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.
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.
Especially during my childhood and teenage years I experienced severe social anxiety. Asking a stranger on the street for directions was as much of a challenge for me as asking for the bill in a restaurant, doing a presentation in school or starting a conversation with one of my classmates. Whenever I was confronted with such a situation where I was supposed to say something to someone I didn’t know well or where attention was directed towards me I felt an inner paralysis which made it impossible for me to act in a way which is considered to be normal by most. I felt so insecure and nervous, extremely afraid of bad judgment by others.
My whole life I have been confronted with the questions: Why are you so shy? Why are you so calm? Why don’t you say more? Those questions make obvious that introverted behavior is not considered to be the social norm by many. Think about it. How often do you hear the questions: Why are you so loud? Why do you talk so much? Hardly ever. This world is rather made for extroverts. They are the ones who get noticed and they are the ones who are more likely to get what they want. In school most of the times when I knew the answer to a question the teacher was asking I was just too shy to raise my hand and say it. And I knew the answer pretty often. It has always been hard for me to express my needs to people. I felt (and still feel sometimes) like an outsider, I felt strange and disconnected to myself and others.
How Jamaica taught me that talking to people isn’t as bad as expected
When I was 19 years old I traveled to Jamaica for five months to do volunteer work. I had finished school by then and wanted to do something different before I went to university. The time in Jamaica was life changing for me in so many aspects. Of course it was very frightening at first as I traveled such a far distance all by myself for the first time. And everything was so different. The way how people interacted with each other was totally new to me. Everybody seemed to be so familiar with each other as if they were all friends or family. The distance between people seemed to be a lot smaller and easier to overcome, compared to society at home. Social interaction was more natural, more easy-going, less formal. I experienced that it was perfectly normal to talk to strangers everywhere.
In such an environment it was easier for me to overcome my anxiety. Even though I had to get used to the different mentality first, the inviting atmosphere made me feel comfortable enough to talk to people. The warmth of the people, the way they approached me and talked to me made me feel less awkward and less afraid of judgment. I felt welcome. Social interaction appeared natural and less forced.
What needs to be mentioned too is that in fact I had no choice other than talking to people. Because first of all many people talked to me as I was a foreigner and of course I was answering them. But also because talking to people was just necessary to accomplish certain things. For example in order to find the right taxi to go home I had to ask people where it was departing from. Neither were there signs indicating the location nor could I google that. So that was actually an excellent practice for me. Soon I got used to it and found out it wasn’t as bad as expected to talk to people (what a surprise).
My happy place
Nowadays I know that one reason why social interaction in the Caribbean (but also many other places) is so different from the one I experience in Western Europe is because values differ. Because of how the system is functioning family, community and friends play a vital role for survival. People need to support each other as they can’t always rely on the state. On the contrary, individualism is highly valued in Western Europe which does have advantages but which can also cause us to distance ourselves from each other. The result can be loneliness or having difficulties when it comes to social interaction.
The non-judgemental, warm and relaxed atmosphere I experience in the Caribbean makes me feel comfortable in my skin. I feel more able to talk to people and to connect. I feel more secure. The barriers disappear. Whenever I return from a visit to the Caribbean my social batteries are fully charged and social interaction feels so easy. I am full of positive energy. These batteries get weaker over time but fortunately, my social skills improved a lot over time. However, I am deeply grateful to have the opportunity to travel to beautiful places like Jamaica to experience things and get to know myself better.
What definitely also helps me to connect to myself and others is the music and dancing I experience in the Caribbean. It just makes me feel so good. Happy and free of worries. The minute the music enters my head I get carried away. Far away. On a beautiful journey which is incomparably mind-blowing. I see the world with different eyes. But that’s a topic for another time.
Oh Gosh how much do I miss the sweet West Indies. The current circumstances have made it hard to travel for more than a year now so I have been suffering from some withdrawal. A huge pain in the ass as there were no parties either which would have allowed me to experience at least some kind of Caribbean culture. So all I can do is reminiscing I guess. Well that’s not quite true, there is actually more I (and also you!) can do. For example Jamaican Rum Punch!
As I am generally a very optimistic person who always tries to make the best out of situations I was thinking about what I can do to bring at least some Caribbean flavour to my home. And the answer was simple: Let’s make some Jamaican Rum Punch! Jamaican rum is something you can even get in Austria (without having to order it) and the other ingredients are not hard to get either. Furthermore, it is super easy to make. I will show you how in this blog entry and tell you my favourite recipe, which lets me reminisce of the Caribbean every time I smell or taste it. But before we get to the instructions let me tell you about the history of Rum Punch.
History of Rum Punch
Punch is a very old beverage which has even existed before cocktails were invented. The origins of the word Punch are not quite clear: many say its roots lay in the Indian dialect of Hindustani and translates to five. Five referring to the five elements which are frequently used to make punch: sweet, sour, water, spice and alcohohl. Others say the word punch is derived from the word puncheon, which was used to describe a special kind of barrel used for the transport of alcohol.
Although it is not totally clear who really invented the drink, it is said that British sailors who worked for the British East India Company were the first to create it in the 17th century. They were drinking a lot on their long long voyages from England to South East Asia and eventually the beer and wine they brought with them spoiled or they ran out of it.
So they had to find a replacement and created Punch out of Indian arrack and other ingredients which were easily available in India, like lemon juice. The sailors brought the drink from India to England, where it got very popular during the mid 1600s. In 1655, the modern Rum Punch was born, when Jamaican rum was used instead of arrack from the East Indies.
Nowadays Rum Punch is a popular Caribbean island cocktail, typically consisting of rum and fruits or fruit juices. There are many different variants of Caribbean Rum Punch as every island adds its own flavours. I am introducing Jamaican Rum Punch in this article as this the place where I got to know the tasty cocktail (and also because Jamaican rum is easy to get where I live).
Jamaican Rum Punch recipe
Actually there isn’t only one certain way to make Jamaican Rum Punch. Even though the main ingredients are always the same, you will find slightly different versions when you google it. I tried different ways to do Rum Punch until I found the perfect recipe (inspired by Lemons for Lulu)
For about 5 glasses of rum punch you need:
1 cup of orange juice
1 cup of pineapple juice (I always prefer to use self made juice containing fruits only)
1/4 cup lime juice
1/4 cup white rum, for example Wray & Nephew White Overproof Rum
1/4 cup dark rum, for example Appleton Estate Signature Blend
1/2 cup of grenadine (or less if you prefer it les sweet)
For one big glass (35,5 cl) you need:
100 ml orange juice
100 ml pineapple juice
2,5 cl dark rum
2,5 cl white rum
30 ml of grenadine
All you need to do is combine all the ingredients (for example in a pitcher) and stir. Then pour the drink into glasses filled with ice and garnish them with fruits. Rum Punch is a great party drink because you can prepare it easily in lager quantities.
Create your own version
As I mentioned already every Carribean island adds its own flavours to their version of Rum Punch. Let me give you some examples:
InTrinidad and Tobago Rum Punch typically consists of lime juice, raw sugar, nutmeg, Angostura Bitters, dark rum from Trinidad (for example Angostura) and water.
In Barbados the ingredients frequently used are lime juice, simple syrup, dark rum from Barbados (for example Mount Gay), Angostura bitters and nutmeg.
As you can see it’s all pretty similar. What you can do too is use your creativity and create your own version of Rum Punch. There are so many different things you can try. For example use Coconut rum or try a different fruit juice like Mango or Watermelon. Whatever fits your taste best. To remember the proportions of the ingredients there is a simple rhyme: One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong and four of weak.
Reminiscing of Jamaica with Rum Punch, music and friends
I love to make Rum Punch occasionally as it’s so easy to make and it reminds me of Jamaica a lot (especially the scent of Wray and Nephew Overproof Rum takes me back immediately). Even though it is not a drink Jamaicans drink frequently it is something you can get at many places. If you like rum and fruits it’s very likely that you will like this beverage as well.
My recommendation for a Jamaican night at home: Invite two friends, hang some pineapple garlands and light chains for a nice atmosphere, turn on some Dancehall music and make some tasty Rum Punch to create the right mood for a night full of dancing and fun. Of course it is not the same as in the Caribbean, but for now it is a good replacement. And the best is yet to come because I will give you more advice on how to bring a little bit of Caribbean flavour to your home. Curious? Stay tuned for Reminiscing Part 2!
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