On Tuesday, June 8th 2010, the government of Trinidad & Tobago stopped Jamaican artiste “Ding Dong” from entering the country to perform.  He was deemed a ‘threat to society’.  In March 2010, the highly anticipated performances in Barbados of Jamaican artistes “Vybz Kartel” and his ‘rival’, “Movado” were cancelled just before their show because the Barbadian government placed a ban on their performance.  These actions follow other bans on performances by such Jamaican dancehall artistes as “Bounty Killa” and “Blaak Ryno” throughout the Caribbean Community in the past year – Grenada, Saint Lucia, and Guyana.  On July 7th, 2010, the Trinidad and Tobago Trade and Industry Minister explained that its ban is a result of the lyrics and the behavior of the Jamaican artistes which the government believes has an influence on gangs.

Dancehall artistes such as the controversial “Buju Banton” and “TOK” have also been denied entrance to perform outside the region, in Europe and the USA; however in these destinations there is no treaty that envisions the concept of free movement of these individuals.

In the Caribbean, on the other hand, the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas which established the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME) creates a broad right to the freedom of movement by artistes to perform throughout the CSME member states.  These bans on Jamaican dancehall artistes run afoul of this provision.  The question is whether the bans can be upheld by relying on the language in the treaty which allows governments to take action to protect ‘public morals’ and ‘public order’ as exceptions to the broader right free movement by skilled Community nationals.  In the absence of guidelines, which do not exist, as to how and when this exception can be applied, use of this exception can be a slippery slope.  Could it be used, for example, to ban an artist who specializes in nude photography under the grounds that it is pornographic and therefore detrimental to ‘public morals’?  What is to stop Jamaica from retaliating by banning performers of such Trinidadian soca music as “Wukking Up” or “Wine Up On Me” – any doubts about the meaning of these lyrics are immediately cleared up by the sexually-suggestive accompanying dance moves.

At the same time, the rising crime rate in the entire region raises very real and legitimate concerns about perpetuating and encouraging lyrics that seem to glorify criminal and gang behavior –  “Real badman neva afraid, we got bombs and guns and hand grenade” says Vybz Kartel in one such example.  The lyrics of some of these songs are also very degrading to women and in some cases even misogynistic, raising questions about whether they promote violence against women.  (Even “cleaned up” and loosely translated it would be extremely difficult to reproduce an example here without causing offence.)

So, what is to be done?  Arguably, the artistes have a right to continue to write and to perform as they see fit.  Meanwhile, the question of whether they have the right to carry violent and sexually-degrading messages beyond the borders of Jamaica is another matter.  (In this post, we will leave for public opinion and the government of Jamaica the very real concern of the impact of these lyrics on the Jamaican society.)  Fortunately, the Revised Treaty also created a mechanism to address this question — the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ).  The governments should apply to the CCJ, not to determine a “winner” or “loser”, but for an advisory opinion, which the Court is authorized to issue under Article 212 of the Revised Treaty.  How should the public morals and public safety exceptions to CSME treaty obligations be interpreted and applied in this instance?  The primary purpose would be to have the Court begin to place some guidelines on the use of this exception.  It is in the interests of the entire region that this issue be given some clarity in order to contain it to this specific instance.   In this way, the entire region could emerge as a winner in this particular dispute.

Kimberly Villiers also contributed to this post.