Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A Lyrical Analysis of Breaking Babylon Curse by Messenjah Selah

Lyrics to Breaking Babylon Curse by Messenjah Selah

I believe there is unfortunately an all too common thought in many corners of society that the lyrical content of Reggae music isn’t necessarily important. I can remember reading an online article in response to the release of a Sean Paul or Beenie Man album from the New York Times and, in such a popular source, the woman writing the review said as much that ‘the lyrics is Reggae and Dancehall aren’t typically very important’. Now of course if you’re talking about a song which was born to simply make people dance then that would be the case (though that definitely wouldn’t be Reggae specific AT ALL and thus, in my opinion, quite worthless to even mention). I think this exists largely because of the ‘linguistic gap’ which exists between Patois and English and between Creole and French. This is so evident by the fact of how many times you’ve heard a Jamaican or even someone adapting a Jamaican accent and someone writing, in response to or in review of the song, “_________ adds a bit of Reggae flavour”, when there is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING ‘Reggae’ about that particular tune. The same phenomenon has also, in my opinion, kept the music back just a bit in terms of going ‘mainstream’ (whatever that means) but its also, I feel, given it a bit of cool and underground appeal as certain bits and pieces of the masses flock to Reggae as a pendant of their striking out against the system (again, whatever that means). Still, amongst those who actually know there is a different structure of separation at work where, as is the case in most musical genres, the current or even slightly past current artists and those around the business go largely underappreciated particularly when compared to those of yesteryear on both fronts. I, of course if you know how I approach things, have a problem with both of these limitations placed on the music; in terms of it either being downright MEANINGLESS altogether or it being somewhat of a bastardized or downgraded facsimile of the original order. Therefore, when I began my blog I wanted make it one of several central and primary objectives to advance not only the music (and seriously the music, in and of itself, is SO GOOD that it shouldn’t even need great pushes on my behalf to convince those on the fence of its strength) but the LYRICS specifically and, by extension, the writers of said lyrics.

Up until now, I’ve written articles (like this one) made lists (like this one) and literally transcribed songs (like this one) but all were largely quite random (and I’ll be the first to admit that perhaps I relied on them a bit too much which is why you haven’t seen any lyrics here in a minute, but you’ll see some next week) with one glaring exception, Breaking Babylon Curse, the sophomore album from US based chanter Messenjah Selah. I have transcribed all eighteen songs to the album and, even more importantly, I’ve used it as a rather prime example of exactly what I mean. Here’s the thing: Selah is a VERY talented artist. He uses quite a few different styles and is an EXCELLENT writer and between the Breaking Babylon Curse album and his first (see here), he has definitely made a fan out of me and that was one of the main reasons I chose to use his album in particular and not others I would have been listening to at the time (like Lutan Fyah’s MAMMOTH double album Africa). Breaking Babylon Curse is one SWEET album and it really examines so many different topics and vibes that it definitely served the purpose and proved its worth for my ‘project’. However, something else about it, which you may interpret as negative, is that it comes from an artist who probably, in terms of talent as a Roots Reggae artist would honestly rank around twentieth or so at best, were I to compose a list on such a thing. Now, EACH AND EVERY single artist ahead of him would be a SPECIAL artist and I say that to push Selah even higher and to make this point: If an artist like Messenjah Selah is making this type of poignant material then exactly how many other artists are flying below the radar and doing similar things while people continue to say what they’re doing either “doesn’t matter” or “isn’t what it used to be”.

The first tune I used, even before I knew I would start this project, was Unseen Corruption which is song #13 on Breaking Babylon Curse. This song, in retrospect, has to be regarded as one of the finest on the album altogether as it is just so complexly written yet it doesn’t go the full route you often see on tunes like such which an end up being quite corny at times. It quietly takes an explosive stance at times as Messenjah Selah rather controversially says in the second verse, “Who you think a rape and rob, then invite me to them synagogue?”. That line is SCATHING! He makes absolutely no mystery in who exactly he is talking about when he says specifically the word ’synagogue’ as opposed to the rather broad and bland church (which wouldn’t have rhymed anyway). And whether you agree with what he says or even take it so broadly (and I’m inclined to think he wouldn’t mean it on an all-inclusive type of level, at least I would hope not) isn’t as important as the actual leap he makes when saying the line. And it definitely was THE stand out amongst quite a few standout passages on the tune (also check, “Pleasing Satan is their number one, now dem a Luciferan”) and really one you take away from the album as a whole. Another perhaps similarly inspired tune is the tune which immediately precedes Unseen Corruption on the album, #12 False Religion alongside Lutan Fyah. Now, this was and technically remains my choice as the best song on Breaking Babylon Curse (however, as I did all of this it became more and more difficult to pick one rising above the rest but, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it) and I draw comparisons between it and Unseen Corruption as it basically goes off in particular on a certain aspect of the all encompassing Unseen Corruption, religion. This one just is LOADED in so many interesting bits. The first being that between Selah and Fyah, both Rastafarian artists and particularly Lutan Fyah’s case as a Bobo Ashanti and on a song called False Religion, the word Rasta or any derivative thereof (including Selassie, or even Majesty or King with ‘Jah‘ only appearing twice and in the same connotation) is not present at all. Then, if you listen to just the overall vibes of the tune its quite surprising as the two definitely don’t adopt a passive approach with lines like, “Seems less they work to approve the people natural culture, sucking our blood like a vulture.” but it seems that they take a more tactful approach than saying ‘my road is greater than yours’ and instead the duo focus on the rather tangible outcomes of the False Religion. HOWEVER, the most discerning of listeners (including yours truly) will IMMEDIATELY recognize the very first full line uttered in the song “Until bigotry and prejudice is replace by understanding, tolerance and goodwill” as a version of a quote by His Imperial Majesty. When taken in that context, perhaps the overall meaning of the song might deviate SLIGHTLY but, again given the two artists, not very much as, in my opinion, the song inevitably flies to the head of the class where Breaking Babylon Curse is concerned. And in retrospect it also seems so nice that both (THE SWEET!) Their Story and Israel Betta Know come back to back following False Religion and Unseen Corruption (although I think Israel might be a little less complaint after hearing Unseen Corruption Messenjah Selah), ESPECIALLY Their Story which is kind of a more personalized version of the others and, again, is quite controversial at times.

The very first song on Messenjah Selah’s Breaking Babylon Curse is one of the more interesting pieces as well, She Ask Me Say. This song was so familiar to me and I’m certain to many (men and women actually) as it deals with the under-discussed concept of revealing that one walks in the path of His Majesty actually in a relationship. We’ve heard dozens of songs like Etana’s Roots recently and even the aforementioned Lutan Fyah on Rasta Still Deh Bout alongside Josie Mel which deal with the concept in terms of family, friends and community but not so much in terms of a relationship as they tend to simply either just not go there in general or to presumably place the assumption that one has either already dealt with that business or has simply chosen a companion already on the road themselves. Excellently, Selah doesn’t deal with that and instead, She Ask Me Say is a bit of a (SLOW) back and forth between lovers on the matter. “She ask me say, do I have to stop eat meat,. . . locks my hair,. . . go to church. . . stop wear pants” he says in reference to his woman inquiring about the ways of Rasta and I’ve had this EXACT conversation with my girlfriend (now wife) as to the extent of the ways of life. And what was really interesting to me was/is how you can apply this to ANYONE, within or outside of a relationship as Selah really just examines the nature of certain stereotypes people have about Rastafari. It really is a magical song as he explains its not really about the clothes or the appearance at all, its simply about His Imperial Majesty being with you. Another interesting aspect to that type of vibes is the Woman Of Purpose song where the woman in question has apparently ‘graduated’ from her questioning phase and has fully accepted the will of His Majesty, yet the QUALITY of the way both tunes is noticeably different as, in my opinion Woman Of Purpose, while definitely not a bad song, is one of the worst written tunes on Breaking Babylon Curse (although Selah does manage to use the word meritorious on the chorus of the song) (4pts.) as the body of the song doesn’t break down very favourably due to its rather matter of fact type of style, he simply doesn’t tell the listener something he/she probably doesn’t know or at least HEAVILY assume already. I’m then inclined to wonder if Woman Of Purpose (LOVELY riddim and all) was a tune directly intended to follow-up on the clearly well sculpted and crafted She Ask Me Say. And you can add to that the closer, You Deserve, which also isn’t very strong either.

And lastly when you get into the more kind of broad and prideful tunes I REALLY like the lyrical dexterity of the songs. Take a minute and listen to Take A Minute which is absolutely a WONDERFUL song with a wonderful message. The song really has grown on me as it carries a very much royal type of vibes in praising the King. “Take a minute to give Jah the praise, for all the things he’s done for you, for all the things he’s brought you through” is the punch line anchoring the big tune which comes off as a complicated chant of sorts where Selah wonderfully rifles through so many different TANGIBLE explanations of the might of His Majesty and where HE comes into our lives. The song leaves the downright PARALYZING imprint on you of the second verse which is so well written and VOICED as Selah goes between a talking voice and his chant while infusing the might of Psalms 103:6 right at the beginning of the tune, “Jah executeth righteousness and judgment for all the oppressed” and then goes on to concretely give an example and an a kind of veiled explanation of it when he says on the very next line, “and in this world full of mess, Jah guide our every step”, which makes it into so much more of a modern style and just doesn’t leave the nice reference dangling on its own (and we‘ll forgive him for trying to rhyme ‘muscle‘ with ‘continue‘). You can’t talk about PRIDE on Breaking Babylon Curse without mentioning Keep Africa On Your Mind which features the DIVINE Trini Reggae Empress, Queen Omega.
The sound on this one is so nice that you may very well reach the end of it without really given the lyrical context its just attention, however, should that happen to you, you’ll miss the tune’s real power. “Beginning of creation. SHE is the foundation. As an Afrikan, you must be proud and strong!”, as the Queen says on her final verse (also the final verse on the tune) and its kind of odd that when you just listen through Breaking Babylon Curse you notice that it is sans the Roots Reggae obligation of including a song to Mama on every single album but it actually isn’t as that tune is Keep Africa On Your Mind as ‘she’ is (rightfully) spoken of in human terms like “she’, “on my mind” and Mama” in the stereotypical ways but also, “Mama Afrika your children is calling. To you, we’ll be running with the singing and drumming” which is such a nice touch and it still comes across in terms of the cultural and regional aspects as well (largely due to Selah’s verses) making it simply a superb combination in my mind. And in another very nice bit of track placement, Keep Africa On Your Mind is located directly following another similarly conceptualized but very differently vibed tune, the complicated Dirty House. This song (sounds like a Marley song when it starts) has so many different levels pointing in the same direction. The first verse is kind of corny honestly but the SECOND! “Evil works only make The Father grieve. When the light, come darkness haffi leave. Don’t make them TWIST YOU LIKE WEAVE. BETTER TO KNOW THAN TO BELIEVE” Now, on the surface you could very well just take this second half of the second verse as four independent (and clichéd) thoughts but, in relation to the topic at hand, and thus the title, Dirty House and upon examination of the ‘house’ which is more like a world or a community as well as being the flesh simultaneously the rather hidden nature of Messenjah Selah’s ‘Dirty House’ becomes more clear and especially at the second verse. Cleaning such a ‘house’ involves letting in the light so you can see what you’re cleaning and in doing so you let in His Majesty because when you close the shades you hide ‘it’ from him and in doing so you allow the evil to come in. WOW! I also have to mention the BRILLIANCE that is African Bless which is definitely a unifying vibes on the tune (as is Do Right And Unite). The song actually convinced me to go on to do this project as it was just SO strong. The song really is about Afrikan upliftment and unity and just throwing down all of these other unfortunately thought and followed ideologies which have gone to help Children of Afrika remain in bondage for so long both externally and internally, as Selah so nicely says in what was, for me, THE line of the song, “Children of the melanin stop practice the slave master’s teaching or you’re gonna get a beating. Children of the melanin why you despise the royal teaching? YOU ARE EVERYTHING YOU ARE SEEKING!”: You were BORN uplifted and now why do you need to be uplifted, you’re already THERE! I mean such a powerful piece of wording. . .

But it doesn’t matter, right? Its not as good as it used to be, right? I have a very difficult time believing either of those concepts and its very unfortunate that they aren’t opinions relegated to simply a few very naïve members of society but it reaches so many popular and represented corners of the world. Since I’ve began my work on this, I’ve gotten a lot of great feedback, both negative and positive (and to all who said I’ve worked too much on this, I assure you, this is the final step) but they all, on the positive side seem to have a common topic of discourse: 'Its good that you’re doing that because I listen to the songs so many times and I get bits and pieces but I don’t really understand'. REALLY understanding is important and getting the word out that not only do you comprehend but that there actually exists something worthy of comprehension indeed is more crucial. And Breaking Babylon Curse and Messenjah Selah are just two examples and definitely it’s a big album but besides that, what it is one of HUNDREDS of functioning and active, living and breathing testaments to the lyrical acuities and proficiencies of our artists today and like I said, there are finer examples on both cases (and I may very well get to them someday). Yet, if you persist to say that it doesn’t matter because you can only dance to it and you can’t understand the words or its not like Bob would have sang it; well then maybe I have a curse or two to break of my own.


  1. A truly great article. It's a shame “absolutely none” of the reggae albums is printed with some kind of lyrics in the booklet. (It would as well help us who do not speak English as first language). I think that fact may be a reason why some thinks that reggae lyrics are of no importance/bad. God knows how many pop acts it’s out there with cheesy lyrics. Another matter may be that it’s too many of these praise something (ganja, most high and so on), and some artists have a too high release schedule to concentrate on writing great lyrics (all the time). On the other hand – hopefully Messenjah Selah releases his next album a little bit before 6 years from now on :)

    Keep up the good work with the lyrics and the blog overall. One more thing: What about a list of the best Virgin Islands releases? I’ve noticed you have (vault) reviewed quite a lot of those in the last half year!

  2. Give thanks Fuzz,

    I think just about all of them that are receiving any kind of a promotion should come with the lyrics. You look and see the artist going on big tours in Europe and in South America and the people there, like you said, didn't grow up speaking English a lot of times and much less Patois. But they just don't do it for some reason, I know it costs more but I think its a nice investment to do that or even put the lyrics on your website which would cost next to nothing and they don't even do that. The artists could even provide them, themselves you know, so you get 100% accurate word for word.

    And that's a pretty good idea for a list and if everything is well you should expect to see sometime next week my friend.

    blessings everytime Fuzzfolk,


  3. I think you are spot on when you talk of the ‘linguistic gap’. Patois is, here in the UK at least treated with either mistrust or blatant exoticism. As you say it adds a certain underground vibe to the entire scene and certainly provides a vibrant framework for artistic expression. Unfortunately as you have correctly identified this ‘linguistic gap’ creates an impression of lyrics being meaningless. True Reggae fans wherever they are located will obviously beg to differ, but in the market at large Reggae is often dismissed as ‘feel good tunes’ with little lyrical content. Reggae has been caricatured in part due to this ‘linguistic gap’ on a level that is perhaps, and though I hate to throw the term out there, racist. The ‘linguistic gap’ has also been the source of controversy with both over and miss interpretation of patois lyrics leading to several noted controversies and damaging the way reggae is viewed in the wider world. Patois is certainly a living and valuable part of Caribbean life and musical expression it’s just a shame that the linguistic gap exists. Unless patois becomes more familiar to a wider audience then Reggae’s lyrics will continue to be under appreciated. Commercialisation of Reggae could be another factor of lyrical deterioration, of course. However this arguably affects Reggae, a still relatively underground musical form, outside of the Caribbean, less than other types of music. Indeed quality roots Reggae is on the up again and though a case can be made for lyrics being a secondary concern of the Dancehall, Reggae in all its forms has a key lyrical history. This should not be forgotten and the Reggae community should look to make sure the genre is not overlooked when one talks of great lyrical traditions. Long may the music continue and let us hope that the world realises the poetry its missing, the language it devalues and the true depths that can be explored through the medium of Reggae music.

  4. I agree and really what almost would have to happen, and its just not going to, is that you have to educate the audiences. I mean if EVERYONE could overstand Patois who spoke English then it would be perfect. But its not so much as 'okay you grow speaking English and only English and what I'm presenting to you is in Japanese' so you have no chance at it, instead they're CLOSE enough to, I think, make so many people attempt it. While on the other side its kind of frustrating to see something like Hip-Hop which is so similar overall and then Reggaeton which is so similar, come up and Reggae still have that same standing simply because so many more people can follow the words in Hip-Hop and Reggaeton.

    And then I look at places like Europe and how many shows they have and how many big artists just at the drop of a hat go and tour Europe and the same thing with South America and Japan and to a large degree you have those same kids that look at Reggae like it's something new or on that underground vibe and its almost like its something exclusively theirs that they share with only a small group. I mean I get the emails everyday from guys from the UK, France, Germany, Austria, The Netherlands, The Czech Republic, Sweden and all over the place and they're writing in Patois and some of them educate me, they're telling me about big stuff going on. And really what I think and this is where you come in Rooted, that what that does is bring up people who end up putting themselves into the music. Whether they're writers or even producers or artists or promoters or whatever and they apply like a scholarly level of scrutiny to the music and when you do that you AUTOMATICALLY raise the level. What I mean is that, if you take someone writing a blog or producing music and they're CLEARLY intelligent people whether school educated or just naturally intelligent, you present it as "well this can't just be gibberish, look at what this guy is writing, look at what he's spending his time doing". And I think that's what we need to do. We have some really SPECIAL artists, we need people who can maybe be just as special to cover them so we can point out what kind of KNOWLEDGE is being thrown out there in what probably sounds like nonsense to so many others.


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