A Reader on Jamaican Music and Culture
Sound Culture Series
- Published: October 2020
Dancehall: A Reader on Jamaican Music and Culture contextualizes the emergence of the globally popular dancehall genre, while tracing the complex and often contradictory aspects of its evolution, dispersion and politics. This collection of foundational essays places dancehall in context with cutting-edge analyses of performance modes and expression, genre development, and impact in the wider local, regional and international socio-political milieu of struggles by black Jamaicans in particular and cultural adherents more broadly.
Dancehall is one of eight musical genres created in Jamaica and, in the past two decades, it has become one of the most influential Jamaican cultural exports since reggae. The impact of dancehall extends far beyond Jamaica and is evident in music genres (such as hip hop, trip hop, jungle, reggaeton, South African kwaito and Nigerian Afrobeats) and international fashion, film and dance.
This interdisciplinary volume documents various aspects of dancehall’s global impact, evolution and influence in gender, political economy, geography, ethnomusicology, spirituality, music production, fashion and language. Each selection interrogates the range of meanings ascribed to dancehall culture, a phenomenon which has been seen to be associated with violence, crime and debauchery. This collection exposes the immense cultural work towards self-expression and identity in post-colonial Jamaica which takes shape through dancehall and the contributors apply a new level of seriousness, depth and academic rigour to dancehall studies.
Acknowledgements and Permissions
SONJAH STANLEY NIAAH
Part 1: Early Reflections
The Development of Jamaican Popular Music
Slackness Hiding from Culture: Erotic Play in the Dancehall
Murderation: The Question of Violence in the Sound System Dance
NORMAN C. STOLZOFF
Gun Talk and Girls’ Talk: The DJ Clash
Part 2: Negotiation, Urban Space and Experience
Post-Nationalist Geographies: Rasta, Ragga and Reinventing Africa
An Archaeology of Dancehall: Garrison Life at Fort Rocky
ZACHARY J.M. BEIER
Sampling City: Kingston in the Social Imaginary of Jamaican Popular Music
ANNA KASAFI PERKINS
Tommy Lee as “Uncle Demon”: Contemporary Cultural Hybridity in Jamaican Dancehall
Dancehall Political Patronage and Gun Violence: Political Affiliations and the Glorification of Gun Culture
Part 3: Engagement, Spectacle and the Language of Performance
Video Light: Dancehall and the Aesthetics of Spectacular Un-visibility in Jamaica
“Spar wid Me” and Other Stories of Civic Engagement in the Sound Clash Arena
Death before Dishonour: Language and the Jamaican Sound System Clash
AUDENE S. HENRY
Part 4: Sexual Politics and Aesthetics
Out and Bad: Toward a Queer Performance Hermeneutic in Jamaican Dancehall
Fashion Ova Style: Dancehall’s Masculine Duality
Ghetto Girls/Urban Music: Jamaican Ragga Music and Female Performance
“A Uman Wi Niem!” Sexual Desire and the Poetics of “Badness” in the Works of Lady Saw and Tanya Stephens
Part 5: Sound System, Riddim and Practice
A Caribbean Taste of Technology: Creolization and the Ways of Making of the Dancehall Sound System
The Riddim Method: Aesthetics, Practice and Ownership in Jamaican Dancehall
PETER MANUEL AND WAYNE MARSHALL
“‘Sleng Teng’ Dominate Bad, Bad”: Understanding Jamaica’s “Computerized” Riddim Craze
ERIN C. MacLEOD
Sleng Teng: Redefining Jamaica’s Digital Riddims
Part 6: Ritual, Celebration, Space
Ritual and Community in Dancehall Performance
SONJAH STANLEY NIAAH
Egúngún in Disguise: The Jamaican Nine Night Ceremony
LENA DELGADO DE TORRES
Representations of “Obeah” and “Bad-Mind” in Contemporary Jamaican Dancehall
Part 7: Adornment, Embodiment and Style
Fabricating Identities: Survival and the Imagination in Jamaican Dancehall Culture
Dancehall Bodies: Performing In/Securities
Born in Chanel, Christen in Gucci: The Rhetoric of Brand Names and Haute Couture in Jamaican Dancehall
ANDREA SHAW NEVINS
Part 8: The Dancehall Transnation
Music and Orality: Authenticity in Japanese Sound System Culture
MARVIN D. STERLING
Zimdancehall: Jamaican Music in a Transatlantic and African Perspective
Black Music, Popular Culture and Existential Capital: The Relationship between Appropriation and Originality
BRUNO BARBOZA MUNIZ
White Faces in Intimate Spaces: Jamaican Popular Music in Global Circulation
LARISA KINGSTON MANN
Part 9: Tribute to Bogle
“Bogle ah di Order fi di Day”: Dance and Identity in Jamaican Dancehall
SONJAH STANLEY NIAAH
SONAH STANLEY NIAAH
THE ORIGINS OF WHAT IS TODAY REFERRED TO AS “DANCEHALL” go back to mid-nineteenth century Jamaica, before the international community had heard of reggae or any of the other musical genres that have made the island a worldwide musical juggernaut. The dance- hall has always been and continues to be a space of celebration (Stanley Niaah 2004). It is a location where communities come together to dance to music played by sound systems, the mobile discotheques which are the backbone of Jamaican music, providing entertainment in Kingston, throughout the countryside and increasingly in what can be referred to as the “dancehall diaspora”.
From these spaces a range of different musics have been developed, from mento to ska and rocksteady to reggae and dub to dancehall. Dancehall has moved from referencing a place for enjoyment to being both a genre of music as well as a culture. The Jamaican genre of reggae has received significant treatment in multiple works, be they scholarly books or more popular, non-academic publications. This anthology, however, is the first work to bring together thinking about this multifaceted concept of dancehall from the perspectives of history, sociology, cultural studies, geography, anthropology, ethnomusicology and more.
Dancehall culture is vibrant and dynamic, a demonstration of the richness and resilience that is Jamaican creativity. Over the past decades, it has presented the world with innovations in music production and fashion design and illustrated the expression of politics, sexuality, spirituality, community, and both sexual and gender identity. Dancehall is entertainment and competition, lifestyle and novelty. However, given that many of the prevailing sentiments about dancehall point to slackness (meaning vulgarity), violence and debased values, dancehall has been persecuted as much as it has been praised. There have been complaints in local papers over the years, with but one recent example being a 2015 article in one of Jamaica’s national newspapers, the Gleaner, stating “Dancehall Is the Source of Evil” (Thompson 2015). There have also been reactions and protests locally and internationally against moral codes expressed in dancehall’s lyrics, particularly around same-sex relationships. This has led to Time magazine’s infamous characterization of Jamaica as the “most homophobic place on earth” (Padgett 2006). While there are changing attitudes, what is clear is that dancehall music and culture have become easy avenues through which we can read the pulse of Jamaican sensibilities around a variety of everyday cultural norms.
So as to encompass the kaleidoscope of attitudes, opinions and ideas about dancehall, this collection brings together scholarship from the early days of analysis of the genre in the 1980s to recent work presented at the Global Reggae Conference under the theme “Dancehall, Music and the City” in 2017. The reggae studies conferences have been the source for published works, including Carolyn Cooper’s edited collection of work from the 2008 conference, Global Reggae (2013), and International Reggae: Current and Future Trends in Jamaican Popular Music (2013), edited by Donna Hope. This anthology takes account of what could be referred to as both positive and negative perspectives and does not shy away from discussions of controversies surrounding dancehall as space, genre and culture. In addition, this anthology has been divided into the following sections, each providing relevant focus on the many attributes of dancehall that will allow for a broad understanding.
Though dancehall is the most recent development in Jamaica’s musical history, there has been scholarship on the subject since the early 1980s. Beginning with Garth White’s seminal 1984 essay, one that has not been widely available until this publication, the history of what is now referred to as dancehall is told. White provides an outline of dancehall’s predecessors and influences, not just musically but also in terms of dance itself. Carolyn Cooper, who was the first scholar to take the lyrics of dancehall seriously, demonstrates her approach and a means of reading the poetic significance in the music. For Cooper, slackness is not a barrier to cultural understanding, but actually part of the culture itself. In this section, there is also Norman C. Stolzoff, anthropologist and scholar, who completed ethnographic work on dancehall sound system culture. His chapter provides insight on the sound system dance and looks at the role of violence in the dancehall space. Complementing this is work on lyrical clashes from Joe Pereira. Pereira’s analysis of the “talk” of dancehall performers – alternately referred to as “DJs” or “deejays” – asks questions about lyrical content that edges toward violence and slackness.
NEGOTIATION, URBAN SPACE AND EXPERIENCE
As dancehall is an expression of a space, a space that is produced, as Henri Lefebvre would see it, by society and community (1991), this section deals with the creation and negotiation of the dancehall space, beginning with Louis Chude-Sokei’s “Post-Nationalist Geographies: Rasta, Ragga and Reinventing Africa” that looks at the shift from the universal themes of reggae in the 1970s (promoted internationally by Bob Marley) to the much more spatialized and individualized focus of dancehall. Instead of a complete move away from cultural consciousness, Chude-Sokei argues for the specificity of the Africanness of the dancehall space. Still focused on space, but from a different perspective, Zachary J.M. Beier provides an archaeological view of one specific space that has been transformed through dancehall music: Kingston’s historically significant Fort Rocky. This fort in the Port Royal region is the first declared entertainment zone in the Kingston Metropolitan Area, as part of the modern era of cultural industries’ regula- tory frameworks and reforms.
Anna Kasafi Perkins takes a wider view of Kingston as a whole, as expressed through Jamaican popular music, with specific focus on the ways in which dancehall has shaped Kingston and vice versa. The final two chapters in this section deal with other influences of dancehall and the negotiation of space and experience. Robin Clarke describes how dancehall artist Tommy Lee has brought together a range of influences to develop his Caribbean, urban-gothic character of “Uncle Demon”, and Dennis Howard illustrates the ways in which the reality of politics and crime impact and are described by dancehall artists.
ENGAGEMENT, SPECTACLE AND THE LANGUAGE OF PERFORMANCE
The interaction between dancehall artists and the interaction between sound systems and their audience, or “massive”, are key to the environment that is the dancehall. Notably, the dancehall is a space in which the “massive” is as much spectator as performer. One of the most significant elements of any sound system event in Kingston (and internation- ally) is the role of the “video man”, a person hired to record the proceedings. The camera takes into account not only performances but the entirety of the dancehall event, from fashion and dancing to the comments of the sound system MC and those in attendance. This section underlines this dynamic phenomenon, beginning with Krista Thompson’s work on the role of the video light and spectatorship.
The dancehall provides opportunities for audiences to involve themselves in many ways, and Joshua Chamberlain’s work on civic engagement and the sound clash demon- strates a different type of involvement on a broader, community-based level. Rival sound systems have competed using both the power of their sound as well as the content of the music they play. Chamberlain describes this phenomenon and how it also allows for the development of civic culture through the clash. Rounding out the section is Audene S. Henry’s look at the language of the sound clash: communication between sound systems as well as communication between audience and sound system.
SEXUAL POLITICS AND AESTHETICS
Given dancehall’s reputation for discussions of sex and sexuality, there is a need to include some of the important research and commentary on these topics, as well as the issue of gender. It is also important to review and expand the conception of dancehall as a simplistic and monolithically homophobic space. Nadia Ellis motions toward a different way of seeing the role of queerness in dancehall by thinking about how to interpret certain forms of masculinities in dancehall. So too does Donna Hope, who provides an analysis of male identity as it functions in the dancehall space. Hope’s contribution to this volume looks specifically at how dancehall shapes the image of the man in Jamaica. Turning to women’s identities, Tracey Skelton discusses the performance of femininity and Agostinho Pinnock focuses on Tanya Stephens to illustrate the discourse of and around women in the genre.
SOUND SYSTEM, RIDDIM AND PRACTICE
Of course, dancehall is music, and this music is heard, primarily on sound systems. This section looks at the actual sound of dancehall, beginning with Julian Henriques’s look at the sound system as creolized cultural form. Henriques is known for his analysis of the sound system and the dancehall as sound event. His work connects sound system practice with systems of understanding and discursive practices. This is complemented by the three other chapters in this section, including Peter Manuel and Wayne Marshall’s thorough analysis of the practice of making dancehall. They describe how the system of “riddims” (the instrumental foundations of dancehall music that are used and reused by vocalists and recreated by producers) is shaped by and shapes dancehall music. Both Erin C. MacLeod and Ray Hitchins discuss the phenomenon of riddims from the same starting point: the sleng teng. MacLeod looks at the derisive discourse surrounding the riddim and Hitchins takes a musicological look at the development of dancehall music, specifically the use of technology in the creation of riddim.
RITUAL, CELEBRATION, SPACE
Dancehall is rooted in history, but it is also rooted in spirituality. The three chapters in this section take the sacred as a starting point. Sonjah Stanley Niaah’s work, from the perspective of social and cultural geography, investigates dancehall event practice as ritual. Yes, the space is that of celebration, of music and dance and fashion – but there is a specific process to the dance. By enumerating different dance events, Stanley Niaah illustrates the commonalities and the ritualized nature of dancehall culture. Lena Delgado de Torres and Kate Lawton continue in this vein. De Torres turns to the funereal ritual of the Nine Night, underlining its relation to Yorùbá-based ancestral worship and the relationship of these older cultural practices to the present popular culture of dancehall. Lawton also connects ancestral practices with dancehall by drawing a comparison between the spiritual practice of obeah and the present-day conception of “bad mind”, a much discussed concept in dancehall lyrics.
ADORNMENT, EMBODIMENT AND STYLE
Fashion and style are huge elements of dancehall. There is some discussion of fashion in the section dealing with sexuality and gender identity, but these three chapters demonstrate how dress shapes both dancehall and its participants. Bibi Bakare-Yusuf views fashion as a survival tactic, a means of shoring up identity. “H” Patten’s work is on dance style and how it reflects both community and self-perception. Dealing with the pressure to sport international brands is Andrea Elizabeth Shaw. Her work on the discourse of luxury fashion brands in the dancehall and in dancehall lyrics illustrates how colonial hierarchies continue in dancehall.
THE DANCEHALL TRANSNATION
Dancehall is, of course, an international phenomenon, with artists from Africa to Europe to Asia to Australia and across the Americas all versioning and voicing riddims and attempting to express themselves in a dancehall style. All chapters in the section turn to dancehall sound, culture and practice in a difference space. Marvin Sterling provides insight into the role of the sound system in Japan and how Japanese culture has connected with dancehall. Andrea Hollington turns to the African continent to investigate the development of dancehall in Zimbabwe. Bruno Barboza Muniz, on the other side of the globe, draws connections between Jamaican sound system culture and Brazilian funk, asking questions about appropriation, authenticity and originality. The idea and impact of international audiences is discussed by Larisa Kingston Mann, who wonders about the result of dancehall’s circulation through the wide range of technological platforms now available.
TRIBUTE TO BOGLE
As a final addition to the anthology, this tribute provides not only a fitting eulogy for the famed dancer Bogle but also an understanding of the importance of dance in the dancehall. The desire to remember those who have contributed to dancehall is also the purpose of this anthology. This tribute represents the first of what could be many tributes to those who have helped to develop dancehall, and this collection is itself a tribute to the many who have been at the foundation of dancehall practice and scholarship. But as dancehall – the space, music, style, dance and lifestyle – moves forward, there will always be a need to continue the analysis of this dynamic part of Jamaican culture. This is but one collection and a long overdue one.
Cooper, Carolyn, ed. 2013. Global Reggae. Kingston: University of the West Indies Press.
Hope, Donna, ed. 2013. International Reggae: Current and Future Trends in Jamaican Popular Music. Kingston: Ian Randle.
Lefebvre, Henri. 1991. The Production of Space. Translated by Donald Nicolson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell.
Padgett, Tim. 2006. “The Most Homophobic Place on Earth?” Time, 12 April. http://content.time .com/time/world/article/0,8599,1182991,00.html.
Stanley Niaah, Sonjah. 2004. “Kingston’s Dancehall: A Story of Space and Celebration”. Space and Culture 7, no. 1: 1102–18.
Thompson, Tyrone. 2015. “Devil in the Music – ‘Dancehall is the Source of Evil’”.