Lee 'Scratch' Perry's Revelation

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LISA MULLINS: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World. Our next story is about the intersection of politics, crime and music in Jamaica. The music in question is a style called dancehall. Dancehall's been popular in Jamaica for many years now. Well today, it's at its peak. Dancehall, like hip hop, often embraces gangster culture. Jamaican gangsters provide the resources for a lot of dancehall artists to put on shows and record their CDs. And then there are the links between gangsters and politicians in Jamaica. Jamaica's a country where the top gangsters, or dons, all claim an affiliation with one of the two main political parties. The line that connects musicians, criminals and politicians was in clear evidence last May. That's when Jamaican authorities went on an island-wide manhunt to extradite a don who was wanted here in the United States on drug charges. Christopher Coke was thought to be holed up at his home and headquarters in the Tivoli Gardens section of Kingston. Journalist David Peisner reminds us what happened on May 24th of this year.

DAVID PEISNER: The police forces went into Tivoli Gardens, heavily armed, this is essentially a military operation. It was a mess, it was a bloodbath, over 70 people died. And Coke was not apprehended at that point, it would be almost a month later before he was sort of peacefully apprehended, driving on a highway outside Kingston.

MULLINS: David Peisner was in Jamaica just after Coke was apprehended. He wrote an article in this month's issue of Spin magazine on Christopher Coke, and on the Jamaican web of gangsters, dancehall musicians and politicians. He says these connections aren't a phenomenon exclusive to dancehall. They go all the way back to the days of ska and reggae. In fact, Peisner says the man who invented the phrase �One Love,� Bob Marley, was a part of that web.

PEISNER: In 1978, he put on this One Love Peace concert and got the prime minister, who was then Michael Manley, and the opposition leader who was a man named Edward Seaga, on stage and clutched their hands together above his head, which was a huge deal because these political parties were at war with each other quite literally. Their supporters were shooting each other in the streets. So that was sort of his involvement in politics, but what was perhaps lesser known even to this day, is that that concert was organized by guys who were well known gangsters. And I guess when I say the lines are blurred between, or not so much blurred as disappeared, between politics and crime, I mean gangsters, almost all of them in Jamaica, from back in the �70s to this day, have a political affiliation, whether it's with the JLP or the PNP. And this has been going on and essentially only getting worse to this day, leading up to Christopher Coke who by most accounts is really sort of the most powerful example of what they call dons. Politically tied organized crime figures. Although of course when you say crime, I guess you probably have to stick the word alleged in front of it because he hasn't really been convicted of anything. Not in this country and not in Jamaica.

MULLINS: What's his profile or what has been his profile in Jamaica? Because this guy as you say was a powerful, local don, as apparently was his father. What was his connection with dancehall music?

PEISNER: He had direct connections to dancehall. He was a promoter. He promoted shows. He had a couple of big concerts that he did each year. And he also, you know there were several dancehall rivalries. Most recently, two artists, one named Vybes Kartel, another one named Mavado, and if you kind of think of them maybe like a Tupac and Biggie Smalls kind of rivalry. But their factions had by sort of 2009 were getting violent with each other. Well, Christopher Coke brokered a peace between these two guys. And not only was Christopher Coke a dangerous figure because he was uniting the poor people in Tivoli Gardens and some of the neighboring communities, but Jamaican politics has always been divided between the JLP and the PNP and he had support from both. And so he was a dangerous figure.

MULLINS: The people there, though, really have an affinity for this guy, for Christopher Coke.

PEISNER: Well, Christopher Coke, especially within Tivoli Gardens and some of the neighboring communities is seen as a guy who not only keeps the peace down there, but also buys school uniforms for kids, pays people's medical bills, gets people jobs. He runs legitimate businesses, contracting businesses and such, and he can give out jobs, give out money. So here's a guy who's in the community helping to develop the community. This is the view of a lot of people I spoke to.

MULLINS: When there's somebody who's engaged in such criminal enterprise as Christopher Coke is accused of being engaged in, when they are doing these beneficial things for the community do you find that's out of a sense of loyalty to the community and wanting to make the community better or is it basically so people don't snitch on him?

PEISNER: I think that this goes back to the lines between criminality and politics and music all being very grey. I think a guy like Christopher Coke genuinely wanted his community to do well. He genuinely wanted to see people lifted up as well as he could. Now I don't think that he did this completely out of a sense of benevolence, but I think it served his interests as a businessman not to have violence of the streets of the community that he was seen as the don of. And I think that to have support from the community only helped him in all of his other businesses. And this goes back to the dancehall in a really interesting way because dancehall is really � to say its folk music down there really doesn't even get at it. I mean it is the music. It's the voice of the people. So if you're a guy like Christopher Coke, you almost need to have a hand in dancehall to understand and to communicate with the people. It's the news outlet. It is the way that the mass of Jamaican populace down there communicates and gets their news.

MULLINS: That's really interesting to think of it. And also it was kind of like you said, ska to reggae, or roots reggae, and not to dancehall, it's really part of a continuum, isn't it?

PEISNER: Absolutely. Absolutely. Which isn't to say that ska and reggae don't exist any more, but really dancehall is kind of the sound of Jamaica now in a way that roots reggae was in �70s, but is no longer.

MULLINS: David Peisner, very nice to talk to you.

PEISNER: Nice to talk to you too, Lisa.

MULLINS: David Peisner's article on Christopher Coke appears in this month's issue of Spin magazine. By the way, Christopher Coke is set to go on trial in New York next month. Now, as David Peisner just said, dancehall music may be king in Jamaica, but that doesn't mean that ska and reggae artists aren't around anymore. One of the legends of reggae, Lee Scratch Perry, is definitely still out there, even if he's out of the Jamaican loop, living in Switzerland. Despite his 74 years, Lee Scratch Perry seems to put out a new recording every year. His latest is titled Revelation and we're going to leave you with this track from it. It features George Clinton, of Parliament Funkadelic fame, on vocals. This song is called �Scary Politicians.� Maybe from his perch in the Swiss Alps, Lee Scratch Perry is more in the Jamaican loop than we think. If you want to see Lee Scratch Perry doing his thing live, there's a video at TheWorld.org. From the Nan and Bill Harris Studios at WGBH in Boston, I'm Lisa Mullins. Thanks for listening.