Wednesday, September 21, 2011

John Holt: Police in Helicopter/ Youths Pon the Corner, 1983/ Un saludo a la dea

Great reggae. The production is really clean on this single, but you can hear fire in John Holt's voice. On the A side, John Holt threatens that if the police continue to burn down marijuana fields, smokers will retaliate by burning down plantation cash crops. It seems like drug enforcement offends Holt on two levels, both because it is yet another form of oppression and structural violence against the poor (listen to the B side for more of this) and because it is a cultural battle with religious dimensions. When Rastafarianism pushes back against Western hegemony, the religion itself comes under attack (via the sacrament marijuana) along with the people who practice it. Youths Pon the Corner is a version that didn't appear on the Police in Helicopter LP.

The idea of burning down the corn fields to get back at the powerful for destroying marijuana crops calls to mind certain themes in some modern day narcocorridos. First, like John Holt, a lot of musicians who sing of the Mexican drug war don't try to hide their contempt for governments. The reliance on drugs, both economic and spiritual, by protagonists in narcocorridos and in Holt's song automatically casts them as opponents of governments that aim to eradicate the manufacture and consumption of certain drugs. John Holt and the corridistas both see drugs as part of the fight against what rastas call Babylon and traficantes call la calaca, but for the rastas, the marijuana they smoke is something they choose for religious enhancement. Cartels chose drugs because their prohibited status makes them valuable and, according to some singers, because narcos were born to pursue wealth in the most anti-authoritarian way they could. Second, the opposition that Holt sets up between rastafarianism and conventional capitalism (represented by corn farming) gives the struggle a classed dimension as the rich and economically entrenched wage a cultural war against the poor on the basis that the rastafarian religion's acceptance of marijuana is a sign of immorality. Holt counters that because rastas do not interfere with capitalists' pursuit of wealth, capitalists should not interfere with rastafarians' pursuit of spiritual fulfillment. Narcocorridos maintain that their protagonists grew up poor and joined the cartels because they could not make enough money any other way. Many singers argue that legitimate business is a luxury possible only for the already established upper class. Furthermore, the elite class bear most of the guilt for drug violence because its members have systematically excluded poor people from legitimate sources of wealth through nepotism, corruption, and class-based discrimination.

In an open letter to the U.S. government by a panel made up of Kofi Annan, Ernesto Zedillo (ex-president of Mexico), Cesar Gaviria (ex-president of Colombia), and others encouraged Obama to end "the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but do no harm to others." Speaking about the panel's findings, Gaviria said "when you have 40 years of a policy that is not bringing results, you have to ask if it's time to change it." For more information: Other Mexican and American critics of current drug enforcement policies actually advocate legalizing or decriminalizing drugs in the U.S. because without American demand for a contraband product, cartels would be economically crippled. Whatever specific approach the governments of the United States and Mexico take in response to the tragic violence in Mexico, I hope that they take Gaviria's advice to heart. A series of militaristic offensives against drug organizations will only encourage militaristic responses, and this hemisphere is already plenty militarized. In spite of what some songs might tell you about men who are born for blood, most people join cartels because no other organization offers a comparable opportunity, and that opportunity owes itself to a high demand for illegal drugs in the United States. If the leaders of these countries want to get serious about addressing the drug war as a matter of damage control rather than elitist morality, they will have to come to terms with the economic realities of the war in one way or another. I'm sure John Holt would agree.

Youths Pon the Corner by Easy Jams



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