Thursday, January 6, 2011

How Jamaica, Vybz Kartel, Reggae Music and Our Own Ignorance is Killing Israel

Of the epic conflicts of our time, the East Coast vs. West Coast, hip-hop feud that saw the death of Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur was probably more popularly known than many of the other, more conventional wars being waged between nations. When that conflict ended, with a virtual nuclear bomb, when the de facto Officers in Chief of both sides were murdered, a pax romana across the culture landscape ensued. There were many rivalries and feuds in music, but each faction made sure to put aside any talk of actual violence and to maintain a League of Nations stylized ideal of peaceful conflict negotiation.
Today, there is a new conflict and it promises to end this time of good. In Jamaica, two rival factions, Gully and Gaza, respectively, are at an impasse across the dancehall reggae scene. Each is led by a charismatic figure who encourages his followers with chants, threats and exhortations that they are the most powerful, the most violent and the most willing to prove the former two points. Each side claims to want peace but is locked in a struggle with their own mythology so the intimidation and potential outbreak continues apace. The entire culture has divided between the two camps and it is well known that supporters of one side are not welcome in whole cities that belong to the other side. There has been no deaths yet and the facts and figures from this area are sketchy at best but anecdotal evidence suggests actual physical violence is occurring at an alarming rate and that the intensity is increasing.
Part of the reason for this seeming spiral out of control is that no one has any cause to stop it. In America, both the politicians, the cops, youth workers and the record industry had vested interest in the containment of violence. In Jamaica, a slightly more lawless community, the politicians may very well be in bed with the two sides, each major party choosing one or the other to be their virtual cheerleading squad. Youth advocates are not nearly as powerful as in the states. Ditto for the cops. With tacit political support and no checks or balances, this is a fearful situation and one we must consider more in depth.
On the one side is Vybz Kartel, the reggae artist who represents Gaza. Gaza is both the nickname of his town, Portmore, Jamaica but also, now, it has become synonymous with his followers, fans and collaborative artists. There are “Gaza Rules” that adherents must follow. There are Gaza girls who are lauded as sexual objects in music videos who are stripped of their real name and called by the monikor Gaza plus a nickname. Gaza is the word to be spray painted across walls, chanted in concerts and screamed in joy or anger. Like a terrorist praising Allah as his last human act, a follower of Gaza will scream that very word before punching, kicking or, worst case, shooting an opponent. Gaza exists beyond the borders of Portmore proper or even Jamaica as a whole and this violent, angry rivalry is showing itself across Queens and Brooklyn. It is believed that money can prevent most wars but that is not the case here and, this past summer, most large-scale reggae concerts in the boroughs of New York and cities of Canada with significant West Indian populations had to be cancelled because the threat of violence should rival factions appear was too great.

It is interesting that a war-like, violent group of misbegotten, misinformed thugs would choose to ally themselves with Gaza. They, as per the words of their leader, take pride in the name because, according to him, the residents of Gaza are formidable opponents. Throughout time, warriors, evil-doers and angry young men have captivated and influenced cultural opinion. War has been the subject of untold pieces of art, scores of music and, of course, film and television. What is shocking in this regard is how much popular culture is now affecting war.
When Artists 4 Israel first posted this disturbing phenomenon on our Facebook page, an idealistic young man asked a question that Artists 4 Israel has been getting for some time – “So?” So what that a large group of people were chanting the name of a country which popularly elected a terrorist regime and actively seeks the destruction of Israel? So what that popular culture is being infected with the poisoned germ that Gaza and all it represents is positive. The ignorant and borderline racists tell me that Jamaicans have no influence so I should not worry. The kind and well-meaning tell me that since Israel has truth and facts and figures on her side, the good will win the day even in the face of this cultural pressure. The clueless ask me why popular culture matters so much in a discussion of politics.
Like the children at the Passover Seder, the Jewish and Israeli advocacy organizations fill similar prototypes. The wise rely on their facts and figures. The wicked seek only opportunity for themselves – how can they find funding in this latest crises? The simple are barely aware a discussion is happening. And, far too many of these organizations, remain silent. It is for the questions we received on Facebook that we answer. It is for these four children that I answer. It is these four children that have become the sons of Artists 4 Israel. It is these four children that scoffed when we coined the term “culture war” more then two years ago but pull it out now at fundraisers and board pitches.
And our answer is simple: situations like this are the greatest non-weaponized threat to Israel of all time. People no longer vote or make decisions based on a sober and intellectual consideration of the facts. Decisions are made with hearts, not minds. Beliefs trump ideas. Voting for American Idol trumps Presidential Election voting and even when people do vote in the elections, they vote based upon who they “like” or “trust” and not who they believe has the greatest potential or whose position papers are the most articulate. Oprah and Jon Stewart trump the news. Facebook status updates trump letters and twitter trumps research, debate and contemplative thought.
If you were to ask these questions of a homosexual in Jamaica, he would tell you how reggae music’s opinions can quickly become violent realizations.
The battle was lost the day that Vybz Kartel decided that Gaza was cool enough to use to name his entire movement. Of the million fans that hear him chant it, that hear him exhort and praise it, that hear him honor it, how many do you think will pick up a history book? How many do you think will talk to an Israeli or a resident of Gaza to get a realistic understanding? None. Because no one is seeking a realistic understanding (no one, that is, except for the Wise son who knows his facts cold). But, reverse the question and ask how many of his millions of fans will adopt his baseless assertion that Gaza is cool, powerful and worthy of praise – its enemies worthy of derision. Hundreds? Thousands? How many of them will become artists themselves, sharing this information with the next generation? How many will become politicians or important, strategic decision makers? And, then what?
Popular opinion shapes our decisions. Our Presidents read polls before making choices. Even worse, as this insidiuous virus of cool spreads more and more deeply into the public imagination and consciousness, it will become second nature. Polls won’t matter anymore because the spirit has been corrupted by the belief that Gaza is all mighty.
Gone is the questioning Jew. In his place is the visceral belief that the Jew and his country, Israel, are evil.
Now, I question our sons, the wise, wicked, simple and silent Jewish and Israeli advocacy organizations – what do you plan to do? Artists 4 Israel was the first and might still be the only group to recognize the problem. Do you want to know our solution?

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