Rags to rhythms to riches: Music a way out of poverty for many

The story of dancehall and reggae is often one of rags to riches for artistes of impoverished origins, singing and deejaying to make a ‘trailer load of money’.

The story of dancehall and reggae is often one of rags to riches for artistes of impoverished origins, singing and deejaying to make a ‘trailer load of money’.

It is no surprise that people turn to music as a means out of poverty, as today it provides many income-earning opportunities. Using music as a means out of the ghetto has been recurrent in the history of reggae and dancehall. Early reggae stars were those from the inner cities, ‘garrisons’ and rural areas, who travelled far and wide to pursue a career in music, believing that it would uplift them from the lives they were living.

Superstars such as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer used to walk miles from their Trench Town community to Studio One every day to sing.

Producer Winston Riley of Techniques fame recently told The Sunday Gleaner that as a youth from the ghetto the easiest way out was singing. In As It Is, reggae legend Burning Spear captures the early days in the music with his struggles to be a success, as he sings “I been through di struggle like everyone, like di early musicians”. He goes on to capture the journey he had to make to get a toe into the business, singing, “I was going back and forth, from St Ann to Kingston, 13 Brentford Road … many times I ain’t got no bus fare therefore I got to hitch hike on truck back … I am di stone that di builders refuse”.


It was a scenario that was captured in the 1972 movie, The Harder They Come, as Ivanhoe Martin (Jimmy Cliff) portrays the struggle of a boy who moves from the country to make it as a singer, but instead becomes a gangster. The film captures the feel of music as ‘quick money’, a fast break, as the youngster hooks up with a producer and makes a hit song. But then, Martin realises that music isn’t all he thought it would be as he signs away the rights to his songs.

According to a study done by Michael Witter entitled ‘Music and the Jamaican Economy’, in many countries the music industry provides opportunities for the marginalised and the smaller entrepreneur. Witter wrote that “like bananas and coffee in the 19th century and ganja in the 20th century, the music industry was created by the marginalised social groups of the society and has been used as a vehicle of their own development. The typical artiste and musician in Jamaica, including the successful few, is from a poor economic background”.

Today, there are those that still believe dancehall is the avenue of escape from poverty and strife. David ‘Mavado’ Brooks proudly proclaims himself the ‘Gully God’ hailing from Cassava Piece, St Andrew as he constantly sings about his struggles in the ghetto and the fact that he is making the money, through music, to get out of the ghetto lifestyle. In his song, Dreaming, Mavado talks about making money as fulfilment of the hopes and dreams of those persons who are struggling in the streets. He sings about looking for work but “dem turn me down”; instead, music has provided his bread and butter as he sings “making money and all is well/ and I’m a gangster for life because my song can tell … but the music give me money”.

In Don’t Cry, Mavado speaks about having to make a living for his family and one of the only means he has grown up around is music. He sings, “Born from di gully an mi never choose it/We never come in no riches only music/ Just like di African Shaka and the congo music/ Di Rastaman dem bun dem fire rader gangsta music”.

budding performers

When The Sunday Gleaner spoke with a number of budding performers, while some had a passion for the music, others saw it as the quickest way to improve their lifestyles. However, while music has seen its share of rags to riches stories, it isn’t the way that it would appear to be. Behind the hype and the bling, the artistes have to work tirelessly to achieve the money that is sung about.

Producer and singer, Craig ‘Serani’ Marsh, who has helped fuel the success of Bugle as well as Mavado, told The Sunday Gleaner, “I wouldn’t say music is the way out. Dem can’t look at it that way. Is no easy route, music is for the talented. How much artiste deh bout right now? Not nuff compared to the amount of man in ghetto who a deejay. More people who get a nine-five buss mek more money”.

As for those who are looking for the big quick break, he said, “Most of dem nuh have no passion for it, most people nuh have no drive cause not everybody willing to go through the sleepless nights over dem work.”

Source: Jamaica-Gleaner

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *