A true artiste has to accept a social responsibility beyond simply holding a mirror to society, says journalist-cum-singer James Saunders.
Saunders says while it is true that art often imitates life, it is not enough for an artiste to merely comment on their individual situation without attempting to propel forward conversations about that reality.
“I am saying to the artiste: hey, art is expression, but we have a social responsibility and sometimes we have to take that bold step and stand up and say: hey, this is what is going on around me but how can I progress that conversation?
“That’s my criticism with a lot of the modern artistes, they do not progress the conversation beyond what is happening around them, so all they talk about is crime, guns and drugs and what’s coming out of their community, but they don’t progress the conversation far enough to say this is the social commentary, but this is what we can do. This is what we will use our power to do,” a thoughtful Saunders told the Kitcharee on Thursday.
As a career journalist with a strong musical background, Saunders is uniquely positioned to make those assertions. The veteran sports broadcaster has observed with keen interest the rise of the local dancehall “zesser” movement. And while many of his contemporaries are quick to dismiss its often violent and misogynistic lyrical content, Saunders believes every generation deserves the freedom to express their own unique musical voice.
“When we were younger the older heads would criticise the music we listened to. I don’t criticise the (zesser) music itself and the trends because that is what art is, something that evolves. I have always been a firm believer that music mirrors and tells the tale of the society we live in,” an insightful Saunders stated.
Interestingly he asserts that the real critical target should be the very fabric of society out of which dancehall artistes fashion their musical concepts.
“If there is any critique from me it would be the fabric of society. The zesser movement has unfairly received all of the criticism. Definitely artistes have to be socially responsible in what they produce, but music always tells the tale of what is going on, particularly dancehall music where the artistes express their argument of what they see around them,” Saunders added.
Nuh pattern fi dem
Saunders, who goes by the musical sobriquet Jr Dynamite – an ode to his father DJ Dynamite – is attempting to practise what he has preached with his latest offering “Pattern Fi Dem”. The defiant SilentOne (Anderson Douglas)-produced track is an open protest against the compromising of morals to advance careers be it in music, politics or everyday life, Saunders said. “Pattern Fi Dem” is on the Action 1 Studios Memo Rididm.
“It (the song) explores the relationship society has with the negative and how easily we are influenced by negative and how people create that marriage just to get short term success. We see it in music, in the corruption in politics and we see in society.
“My song is a protest against that, saying we don’t pattern after that because we know even, though it gives you a temporary boost it does more harm than good in the long run. We hold ourselves to a higher standard, this is our standard and we don’t pattern after your standard,” he explained.
It’s a stance for individuality and uniqueness that his musical idol Bunji Garlin (Ian Alvarez) has openly endorsed many times before. Saunders, who like Garlin honed his battle chant in the school yard, actually had an opportunity to share a stage with the Viking during a media event a few years ago.
“I had the opportunity to go up when he called for someone to come up and sing; that was like Christmas come early. I grabbed the opportunity to take the mic and run in head to head with Bunji Garlin, which is never a good idea to begin with, but it was such a good experience and I believed I won two tickets to a concert for doing that. I have the picture (from the performance) hung up on my living room,” he readily divulged.
Saunders said, like Garlin in the 1990s, many contemporary local acts face the brunt of criticism for the new direction of music on the island. He quoted American hip hop legend Nas (Nasir Jones) in urging older musicians to afford youth the freedom of expression.
“To the older heads I say instead of taking a hammer and trying to smash the artistes’ expression let’s listen to them because this is the medium they use. Nas said it perfectly ‘venting my frustration over ill instrumentation’. This is their cry out. But it is time as artistes that we all use our platform to build and edify and progress the conversation; that’s what I seek to do with my music,” he said.
Balancing two worlds
Balancing journalism and music can be a stretch, Saunders admits. He says, however, that the work seems easier when you do something you love and accepted the ideology that to whom much is given much is expected.
“It is a tough balance in terms of putting out the amount of work that is required. You have sleepless nights sometimes you work all day and then have all-night studio sessions. And then to remain consistent and relevant the body of work you have to present is very demanding.
“Then there is the writing element, you have to balance your mind between writing sports and the next minute lyrics, it is very tough but it’s something I really enjoy. I believe once you have been gifted with any craft, as the scriptures say, a man’s room will make way for him and also you are never given more than you can handle,” he said.
Apart from balancing his nine-to-five with late night recording sessions and performances, Saunders has also had to find time for international touring opportunities. For the past two years he has been a part of the Caribbean gospel music tour that has gone to St Marteen, Barbados, St Vincent and Anguilla, among other locations.
“The feedback has been very good and also opened my mind to what music can do. Apart from performing in concert settings we’ve done, prisons, school and homes and I have been able to see first hand the positive impact of positive music.
“It has only fuelled my passion more. I am willing to go the length, breadth and the distance and invested in my music. I feel I have a purpose and something to say and this is my platform to say it,” Saunders concluded.