In contexts of urban marginality in both the Global south and North, criminal organizations have become so powerful and institutionalized that they can be understood as extra-state governance structures. These organizations have emerged as key actors in the provision of security and social welfare, developing non-democratic but relatively legitimate systems of urban order; they may evolve into structures of rule and belonging that entail what can be understood as political subjectivities. In some cases, leaders and organizations that are formally regarded as illegal or criminal take on the functions and symbols of the state, complementing or even replacing the formal state.
Examples include criminal governance systems in Brazilian favelas (Arias 2006), Mexican cities (Davis 2010) and south African townships (standing 2003), and of course the Italian mafia (blok 1974). In inner-city Jamaica, “dons”—neighborhood leaders who are often linked to criminal organizations—enjoy considerable power and respect, as evidenced in the popular protests surrounding the extradition of alleged gang leader christopher “Dudus” coke to the United states in 2010.
These dons and their organizations are often considered more legitimate than politicians and other formal state leaders. The continued existence of criminal governance structures—like other forms of political order—relies both on the authority and legitimacy of individual leaders and on the institutionalization of the collective (such as the gang or cartel). I argue that the continuation of Jamaica’s donmanship relies on the iconization of individuals—an aesthetic fashioning of an elevated social status that combines religious, political, and celebrity culture elements—as well as the naturalization of the power structure surrounding these individuals.
This consolidation of power is achieved not only through material incentives, but also through symbolic and discursive practices. The legitimacy of Jamaican dons at the neighborhood level is explained in part by their informal provisioning of material services that the Jamaican state is not perceived as providing (welfare, employment, security, and justice). I argue that to appreciate the ways in which donmanship has developed as an enduring form of political order, attention must also be paid to the imaginative, aesthetic underpinnings of criminal authority.
In this article, I focus on the texts, sounds, performative practices, and visual images that accompany these extra-legal structures of power, and the emotional and ethical work that these popular culture expressions do within specific urban spaces.
I combine aesthetic and ethnographic approaches to analyze the ways criminal leadership is iconized, and associated power structures are legitimated. these processes of criminal iconization are by no means unique to Jamaica. Jason Pine (2008) has written on the relation between the camorra of southern Italy and the musical genre of neomelodica. Similarly, there are strong connections between
Mexican drugs cartels and the genre of narcocorridos that emerged along the Us border (Edberg 2004), and between brazilian gang leaders and the baile funk music of the favelas (Sneed 2007).
I draw on work linking aesthetics, politics, and the body to analyze the role of popular culture in consolidating the power of criminal leaders and their organizations. I argue that intersections of criminal governance and popular culture must be understood as embedded in the urban space of Jamaica’s capital of Kingston, and as performed on and through the bodies of the urban poor. I have been doing fieldwork on this topic since 2008, working most closely in a West Kingston neighborhood I call brick town, which, until he was jailed in 2005, fell under the leadership of a prominent don called Zeeks. In this paper, I draw on this ethnographic research as well as on cultural analysis to discuss how various popular culture expressions—dancehall music, dance events, and urban murals—both reflect and consolidate the iconization of criminals.
I see these methods as both complementary and mutually reinforcing. Starting with a discussion of the role of aesthetics in constructing and maintaining political orders through their work on the body, I go on to give a description of how Jamaican dons operate. I provide a brief history of their emergence and relation to formal political actors, and explore how their relationship with inner-city residents is a powerful combination of intimacy and distance.
This is followed by a closer examination of the ways in which donmanship is expressed and bolstered through popular music, performative culture, and visual culture, respectively.