Shortly before I set out on my most recent sojourn to the United States, Boo Hinkson phoned Newsspin to register a complaint. At any rate, a personal concern. His remarks centered on Caribbean music. More particularly, on the words of such songs as had made Jamaicans Vybz Kartel, Bounty Killer, Mavado and Aidonia urban heroes in the eyes of impressionable tens of thousands throughout the region, to say nothing of local wannabes. By Boo’s typically conservative measure, the dancehall songs were “absolute filth,” for the most part bereft of redeeming qualities, therefore should be denied airtime in the best interests of national development.
Of course it is by now common knowledge that if Boo had his own way the ace musician would ban all songs not spiritually uplifting, or that failed to deliver libraries of positive messages to listeners young and old, or were not altogether devoid of prurience, or in any way appeared to glorify the drug culture. Forget about sales potential. Boo’s like that.
Not that his own compositions had always been free of controversy. Back in the day the needle in his One Bad Prick had brought our well-advertised Christian society out in hives—despite that the song had condemned drug abuse and sought to underscore the added risks from injections with contaminated hypodermic syringes.
Then there was School Bag, for which Boo was taken to task for suggesting parents did not take enough interest in what their kids carried in their satchels to the nation’s classrooms. Let it also be said that time had proved him right.
I might well have permitted Boo his unchallenged say, but for his subtle suggestion that performers whose work did not quite measure up to his well-known standard of decency should be denied the official support afforded their less radical fellow artistes. After all, the last mentioned also pay taxes, as do their relatives and fans. Great respecter of free speech that I know him to be, I was taken aback by Boo’s perhaps inadvertent contention that it was up to our lawmakers to determine what is art and therefore deserving of public support and what is filth, not up to the people themselves.
I daresay it may be worth keeping in mind that some of today’s most revered literary works were once considered threats to public morality, among them Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. First published in 1884, the book was banned a year later. Concord Public Library described it as “trash suitable only for the slums.”
The US government under the Comstock Law of 1873, “an Act of the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use” banned The Arabian Nights. Alice Walker’s The Color Purple received the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award but has been frequently challenged and banned for what has been termed “sexual and social explicitness.” It was made into a hit motion picture, starring Whoopi Goldberg.
Not even the Bible was always good enough for all the people. Along with The Talmud and The Koran, it was also banned from time to time on religious grounds. The most shocking story in the suppression of translations of the Bible is the fate of William Tyndale, the first person to translate it into English from the original Hebrew and Greek. According to Nicholas J. Karolides, Margaret Balk and Dawn B. Sova in their One Hundred Banned Books: “In a plot masterminded by English authorities, Tyndale was arrested by authorities in Antwerp, Belgium, tried for heresy and strangled and burned at the stake near Brussels in 1536 with copies of his Bible translation.”
There is absolutely nothing wrong with expressing concern for what our young people read and listen to. Indeed, Boo is to be congratulated on his consistency. However, it is one thing to speak up against what he considers indecent and immoral and unworthy of our kids’ attention, and quite another to advocate, however subtly, official censorship. Kids must be taught what makes a song good or bad, what constitute quality literature and trash. (I am here reminded that Henry Miller’s classics remained for years unavailable in his native America, simply because the subject about which he wrote so brilliantly was sex.) Young people should be taught to make the right choices, not be beaten over the head with notions of morality as deciduous as a baby’s teeth.
In England recently, Denzel Cassius Harvey was charged with using foul language during a futile police search for cannabis. He was fined fifty pounds. He later appealed to the high court. Overturning Harvey’s conviction, Justice Bean said police officers were so often on the receiving end of the “rather commonplace” F-word that it was unlikely to cause them “harassment, alarm or distress.”
Additionally, it was “quite impossible to infer that the group of young people who were in the vicinity at the time were likely to have experienced alarm and distress at hearing these rather commonplace swear words used.” Did the judge mean to say the more often used the less offensive expletives become?
Last year a well-known local performer was fined $400 after she pleaded guilty to using foul language during a carnival jump-up. What she actually said was “Move your ass over there”—en kweyol. Was she simply encouraging fellow revelers to “shake your booty” en langue mama nous? Whom did she offend? Who knows for certain? The police claimed she had fouled up the carnival atmosphere with her references to a certain part of the human anatomy and the magistrate concurred. I have no idea where Boo stood on the particular issue involving a fellow musician.
As I write, I am informed of yet another human sacrifice to the gods of carnival. Should the police be blamed? It goes without saying they can’t be everywhere at the same time, can’t always know who is armed and who is not, who came to have a good time and who came to kill. Some who believe carnival is Satanic anyway may well be wondering at this point why it continues to be financed from the public purse.
Undeniably, in more ways than one it places added pressures on the nation’s meager resources and may well not be worth its bloody cost. If, as some contend, it also has its good points, the supportive evidence remains classified. So should we now be considering whether to ban carnival in the public interest? Should the government legislate how far revelers can go, in their dress and in their actions, while celebrating their culture?
True, the cacophony that passes for songs at carnival time can sometimes be most difficult to stomach. Perhaps their composers were counting on their smut content to render them popular. If so, then year after year they’ve come up short. Few if any of the “hole in she panty” contributions ever make the calypso finals. And the reason is obvious: the truly sicko songs may titillate on first and second hearing but by mid-season they’ve lost their sting. (Remember Justice Bean’s words?) As I see it, it’s downright dangerous to encourage government interference in matters of taste. Some may well argue that if the licentious street displays at carnival time are worthy of taxpayer support, then why not the songs that drive them? Surely our radio and TV stations can set up their own in-house panels to determine which songs meet their broadcast standards and which don’t, as is indeed their prerogative.
Of course, in Saint Lucia and elsewhere squeaky-clean songs have never guaranteed high record sales—nor for that matter has vulgarity. Giving the people what they want often does. So, should Boo’s concern be directed at the local appetite for filth instead of the providers?
America faces a similar dilemma: should its drug czars be less concerned about drug suppliers outside their borders and concentrate instead on readjusting the appetite of the world’s largest consumer of narcotics? The irreducible, if inconvenient, truth is that as a nation we may already have embraced too much that is amoral and destructive, if only in the name of survival. Already we have permitted too many aberrations to become cultural. The institutions we once depended on for guidance long ago sold out to the devil. And now we are reaping what we sowed. Hey, it’s the natural order of things!