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.
Bibliography and further literature
Adtelligent TV (May 24, 2020): Out There Without Fear: Jamaica‘s Dancehall Dance – full documentary by Joelle Powe
Clarke, Rubie: Exploring The Politics of Identity and Cultures of Resistance in Jamaican Dancehall Music and Culture. Goldsmith University College, London
Delgado de Torres, Lena: Swagga: Fashion, Kinaesthetics and Gender in Dancehall and Hip-Hop, in Journal of Black Masculinity: The Philosophical Underpinnings of Gender Identity (2011), vol. 1, no. 3
Hope, Donna P. (2011): Dancehall: Origins, History, Future. University of the West Indies, Mona
Hope, Donna P.: From Browning to Cake Soap: Popular Debates on Skin Bleaching in the Jamaican Dancehall, in The Journal of Pan Afrian Studies (2011), vol. 4, no. 4, pp. 165-194
Hope, Donna P.: Gimme di weed: popular music constructions of Jamaican identitiy, in Revista Brasileira do Caribe (2013), vol. XIII, no. 26, pp. 341-368
Hope, Donna P. (2012): Inna di Dancehall: Popular Culture and Politics of Identity in Jamaica. University of the West Indies Press
Hope, Donna P. (2010): Man Vibes: Masculinities in the Jamaican Dancehall. Ian Randle Publishers
Hope, Donna P.: Passa Passa: Interrogating Cultural Hybridities in Jamaican Dancehall, in Small Axe 21 (2006), pp. 119-133
Jessica AK (Oct 13, 2017): Dancehall Documentary – Ep. 1: “Back to Basics“
Niaah, Sonjah Stanley: Readings of “Ritual“ and Community in Dancehall Performance. Institute of Caribbean Studies, University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona Campus