugs who burst into his Kingston home while rehearsing for the Smile Jamaica concert, a show that was aimed at curtailing the escalating violence surrounding the pending election. The JLP, right-wing and CIA-friendly at the time, viewed Marley’s participation in the concert as support for Manley. Leader Edward Seaga was believed to have planned the ambush. 

"From February-October 1980 -- effectively the island’s longest general election campaign -- 844 Jamaicans were killed because of political violence, according to official police statistics, and the tense conditions were reflected in the music," says Sean "Contractor" Edwards, founder of Contractor Marketing, an entertainment marketing company, and a former campaign manager.

The harrowing (politically motivated) gang warfare that has wreaked havoc upon so many lives in disadvantaged downtown communities like Trench Town -- as portrayed in Nesbeth’s most compelling songs -- renders the success of "My Dream" beyond a career transforming hit: it’s a profoundly inspirational accomplishment for the island. "In the ghetto you have to be more than strong to stay away violence because there are more guns there than people," Nesbeth shares. "Political parties believe in divide and rule, but we have to decide whether to go down the pit or hold our heads high and survive."

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