Currently, a large portion of the world is under some form of temporary isolation due to the pandemic that is COVID-19. During this time, Black people, for the most part have fled to social media in search of a new “normal”. From grassroot organisations such as No Signal, to large, celebrity run platforms akin to Tory Lanez’s Quarantine Radio — loosely inspired by Almighty Trap Show — the diaspora, in various ways have driven the assortment of choice in digital spaces for bored children, adolescents and adults. Arguably the juggernaut of this range stands as the Swizz Beats and Timbaland fronted VERZUZ events.
Commencing in early April, the series has seen the likes of Ne-Yo, Teddy Riley and Babyface take to Instagram live, discographies intact, for a duel of sorts usually lasting twenty songs. Predominantly hinged to hip-hop and R&B, VERZUZ has had comical, unexpected and sometimes contentious moments during its individual airings. For example, one of Usher’s latest singles “SexBeat'' was shared with hundreds of thousands of viewers during Lil Jon and T-Pain's spar. Elsewhere, we’ve seen an intoxicated Sean Garrett provide a photograph album worth of meme’s to the masses in just a couple of hours prior to The Dreams inevitable win. However, Beenie Man vs Bounty Killer, which aired on May 23rd, transcended already high expectations, ushering up an immersive cultural appetiser as it pertains to Jamaica’s musical and wider global offering to date.
From the battles commencement, the set, based in Kingston already felt localised and distinguishable from the usual studio or home backdrop that viewers were understandably accustomed to due to the social distancing measures in place across the United States at the time. However, due to Jamaica’s relaxation of social distancing measures, which permitted community bars to open from May 19th, Bounty Killer and Beenie Man were seen together, in the flesh going hit for hit in a light-hearted, but confident manner that’s recognisable in everyday Jamaican culture. As the show pressed on, it became evidently clear that not only did the artists themselves have a hand in the show's instant radiation of exclusivity, but a string of local organisers also aided in the events proceedings, insisting on making the production as big as it could be.
Intimate details were catered to, helping the set look and feel every bit the part. From large, corporate brands such as Digicel — who provided 200 megabytes worth of WiFi — down to Kimala Bennett whose team were assigned to decorate, Beenie Man vs Bounty Killer was an immersive Jamaican experience. Event architect Richard Hoo Kim, who facilitated the event, began his Instagram statement post-festivities emphasising the “masterminds behind the work,” crediting as many creatives as possible who fed in. It’s this trust and faith in local vendors that, in future, helps to put on such hallmarks of Jamaican culture in the right way. In an age where West Indian celebrations across the world face critique for the way in which participants interact with them, it’s important to pass the torch to people with the knowledge, expertise and experience to help in executing them with precision.
Beyond its architectural construction, a distinct ethos and flair helped identify the iconic head to head throughout. Toronto-born, Jamaican raised journalist Ashante Infantry summarises that Jamaicans are both cocky and dignified in personality. Both attributes are best exemplified throughout the special edition of VERZUZ; Bounty Killer for example self-affirmed his “Poor People’s Governor” status in the face of Jamaican police attempting to intervene throughout, clearly stressing his commitment to protecting those around him. Juxtaposed with this moment, was Beenie Man’s meme-able statement “We’re Jamaican’s, we’re being nice, we’re being good. We’re nice people” which instantly went viral. Both relentlessly continued, eager to entertain the world and each other. Ultimately, the show went on unaffected and still in good spirits and cockier personalities came to play. From Usain Bolt’s unshakeable self-belief on Olympic race-tracks, to Bob Marley’s classic statement “Though the road’s been rocky, it sure feels good to me,” both personality-traits and more exist in Jamaican identity.
Elsewhere, on an operational level, this particular airing felt reminiscent of traditional Jamaican sound clash culture. Birthed in the 1950’s — ironically in regions such as Kingston — the premise of these clashes were to have the loudest, most energetic feel to your sound-system, audience participation included. Over the years, sound clashes were used in wider West Indian culture, alongside genres such as dancehall and reggae. The legacy of sound clash culture has gone on further to influence grime and Notting Hill carnival in the UK, as well as early iterations of hip-hop in America. Busta Rhymes was quick to reiterate this sentiment on Saturday evening. “This is how hip hop is born,” he commented during the VERZUZ battle.
Although not completely stylised in a conventional sound clash format, renowned DJ’s Richie “D” Music and Kurt Riley helped imitate elements of the older tradition with horn effects, adlibs and encouragement to both parties in abundance. On top of this, Beenie Man and Bounty Killer performed quintessential anthems such as “Slam” and “Romie” so loudly, that they erected a crowd feel and spirit with ease. In a time where many people conflate the term clash without paying homage to the terms roots and legacy, it was humbling to see the pair unapologetically embody the vintage feel seamlessly.
Amidst the love and appreciation were lessons about interacting with culture. Keri Hilson early on in the Instagram live, joked about not being able to understand a thing. Later on, she commented on loving the way Beenie Man pronounced certain terms such as “paper” and presented as if she knew some of the tracks both artists played. Sean Paul has spoken about language issues for dancehall artists and it being a “barrier” to success in wider global regions such as the UK and US, due to heavy Patois in songs. However, many US artists have worked with both Beenie Man and Bounty Killer. Throughout the VERZUZ competition, juggernauts including Lil Kim, T.I., Wyclef Jean and Swizz Beats were heard collaborating with the pair across their careers, emphasising their combined influence and reach. On top of this, Beenie Man for example, has cracked the Top 40 on Billboard’s R&B charts with Mya (“Girls Dem Sugar”) and Janet Jackson (“Feel It Boy”) features respectively.
Fundamentally, as it pertains to Hilson’s comments, it’s important to learn and appreciate different cultures, languages and sounds, especially if consuming or listening to them, like Keri Hilson did by watching the Instagram live airing in full. Jokes of this nature, albeit their well intentions at times, can be disrespectful and perpetuate perceived hierarchies between traditional English and other languages from former colonies, such as Patois.
Overall, the parallels of the duos in person clash in 1993 echoed through the screen. From the pair's display of non-aggression towards one another to Bounty Killer’s summarising statement “This is how we represent the culture … At the end of the day, it’s a musical sport,” both, together displaying the sheer beauty of Jamaica’s influence and the spirit of unity. Like the battle that preceded theirs featuring Erykah Badu and Jill Scott, viewers much rather prefer comradery and light-hearted gestures. Bottom line, VERZUZ is a celebration of music. Where Beenie Man and Bounty Killer are concerned, they echoed their love for this by putting on as big a show as possible under conditions and by offering space to local specialists to curate a next to none experience. We can only hope that this represents a move away from synthesised, lukewarm, mass-produced festivities and instead marks a pivot to empowering local authorities, who have more affinity and awareness of their markets wants and needs.