Family, dancehall, and love are the values that have kept Moses Davis, better known by his stage name Beenie Man, moving across his 43-year-span career. From child star to his knighthood as the official king of dancehall, Beenie Man stands tall on the pyramid of talent that has erupted from the ever-so-small yet powerfully influential island nation. Credited with helping the genre transcend Jamaica’s borders and win worldwide acclaim, Beenie’s legacy sits comfortably amongst idols such as Ras Michael Jimmy Cliff and General Trees; the finest gold JA has to offer.
Manifesting from intimate gigs in his hometown (the Waterhouse district of Kingston), seeping into mainstream US culture and forming features with Janet Jackson, Mya and Wyclef Jean - to name a few; history tracks dancehall as the cousin to hip-hop and BM as the wise uncle respected at every family function.
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When Beenie and I sit down, he has just finished a small speech to a small crowd of his fans. Industry experts, BRIT award winners, and children whose rides to school were ochestated by his animated “zaga zai” tribal call, sat in awe as the father of 12 lent words of wisdom from his career. “I’d take part in competitions and buy shoes, so it always made sense to me that the more gigs and competitions I’d win - the more shoes I would have. Then I’d start to look like an artist... and once I looked the part, I could play the part. Because, you can’t go on stage and fix the mic (without looking like an artist) - they won’t believe you. When a man says to me ‘him clean’, that’s true.”
At the cusp of the nineties, Black music artists grew two infant stage genres in hip-hop and Dancehall. While at the time BM admits it was almost everyone’s motive to keeping their head afloat at a “business as usual” sort of stance, the unique and unmatchable sound was “rare gold” that the 48-year-old would go to war for.
“Since long-time [I knew it would pop]”, he says “let me tell you something, if you are a baker and bake bread for yourself - your whole house is going to know about the bread. If everyone knows about your bread - you open a bakery. So, you want everyone to know about the bread, similar to a song, you want radioplay: because you want it to be world wide internationally known. Reggae plays everywhere because everywhere you have a reggae station, but you don’t want it limited to just that one station.Why wouldn’t you want to be on Capital radio or BBC? You just want to play around the corner? That doesn’t make sense.”
In 1998, when Beenie released ‘Who Am I (Sim Simma)’, his target audience was his original fans but he admits he had set his eyes on a wider audience. In amalgamating Dancehall’s call and response sector, melody marks, punchy staccato rhythms, and sing-song delivery it meshed perfectly with the hi-hats of pop culture. True to his wishes, the track helped introduce Beenie Man to the world as a new reggae star, gaining him a buzz in the pages of Newsweek and other major media outlets.The track’s main body was later used in ‘Girls Dem Sugar’ featuring Mya which was released in 2000. Preserving the foundation of family and love, when the veteran took a 13 year hiatus after the release of his album ‘Undisputed’, the spotlight set dim, as Beenie Man introduced a financial stance to his trajectory.
His recent return to the UK to headline YAM Carnival was tinged in bittersweet memories. When I exaggerate the “t” on ten years to him, he laughs and shakes his head. I’m sure the King is very much aware of the rumours surrounding his absence from the UK. “Sometimes you have to give a place a break, you cannot be a local artist when you’re not local,” he smiles. “The stage will always be home, you exercise your lungs and that’s about it”.
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While away, Beanie says he set his sights on growing MD Entertainment, signing and growing other artists in the new age of the genre. Taking it to what he calls “another level”, he insists on producing all his recent tracks by himself. I ask him what his back catalogue could learn from his new mixtapes; as the music critics haven’t championed his much quieter LPs. The disbelief still tickles him. “The earlier projects always have to influence your music. You have to adapt and adjust. If you adapt and put it in your language, so people know this is you and this is where you are coming from.”
During the 2020 lockdown, Beanie Man took part in the VERZUZ challenge alongside Bounty Killer. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, When dancehall gained traction due to migration to the UK and North America (particularly New York and Toronto) the two spear-headed features with US artists. When Bounty had by-lines alongside the Fugees, Mobb Deep, and more, the two spears clashed for King of Dancehall status. In traditional music culture artists of a similar calibre are pitted against each other; myself and Beenie laugh at the example of Jay-Z and Nas, who also had beef but have since matured to feature on tracks together in 2021. When Beenie and Bounty appeared on Instagram live at 2am GMT, it can be credited as a pillar of history in the genre.
"This is how we represent the culture ... At the end of the day, it's a musical sport," Bounty Killer says. The two-hour livestream closed as he and Beenie Man sang Bob Marley's ‘One Love’. More than 450,000 people tuned in to the broadcast (including Barbadian singer Rihanna and Jamaican Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt) to watch the two internationally renowned recording artists put dancehall on the map - and their differences aside. I chuckle as a flicker of remincese blankets the 48-year-old’s face.
“We are the ones here, we are the dancehall artists,” he replies, “We are the ones who DJ on the sound system, and we build a sound system, then another one and we DJ on the record but we are still dancehall artists. You see us everywhere. We do it authentic - the rest are reggae international artists.”
The king of dancehall sits comfortably in his legacy. Now owning shares in Triller, growing his MD Entertainment brand and playing a large part in female music charities, the king watches over his genre in awe of its growth. The child star turned legend has no regrets at almost 50-years-old.
“Them say heavy is the head that wear the crown, but remember: Pon bed pon floor against wall (what?) We sex dem all 'til dem call me (uh-huh) I'm di girls dem sugar dats all (cool) Welcome di king of di dancehall!”
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Words: Thandie Sibanda // @ThandieTweetss
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