In the early nineties, Jamaican deejay, Rexton Rawlston Fernando aka Shabba Ranks dominated reggae dancehall and had been a hot name in mainstream music. The Ting-a-ling deejay is credited for exporting reggae dancehall to the far east and in countries like Japan.
Shabba’s songs were mostly erotic club hits, and his style of music inspired a generation of reggae dancehall deejays and among them is the extraordinary lyricist – Vybz Kartel.
In Africa, the influence of Shaba’s music and fashion in the early nineties cannot be overemphasized. In fact, in The Gambia, the name Shabba Ranks was adopted by many youngsters at that time and his unique hair cut was a fashion trend.
His Afro-centric fashion imagery helped promote African fashion on the global stage and even within the continent. The African Harem pants that Shabba usually wear in video clips and concerts became a rejuvenated fashion trend among young Africans in the early nineties.
Shabba’s groundbreaking achievements earned him a record deal with an international label – Epic Record and eventually won him a Reggae Grammy Award in 1992 and 1993. His musical hits such as Mr. Loverman, Ting-a-Ling, Housecall and among many others dominated mainstream music thus set a smooth path for future dancehall reggae artists such as Beenieman, Shaggy, Sean Paul, Elephant Man etc.
What went wrong?
In the late eighties and early nineties, Shaba’s style of reggae found him great success in the US and Europe. While his erotic lyrics were drawing criticism from the ‘roots’ reggae world, Shaba’s songs were top club hits. He was a regular guest in many Hollywood tv shows but all that came to a halt after a comment he made towards the LGBTQ community.
In 1992, upcoming 17-year-old artist, Buju Banton released a hit song called ‘Bom bye bye’. The song was widely received in the reggae world but its metaphorical lyrical content against same-sex steered huge controversy in the West. At that time, Shaba was very famous, thus his opinion on the song was highly sought for.
When Shabba appeared on a British TV show called The World, the British interviewer asked Shaba about Buju’s hit song. The ting-a-ling singer responded by saying, “I am from Jamaica, and I am on the supporting side here because we Jamaicans are very conscious of our people’s progress”. He went further to state that “In this world, people believe in the way they feel like they want to live” and he also asserted that the freedom of speech of others to speak for or against certain issues should be respected as well.
However, the British interviewer interjected and then asked Shabba about issues of ‘homophobic’ lyrics. Shaba answered that he stands by the words of the bible on the issue of same-sex and that “man should multiply.”
When words of Shabba’s comment came out, the LGBTQ community clawed hard on him with a strong vengeance. In an interview, an African American member of Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), Donald Suggs said, “someone in England sends me a news report of Shaba’s comment and at that time, we thought we were dealing with Buju Banton who wasn’t well known but when someone like Shaba spoke about it – it was clear that this was going to get a lot of attention, so we couldn’t stand by and do nothing”.
Indeed, they did something about it because it was from this interview that GLAAD decided to throw the Thor hammer on Shaba Ranks and whenever he was booked to perform, they would tell the promoters that Shaba is homophobic. The crusade to end Shaba’s career was extended to major TV shows and he was eventually canceled in many major western TV shows including the Arsenio Hall Show.
In that year, Shabba was booked to tour with Bobby Brown but was later dropped as a result. The biggest hit was when his record label dropped him as well. Although the whole issue started from a song by Buju, Shaba was more affected than Buju Banton at that time. According to analysis, the LGBTQ community decided to set an example of Shabba who was already a global icon.
Despite the continued liberal cancellation of Dancehall Reggae artists who sing about controversial social issues, Reggae Dancehall still enjoys huge support on the continent, and this is because of its Afrocentric message that promotes black consciousness – ranging from politics to social values. Reggae songs that support an African ideal of family structure – man, woman, and child are also very widely embraced by young Africans.