It's hard to surf the radio dial lately without hearing a song by Jamaican recording artist Sean Paul.
The singer's dancehall music has been a crossover success in the United States, with the single "Get Busy" currently in heavy rotation at stations here and across the country.
"Get Busy" and other recent tracks are helping Paul crush the sales charts as well - Dutty Rock, his latest CD, went platinum a few months back.
That's because his melodic patois-infused toasts and pulsing "riddims" are a refreshing change from the standard American club-style pop fare, making the genre marketable to a new group of consumers.
This rejuvenated interest in Jamaican music, first ignited by reggae legend Bob Marley in the '70s, is good news for Baltimore's Caribbean community, which hopes Paul's success will expand the range of experiences sought by local music lovers.
"That's a plus for us. It does broaden the audience," said Ichelle Cole, a member of the reggae band Strykers' Posse. "The base idea [for Paul's music] is reggae. And even though it's a little pop, hip-hoppy or commercialized, it's still there, it's still the source."
Strykers' Posse, a fixture since 1985, is one of many Baltimore/Washington area bands that have been bringing reggae to the city's tiny clubs and bars for years, though almost always under the radar of the mainstream music scene.
The older, more mellow cousin of dancehall, reggae is still a foreign genre to many Americans, even though islanders consider it to be the most popular musical genre born from the African diaspora.
Cole, a native of St. Ann's Bay, Jamaica, said the music's marginalization stems from America's lack of interest in musicians who typically won't bend or conform to the flashy pop model, as Paul did with Dutty Rock.
"When you really think about it, America is the only place that holds down this music. The music is bigger everywhere else but here," she said.
Local reggae legend Danny Dread agreed.
Dread, who has been playing reggae for more than two decades, said the music has garnered appreciation only on an "underground" level in Baltimore and other U.S. cities.
But many lesser-known Caribbean musical styles, including rocksteady, cumbia and ska, are still being played and enjoyed by many in-the-know Americans. "With that style of music, it never goes away, but it never goes into the mainstream. It's still loved, it's still there, but the question is where" can it be heard, said Cole.
Reggae shows aren't regularly scheduled at the city's large commercial venues, which leaves dancehalls, tiny nightclubs, basement parties and cultural festivals as some of the best places to catch a set from one of the many prolific local bands.
"You actually have to search to find where you can see a good reggae band. I think we need a lot of club owners to relax and open up reggae to their clubs," Dread said.
The lack of venues doesn't rattle Dread and other dedicated reggae musicians, who continue to play out in the face of these challenges.
Dread said the scene "takes a beatin'," but stays alive because both longtime listeners and new fans can still connect with the everlasting spiritual and political messages in the music.
Strykers' Posse, which released its third CD, Changes, last year, performs at small clubs and bars from Baltimore to Bladensburg. Dread plays throughout the city, though most of his recent gigs have been private parties.
Though they're not blowing up the international music scene like Sean Paul, Dread and Cole are happy just keeping it real on the local end of things.
"We don't want to lose the culture [by crossing over]. I want longevity, where the music lives on. Unless you cross over into the pop field, then basically, you're not going to get to the level where Sean Paul is," Cole said.
And both Dread and Cole believe that Paul's mix of hip-hop, rap and dancehall may turn out to be a fad when the music loses its novelty.
"Unless you can maintain it, [to] keep coming with a pop feel that people want to hear, then forget it," said Cole.
So while the wave of attention is still high for dancehall and other Caribbean genres, Cole and Strykers' Posse will ride it with optimism. "The music is still fresh, and hopefully we can get it played more on the airwaves," Cole said. "Anything that can lift us up further and put our country on the map. It's all good."
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