Dancehall in the 21st century has mobilized beyond the constraints of a musical genre once relegated to the urban ghetto subsets of Jamaican society. In today’s global marketplace, dancehall has evolved into a revolutionized form of cultural capital. Once rendered abject by Jamaica’s uptown elite, the musical genre now projects a radical aesthetic that informs Jamaican cultural imaginaries across race, class, and gender lines. Dancehall as a movement embodies a resistance to the hegemonic morality and exclusion of Jamaica’s uptown elite, creating a space for self-determined identity formation. A subversive symbol of sexual expression and departure from colonial respectability structures, dancehall’s existence in the contemporary Jamaican postcolonial society becomes a commodified entity when proliferated in the global marketplace of cultural consumption. Even whilst negotiating its rising hypersexualization and exotification in global pop culture, dancehall retains its emancipatory healing for West Indian women who utilize dancehall as a means of celebrating the body’s diverse physicality through an erotic self-presentation of agency. In doing so, West Indian women repurpose male-dominated reggae spaces, rejecting the historic positionality of the woman as passive objects of violence and sexualization and bringing nuanced understandings of power, movement, and subjectivity to light.
Dancehall refers to the cultural phenomena that emerged from the ghettos of Kingston, Jamaica as the 1970s culminated. Its surfacing included music, distinctive fashion, argot, film, drinks, attitude and gestural patterns (Bakare-Yusuf 264). Dancehall culture centers the social event of attending a dance (colloquially known as sessions or bashment) in open concrete spaces (known as lawns), nightclubs, community centers, or areas generally associate with the urban poor (Bakare-Yusuf 264). At these events, various DJs, and their sound systems compete with each other in public battles known as clashes. Although these events occur to entertain and pay homage to the body and freedom of movement, toxic exhibitions of machismo and the constant threat of violence at Jamaican dancehall events do not always provide a safe space for its participants. Celebrations of female eroticism and economic independence can quickly shift to fascistic, homophobic, and gun-toting rhetoric. Yet, dancehall remains integral to the fabrication of an urban communal and collective identity, one rooted in creative expression and the repurposing of one’s body outside the constraints of capitalism and societal pressures.
Situating dancehall in the global marketplace of cultural consumption, I assess dancehall as a plural desiring machine that appropriates global cultural flows just as much as they appropriate it (Noble 107). Dancehall’s embodiment of countercultural resistance to the Jamaican elite is juxtaposed with its eager integration into the capitalist cyclicality of global pop culture.. The vast array of academic discourse geared towards understanding Jamaican dancehall’s transnational reach has invoked passionate deliberations within Jamaica and the diverse Black diasporic networks of culture and leisure through which it circulates. Patricia J. Saunders is one such scholar who stipulates that market values influence the cultural values expressed in Jamaican cultural commodities produced for global consumption. She asserts that the increasing desire for cultural commodities, particularly “diverse” or “exotic” music, clothes, and foods, have fostered the integration of dancehall music into American pop culture and were part of the initial appeal of Jamaican dancehall music for Americans (Noble 96). She utilizes the outcry evoked by Buju Banton’s “Boom Bye-Bye” as the focal point of her exploration of Jamaican dancehall’s simultaneously contentious and successful existence in the global cultural marketplace. The anti-gay sentiment of the song lyrics, a common occurrence in dancehall culture, garnered the attention of gay rights activists and cultural critics. The song chorus repeats:
Boom by-bye inna batty bwoy head
Rude bwoy no promote no nasty man dem haffi dead
Boom bye-bye inna batty bwoy head
Rude bwoy no promote no nasty man dem haffi dead
The lyrics, spoken in Jamaica Patois and widely disseminated by way of cross-cultural exchange, incited several commentaries, the bulk of which Noble summarizes into three significant points. First, Noble speaks to the concern for American and British cultural hegemony that materialized after Buju’s song was labeled homophobic and a form of hate speech. From this argument, Noble discusses the resulting debate about cultural authenticity and mistranslation in the realm of a Western dominated global cultural marketplace and landscape. Thirdly, Noble argues that buried under the surface remained the impending debate about the collision of market and cultural values in Jamaican national and popular culture. One should not interpret Noble’s text as endorsing anti-gay sentiment but instead as a means of assessing the cultural disconnect that manifests within dancehall’s unfiltered existence in global cross –cultural exchanges.
Nonetheless, one cannot negate the role of dancehall in developing radical imaginaries for Jamaican society. In his essay, “Mr. Reggae DJ, Meet the International Monetary Fund,” Andrew Ross moves beyond the debate of immoral propaganda, and asserts one of the revolutionary functions of the dancehall DJ in Jamaican popular culture is to inform poor people of local political developments. He describes the role dancehall DJs play in reclaiming agency along class lines, while utilizing their lyrics to critique Jamaica’s current postcolonial realities of government corruption, economic instability, and pervasive Western interference. While popular discourse focuses primarily on the overt sexual prose and eroticism of dancehall lyrics, Ross notes that dancehall DJs empower those at the lowest class levels of Jamaican society by critiquing topics that range across politricks, fashion, religious institutions, legal and health systems. At times providing religious and sex education, and lessons in survival for Jamaica’s poorer citizens, Ross posits the influence of dancehall DJs:
…goes to the heart of concerns about how culture is produced and disseminated, by which mean culture in the broadest sense of prevailing values, civic loyalties, and modes of behavior, expression, and respect for authority. Who governs the reproduction of culture among educable youth is a concern for any state, but above all for an effectively recolonized state…Unable to rely upon the diminishes moral authority of the state, elites are more willing to demonize the “straight talk” of the dancehall MC than to blame the economic violence of structural adjustment programs for the fraternal distrust and incivility that emerge from the sustained impoverishment of Jamaica’s poor.
Furthered by the mechanisms of globalization, the juxtaposition inherent in the global successes of dancehall artists in the Western pop culture of North American countries is comparable to the influx and utilization of Caribbean labor within those same countries. More so, Western interference within the West Indies proliferates the very problems the dancehall DJs seek to address. Waves of Caribbean migration have continued in response to the increased impossibility for existence for “low budget people” in the competitive global economy (Noble 98). The vast and lucrative exchange of culture and cultural commodities, and the transformation of said culture into cultural currency and capital, is one product of this long history of migration. In this regard, conversations of dancehall’s global existence as a representation of sex, race, and class commentary launch cultural critiques at Western “outsiders” for imposing their interpretations and values on Jamaican culture, while knowing very little about the contexts and traditions out of which its music emerged (Noble 97). These critiques highlight the extent to which cultural market categories (such as “world music”) circulate in a number of institutions without much attention to the processes that manufactured those commodities; which in this case include Jamaica’s sociopolitical and economic inequalities (Noble 97-98).
Such discussions of internal social policies and occurrences present an interesting segue into discussions of sexual expression and the portrayal of women in dancehall culture. Many critiques, namely budding from Western ideologies of feminism rooted in an ostracization of the cultural practices of women of color in postcolonial nations, deem dancehall an exploitative and oppressive reduction of women to sexual objects. However, such critiques negate the existence of a nuanced view of female physical and sexual agency. The vast majority of writing and discourse surrounding dancehall culture focuses on the activities most generally aligned with black male transcendence, failing to acknowledge the manner with which women also reclaim their sexuality and hedonistic longings by way of dancehall fashion and dance. In obstructing patriarchal expectations, most often rooted in colonial legacies of respectability and class disparity, women utilize dancehall spaces as a means of exerting self-determination over their own bodies while rejecting tropes of passivity.
Carole Boyce Davies, lauded Professor of Africana Studies and English at Cornell University, describes this transformation of space as [woman’s] own version of the carnival of resistance (Davies 339). They move beyond the realms of invisibility, of which lower class Black women are regularly subjected to, and claim a visibility that asserts power and manipulation over the male gaze. In Flesh and Stone, Richard Sennett draws a parallel between dancehall and the history of female pleasure, rituals, and festivals in ancient Athens. He fixates on Adonia, coincidentally the namesake of a famous contemporary dancehall artist, and a festival dedicated to the youthful god of sensual pleasure Adonis (Bakare-Yusuf 267). During the festival, women created a space on the suburban rooftops where they made anonymous contact with each other in celebration of the carnal (267). During Adonia, women shielded themselves from the eye of power, which one may interpret as the male gaze and “recovered their powers of speech, [while speaking into fruition] their desires” (Sennett 78). Sennett explains that “dancing and drinking [took] the place of complaint, or of analysis of the condition of women in Athens” (79-80). Likewise, the space created and claimed by women I dancehall culture is not a “launching pad for rebellion,” but instead a marginal space transformed into a productive environment where they can “momentarily ad bodily [escape] the conditions imposed on them by the dominant order of the city [ad greater society]” (80). I assert that, in accordance with the framework of Adonia, dancehall spaces may be repurposed as festivals of female eroticism, sensual self-pleasuring, and “a celebration of desires” not otherwise fulfilled in the lives of Jamaican and other West Indian women (77). It is through the joy in dancing apart or together, that women may make love to the space they have created and the sensual identities and imaginaries they have cultivated.
Dancehall presents an outlet for untethered physicality, both by way of celebrating machismo and feminized pleasure. However, what is most revolutionary is the assertion of power over the female body. The body is the ground of experience, a mode of being with others, and the materialization of class, taste, and distinction (Bourdieu). This is even more revolutionary when one remembers that dancehall is birthed from the urban ghetto, realms of society in which lower class women must often utilize their body for exploitative labor and sex work in order to survive the capitalist structures under which they are oppressed. Furthermore, lower class women are often subjected to domestic violence at higher rates than women in stable income communities. Thus, the prospect of predominantly lower class women enacting complete control over their body for their own pleasure possess a radical aesthetic that one can only deem as beautiful. The centrality of the Black, lower class, female body in Jamaican dancehall culture, and its diasporic extensions, resituates it as a site of resistance, a mutable energetic force, a locus of pleasurable disruption and multiple desires where everyday performances and stereotypes are challenged, deconstructed and negotiated.
Although dancehall spaces may also foster the commodification, exclusion, or exotification of the Black female body in the white male imaginary (and its replicated Black counterpart), women are still able to assert an unfiltered type of sexual and erotic agency that is unheard of in many of the sociopolitical spaces they inhabit. The difference is, instead of being forcibly subjected to the externally imposed stereotypes of black female unruliness, women are self-consciously vulgar within dancehall spaces. They flaunt their bodies in glorious recklessness, unperturbed by the respectable image of the [moral] ideal, and unmoved by Christian patriarchal righteousness and discourse of reputation (Bordo).
The multiplicity of dancehall presents a means of cultural currency and capital, but also a forum for physicality and erotic exploration of the body. Repurposed, reclaimed, and reappropriated across various times and spatial contexts, the dancehall radical aesthetic remains a forthcoming representation of sociopolitical and sexual agency. Dancehall as a genre, a movement, and cultural entity provides the means for emancipatory healing, self-presentation and –affirmation, and cross-cultural prowess. Whilst combatting the mitigating factors that may contribute to its simultaneous mistranslation and exotification in the global cultural landscape, dancehall remains an immutable force whose trajectory will no doubt remain unhindered.
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Bakare-Yusuf, Bibi. "‘I Love Myself When I Am Dancing and Carrying On’: Refiguring the Agency of Black Women's Creative Expression in Jamaican Dancehall Culture." International Journal of Media & Cultural Politics, vol. 1, no. 3, Sept. 2005, pp. 263-276.
Bordo, S. R. (1989), ‘The Body and the Reproduction of Feminity: A Feminist Appropriation of Foucault’, in A. M. Jaggar and S. R. Bordo (eds.), Gender, Body, Knowledge: Feminist Reconstructions of Being and Knowing, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Bourdieu, P. (1989), Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, London: Routledge.
Davies, Carole Boyce. Black Women, Writing and Identity: Migrations of the Subject. London: Routledge, 1994. 1-36.
Noble, Denise. “Postcolonial Criticism, Transnational Identifications and the Hegemonies of Dancehall's Academic and Popular Performativities.” Feminist Review, no. 90, 2008, pp. 106–127.
Perreira, J. (1994), ‘Gun talk and girls’ talk: the DJ clash’, Caribbean Studies, 27: Nos 3-4.
Ross, Andrew. “Mr. Reggae DJ, Meet the International Monetary Fund,” Black Renaissance 1, no. 3 (31 July 1998): 208–21.