Capleton stokes the dancehall fire in Jo’burg

When Jamaican dancehall superstars Capleton, Sizzla Kalonji, Antony B and Buju Banton and others decided to “clean up” the genre in the 1990s, they were also responsible for ushering in a new style of ­chanting now known as sing-jaying.

The new style combined the structure of djing that had been popularised by artists such as Beenie Man and Bounty Killa, but threw in the slow, melodic singing style of entertainers like Cocoa Tea. It was not just the throaty, pacy style the dancehall reformers were up against; they were fighting what is known as “slackness” lyrics. These were songs that celebrated violence, the objectification of women and a mindless bling culture.

It is no surprise that the central metaphor of these singers was fire. No one is as closely identified with the big, engulfing blaze as Capleton, who is visiting South Africa this weekend. Capleton, whose “government name” is Clifton George Bailey III, is also variously known as King Shango (the Yoruba god of thunder), King David, the Fireman and the Prophet.

The Fireman explained the sulphur-and-brimstone metaphor on the phone from Jamaica: “The fire is about the purification of humanity. When people hear about fire, [they should know] it’s not about destruction. One of Bob Marley’s biggest albums is called Catch a Fire. The fire is about being yourself, knowing where you are from …”

Some have interpreted his lyrics as a call for the murder of homosexuals, but in several interviews Capleton has insisted that his fire lyrics are not a call “to go out and burn and kill people”.

Back to the roots
Even though this is Capleton’s first visit to South Africa, he is not a stranger to the continent. Over the years he has visited countries such as Senegal, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea and Zimbabwe.

“Africa is definitely our home. Africa means everything to us. It is the beginning of civilisation, the place where everything started.”

Growing up in St Mary in northeast Jamaica, the young Capleton was fascinated by veteran dancehall star DJ Papa San because of his “long, long lyrics”. Other musicians he grew up listening to include ­Burning Spear and, of course, ­Marley.

When Capleton turned 18 he left for Kingston. He got his big break in the late 1980s and one of his most memorable early hits was Tour, something of a tour de force.

With more than 20 albums, Capleton’s place in the annals of dancehall music is now secure. He is signed with VP Records, one of the biggest reggae labels in the world, and is working on a new album. His last, titled I-Ternal Fire, came out in 2010.

In a genre in which artists bring out a new offering every two minutes, Capleton would rather give his fans time to soak up the music. He could have added that he wants the fire to blaze to its heart’s content.

The gate to Newtown Park (next to the Bassline) opens at 4pm on December 8. The show starts at 7pm and tickets are priced from R200. Book at Computicket

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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