NEW YORK (Billboard) - For most Jamaican dancehall artists, securing a successful rapper on a song's remix is a hard-won seal of approval. So when Jay-Z, who has never recorded on a reggae track, rhymed on a remix of singer Mavado's current hit "On the Rock," it became arguably the greatest endorsement ever given to any dancehall record.
According to Mister Cee of New York's WQHT (Hot 97), who premiered the remix on his February 29 evening show, Jay-Z heard Mavado's original on Hot 97 and thought the song's "roc" metaphors provided appropriate references for rapping about his invincibility in the hip-hop world.
"Jay gave me the song as an exclusive and the response was incredible," Mister Cee recalls. "The song is now in rotation and hopefully it will get Mavado more mainstream attention."
Since the release of his chilling breakthrough single "Real McKoy" in 2005, Mavado, born David Brooks, has amassed an impressive amount of hits on Jamaican charts as well as international reggae charts. His blood-splattered survival stories, evocatively sung to brooding dancehall beats, have kept his VP Records debut, "Gangster for Life: The Symphony of David Brooks," on Billboard's Top Reggae Albums tally since its July 10, 2007, release.
"People are drawn to Mavado's music because of the conviction in his voice," says Neil "Diamond" Edwards, an executive at the Jamaica, Queens-based label. "Some people don't agree with his lyrics but he is as real as it gets."
Produced by Trevor "Baby G" James, "On the Rock" offers a respite from the gun-laden imagery that Mavado's detractors argue exacerbates Jamaica's already soaring crime rate. Lyrically, it evokes Rastafarian roots reggae as Mavado, who developed his love of singing in church, hauntingly asks for spiritual strength.
Mavado wrote the song following an early morning raid on his December 4, 2007, birthday party/concert in Kingston, jointly conducted by Jamaican police and soldiers who surrounded the venue, locked the exits then searched patrons for weapons. Mavado had planned to donate the party's earnings to his Connect Jamaica organization, which aims to provide free computers for every school on the island.
In a conversation following a March 11 performance in Negril, Jamaica, for the Soul Rebellion charity, which rebuilds local schools through its nominally priced Buy a Brick program, Mavado said he had no idea why the authorities raided his party but added, "There's a lot of people trying to stop me from doing what me a do."
As the 27-year-old singer's renown increases, so does the firestorm surrounding his lyrics. "We pretend that we are still dealing with (Bob) Marley, while dodging the fact that we are dealing with Mavado, who recommends death to informers who would help us put away brutal criminals," columnist Ian Boyne wrote in a February 2008 commentary in the Jamaica Sunday Gleaner newspaper.
Officials on the Eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent, meanwhile, have refused to allow Mavado to perform there because of his "potentially damaging influence on the island's youth."
The trend toward violence or "gun lyrics" in dancehall songs came to the fore in the late '80s and has remained an intermittently popular, if reluctantly accepted, aspect of the music's identity. Mavado, one of dancehall's most influential artists, believes he has been unfairly targeted by officials who are unwilling to address Jamaica's complex social problems, such as the despair among ghetto youth and the arsenals of weapons found within many impoverished communities.
"I am talking about poverty, pressure, things that are happening which most people are scared to say," he says.
"Mavado's success begs the question, Does art imitate life or vice versa? We need to recognize that each influences the other in order to change things," Soul Rebellion director Richard Sloan says. "Some people objected to us working with him, but no one would mind if we were a political organization and invited (California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger) to be our keynote speaker, and look at the violence in his movies."
Deciphering the art-imitating-life question became even more complicated on March 26, when Mavado was arrested and charged with two counts of shooting with intent and illegal possession of a firearm, related to a July 2007 incident in Kingston. Two days later, he was released on $3,000 bail and forced to surrender his travel documents. Now more than ever, it seems, he needs the salvation he sought on the rock.