Dancehall cyaa dead yeah
Gyal haffi go spin pon dem head yeah
Fashion and style haffi set yeah
Star haffi born weh you check seh
Mi a rub on mi bleaching cream yeah
See me inna portmore scheme yeah
Haffi have rum fi di team yeah
Tell everybody seh a free fi come in yeah
Dancehall can‘t die, yeah
Girls have to spin on their heads, yeah
Fashion and style have to be set, yeah
Stars had to be born, what do you think?
I‘m rubbing on my bleaching cream, yeah
See me in Portmore scheme, yeah
Must have rum for the team, yeah
Tell everybody it‘s free to come in, yeah
The lyrics shown above taken from the song Dancehall cyah stall by Vybz Kartel demonstrate the importance of Dancehall and its accompanying themes (girls, fashion, bleaching and the representation of self as a star) for Jamaica’s population. Vybz Kartel is one of the most prominent Dancehall artists of Jamaica, seen as a role model for ghetto youth.
“Dancehall, as a component of Jamaican popular music, is renowned as a place that recreates and reimages individuals, especially men, away from their actual social positioning. As such, ugly men are transformed into famous kings and other royalty, and individuals who are often social pariahs are provided with an opportunity to recreate their identities within the space of the music culture.” (Hope, 2011, p.4)
Dancehall is the voice of Jamaica’s most marginalised people, the residents of Kingston’s inner cities. The themes treated in Dancehall reflect their lived realities. It is through Dancehall they discuss the struggles and problems they have to face, celebrate what they consider as important and express their desires. Commonly treated topics include among others the six Gs: gun, gyal (girl), ghetto, gays, ganja, God. As it would exceed the scope of this article to discuss all I am focussing on slackness and bleaching.
“Slackness’ describes the explicit discussion of sex in dancehall lyrics that is often x-rated, openly articulating and describing sexual performance, intercourse and anatomy.” (Clarke, p. 21)
Moreover, it relates to a revealing clothing style for women which accentuates their breasts, butts or vagina. Slackness can also refer to a dancing style which includes the gyration and rotation of the pelvis and hips. Dancing which simulates hardcore sexual intercourse is called daggering.
The open celebration and expression of Black sexuality within Dancehall implies the contestation of the Eurocentric values of decency, propriety and civility, which can be traced back to the influence of colonial Christian missionaries. Those values are still maintained and promoted by the light skinned upper class of Jamaica, some of who perceive Dancehall as a threat to civility.
Especially in the 1980s, the elite of Jamaica has used this rationale of decency to justify their position of power, indicating that the Black working classes are responsible for their exclusion from Jamaican society by openly expressing their sexuality. Hence Dancehall presents a cultural clash of the value systems of upper and lower classes, while slackness is a direct challenge to the restrictive culture of the upper class.
In the highly patriarchal space of Dancehall slackness is mostly associated with the female sexual body. A high volume of lyrics expresses masculine sexual dominance over females. Within a system of hegemonic gender norms, the sexual encounter with females is seen as an affirmation of masculinity – especially for men of low economic status who are denied access to other symbols of masculinity, like material goods. Even though female sexuality is openly celebrated in Dancehall and many females use their sexual power to obtain social, cultural and economic capital, it stays a deeply patriarchal space where the female body presents a site for the negotiation and construction of masculine identities.
You think dem woulda rate me more
If me was a man and did a drop it hardcore, eh
You think dem woulda rate me more
If me say hey you gal go fuck pon the floor.
Do you think they would appreciate me more
If I was a man and would do it hardcore, eh
Do you think they would appreciate me more
If I say hey girl fuck on the floor
With her tune If I was a man female artist Spice is criticizing the patriarchy and sexism prevalent in Dancehall.
Since the late 1990s, numerous Dancehall artists celebrate and promote chemical skin lightening through their music, thereby causing an immediate increase in skin bleaching by Jamaica’s population. Jamaican local media reacted with sharp criticism and condemned people who bleach their skin as mentally ill and suffering from racial self-hatred and low self-esteem. Depicting practitioners in this manner is problematic as it pathologizes them and denies them the capacity of agency.
In a society where light skin colour is not only tied to economic wealth and social power but is also seen as an aesthetic ideal of beauty, bleaching can be interpreted as an attempt of accomplishing social mobility and approximating Eurocentric beauty ideals. Statements given by bleachers indicate that they don’t suffer from racial self-hatred, but are rather proud to be Black. Contrary to past scientific beliefs Black doesn’t refer to a biological category which is only determined by skin colour but rather corresponds to a number of categories including cultural practices, belief systems, ideology, wealth of experience and ethnicity.
“In the dancehall, where black identity is conceived as a “Modern Blackness” (Thomas, 2004) that is positive and proud and grounded on the recognition of unjustified racial subjugation, bleaching ones skin is neither an expression of racial self hatred, a form of mental illness nor an affront to black consciousness because blackness is understood by those who bleach as a self-determined consciousness and cultural ideology – not defined by melanin content.” (Clarke, p.29)
Part 3 will be about the importance of Dance in Dancehall.
Dancehall as music genre: Dancehall’s predecessors are Mento, Ska, Dub, Rocksteady and above all Reggae – musical genres that were all influenced by West African cultural elements. The original meaning of Dancehall is literal – a hall for staging dance events. Dancehall is characterized by a Deejay toasting (rapping) in Patois (an English-based creole language with West African influences) over a riddim (Patois for rhythm). As such the Deejay in Jamaican culture has a different meaning than the Deejay in North American Culture. The North American Deejay is called Selector in Jamaican language as he selects the tunes.
Important note: all of the following is not based on my personal opinion or my own research, I used the work of researchers like Donna Hope to create this article. All of the researchers whose work I integrated are indicated at the end.
Jamaican Dancehall culture is loved by an international audience for its contagious vibes, catchy riddims and powerful energy. But where does it all come from? Who created it and what are the messages that Dancehall sends out?
Dancehall is resistance, empowerment and celebration at once. It is a music genre, a physical and metaphysical space, a fashion style and a culture reflecting the harsh life realities of its creators – the marginalised residents of Jamaica’s inner cities. Dancehall fulfils a multitude of meanings and purposes for its adherents: a transgression of socio-cultural norms, a reimagination of identities, new economic opportunities and a temporary escape from the reality of an oppressed people. Let’s take a closer look at this unique phenomenon which is so often misunderstood and underrated in its liberating and revolutionary powers.
To be able to understand Dancehall culture and the multiple meanings it provides for its creators it is necessary to explore the historical, political and social conditions present in Jamaica at the time of its origins. Dancehall as a music genre had its beginnings in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a time of hegemonic dissolution and social unrests.
After Jamaica gained independence in 1962 the two political parties JLP and PNP increased their power by establishing close relationships with inner city communities and youth gangs, turning them into loyal supporters. The result was a sharp increase in gun related violence within Kingston’s ghettos, a condition which has been intensified by numerous murders of innocent youth by police forces.
In the early 1980s, Jamaica experienced severe economic stagnation, forcing the country to seek help from the IMF. The IMF imposed austerity measures had drastic consequences which were felt most by the urban poor: inflation, reduced access to education and health care, high unemployment rates and an increase in poverty and violence.
Jamaica’s national motto “Out of many one people” doesn’t really provide a truthful picture of Jamaica’s divided society. Rigid hierarchical structures are in place, which classify residents based on their class, race and gender. Eurocentric norms and Christian values imported and manifested by colonialism still prevail, making it hard for the Black majority of Jamaica’s population to gain economic wealth and accomplish social mobility. While the Black working class has been marginalised, Jamaica’s brown and white skinned elite hold power over the country. Eurocentric gender norms are responsible for the prevalence of a deeply patriarchal system, which impedes the lives of Jamaican females as well as males.
Until the present day residents of inner city garrisons have to face economic and socio-cultural hardships on a daily basis. It is under these circumstances that they created Dancehall – a music genre, a dancing style and a whole cultural complex which has gained a tremendous amount of international attention and popularity. By exploring different elements of Dancehall this article presents how creativity and cultural production offer opportunities for empowerment, resistance and liberation for its creators.
Part 2 of Dancehall a mi everything will be about Slackness and Bleaching as essential components of Dancehall.
Hegemony: Leadership or dominance, especially by one state or social group over others.
Jamaica’s colonial history: Before Christopher Columbus discovered Jamaica in 1494, the Redware people and later the Arawak tribes, including the Tainos, had been the original inhabitants of Jamaica. The Spanish enslaved the Tainos, being responsible for their extinction. Like the English people, who invaded Jamaica in 1655, they enslaved thousands of Black West Africans and brought them to Jamaica, where they were forced to work on plantations. The Africans resisted their oppressors by initiating dozens of revolts, like the Tacky Revolt in 1760, while some managed to escape to the island’s interior mountains, where they formed independent communities known as the Maroons. After being an English colony from 1655 and then a British colony from 1707, Jamaica became independent in 1962.
Back in 2014, I experienced my first carnival in Berlin. Part 1 ended with Soca on the Beach, so this is also where I am starting now:
“I want a fat gyal, I want a rolly polly!” It was prime time at Soca on the Beach, as this tune was coming up. People were lit, having their 10th drink in their hands, misbehaving all over the place. “Where are my rolly pollies?”, the DJ was asking the crowd. It didn’t take long until three girls with let’s say a pretty curvy body were entering the stage. It turned out to be a dancing competition where each girl was giving a performance. The crowd loved it, they were shouting, clapping their hands and cheering the girls. I was absolutely amazed by the view and at the same time admiring the dancing skills of these girls. How they were splitting, rolling their massive asses and wining their bodies down the ground as if it was the easiest thing in the world.
Growing up in a world where being as skinny as possible is desirable, I enjoy watching how people are cheering girls who definitely don’t try to look like that. That indicates acceptance and celebration of other body types too (of course I don’t want to advocate for obesity – a healthy body and a healthy weight should always be the goal). Getting to know about different beauty ideals than the ones I grew up with helped me a lot to gain confidence when it comes to my own body. But that’s another story.
When carnival was finally about to happen on that weekend, I was absolutely unprepared. I was doing Fun Mas, as my friends were doing the same, but to be honest, I didn’t even know this whole thing was called Fun Mas (Fun Mas is the cheaper version of participating in carnival – you don’t wear a costume, you just a get a shirt which you individualize by cutting and styling it). Nor did I know that I was supposed to cut my shirt. So I was pretty surprised as I saw my friends starting to cut their shirts early in the morning on the day of carnival.
Even though I would call myself a creative person who has some talent for craft, in that moment I was totally unable to produce anything aesthetic. Being exhausted from the countless number of parties and also being under pressure as we had to leave soon, the result was some kind of distorted looking asymmetrical piece of clothing with an irregular cutting pattern including plenty crookedly cut fringes. It was a mess.
But that didn’t matter. At least I had cut my shirt, had some kind of cool hair style and pretty make up (at least back then I thought it was pretty) and was more than ready to go. So I put on my sandals (!!!!) and left the house. Yeah right, sandals. Despite all warnings, I wore uncomfortable, cheap, plastic sandals for my first carnival. Biggest mistake ever as I would learn later that day.
A dream coming true on the streets of Berlin
As we were finally on the road having our first few drinks, all worries were forgotten pretty quickly. I loved the parade, the people, the music and especially dancing on the streets. I felt free and relieved and with the rum kicking in I was wining my body like crazy on the streets of Berlin. Soon the alcohol was done though, so we were looking for some liquor store. Unfortunately, that turned out to be more difficult than we thought as all the stores were sold out by that time already. The only thing we could get was cheap rum with warm coke. Probably the most disgusting thing I have ever drunk, but there was no other choice.
With some effort and lots of disgust I managed to drink the cheap rum warm coke drink, but the next problem arose in a minute. My feet, which got really dirty in the meantime, started to hurt. Also, the toilet issue came up. Despite all these obstacles, it was still a great day. I loved my first carnival. The music, the sun, the happy people and dancing on the streets – a dream came true. Above all, I was absolutely pleased by the fact that I was able to experience some authentic Caribbean culture in Berlin, Germany, thousands of kilometres away from the Caribbean. That was a highlight for me, which I definitely didn’t expect in that form. I am really grateful for events like Berlin carnival which make it possible for us to experience carnival without travelling so far.
As I came home this evening, totally exhausted, dirty and with destroyed feet and shoes, I dropped dead straight into my bed. I was extremely tired but happy. It was a magical day for me, filled with joyful vibes, a taste of true freedom and a sense of unity.
It’s hard to believe but this year we will finally be able to enjoy carnival again. Notting Hill Carnival in London is coming up and I am more than excited to participate. I guess after such a long time it will somehow feel like my first carnival back in 2014. My first carnival experience was Berlin Carnival and it was simply amazing, causing a never-ending craving for Soca music and carnival. It’s a love-at-first-sight story.
In 2014, I was invited to come along to Berlin carnival by my dear friend Teresa who has been a fond Carnival lover for many years now. Although I have been listening to Reggae and Dancehall since I am a teenager, I didn’t know much about Soca or carnivals at that point of time.
After a long 8 hour bus drive we attended the first party on Thursday. I remember loving the whole scene from the first moment, as I realized how many people from all over were coming to Berlin to celebrate together. Another thing I noticed pretty soon is the high levels of energy present at Soca parties. Until today I get goose bumps from these intense vibes of joy, unity and zest for life. From the first minute of my first Soca party I loved to watch how people were freely expressing their happiness through dancing, singing and enjoying themselves to the max. That was something I had never seen before to that extent and in that way until then.
In the course of the following days one party followed the next and while I love to attend so many fetes I got more and more exhausted. Surprisingly on the contrary, other people seemed to get more and more energized. They were jumping and dancing around without a break while sleeping little and drinking a lot. Until today I have absolutely no clue how some people are able to do that without dropping dead.
Destination Happy Soca Planet
Soon I understood that to a big extent it’s Soca (and definitely also the alcohol) causing the high levels of energy. These strong, catchy and fast riddims combined with the motivating lyrics inject immense doses of energy and get you moving, regardless if you want or not (also regardless of how much sleep you actually lack). Sometimes the music even seems to have a mesmerising effect, altering people’s states of mind and transferring them to some kind of happy Soca planet, where they experience states of ecstasy through movement and the powerful bass penetrating their whole body. Just one of the reasons why people love their Soca parties (and why I love Soca parties).
While I love Soca and wining to its riddims, I have to admit that it does get too fast and too wild for me sometimes. When it gets too crazy, I pull back and watch from the edges. And yes, it does get pretty crazy at Soca parties. Although I had already experienced some craziness at Jamaican parties Soca people just showed me another level of craziness (no offense though, I always enjoy watching how people let go and just do whatever they feel like without caring about what others think). So when I attended my first Soca on the Beach in 2014, I was amused by people doing all kinds of things in the sand: forward rolls all over the place, climbing on top of each other building human towers, wining down to the ground while jumping on each other, etc. Again, I can’t deny that alcohol probably does play some role in that. But also Soca with its instructions (“pick up something, anything”) could partly be blamed as those are taken very seriously by many.
That was part one of my first carnival experience. In part two I am talking about Rolly Pollies owning the stage, the feeling of freedom carnival gives me and the beginner’s mistakes I made at my first carnival.
I am sitting on the back of a motorbike, going up a steep and bumpy road. I am having severe difficulties leaving my eyes open as the rain is pouring down on us like crazy. We are on our way back from the centre of Port Antonio to the hostel where I am staying at. To reach the hostel, which is located on top of a hill, you have to deal with a good amount of holes, puddles, stones, rocks and mud.
The guy driving is called Devon. He works for the hostel owner by bringing hostel guests up and down the hill with his bike. I am absolutely amazed how Devon is able to drive so easily on this kind of “road” which is so full of obstacles without even having his eyes protected from the rain (as he wore no helmet), while I can hardly even open my eyes.
Half way up the hill we suddenly stop. I don’t know why until I see him heading towards a small bar which is partly hidden behind trees and bushes next to the road. Being soaking wet from the rain I follow him into the bar where I spot two chairs in front of a counter. There are no people, not even a bartender. Like in so many other bars in Jamaica the walls are full of Wray and Nephew and Magnum (brands producing popular drinks) posters showing girls with huge asses in tiny bikinis doing sexually suggestive poses.
Devon explains to me that this is his bar and invites me to sit down. He gives me some rum and a spliff, treating me very nicely. So there we are sitting, drinking and smoking, while looking outside the open door watching the heavy rain falling noisily on the ground. Of course I had no idea we would stop here to have a drink and also I have absolutely no idea how long we will stay here. A very typical situation in Jamaica which I experienced more than once or twice. Sure I could say something and tell Devon that I would actually like to return to the hostel soon but I already know that wouldn’t make a lot of sense as obviously, Devon wasn’t ready yet (of course I also appreciate his hospitality). When will he be ready? Nobody knows, probably not even himself.
Fortunately, that’s not something you always have to know. Just be aware that in Jamaica even if you are sitting somewhere for three hours already that won’t necessarily mean you are ready (to leave). Consequently, all you need to do in this moment is to relax, let things happen, go with the flow and to not try to control the situation. Sounds like a difficult thing for a German but here in Jamaica you don’t have much of a choice anyways. If you don’t go with the flow and try to control things you will just become frustrated.
Living in the moment is precious
The best thing you can do in moments like these is to be open to whatever comes next. And also to be patient, be spontaneous and be able to do nothing. Trust me it’s worth it. You will experience things you would have never planned, thought of or dreamed of. It took some time for me to understand that and even more time to really live it. But now as I do, I am having the best time of my life while I sit here in the middle of nowhere talking to Devon about our lifes, enjoying the sound of the rain and realizing that it really doesn’t take much to enjoy myself.
I know at some point he will ask me, “ready?”, indicating that it’s time to leave. I have stopped wondering what triggers that sudden urge to leave at a particular point in time a long time ago. I guess it’s just the (for Europeans) unpredictable, very easygoing Jamaican flow he is naturally going with which tells him to do so.
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