Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

The Popular Culture of Illegality: Crime and the Politics of Aesthetics in Urban Jamaica

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

The Popular Culture of Illegality: Crime and the Politics of Aesthetics in Urban Jamaica

Article excerpt


This article discusses the ways in which popular culture reflects and reinforces criminal governance structures in Kingston, Jamaica, where so-called "dons" are central to extra-state forms of political order. In order to appreciate why donmanship has developed as a durable structure of rule and belonging, attention must be paid not only to the dons' informal provision of material services to inner-city residents, but also to the imaginative, aesthetic underpinnings of criminal authority. Drawing on work linking aesthetics, politics, and the body, the article examines the emotional and ethical work that specific texts, sounds, performative practices, and visual images do. [Keywords: Jamaica, crime, popular culture, aesthetics, politics, governance, urban]


In contexts of urban marginality in both the Global south and North, criminal organizations have become so powerful and institutionalized that they can be understood as extra-state governance structures. these organizations have emerged as key actors in the provision of security and social welfare, developing non-democratic but relatively legitimate systems of urban order; they may evolve into structures of rule and belonging that entail what can be understood as political subjectivities. In some cases, leaders and organizations that are formally regarded as illegal or criminal take on the functions and symbols of the state, complementing or even replacing the formal state. Examples include criminal governance systems in brazilian favelas (Arias 2006), Mexican cities (Davis 2010) and south African townships (standing 2003), and of course the Italian mafia (blok 1974). In inner-city Jamaica, "dons"-neighborhood leaders who are often linked to criminal organizations-enjoy considerable power and respect, as evidenced in the popular protests surrounding the extradition of alleged gang leader christopher "Dudus" coke to the United states in 2010. these dons and their organizations are often considered more legitimate than politicians and other formal state leaders.

The continued existence of criminal governance structures-like other forms of political order-relies both on the authority and legitimacy of individual leaders and on the institutionalization of the collective (such as the gang or cartel). I argue that the continuation of Jamaica's donmanship relies on the iconization of individuals-an aesthetic fashioning of an elevated social status that combines religious, political, and celebrity culture elements-as well as the naturalization of the power structure surrounding these individuals. this consolidation of power is achieved not only through material incentives, but also through symbolic and discursive practices. the legitimacy of Jamaican dons at the neighborhood level is explained in part by their informal provisioning of material services that the Jamaican state is not perceived as providing (welfare, employment, security, and justice). I argue that to appreciate the ways in which donmanship has developed as an enduring form of political order, attention must also be paid to the imaginative, aesthetic underpinnings of criminal authority.

In this article, I focus on the texts, sounds, performative practices, and visual images that accompany these extra-legal structures of power, and the emotional and ethical work that these popular culture expressions do within specific urban spaces.1 I combine aesthetic and ethnographic approaches to analyze the ways criminal leadership is iconized, and associated power structures are legitimated. these processes of criminal iconization are by no means unique to Jamaica. Jason Pine (2008) has written on the relation between the camorra of southern Italy and the musical genre of neomelodica. similarly, there are strong connections between Mexican drugs cartels and the genre of narcocorridos that emerged along the Us border (Edberg 2004), and between brazilian gang leaders and the baile funk music of the favelas (sneed 2007). …

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