Squid Game—the hit South Korean survival drama and now Netflix’s biggest-ever series at launch—and Dancehall are two things most people wouldn’t think to draw parallels between, but Damion Crawford, former Member of Parliament for St. Andrew East Rural, Jamaica, did just that.
In a Tweet, which has since caused a stir on social media, Crawford asserted that Dancehall’s pre-occupation with violent content over the years is largely due to people’s insatiable appetite for such – a formula, Crawford believes, Squid Game has just stumbled onto.
Crawford’s Tweet: “Squid Game just prove ppl like to consume violence and Dancehall artists have known this for a long time,” was in response to CNN’s report that the series had become Netflix’s biggest series at launch, and seemed to revive sociological and philosophical discussions regarding the connection between the appetite for violence, and whether the consumption of violent content ultimately affects collective behavior.
Squid games just prove ppl like to consume violence and dancehall artists have known this for a long time https://t.co/wyeOcvytk6
— Damion Crawford (@DamionCrawford) October 13, 2021
Proponents of the position shared by Crawford may find that the numbers aren’t there to support it, especially when it comes to the higher hierarchy of commercial success. In other words, Dancehall artists who are predominantly known for violent content typically don’t do as well internationally.
Dancehall historians and those old enough to remember will perhaps recall the genre’s most memorable and, as far as content goes, arguably the most violent feud – Gully vs Gaza, headed by Mavado and Vybz Kartel respectively. At its peak, that feud warranted the intervention of the Jamaican government and ultimately cemented both Kartel and Mavado at the top of the Dancehall hierarchy. While it remains inconclusive as to whether or not the feud generated earnings for either artist equivalent to the level of popularity and notoriety they gained, what is conclusive is that, largely as a result of the feud, both artists’ careers were stymied by it.
Vybz Kartel lost his visa and potential for future earnings, and is now, unrelated to the feud, serving a life sentence behind bars, and Mavado’s local success has not quite translated or scaled in equivalence in the North American music market. Considering Crawford’s position, the Gully vs Gaza feud may represent the blueprint necessary to unravel it, with a few exceptions along the way. But science may prove to be his ally.
In 2008, a study conducted on mice (whose brains are thought to be similar to humans) and published in the journal Psychopharmacology revealed, compellingly, that “humans crave violence”. According to study team member, Craig Kennedy, then Professor of Special Education and Paediatrics at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee: “Aggression occurs among virtually all vertebrates and is necessary to get and keep important resources such as mates, territory and food.”
He continued: “We have found that the reward pathway in the brain becomes engaged in response to an aggressive event and that dopamine is involved.” In other words, indulging in violence or engaging with violent content makes us feel happy, owing to the release of the feel-good hormone, dopamine (which is also addictive). Professor Kennedy, however, admitted that while aggression/violence serves a purpose for other animals, “… in modern human societies, a propensity toward aggression (violence) is not beneficial and can be a problem.”
Given that cautionary note, could Crawford be inflating the value of violent content, particularly as it relates to Dancehall music? Or are some Dancehall artists intentionally playing up violent content because it earns them big bucks? Objectively speaking, does it pay to be violent?
Squid Game is unreservedly and gruesomely violent, and is widely popular, even though it essentially trivializes and gamifies human suffering. Dancehall music, at least locally, does the same in some way. Consider these lyrics from one of Dancehall’s more popular tunes at the moment, Skeng’s Gvnman Shift:
“War dem waah tell dem get di tanker
Every guns up, every killa mask up
Travel pon dem endz ’bout dozen claat up
Dozen man haffi dead a weh yuh feel mi lef’ some
No sah yuh mussi mad, mi killa dem nuh work suh”
In no uncertain terms, the lyrics describe a violent assault in which at least 12 people are mercilessly killed. While perhaps more lyrical than literal, the violent imagery is inescapable. Even so, the song has been viewed over 5 million times on YouTube, with over 150,000 likes, and continues to surge in popularity as the most-streamed song in Jamaica over the last month.
According to Dr. Pamela Rutledge, a media psychologist, in an interview with Bustle, the allure of the show, in addition to its violence, rests in the fact that it contrasts the innocence of childhood games against the knowledge that something sadistic is about to happen, which “creates a cognitive dissonance that that amplifies the horror and sense of powerlessness we feel while watching”.
Is there a similar element to the allure of violent Dancehall music? Are artists vicariously living through their lyrics of murder and destruction knowing they would never actually indulge in such activities? The history of some Dancehall artists and the law may betray that sentiment. Even so, could the indulgence in and appetite for violent Dancehall music be tied to the findings of a 2013 study published in International Communication Association regarding why people overwhelmingly like violent movies?
From a sample size of 482 participants, the study found that people loved violent films for essentially two reasons: “1) They offered a sense of purpose and 2) They offered a chance to delve into the human mind.”
There doesn’t appear to be consensus in rationale for the mass consumption of violent Dancehall music, but to Crawford’s point, perhaps the genre’s popularity and success, like Squid Game, has more to do with our fascination with violence, more than it has to do with the medium through which the violence is being delivered.
The connection between violent content in media and its effect on human behavior remains a pool of foundationally compromised arguments. What is supported by reliable data, however, is that human beings find utility in violence and may not be as repulsed by curated shows of it. For the former Member of Parliament, that explanation may not necessarily advance the validity of his Tweet any further beyond the point of an interesting debate starter.