“I Shot the Sheriff”: Gun Talk in
Jamaican Popular Music
Constant references to guns in Jamaican popular music have resulted in an increasing tendency to criminalize the idiom and demonize the culture both locally and in the international marketplace. Simple-minded evaluations of this gun rhetoric often fail to take into account the promiscuous genesis of these discourses, instead representing them as unambiguous signs of the congenital pathology of Jamaican popular culture and its creators. Conversely, I argue that badmanism is a theatrical pose that has been refined in the complicated socialization processes of Jamaican youth, who learn to imitate and adapt the sartorial and ideological “style” of the heroes and villains of imported movies. Cinema remains a relatively cheap form of mass entertainment for the urban poor, though cable television networks increasingly facilitate access to the full range of offerings of the North American film and television industry.
There is, as well, an indigenous tradition of heroic “badness” that has its origins in the rebellious energy of enslaved African people who refused to submit to the whip of bondage. Nanny of the Maroons, for example, is memorialized as having possessed supernatural powers; it is said that she used her bottom to deflect the bullets of British soldiers. Nineteenth-century warriors like Paul Bogle and Sam Sharpe kept alive the heroic spirit of resistance to the dehumanizing social and political conditions of colonial Jamaica. Twentieth-century political giants like Marcus Garvey and St William Grant, the latter a champion of the working class and a militant leader in the social and political upheavals of the 1930s in Jamaica, enriched the enduring legacy of resistance against the system, to quote Bob Marley. This heroic anti-slavery, anti-establishment ethos accounts in large measure for much of the ambivalence about “badness” in Jamaican society.
The classic 1972 Jamaican cult film The Harder They Come and the much more recent 1999 Third World Cop illustrate the indigenization of an imported American culture of “heroism” and gun violence; both films glamorize Hollywood reconstructions of masculinity. These distorted images are greedily imbibed by gullible Jamaican youth searching for role models. In a December