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Erin MacLeod

Erin MacLeod teaches Caribbean literature at Vanier College in Montreal, Canada. She has also lectured in the Institute of Caribbean Studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, Jamaica. She is the author of Visions of Zion: Ethiopians and Rastafari in the Search for the Promised Land (NYU Press, 2014) and has written about music and popular culture for the Guardian, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and Deadspin, among others.

“Sound System Culture in Jamaica: Still the Voice of the People?”
Every week, across Jamaica, parking lots and streets are transformed. Cars take second place to vast stacks of speakers, and the asphalt becomes the dancefloor for vibrant community discos, with selectors playing specially recorded dubplate versions of popular songs while an MC provides running commentary. These dances have been happening since the 1950s.

Dennis Howard, a creative industry consultant and lecturer at the University of West Indies, has been involved in soundsystem culture since he was a child. “Without the soundsystem there is no music industry,” he says, “the dancehall becomes the testing ground for new material.” But not only can soundsystems create great music, they can also create community. Prince Buster called his soundsystem “The Voice of the People,” reflecting the centrality of the cultural product to the not only the music industry in Jamaica, but society at large.

In contemporary Jamaica, however, soundsystems have a great deal to compete and deal with—local radio, EDM festival culture from US and Europe, the influx of soca and Carnival from the eastern Caribbean, and, as has been since the 1950s, the police and government control. Though former government minister for Tourism and Entertainment Damian Crawford conceded, in 2014, that Jamaica “will never move away as a country from community street dances,” soundsystem culture clearly has a great deal to contend with.

In addition, given the recent international attention paid to the so-called “reggae revival,” this paper will look at the state of the soundsystem in Jamaica. Is it attracting the same attention? Can it still maintain its status as the voice of the people? 


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