Marcia Forbes PhD

Institute of Jamaica
Audience –Adults & Children
February 21, 2011

Thank you for inviting me to share some thoughts with you today about the ways in which music can influence us.
There are many schools of thought about music and its ability to influence our thoughts and our behaviours—to get into our minds and make us think and do certain things:

  • One school of thought points out that people who are attracted to certain types of things like drugs and guns are attracted to the types of music which feature those things. So they will argue that the negative behaviour came first and the music helped it along.
  • Others argue that the type of messages in the music will influence people to behaviour in certain ways even if they were not attracted to these behaviours in the first place. But because they hear certain things in the music, they believe what they hear and it influences them to think and behave in certain ways.
  • Then there are those like me who are convinced that it works both ways—That is, the type of Music you listen to can influence you but also that how you feel and the things you believe in can drive you to listen to certain kinds of music.

Repetition & Reinforcement = Normalize
Looking at the influence of music and how this can affect our children’s behaviours, let us think about certain things we hear all the time. Like every day hearing ‘man aah long distance stulla’ and you see all the young men on Twitter constantly talking about being stullas. Or this thing with Benz Punnany and all the girls start tweeting about this and even showing themselves with Benz Punnany tattooed across their belly. So between Stulla and Benz Punnany the children, and adults as well, end up thinking about sex all day long. It's repeated and reinforced so it gets to be seen as normal.

But it’s not just the music because on radio many of them hear all about sorting out, swiping and mix up for several hours a day. As a society we focus too much on sex – our music, our radio, on TV, in the dancehall everywhere is just sex, sex and more sex. There is nothing wrong with sex but there are other things in life which we need to pay attention to as well.  As a society we normalize the constant focus on sex and then when our children start having sex early, we wonder why and blame the children. When it’s all around them, so what do we expect? 

Lived Reality

Now, getting back to the other school of thought that you choose the type of music:

  • Depending on how you feel, you’ll gravitate to certain types of music. Your mood pulls you to want to hear certain types of music. Sometimes you may be in a happy mood and you really don’t want to hear any sad music. Another time you may be feeling sad and all you want is pure sad music. As they say, misery loves company.  Your lived experiences, your reality may drive you to want to hear certain music.

So we see it works both ways. Music can influence what you think about and how you behave but you also can choose certain types of music because of whatever else is happening to you, in your life and what you want to hear.


  • Gender (whether you are male or females)
  • Age (how old you are)
  • Social Class (based on the amount of money you have, your level of education and even your skin colour)
  • The type of family you live in (example whether both mother & father are present) as well as your
  • Religious beliefs can ALL influence how a child will respond to music.

A girl and a boy who are the same age will listen to the same music and respond differently. Why? -- Because girls and boys in Jamaica are brought up differently and think differently. In my research work it was amazing to see the ways in which girls and boys reported different ways in which different types of music influence their thoughts and their behaviours. Like the ways girls love R&B music and how this type of music makes them feel sexy and think about love and relationships.

What their parents can afford or cannot afford also makes a big difference in how children will interpret what they hear and see in music and music videos.  For example when a DJ sings about hard times and talks about ghetto life, if you have never lived it, you can only imagine what it must be like but you don’t really know, so it will mean something different to the child who knows ghetto life. It’s closer to them, more personal. The music will have greater RESONANCE with them and will be more likely to influence their behaviour.

When Cham sings
“Dis aah survival storieee, True Ghetto storieee”
“I remember those days when hell was my home,
When Me and Mama bed was a big piece a foam”

Uptown children with their own bedroom with air conditioning, TV and computer have no idea what it must feel like to hear gunshots around you all night and to be sleeping on foam. They will listen to the song and love it because it sounds nice and catchy. However, to the child in the ghetto whose home is really like living hell, they hear the words and they feel it. It resonates deeply with them.

They understand it and they think OK Cham sing ‘bout how Danny pop out something full chrome which they know means a gun, so they think using a gun to deal with a problem is OK.  And all around every day, children, especially those who grow up in the ghetto, hear the gun lyrics. It’s on the sound system all around and on the radio, on the music videos on TV.

And for the children with access to the computer and certain types of cell phones, it’s on the internet—YouTube, My Space, Facebook-- and the more our children, rich ones and poor ones, hear these gun lyrics, the more they begin to think –yes, it’s OK because I hear it so much and everybody singing it, so it’s NORMAL, it’s OK. Repetition is the essence of learning, so you learn the lyrics because you’ve heard them so often. The songs work to NORMALIZE and increase love of guns.

Glamorization of Guns

Our children grow up to love guns, not only the boys but increasingly nowadays, the girls as well because our music glorify and glamorize the gun. And the gun is portrayed in the lyrics and the images as powerful and sexy.  I once saw a TV programme where even the little children from the inner city knew all the sounds of the various guns. But it’s not just the music because they didn’t learn those sounds from songs. They learnt them based on the community violence and the gun shots they hear day in day out. So it’s not just the songs but also the other things in our society like crime and violence which are influencing the psyche and behaviours of our children.

Role Modelling
There is also something that is very important to children and that is role models—these are people children look up to and people who they want to be like. In Jamaica our entertainers are very important to our children, especially to teenagers. They want to dress like them, behave like them, live the kinds of lifestyle they see them live based on what they sing about, what they put in their videos and how they behave at music concert and all that.
So our children take on the behaviours of these DJs. Now everybody taking about the Kartel laugh. And the Addi shoes. And the Kartel rum. And the Kartel bleaching. Because Kartel is a very powerful influence among our young people.

Now that Kartel is bleaching his skin and admits that he is bleaching, more young people are quite likely to believe that bleaching is OK because it’s approved by their favourite DJ. So we see the power of the music and the power of those behind the music. Kartel seh cake soap and all the young people talk about cake soap and more likely now to use cake soap. They want to be in style because as a young person the worse thing is to be the odd one out. They want to fit in with their friends so they do what their friends do. It’s called peer pressure.

Power of Music
Music is a very powerful force. It touches our very soul. And to Jamaicans music is even more important than to some people from other parts of the world, because music is a big part of our everyday life coming from as far back as the days of slavery when we used the drums to communicate and jump Johnkunnu to make fun of the slave owners.

Music is a big part of how we get our name as a country. Bob Marley set it for us but there are many others. Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Gregory Isaacs, Marcia Griffiths, Rita Marley & Judy Mowattt and the younger ones like Lady Saw, Shaggy and Buju and the even younger ones like Tarrus Riley and Tiffa, Queen Ifreka and others.

But whatever we may say about the power and influence of music, it does not overshadow the power and influence of parents and of family. In my book, Music, Media & Adolescent Sexuality in Jamaica, I talk about the ways in which parents can help their children to interpret and to understand some of the things they see and hear in the music and on TV. So for all the parents listening today, I want you to get a copy of this book and to read it and to use it to help you to guide your children in the types of music they listen to.

Thank you