What Does It Take To Be The ‘Dancehall Queen?’
By Bee Quammie
Through the transition from girl to woman, I loved my culture, but didn’t always feel like it loved me.
Ava DuVernay once tweeted, “To be a woman who loves hip hop at times is to be in love with your abuser. Because the music was and is that. And yet the culture is ours.”
Growing up immersed in the music and culture of my Jamaican heritage, Ava’s words echoed my feelings toward dancehall. Misogyny, violence, and homophobia permeate both genres, with the male-dominated nature of each being highly prevalent. Through the transition from girl to woman, I loved my culture, but didn’t always feel like it loved me. Where was the room for women’s ownership and expression of dancehall music and culture? In what ways could women siphon some of the control from men and create space for themselves? Growing up it seemed impossible — but over the last few decades, women in dancehall have answered these questions.
Originating in the inner city communities of Kingston, Jamaica in the late 1970s, dancehall music was a more brash version of the roots reggae style that preceded it. It’s marked by DJs rapping live over deftly crafted rhythms, unabashed sexuality, and raw, reckless dancing; it was — and is — music, fashion, and a lifestyle.
Dub poet Mutabaruka’s quote, “If 1970s reggae was red, green and gold, then in the next decade it was gold chains,” provides an insightful visual of the differences between the musical cousins, highlighting why some reggae purists bristled at the connection between “conscious” reggae and “slack” (vulgar) dancehall.
In fact, dancehall was named as such because it was deemed unfit for radio play and only heard in dancehalls throughout Jamaica, where DJs and artists performed for live partygoers. The history of dancehalls themselves adds an even more nuanced context to Jamaica’s classism and the cultural impact of dancehall music.
Jamaicans who lived in inner city areas were banned from attending dances and parties held uptown by “upper class” Jamaicans, so they created their own party spaces called dancehalls in the 1940s. One may speculate that dancehall music has been bubbling in inner cities ever since, but developments in 1970s/1980s Jamaican politics created the perfect storm for dancehall to explode as a full-blown genre.
“The defeat of the socialist democratic People’s National Party by the Jamaica Labour Party who vowed to make ‘money jingle in yu pockets,’ signaled a move away from the militant confrontations and dreams of a paradise in Africa and towards having the best time possible in the here and now — that is, in the dancehall,” wrote Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton, authors of The Rough Guide To Reggae.
“The best possible time” has been ever since the early days of dancehall. While reggae — led by the iconic power of Bob Marley — possessed an established international appeal, dancehall artists eventually obtained exposure outside of Jamaica. Yellowman was the first dancehall artist to sign with a major American label, and other artists like Super Cat, Beenie Man, and Shabba Ranks followed suit in notoriety, assisted by an influx in Jamaicans who immigrated to countries like Canada, America, and the UK.
This is where things get interesting. Any article, book, Google search, or discussion on dancehall will often uncover the names and stories of men, while leaving women’s contributions lost to the very fine print.
Sister Nancy was the first female dancehall artist to tour internationally, and her 1982 hit single — “Bam Bam” — has been sampled over 60 times by acts like $hort, Wiz Khalifa, and most recently, Kanye West.
Shelly Thunder was another 1980s dancehall phenom who exhibited the confidence that male acts were known for, and didn’t shy away from uncovering double standards between the sexes in her music. Before leaving dancehall for gospel music in 2015, Lady Saw (watch her below!) was one of the genre’s best-known and respected artists. Her songs ranged in topic from explicit sexuality to fertility issues, and she made waves by fighting for equal pay and promotion for women artists.
Patra was a 1990s crossover star, bringing dancehall to televisions across the globe with sexy videos featuring popular artists like Yo-Yo, Tupac, and Aaron Hall. Tanya Stephens stepped in the game, giving a voice to women who owned their sexual satisfaction; she also used her music to speak out on homophobia and other issues plaguing the culture.
In a genre where men are known for vocalizing their sexual prowess and desire, women like Spice have gone toe-to-toe with them at their own game. Currently among dancehall’s top acts, Spice brings her unique braggadocio to fans around the world.
And these are just a few of the women who have stepped up to the mic, proving that while their names aren’t often called in the annals of dancehall history, they are here — and always have been.
“Women make dancehall,” says International Dancehall Queen competitor Famous Red. Hailing from the Bronx, New York, she credits her mother as her inspiration for freedom through dance, and her Jamaican father for bestowing his culture upon her.
Red is one of the six women featured in the upcoming documentary Bruk Out!, which takes an in-depth look at dancehall culture via Jamaica’s International Dancehall Queen Competition held annually in Montego Bay.
Though the official competition started in 1996, dancehall queens were crowned as much as five years earlier. The first winner was platinum blonde bombshell Carlene Smith (known as Carlene the Dancehall Queen), who starred in a number of popular dancehall videos and parlayed her reign into opportunities in music and media.
As one of the pioneers who put the dance in dancehall, Carlene is an inspiration to queens who follow in her path — including Famous Red. “She was so cute and sexy and dominant and confident,” says Red. As a plus-sized woman, Red notes that body politics are at play in most areas of her life, but she finds an escape into confidence and freedom through dancehall.
“The world tries to make it seem like because I’m big, I shouldn’t be a part of anything. But it (dancehall) is something that I love to do,” she says in the Bruk Out! trailer.
Bruk Out! director Cori McKenna touched on this theme on HBO’s Last Week Tonight With John Oliver:
“I came into this asking the question, is this a way for women to empower themselves in a traditionally male-dominated and hetero-normative society? And I think from what the women themselves have told me, the answer is yes. They are able to be sexual and explicit without being ‘pretty’ or ashamed of their sexuality.”
“I think Dancehall lets them be ‘free’ to express themselves,” McKenna continued. “They can be anyone they want to be — there are no rules besides you have to be the ‘baddest.’ I think it helps a lot of women heal — by taking back their power and asserting themselves on the dance floor, they are not letting men judge or control them. They feel like they’re controlling the crowd or the party.”
Famous Red echoed the importance of this element of control:
“There’s an excitement factor with dancehall. I mean, I wouldn’t say ballet is boring — but you know what you’re gonna get. With dancehall, anything goes — you don’t know what the girl is gonna do, what the song is gonna say, what the dance move is — it’s that excitement factor, and when you pick up on it and own it, it gives you that confidence.”
The unpredictability of dancehall is where many women find — and hone — their ownership of it. Audiences watching a woman dance, or dance partners engaging with a woman, have no idea what she plans to do next. A slow wine? A leap into the splits? An agile wrap of the legs around her partner? No one knows what the next move is but her, and many women relish the shock, surprise, and control over the audience.
When probed more about her comment that “Women make dancehall,” Red offered up more thoughts. “No one wants to go in the club and only see the shottas dem — only see men doing dances. They want to see female shottas, and they want to see them bruk out. Okay — if Razor B (a dancehall artist) is performing, he’s going to be singing a girl’s song, girls are going to be dancing. It’s basically all about the women — we’re the people that they’re trying to reach. They use us to get to us. If there’s no women, then where’s dancehall?”
Much of dancehall music revolves around singing to, about, and for women. Male artists have prospered under this practice for decades, but women have perfected it. Sister Charmaine, Althea & Donna, Nadine Sutherland, J Capri, Gaza Slim, and many others speak to and for other women, and get a more authentic response as a result, in Famous Red’s opinion.
So, is there room for women to make more of an impact in dancehall?
“Of course,” says Red. “There’s always room to move up, but it’s about how we go about it. I’ve been looking at dancehall and realize there aren’t a lot of female DJs.” [Note: in Jamaica, artists are known as MCs or DJs. Here, Red is referring to the North American definition of “DJ,” as someone who plays records.]
“I think there’s one, and she’s the first female DJ I’ve ever seen! So in my head, I’m like, why would I not want a female DJ to play for me? She knows what I wanna hear. She knows what type of bubblin’ I’ll do and what time I should be bubblin.’ You know what I mean? So, sooner or later, women are going to take over everything.”
When you love an imperfect thing, you either learn to love those imperfections or find ways to smooth its flaws and create something better. Through the expressions of women in dancehall — though they still function in a very narrow frame that is only slowly widening — I’ve been able to do a bit of the latter with this part of my heritage. From relishing the way my body felt while copying Carlene the Dancehall Queen’s seductive dance moves to being reminded by Tanya Stephens that sexual satisfaction should be mine — not just my partners’ — I’ve been able to slowly translate this male-dominated genre into something that makes sense for me.
I doubt all the imperfections will ever be smoothed out of dancehall’s oh-so-jagged edges, but I remain heartened by the fact that so many women are determining how this music, culture, and lifestyle will take shape.