The Culture of Jamaican Dancehall

Jamaican Dancehall Culture


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Donna P. Hope defines dancehall culture as a “space for the cultural creation and dissemination of symbols and ideologies that reflect the lived realities of its adherents, particularly those from the inner cities of Jamaica.” Dancehall culture actively creates a space for its “affectors” (creators of dancehall culture) and its “affectees” (consumers of dancehall culture) to take control of their own representation, contest conventional relationships of power, and exercise some level of cultural, social and even political autonomy.

Kingsley Stewart outlines ten of the major cultural imperatives or principles that constitute the dancehall worldview. They are:

  1. It involves the dynamic interweaving of God and Haile Selassie
  2. It acts as a form of stress release or psycho-physiological relief
  3. It acts as a medium for economic advancement
  4. The quickest way to an object is the preferred way (i.e., the speed imperative)
  5. The end justifies the means
  6. It strives to make the unseen visible
  7. Objects and events that are external to the body are more important than internal processes; what is seen is more important than what is thought (i.e., the pre-eminence of the external)
  8. The importance of the external self; the self is consciously publicly constructed and validated
  9. The ideal self is shifting, fluid, adaptive, and malleable, and
  10. It involves the socioexistential imperative to transcend the normal (i.e., there is an emphasis on not being normal).

Such a drastic change in the popular music of the region generated an equally radical transformation in fashion trends, specifically those of its female faction. In lieu of traditional, modest “rootsy” styles, as dictated by Rastafari-inspired gender roles; women began donning flashy, revealing – sometimes X-rated outfits. This transformation is said to coincide with the influx of slack lyrics within dancehall, which objectified women as apparatuses of pleasure. These women would team up with others to form “modeling posses”, or “dancehall model” groups, and informally compete with their rivals.

This newfound materialism and conspicuity was not, however, exclusive to women or manner of dress. Appearance at dance halls was exceedingly important to acceptance by peers and encompassed everything from clothing and jewelry, to the types of vehicles driven, to the sizes of each respective gang or “crew”, and was equally important to both sexes.

One major theme behind dancehall is that of space. Sonjah Stanley-Niaah, in her article “Mapping Black Atlantic Performance Geographies”, says

Dancehall occupies multiple spatial dimensions (urban, street, police, marginal, gender, performance, liminal, memorializing, communal), which are revealed through the nature and type of events and venues, and their use and function. Most notable is the way in which dancehall occupies a liminal space between what is celebrated and at the same time denigrated in Jamaica and how it moves from private community to public and commercial enterprise.

In Kingston’s Dancehall: A Story of Space and Celebration, she writes:

Dancehall is ultimately a celebration of the disenfranchised selves in postcolonial Jamaica that occupy and creatively sustain that space. Structured by the urban, a space that is limited, limiting, and marginal yet central to communal, even national, identity, dancehall’s identity is as contradictory and competitive as it is sacred. Some of Jamaica’s significant memories of itself are inscribed in the dancehall space, and therefore dancehall can be seen as a site of collective memory that functions as ritualized memorializing, a memory bank of the old, new, and dynamic bodily movements, spaces, performers, and performance aesthetics of the New World and Jamaica in particular.

These same notions of dancehall as a cultural space are echoed in Norman Stolzoff’s Wake the Town and Tell the People. He notes that dancehall is not merely a sphere of passive consumerism, but rather is an alternative sphere of active cultural production that acts as a means through which black lower-class youth articulate and project a distinct identity in local, national, and global contexts. Through dancehall, ghetto youths attempt to deal with the endemic problems of poverty, racism, and violence, and in this sense the dancehall acts as a communication center, a relay station, a site where black lower-class culture attains its deepest expression.Thus, dancehall in Jamaica is yet another example of the way that the music and dance cultures of the African diaspora have challenged the passive consumerism of mass cultural forms, such as recorded music, by creating a sphere of active cultural production that potentially may transform the prevailing hegemony of society.

Contradictions in dancehall culture

Despite dancehall culture’s ability to challenge social inequality, it is a hybridization of American aesthetics and the hardships of Kingston, Jamaica. Kingsley Stewart writes that the “Jamaican cultural model or worldview” has been very influenced by that which it was arguably created to oppose, namely Babylon or the Western influence. This is seen, in the more obvious sense, in the use of gun talk by artists like Buju Banton and Capleton, or the sporting of bling-bling by “Gangsta Ras” artists like Mavado and Munga. The term Gangsta Ras, which seeks to reconcile thuggish imagery with Rastafari is an example of how in dancehall, “the misuse of Rastafari culture has diluted and marginalised the central tenets and creed of the Rastafari philosophy and way of life”.

What Kingsley regards as the “socioexistential imperative to transcend the normal” is exemplified by artists like Elephant Man and Bounty Killer doing things to stand out, such as putting on a synthetic cartoonish voice or donning pink highlights while constantly re-asserting one’s hypermasculine attributes. Donna P. Hope argues that this trend is related to the rise of market capitalism as a dominant feature of life in Jamaica, coupled with the role of new media and a liberalized media landscape, where images become of increasing importance in the lives of ordinary Jamaicans who strive for celebrity and superstar status on the stages of dancehall and Jamaican popular culture.

Another point of dissension of dancehall from reggae, and from its non-western roots in Jamaica, is on the focus on materialism. Prominent males in the dancehall scene are expected to dress in very expensive casual wear, indicative of European urban styling and high fashion that suggest wealth and status. Since the late 1990s, males in the dancehall culture have rivalled their female counterparts to look fashioned and styled. The female dancehall divas are all scantily clad, or dressed in spandex outfits that accentuate more than cover one’s nakedness. In the documentary It’s All About Dancing, prominent dancehall artist Beenie Man argues that one could be the best DJ or the smoothest dancer, but if one wears clothing that reflects the economic realities of the majority of the partygoers, one will be ignored.

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