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Saturday, June 19, 1999 Published at 17:22 GMT 18:22 UK

World: Americas

Reggae's changing message

Beenie Man has been painted alongside reggae hero Bob Marley

By Tom Gibb in Jamaica

Until recently reggae dance hall music was loud, aggressive and often angry, usually celebrating the gun, sex and drugs culture of Kingston's ghettos - a far cry from the original reggae message of the 1960s.

Watch Tom Gibb's report
But outside the dance halls Jamaica has once again been changing. The economy is shrinking and hard times have brought protest and politics back to the fore.

The debris of recent rioting can still be seen on the streets of Kingston where nine people died when the government, which is all but bankrupt, tried to impose new fuel taxes. The musicians have been quick to take up the theme.

Voice of the ghetto

One of the most popular new singers is Moses Davies, or Beenie Man.

[ image: Until recently reggae has celebrated the gun, sex and drugs culture]
Until recently reggae has celebrated the gun, sex and drugs culture
His latest song was written after the riots. "Jamaica's in a crisis," it goes, "they've raised the taxes, bring them down. When ghetto people are hungry, the place burns down, place burns down."

Only 25 years old, Beenie Man has come a long way from the shack where he was born in one of Kingston's roughest slums called Waterhouse.

He has kept the press cuttings which track his rise from rags to riches through reggae stardom.

He owns houses all over Kingston, but still spends most of his time in the ghetto where he is building a community school and library. "This is my area and it is the only place I know," he says.

[ image: Evidence of recent rioting can still be seen]
Evidence of recent rioting can still be seen
"Waterhouse is a community where you can delegate and live amongst the people and be with the people and be for the people.

"You have to take that negative side out of those people and make it positive, and make them realise that if there are things you want I can give you and give you more."

The walls of many Kingston ghettos are reserved for portraits of local gang leaders killed by rivals or the police. But in Waterhouse it is Beenie Man along with the 1960s reggae hero Bob Marley who has been immortalised by the muralists.

Bob Marley's message was born in the slums of Kingston, but it became famous around the world.

[ image: Beenie Man regularly returns to the ghetto where he grew up]
Beenie Man regularly returns to the ghetto where he grew up
Now there is a whole new generation of Jamaican singers who are picking up the same themes where he left off, and they are also finding popularity abroad.

Would-be artists hang around outside the studios trying to promote their songs. Success brings assured wealth but it is difficult to get there.

While the style is as hard as ever, the words often now carry a vague message of brotherhood, an end to violence and justice for the poor, all of which are clearly lacking in the city outside.

While such a message may help, it will take a great deal more to end the violence in Jamaica's slums. In the meantime for many would be musicians, becoming the voice of the ghetto represents one of the few ways of climbing out of the island's poverty trap.

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