Given only a perfunctory glance it might seem somewhat difficult to find any sort of musical similarity between American Blues and Jamaican Dancehall music. Yet the common threads are many and they resonate loudly & deeply.
Looking beyond the base facts that both are derived from West African influences and share cross influences the similarities become obvious.
Several parallels I’ve found to be interesting, follow:
1) Both Dancehall and Blues are very personal music serving as sounding boards for personal experiences of musician and listener alike. The frustrations and joys of love,dire economic circumstance, the violence of ghetto life, incarceration, etc. are all reflected in both. Both help serve as an avenue of escape from all of these grim realities and offer at least some form of temporary hope, superficial as it may be. Both are equally comprised of pessimism & optimism, frustration and rage, love and joy and are concerned primarily with matters that affect both audience and artist on a direct level. Truly they are both musics by, for and of the proletariat massive.
2) Violence. As many blues singers were once considered outlaws so are many of todays Dancehall DJ’s. Truth be told many are outlaws and in both styles this only serves to heighten their mystique. Blues singers such as Leadbelly & Son House were both convicted murderers; Leadbelly being jailed more than once for this offense. Chicago blues great Taildragger was convicted of, and spent 17 months down for the self defense shooting of another ChiTown bluesman Boston Blackie back in ’93. Many bluesman such as Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson # 1 have died premature deaths attributed to street violence.
Comparably,on the Reggae side of things, the early 90′s saw the DJ Supercat
gun down fellow DJ Nitty Gritty in supposed self defense. Ninjaman was jailed for a year stateside for weapons charges. This didn’t hurt Ninjaman’s popularity at all, it actually enhanced it. Many Reggae artists such as the late great Peter Tosh have also met with senseless & violent ends. Sad realities reflected in the lyrics and lives of both bluesmen and of dancehall performers.
3) As was the case with many blues artists, many dancehall DJ’s also cannot read or write. This, at least in part, contributes to the emotional honesty of both styles as feeling and message pass directly from performer to audience connecting on a visceral level rather than the cerebral. There are no subjects in either form of music that are considered off-limits or taboo. From the most commonplace day to day events to the utterly bizarre, nothing is beyond comment: politics, sexual boasting, matters of the heart, pop culture and beyond are all open to satire, to ridicule and to praise. To sum it up with more eloquence than I can even begin to muster: “Humani nila me alienium puto”. Which means:” Nothing human is alien to me”. Damn, but those Romans had a way with words, eh?
4) Blues has always been looked down upon for the most part by the Black middle classes as being crude, repetitive, vulgar. The Devil’s music if you please. Such is the case with Dancehall music and the Jamaican middle class who prefer Soca to the DeeJay sounds and look upon dancehall as primitive, obscene and belonging to the lower classes. Neither of these musical forms has to this day, gained much respectability beyond their target audience of the working class. So called ‘good’ people tend to eschew these musical forms no matter how popular they may be – at least in public anyway.
5) Both Dancehall and Blues are primarily male dominated musical forms. There are exceptions of course and the females of either genre hold their own quite nicely, even one upping the men in many cases. Memphis Minnie was a guitarist par excellence and many bluesmen would gladly defer to her talents rather than try to best her in a cutting contest. The same can be said about Lady Saw, who’ll match any of the DJ’s in today’s dancehall scene in energy, freestyle rhyming, slackness and sheer abandon.
6) Last but not least. Both musics are primarily dance musics, meant to move your ass and make you want to fill your glass. Hypnotic, droning and full of boundless energy, the sonorous qualities of both are at once uplifting and reflective of their environments. I think that anybody with a bit of taste and a little heart and soul can make similar connections to these musics beyond those I have noted here.