Dancehall Is Pop Now, but We Can’t Let Pop Stars Steal Dancehall
Imagine competing with artists in your country and then having to factor an entire industry willing to poach aspects of your identity.
Image by Mikey Espinosa
If you turn on the radio, you’ll still be able to catch the infamous, minimal and digitally-induced bassline that made its debut five months ago. Paired beneath a melody dotted with hollow, echoing synths that introduce the Patois Rihanna weaves in and out of, there’s no doubt that the production of “Work” has drawn from sounds rooted within traditional dancehall riddims. Dancehall’s sounds are mostly characterized by its digital production, which is independent of live instrumentation. Its lyrical content is poignant with braggadocious, unapologetic statements either professing sexual prowess and street cred or used to usher in the newest moves for dance hall spaces. From Drake to Bieber to Tyga, Jamaican and Caribbean musical touchstones are cool right now; the sounds of dancehall are more common than ever. But the cultural context for those sounds have become harder to trace, and the originators face erasure as their reach gains global momentum.
Reggae and dancehall began as forms of resistance from disenfranchised communities within Jamaica. Reggae was conceived in the ‘50s as an amalgamation of both Jamaican sounds (mento and ska) and American sounds (jazz and R&B.) As the popular form of entertainment at the time had been live bands recreating American R&B records, the creation of reggae afforded Jamaicans an opportunity to shape their own distinct sound with lyrics that spoke to Rastafarian culture and the desire for liberation, peace, and freedom. A few decades later, dancehall, named after the dance hall spaces the sound systems and parties were set up in, was created reflecting the lifestyle within the country’s disenfranchised communities.
The early 2000's was a good time for dancehall as other artists were able to capitalize off of the attention too. Sean Paul reignited our love for the furnace-hitting, bashment-sounding tunes that had taken a hiatus from the charts by way of his 2002 release Dutty Rock which garnered mainstream clout while landing a feature on Beyonce’s 2003 chart-topping single “Baby Boy.” Beenie Man, who already had an established career in Jamaica and had made a brief mainstream appearance a few years earlier, was able to re-thrust his career forward in the U.S. with the 2004 release of “King of the Dancehall.” Though this attention was new territory for both artists, the early ‘90s saw artists like Beenie Man, Shabba Ranks and Super Cat introduce dancehall to the mainstream world for the first time. The artists managed to steal the world’s attention by bringing a new dimensions to the mainstream stage: Super Cat’s early ‘90s collaboration with Diddy, B.I.G., Kris Kross and other acts was the first time hip hop was infused with reggae music; Shabba Ranks’ contribution was his unfiltered sexual lyrics and unique style which was all on display in the “Mr. Loverman” single and video that propelled him to fame; while Beenie Man’s stardom grew immensely in the U.K. and U.S via his 1997 single “Who Am I?”
Given the resistive history of dancehall and reggae, it’s alarming when the culture’s “revival” is easily susceptible to whitewashing in a single headline and accredited to artists such as Palmistry. In another instance this happened with Joss Stone,too, even though the same publication had trashed her album when it initially came out. Considering there are still issues surrounding the socioeconomic politics of Jamaican Patois, it becomes even more unsettling when the artists incorporate “light patois” into their music. It’s an uncomfortable feeling that reflects much of the conversation regarding cultural production of Black communities repackaged and commodified from non-Black ones, much like the career trajectory of recent Universal signee Lucas DiPascale. This also erases the efforts of female dancehall artists like Spice and Tifa who have continued to push boundaries as their lyrics, videos and live performances strive to redefine women’s agency and sexuality.
Giving attention to those artists completely overshadows the new wave of dancehall artists like Alkaline and Masicka, existing artists, like Vybz Kartel, Movado and Aidonia, and upcoming acts who are truly deserving of the visibility. It comes down to ownership and preservation of a culture whose originators are often left at the fringes of reaping its credits. Dancehall artist Mr. Vegas shared similar sentiments on a recent Ebro in the Morning episode and followed up with a video that was widely circulated on social media. Though his argument was derailed by Ebro who argued that the artist hadn’t made a recent single, Vegas’s understandable frustration and claims are warranted. They are also shared by many folks on the island and in the Caribbean who feel like their own cultural labour is not validated until employed by artists from outside the Caribbean.
The most recent project with Caribbean sounds and figures present is Drake’s Views. There are, gratefully, debates around the politics of Views’ select tracks, which includes “Controlla”, “One Dance” and “Too Good” where Patois was used. Given Drake’s proximity to the island’s culture by way of the large Jamaican migrant population who have made Toronto their home, it’s easy to chalk up the project as being reflective of the diasporic presence. Still, due to the history and politics of how often Jamaica’s influence in industries abroad are either miscredited, erased or utilized for profit, this lends insight to an alternative possibility of the artist co-opting the culture, especially since he’s made claims of imitating the structure of Jamaica’s recording industry. That isn’t a new concept in the world of rap and it is exactly what early mixtapes had been, and are still, created for. There are also murky waters when some suggest Drake can't appropriate or co-opt Jamaican culture because of his biracial identity. As the artist is African-American, and not from Jamaica, and considering there are other ways to show admiration towards the culture, dabbling in the dancehall, reggae and Patois to the extent that he is simply looks like another instance of commoditizing for social capital.
That’s not to say artists can't borrow elements of a genre when creating new music, but they should at least be mindful that there are folks who have dedicated their careers to shaping the sounds that inspired them in the first place. What that looks like is acknowledging the artists who have come before them and working towards making new sounds instead of remaking ones that already exist. Cross-genre collaborations are one of the many ways that can be manifested into reality. Newer artists are able to share their talent with entirely new demographics and have their music and culture internationally exposed without feeling like their talents are being exploited. They get to share what their experiences are from an authentic point of view and it would be beneficial if they get to be the vehicles in that process. Imagine trying to compete for recognition amongst artists in your own country and then also having to compete with artists who are not only more popular with access to more resources, but who are willing to poach aspects of your identity to fuse into the creation of their sound. They are then championed as carrying the legacy of legends before them in genres that they aren’t even part of while authentic artists from the genres and their originators are forgotten.
It’s safe to assume that, without coming off as divisive, Jamaicans on the island and the diaspora want to see their identities correctly represented and credited without becoming victims to music or cultural colonization. That way it doesn’t feel like dancehall and reggae are the newest musical outfit artists are trying on only to discard later. There’s not necessarily opposition to sharing or having others embrace the country’s vibrant culture but considering the rich history behind how these genres were birthed, there’s rightfully some defensiveness towards the prospect of reducing the culture to being the muse for the sake of a musical trend.
Sharine Taylor is a writer who lives in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter.