Tommy Lee is a Dancehall Goth, But He’s Not the First

Dancehall star and Vybz Kartel protege Tommy Lee

Vybz Kartel’s young protégé, Tommy Lee Sparta, is best described as dancehall’s answer to Marilyn Manson.

With only a handful of singles to his credit, Lee’s blasphemous music has elevated him to the forefront of Jamaica’s dancehall scene over the past 18 months.

But how has a demon-praising rapper become so popular so quickly?

According to the Guiness Book of World Records, Jamaica has more churches per square mile than any other country, which suggests an obsession with religion, spirituality and mysticism.

Subsequently, amoral music carries gravitas in Jamaica and is bound to cause controversy and attract criticism. In today’s market, that simply means more iTunes downloads, Youtube views and Twitter followers for an artist such as Tommy Lee.

But Lee isn’t the first dancehall act to tap into the dark elements to boost their career, and I’m pretty sure he won’t be last.

In 1990, as an 11 year-old fascinated by Jamaican culture, I convinced by parents to let me accompany them to Dancehall Night at the Reggae Sunsplash festival in Montego Bay, and they agreed.

In the days leading up to the week-long festival, the police released a statement claiming that a warrant had been issued for the arrest of one of the headline acts, Ninjaman.

Allegedly, Ninja had disappeared after assaulting a man and was to be arrested immediately. The media went into overdrive and the main topics of conversation among dancehall fans were Ninja’s whereabouts and whether he would perform at the show.

He did. And arriving onstage dressed as an Italian mafia don; sporting a red wig and white face paint (a murderer’s disguise) and introduced himself as ‘the Don Gorgon’.

Ninja’s performance was dark and moody, but the atmosphere was electrifying. To date, the only entertainer I’ve seen get a better response from an audience was Michael Jackson.

It could be argued that Ninja tapped into the dark energy of the Greek gorgon Medusa that night, but he would not have been the first artist to do that either.

That honour goes to Studio One legend Cornel Campbell who branded himself ‘the Gorgan’ on Bunny Lee’s disco-style production of the same name and delivered one of the biggest-selling singles of 1975.

These two examples suggest that although controversial, Tommy Lee’s gothic dancehall style is anything but original.

His most provocative song and video, Psycho (above),  is an extremely dark offering reminiscent of DMX’s early work and Snoop Dogg’s 1994 short film and soundtrack LP Murder Was the Case, which describes how the rapper is murdered and brought back to life after making a deal with Satan.

Snoop’s project sold two million copies and DMX’s debut LP, It’s Dark and Hell is Hot, shifted five million units.

Lee’s music may be too dark and sinister for most Jamaicans, but if he continues to capture the imaginations of underground music fans, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that Tommy Lee could enjoy a successful career as a dancehall demon.

Check out our list of top 10 dark and scary dancehall songs here

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