In 1976, 44 years ago, Jamaica was on the verge of civil war. Two major political parties were vying for power, weaponizing the lowest in society, the downpressed, without thought or mercy. Guns had become a way of life and a fact of life for too many, affecting those in the poorest, most blighted districts.
They were merely pawns in a game. Their lives meant apparently little to the men in power. They’d been allowed and even encouraged to be sucked unchecked into the maelstrom of violence whilst the wealthy whites built ever higher fences with ever sharper barbed wire around their ever thicker walled compounds, eyes closed to everything except the gold and pink flecked azure of the sky, their hands over their ears blocking out the cries of the people on the streets outside.
Fear and desperation and anger were all pervading. The sun burned without mercy, hotter and hotter over all of their heads. In the build up to the election that year Michael Manley, the Prime Minister, announced his plans to crack down on the desperate youth of Kingston, declaring a state of emergency. While he had let them be used as footsoldiers in his political battle, he decried them, he said they were criminals. And he said that through war he could achieve peace.
He said he was going to crush them with supreme force. He was going to lock them down and shoot them up. They would regret their desperation under his watch. He said he was going to place them “under heavy manners.”
Prince Far I was in the middle of it all. He was watching the terrible world that had been built on the backs of millions of slaves tear itself apart.
He was a leader and a bouncer, an advocate and a warrior. He was also the best deejay the world had seen since URoy, he could rock the very foundations of the crumbling corners of Kingston, of London, and of New York, cities that he knew so well, and he spoke directly with alacrity and passion to his people living in exile within them.
He was known by everybody who ever met him as a true gentleman, a big man with the voice of God almighty. There is not a man or woman on earth who knew Far I who wouldn’t say so. He was not only a former bouncer and a vivid storyteller, he was a teacher.
His bowel-shaking intonations of the psalms from the Bible were recorded as a benevolent gesture, for the illiterate who could never read the book for themselves. That album, his first, “Psalms for I” is a remarkable record to this day, because he used it as means of reaching out with his long arms, when still so many so called leaders use that book to hide behind.
He watched normal people being cynically divided and conquered. When Peter Tosh sang a song like “Stepping razor” in support of rude boys with ice in their veins as an inevitable consequence of what he called the “shitstem,” Alton Ellis would say that violence only begat further violence, asking, in “Cry tough” “how can a man be tougher than the world?”
Far I agreed with Ellis. He knew that with bloodshed, in the face of “War in the east and war in the west, war in the north and war in the south” the powers that be could always justify their own orgies of violence against the people.
So he wrote “Heavy manners.“ It was a call for unity, for discipline. Heavy heavy discipline. A powerful cry for taking back control of the shitstem, of not allowing themselves to be further divided and conquered. It is a slow heavy dub recorded with the Professionals, one of the tightest bands in the land, under the mastery of Joe Gibbs. Skeletal piano lines meet fat minor chord horns, with a lot of echo, rumbling from the back, from the past, measured yet terrifying and sparse.
The violence in Jamaica caused ever more young black people to try to leave, to find somewhere to start afresh. People like DJ Kool Herc’s parents would make it to New York where his dances would lead to the invention of hip hop. Things must be better there, they thought. They had been given the hard sell. There was opportunity in the land of the free.
In the first minute of “Heavy manners” Far I pleads “don’t shoot,” but it’s not directed at a policeman but at a friend, a brother, a neighbour who he knows can’t win. For with discipline things were sure to improve, the poor couldn’t be repressed forever.
“One of the noblest things a man can do today is to do the best he can,” he demands.
Whether it was in Jamaica or in America or anywhere else on Earth, they couldn’t be kept under heavy manners forever.
When Far I first starting intoning over records with that rasp as deep as the pain he felt he was called King cry cry, because of the way he would break out into tears, unapologetically and regularly. It wasn’t a sign of weakness, but of helplessness, and of the deepest empathy.
Were he still alive Far I would be crying today. But whether it would still just be the youth he would be calling on for discipline, 44 long years after he recorded “Under heavy manners,” is possibly, however, another matter.