Guest Post | Dancehall and Reggae to the World! But in Jamaica…?
EDITOR’S NOTE: For some time now I’ve watched with dismay the decline and rejection of Dancehall culture in Jamaica. Middle and upper class sensibilities, along with the drive for “law and order,” seem intent on squashing the vibrant and important parts of our culture that don’t toe the line…whatever that line is and however arbitrarily it’s drawn. In my opinion Dancehall has always been unapologetic in its excesses and braggadocio, and while I don’t view it uncritically, I have always recognized, understood, and appreciated its important role in Jamaica’s society. Sometimes I lusted after it and I’ve always been in love with it. After all, for many years I nurtured dreams of becoming a Dancehall Queen. Where others saw (see) lots of skin and jiggling body parts, I saw (see) comfort, control, and power (especially over their bodies) and I envied and longed for that. When I emigrated to the U.S. I began to appreciate the reach and impact of Dancehall and Reggae even more; the inkling I’d had before paled in comparison to reality. My first two years here I survived because of cassette mixes. In college I happily displayed as much of Jamaica’s culture as I could as a student leader…and when necessary pushed back against opposition to it. Besides, Sean Paul, Elephant Man, Tanto Metro & Devonte, and others preserved my and others’ mental health many a cold night stuck in the middle of a New England state; at least we could retreat from studies and other campus politics for a few hours of sweaty, grinding Thunderclapping, boat rowing, Shellybellying bliss. So I understand Dancehall and Reggae as a refuge. Recently I’ve seen comments flying across my Twitter timeline about whether Dancehall dance is accepted by Jamaica’s dance establishments. So I was glad that the post below that was sent to me anonymously was coming together. Timing. Do we truly love, understand, support, and appreciate this gift that we have birthed? Better yet, do we control its use and earning? How much longer are we going to depend on Mr. Marley and his kin to literally and figuratively carry the Jamaican culture flag? Some of this is addressed below…comments certainly welcome.
The picture above is a shot from a video of a 2010 Summer dance performance in Italy. You may view the entire video here.
After traveling to many countries over the years it amazes me how others have adopted Jamaican culture and made it their own, while, in Jamaica, there are certain aspects of our culture we almost refuse to acknowledge. These are the aspects that the world absolutely loves about Jamaica. Two such aspects are Jamaica’s dance and music.
Let’s focus on dance for a moment. For the uninitiated reader of this post do a quick search on YouTube for dancehall dances and pick a random country to add to the search term. I bet you will be surprised at the search results. Who would have thought people from countries such as Italy, Sweden, Russia, and Poland would be doing the Wacky Dip and the Cow Foot? Meanwhile in Jamaica most people who live above Half Way Tree don’t have a clue what those dances are. I know people who have been to Weddy Wednesdays and noted that 30% or more of the patrons are from other countries. My question is, why isn’t the Jamaican government noting such things and capitalizing on the untapped revenue steam of music & dance tourism? It seems that Jamaicans who are in positions to make decisions are either not aware of said revenue stream or are afraid to embrace what is essentially a “street” culture. There are a few Jamaican dancers that have toured the world as Ambassadors of the art form. These Ambassadors have tried to bring structure and recognition to dance in Jamaica only to either be ignored by the powers that be or be forced to rename Dancehall classes to other names to make them more palatable to the “uptowners.” Meanwhile counties such as Sweden and Poland regularly organize dance trips to Jamaica with groups of 5 or more people, each of whom comes to study a part of our culture that we reject.
The Jamaican government continues to clamp down on street dances leaving only clubs such as Fiction (where people don’t really dance) as the only options for entertainment. Furthermore, neither Dancehall nor Reggae music is the featured genre in these clubs (you’re lucky if you hear 20% of Dancehall in any given night). What the Jamaican government doesn’t realize is that by clamping down on outdoor or street dances they are effectively killing the economies of local communities. If you’ve ever been to an outdoor dance you know you’ll have your pan chicken vendor, the guy who goes around the dance selling cigarettes, gum etc and last but not least the weed man. Selectors host dance competitions for the female patrons, which are funded by cash received from “money pull-ups.” The Jamaican dancehall has its own micro economy that is systematically being destroyed by our government.
In the heyday of Passa Passa, Tivoli Gardens, notorious for its crime and violence, was the safest place you could be in Kingston on a Wednesday night. The residents knew that if they caused trouble they would receive a tap on the shoulder and be summoned to the don of all Dons. I fail to understand how the Jamaican government hasn’t put 2+2 together and figured out that crime has increased since they started locking off dances. Is it ignorance? Or they just don’t care?
Instead of locking off dances, why doesn’t the government charge promoters extra for permits that allow dances to go past 2 am? I guarantee a majority of promoters would have no problems paying extra especially since parties generally don’t get started until 1:30-2am anyway. Why can’t our government take the initiative and set up hostels or at the least help facilitate the setting up of hostels, and organize or help organize tour guides for travellers who want to experience our Jamaican culture? Many visitors surely don’t want to stay in the Hilton or the Pegasus. Many visitors can’t afford to stay in the Hilton or Pegasus. Why not help organize trips to dances in different parishes and work with promoters who are willing to accommodate these tourists and show them what our country is all about? The government would make money either through having direct control of these ventures or through licensing fees and taxes imposed on said ventures. More importantly it would be involved in structuring and packaging our biggest export, Jamaican Culture. These are just a couple of things I think can be done. A more enterprising mind can and will probably come up with more and better ideas.
Dancehall music itself has become such a global phenomenon that two of the genre’s biggest hits in the last two years, “Summertime” and “Ravin’“ were produced by a European producer. Recent albums by Hip-Hop artists Jay Z & Kanye West both sampled Dancehall songs, and the latter’s album had a fresh verse from Assassin. Go anywhere in the world and you’re almost guaranteed to find some version of a dance or Sound System culture. Sound clashes are one of my favorite things about Dancehall culture. How many clashes are kept in Jamaica these days? In contrast go to countries like The Netherlands, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, and Austria. Clashes take place VERY regularly and are VERY well attended. Heck, even the clash scene In New York is starting to make a come back. Where is the birthplace of this clash culture, Jamaica, in all of this? P Diddy, Puff Daddy, Diddy or whatever he calls himself these days put on a sound clash in Kingston this past December (and the winner took home US$20,000) just because he always wanted to experience a sound clash in Kingston. Imagine that? And though the clash was set up quickly, he got value for his money in my opinion as some of Jamaica’s best stepped up to compete with the winner being Tony Matterhorn (up for debate but that’s my opinion as a longtime clash fan).
Major acts such as Major Lazer have taken our Dancehall and Reggae sound and culture and packaged it and resold it to us. They shot videos for two of their singles “Get Free” and “Watch Out For This (Bumaye)” the latter of which was specific to Kingston Jamaica circa 1993. Look at how well they were received earlier this year in Kingston. Did any of the patrons of this concert even realize what they were listening to? If Johnny Osbourne were to give a concert in Kingston I’m almost certain he wouldn’t have half the turn out Major Lazer did. Oh, by the way Johnny’s voice is sampled on their latest album on the song “Jah No Partial.”
“Protect The Culture” a Spragga Benz tune off his last album Shotta Culture echoes my sentiments. Ownership needs to be taken of what is OURS. It’s not an uptown or a downtown thing. It’s a JAMAICAN thing and we need to treat it as such.