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Payola: How Jamaica exported its own cultural identity

A music once identified as the cultural seed of a spiritual Jamaica has been denigrated, impugned and exported to foreign lands all at the hands of payola.

I spoke yesterday to someone who I really respect within the world of reggae – an industry insider for more than forty years who had just returned from a short trip to Jamaica.  The one thing he stressed to me above all else was the fact that he just could not believe the sorry state of reggae within Jamaica.  From music videos to radio to live music, he said the quality of the music was deplorable and the message being sent was even sorrier than the sound itself. 


I can absolutely relate to what he is speaking to.  When I last visited Jamaica in December 2015 I had the pleasure of sitting in a hotel room with Doctor Dread, Barrington Levy and Jah Screw, just hanging out and taking it all in.  A music video show was on TV and Barrington commented about the sorry state of music in his island home.  As soon as he piped up I made sure a recorder was close by to catch what he had to say.

“When I look at where I come from in this reggae business, you know where I started out and have to fight for everything I get, I never would have thought that one day I would see what I’m seeing in my country now. Every country I go to I can see the next band. I can see a Slightly Stoopid…I see a Rebelution…I see a SOJA and they doing it better than us. You go Japan and see the same thing too. The next generation must look back to the root. They are the limb. No, not even the limb. They are the leaves. They need to look at the root and then look where it is today.

The music is not evolving. It is devolving…going the other way. You know the most loyal fans to reggae is white people? I don’t care what dem think me say dat. I go out there and I see it. It is true. The white people dem show more support to the reggae music than its own. Reggae would be no more if not for white people support.

Dem don’t support reggae inna my country. Dem seh I should not say that. But it is the truth and when me speak de truth don’t gimme no bread. Don’t give me no dinner. Lock me out mi house but I’m going to speak di truth. So dat deh is what dem don’t like ‘bout me. Me talk truth and speak me mind and dem seh ‘Barrington Levy him a trouble maker.’ Why dem fi seh dat? Cuz I talk de truth? Well God seh him love di truth. I can’t go to bed with something on my chest. Dem don’t like me for dat. So good luck.”

That was a moment that I will not forget.  One of Jamaica’s most celebrated voices – the man with the most distinctive wail in reggae, a true hitmaker to end all hitmakers – laid it out so plain and simple, saying what many have been afraid to say for decades. 

You see, it’s not that there isn’t any good music coming out of Jamaica.  There are plenty Jamaican artists making commendable music – Jah9, Chronixx, Iba Mahr, Protoje, Dre Island, Jesse Royal just to name a few.  There are still great production crews in Jamaica – Natural High Music (my favorite!), Notis Productions, Taxi Crew, Overstand, Don Corleone, and several others.  It is payola” that is killing the music within Jamaica. 

Reggae fans like myself – outsiders who buy music by the artists they like – would be surprised to know that the artists we promote here in the States and in Europe can’t get any airplay in Jamaica.  Reggae music within Jamaica is run by a bunch of shady characters.  It has a whole different sound and vibe.  You wouldn’t recognize the name of a single artist you hear on the radio or on TV.  Many still call it dancehall, however, I think that does a disservice to dancehall music.  It’s more like a hammering blend of shitty hip-hop, soca, and go-go music that is as nondescript as anything you’ve ever heard.

Payola is as integral to popular music as the microphone and is a practice as old as the music industry itself.  For those who don’t know, payola is the illegal practice of payment or other inducement by record companies for the broadcast of recordings on commercial radio in which the song is presented as being part of the normal day’s broadcast.  Payola to DJs in the US and abroad is less of a concern than it is in poor and developing countries like Jamaica.  Most DJs at modern radio stations nowadays are rarely involved in choosing the songs. Modern radio is widely based on company-delivered playlists, often scheduling every song, commercial break, and DJ talk time, and most shows are pre-recorded well in advance of their broadcast.  However, in Jamaica this is often not the case. 

According to Jamaican musicologist Dennis Howard, “payola has been blamed for the deterioration of the standard in Jamaican music genres and the anaemic growth of the industry. Arguments put forward also blame payola for promoting music of inferior quality at the expense of better quality music on the airwaves.  A foolish record will get played and pushed if a man has money behind it. So that is the record you will hear every day, so Chris Blackwell will be thinking, what the hell (happened) to this music, man? The golden age is gone because the new number one record would be off-key in certain parts, the content has nothing significant.” 



Chris Blackwell and Rita Marley at 56 Hope Road, 1992 (Photo: Brian Jahn)


Reggae artist Wayne Marshall put it in even plainer talk.

“You have a lot of artistes out there that buss dem brain with good content, songs, melodies but never get the light of day because they don’t have the juice to even burn 5,000 CDs to put out.  But if you do the research you find that this man has a big drugs man behind his career and him pay people and get plenty favors. If you aren’t talented it won’t last, but then if the money can last then (he will).”

Reggae artist Taj Weekes from the U.S. Virgin Islands spoke to the issue during one of our recent reasonings.

“One of the problems that reggae on the whole faces, not just Jamaican reggae is that a lot of the radio disc jockey are Jamaican and they only play music from their country…The other type of DJ is the older brothers… Jamaican and non-Jamaican who are stuck in the seventies and won’t look forward to embrace the new roots (from all over the world)….and then there are the new and younger radio personalities who are just that – radio personalities with no idea of the music and only play one brand and few artist in dancehall over and over….and then there is payola and its consequence…mediocrity.”

Anyone can understand the hustle.  Kingston is like a pressure pot and the streets are as dangerous today as they were when Eek-A-Mouse wrote “Whole heap a youth turn to crime, I want to know if it really the time…As one dead another one born, Whole heap a dem dead full a’ button.”

Eek-A-Mouse “Crime”

What kind of world we living in when the youth will stab up a national treasure like Bob Andy just for a few coins.  Drugs is still the game and payola has a steady funding source as long as the Jamaican government allows its streets to be killing fields. 

But one thing is certain – as long as a talented artist is willing to pursue a righteous path and record deeply soulful, spiritual music, the fans will seek it out.  The underground is now overground.  This is how a talented and dedicated group from the streets of Christiansted, St. Croix did it.  Midnite never got a minute of radio airplay.  For nearly twenty years the group received no accolades, no awards, no nominations, no respect from Jamaica.  However, they kept trodding the winepress, turning out album after album, playing to any crowd that would listen until they gained the respect due them by reggae fans, artists, producers, and the industry as a whole.  Now the group is considered by many to be the most significant and influential reggae act since Bob Marley and the Wailers. 

Payola will always be a part of the business, especially in Jamaica.  However, the righteous music will find its way and the reggae massive will be there to welcome it every time.  Riches are nice but there are things better than silver and gold.






  1. Rob says:

    As usual… well said

  2. Jon says:

    Meh. Same old boring “music was better when I was a kid” BS.

  3. midnightraverblog says:

    Really? Perhaps you should enlighten everyone then about the fact that payola is no longer a problem for the music. Thanks for hating…it keeps us moving forward.

  4. Jon says:

    Your argument falls apart with its own acknowledgement that payola has been integral with Jamaican music since day 1. Why is it causing a content problem now, but not in the earlier eras? You may think the music is bad now, Barrington Levy might think the music is bad now, but that doesn’t really amount to anything more than personal taste, The influence of Jamaican music on the world’s music culture has arguably never been stronger than it has in the past couple years. Major sellers like Bieber and Drake aren’t borrowing the sound because of payola, they borrow it because it sells. It sells because people enjoy it. Maybe not you, but that many people. Now why aren’t Jamaicans capitalizing on this better? I think it’s as much due to changes in the global music industry as it is with local talent issues. Honestly I don’t think there has been much of a talent drop off since 10 years ago when you regularly had Jamaicans entering the charts (Sean Paul, Gyptian, Wayne Wonder, etc) what has changed is the way music is sold and promoted world wide.

    1. midnightraverblog says:

      It absolutely did cause a problem in earlier eras. The Wailers couldn’t get their music played because they could not front the cash, which is why it turned physical at times. Nowhere in the article did I say it is a problem of today and not yesterday. Reggae sells? No it doesn’t. Artists sell. Shaggy sells, Sean Paul sells. Jamaican reggae sales have seen an historic decline over the past ten years with American artists out charting and outselling them by a mile. I actually did my research for this. You are correct in that when I say a certain music is bad it’s just my opinion however it is my website so my opinion counts here and my readers respect my opinion on many issues. You have a valid point with the globalization issue. It is no doubt that this has had a significant impact. I would also agree that there hasn’t been a huge talent drop off. In fact as I stated in the post there are plenty talented artist in JA. This is not an anti-JA post it is an anti-payola post. I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment…Mike

  5. Jon says:

    Apologies if I’m misunderstanding your argument, which I read as saying that payola is causing low sales due to the promotion of substandard material. My argument to that being that that’s nothing new. Payola has been pushing crap content for 65 years in Jamaica, and yet occasionally artists of merit have somehow come through despite it. I think the lack of sales in reggae (which indeed acknowledge is clearly the case), is more attributable to the crash in the global music industry over the past 15 years.

    So what is it about current payola system that you think has changed the game so much as opposed to how it worked in the past?

    1. midnightraverblog says:

      From reading about the history of payola in Jamaica it appears that although payola has been an issue dating back to the 1950s it did not become a real significant problem until cocaine hit the island hard in the early 1980s. Drug lords were now making real money and could actually hold influence over the music industry. Add to that the passing of Bob Marley, which left a spiritual leadership vacuum that was quickly filled with all sorts of shady characters. Junior Marvin told me that Marley’s mere presence had a stabilizing effect on the music and the industry in Jamaica. Once he was gone, the music was up for grabs and payola was leveraged more heavily than ever to get dancehall music on air. So the way I see it based on my reading and discussions with people who lived through it the export of Jamaica’s cultural and spiritual identity began in the early 1980s and continues even today. In my opinion, Jamaica has lost so much credibility that they risk losing reggae as its identity music altogether unless they start programming reggae music with a positive and righteous message. From my experience as a fan for more than 30 years people are more interested in hearing truth and rights than they are guns and sex. Of course all of us go through a phase when we may like that messaging but it is a brief and passing phase – a trend that all of us outgrow in fairly quick order. Thanks for engaging me in this discussion. Nuff’ love and respect…Mike

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