The midday sun beats down mercilessly on the House of David, a community composed of disciples, workers, and family members of prolific Boboshanti dancehall artist Capleton.
Although located in the heart of Kingston, Jamaica, the space has a country vibe. A rusty Honda Civic (“Capleton’s first chariot”) decays in a corner and a pigeon coop forms the back wall. An Ital chef fills Styrofoam trays with tofu, plantains, and rice and peas from a wooden pushcart. A locks dresser, one of many who specializes in dreadlock maintenance, tends to a lion’s newly formed mane while elderly ladies, mothers of long-term House of David followers, scratch about the yard like fussing chickens. Would-be stars wait around every corner, singing like their lives depend on it; many have been following Capleton for years, hoping for a break. Singer Bamboo Man says he has been “waiting patiently for 10 years.”
Only a year ago, 27-year-old Munga Honourable (real name: Damian Rhoden) was in the same position as Bamboo Man, his career highs consisting of a few conscious 7-inch single releases and appearances as a “banner man” (flag waver) at Capleton’s stage shows. Today Munga is one of Kingston’s hottest deejays, with a slew of rowdy singles–“Came to Take My Place,” “Wine Pon It,” “Earthquake,” “Gangsters Do Dem Own Ting,” and “Bad From Mi Born”–firing up dancehalls across the globe. If the relentless rotation of his tracks weren’t affirmation enough of his rising star, one-man hit factory Don Corleon has brought him into his fold and is producing the bulk of his debut album, something the notoriously shrewd Corleon would only do if he thought he could make some serious dollars off him.
Munga caught the dancehall massive’s attention because, like Mavado, he’s got something different about him–his crunked-up, always-hyped Gangster Ras persona and galloping deejay style brought a new energy to the scene. His heavily AutoTuned tracks sparked a passionate debate within the dancehall community about whether he’d be able to carry off his vocals and high-pitched “Yes, yes” trill live. After a few shaky PAs, Munga found his stride and by last summer he had become one of the most exhilarating live performers on the circuit, projecting intense charisma, madcap energy, and a repertoire of doubt-squashing vocal tricks.
A youth rolls into the House of David yard, a hand towel precariously balanced on top of his NY Yankees baseball cap. His gold teeth, twinkling sunglasses, and affected swagger scream “Check me out!”–as does his face-obscuring towel, which I later learn is Munga’s “thing.” “The artist is here,” I’m informed. No shit.
Sitting under the shade of a tree laden with mangoes, Munga reveals there’s a lot more going on under his headgear than his gyal and badman tunes let on. His vocab is noticeably more high-brow in person than in song and he’s a keen debater, his answers ending with a response-demanding raised eyebrow.
“As you can probably gather,” he tells me with steely eye, “I’m a well-educated, well-read youth.”
Munga talks about Jamaica’s changing political climate and the impact that local gangs and their leaders have had on downtown communities. “The Don earn him ting by being a mediator for politicians. Problem now is people don’t know how to speak to their MP [Member of Parliament] or go through official channels to get what they want, they so used to dealing with the Don.”
The relatively peaceful aftermath of Jamaica’s 2007 election led international news to report that the notorious relationship between Jamaica’s street gangs and politicians had ended. Although this was vehemently refuted by many Jamaicans, the low number of politically motivated mortalities during the election period–seven people killed as opposed to the 888 who died in 1980’s general election–suggests it’s true. “The Dons are not affiliated to right or left politics anymore,” confirms Munga. “They doing their own thing now and control their communities however they want. If any of them call politics it’s usually just an excuse for getting money out the community.”
With Jamaica’s high unemployment, high homicide rates, plummeting currency, and increasingly strict immigration laws, Munga believes music is the “fabric” that keeps the nation together. “Without music people would sit down and think about dem problem and the place would erupt,” he offers. “Entertainers like I have a big influence on the Jamaican people. It’s time musicians were credited for our good work as opposed to critics trying to bring we down for our lyrics. ’Nuff noise people make about me calling myself a Gangster Ras instead of looking to the real gangsters of Jamaica.”
When Munga began his career, he was a different artist than the hoodie-rocking, violent-rhetoric-busting ball of fire he is now, with rumors flying around about him attempting to “juke” Casper (the producer of his hit song “Wine Pon It”) with a knife over a discrepancy about the track’s data files. When he sang conscious songs no one listened, but now that he talks about “bussing face” people can’t get enough. He attributes this to living in the era of gangster music, the popularity of himself and his peers Busy Signal, Mavado, Aidonia, and Vybz Kartel a testament to the mood of Jamaica’s ghetto communities. He observes that the recent popularity of spiritual singjays like I-Wayne, Richie Spice, and Natty King was about “reasoning, love, and consciousness,” but now it’s “rebellion time.”
“As an artist, I reflect the thoughts of the people,” he says. “They say, ‘We gave you [meaning badman, gangs, rogue police, corrupt government] a warning and you nah hear, so now you get a more raw warning.’ When singers say we have bullets for them and we rise our AKs, the people respond because that’s what’s in their hearts at this point in time. It wasn’t the artists or music that put it there, it was the years of corruption that did it.”
He pauses to allow the weight of his words to sink into the throng of people that have gathered to eavesdrop on the interview. “When I sit down pon [Kingston ghettos] Jungle and Tivoli and talk to the youth, that what me a go reflect in the music. And until something happens in this country to make the lives of dem youth change, me nah go change.”