Can Dancehall Now Be Considered a Feminist Movement?
Words by Luci Wilden
Since its emergence in the late 1970s, Dancehall has always been a male-dominated space. Characterised by computer-generated rhythms and highly sexual, often violent lyrics, the genre not only plays an integral part in Jamaican culture but has also become increasingly influential to musical sub-cultures worldwide. While male artists like Vybz Kartel — although sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of his associate — is still widely recognised and respected for his music. However, less can be said for the female artists who rarely break the international market and who have to work twice as hard to be heard. Kartel even continues to release new music prolifically, releasing over 50 new songs in 2016 alone. Many might wonder how a genre that seems to objectify women be considered feminist? From the voice of the female artists to the attitude of the female dancers, several parallels can be drawn with feminism.
For many, Dancehall represents freedom of expression and sexual liberation. Historically, women have been told how to behave, how to conduct themselves and how to be passive objects. They have been taught to cater to men’s sexual desires and satisfaction while repressing their own as if this should determine the level of respect they are granted. In Dancehall, whether you’re an artist, a dancer or just a visitor, you can express your sexuality with confidence, free of judgement. In contrast to Western culture where being attractive is determined by a very specific body type, in Dancehall you can be a ‘slimmaz’ (skinny or slim), ‘Tick’ (curvy) or ‘Fluffy’ (what’s usually considered overweight) – all are accepted and celebrated by Jamaicans. This generates an overwhelming sense of empowerment, confidence and self-love for women who might otherwise be insecure about their appearance.
Music by Spice and Shenseea regularly revolves around sexual activity – songs like ‘So mi like it’ and ‘Pon Mi’ describe exactly how they want to be pleasured, counteracting the passive expectation of women. While this has been looked down upon by ‘uptown’ (upper class) Jamaicans, labelled as ‘slackness’ – this style generates more respect in Dancehall where female artists continuously have to prove they are as ‘bad’ as the men. This inequality is raised by Spice in her 2014 track ‘Like A Man’ where she suggests she would get more respect if she were a male artist – ‘You think dem woulda rate me more, if me was a man and did a drop it hardcore.’
Undeniably the first female artist to match the explicit lyrics of her male counterparts, the now-retired Lady Saw was a symbol of uninhibited, raw sexual energy. Instead of taking offence to lyrics that objectified women, she owned them and came out with something twice as vulgar in response. Lady Saw repeatedly hit back against men, asserting her own dominance as a strong, fearless female. Tracks like ‘Mr Short Cummings’, a song that criticises the size of a male’s manhood and his ability to perform, was her way of dismantling the male patriarchy in a culture where a man is respected for his sexual prowess and for being a ‘gyalis’. Echoed by Starface in her 2018 track ‘Ready’ – a remix of Rygin King’s hit song ‘Tuff’, she uses the same method to break down a man’s ego and put him in his place – ‘boy a seh him ting tuff but it short and soft full of wrinkle shrivel up’.
In 2017, Ishawna released ‘Equal Rights’ – a song that refers to the hypocrisy around giving and receiving oral sex. For a long time, oral sex was seen as a taboo in Jamaica, reinforced by artists and selectas (DJs) in the dancehall scene who actively spoke out against it. In recent years the act has become accepted and even celebrated as being ‘freaky’, although only for men to be on the receiving end. Not only does Ishawna demand equality on the matter, she explicitly tells men HOW to perform with lyrics like ‘Bumper to your forehead, show me what your tongue can do’ and ‘deal with me like a bag-juice’. Naturally ‘Equal Rights’ was met with resistance in the Dancehall community however it has become a feminist anthem for Jamaican and Caribbean women alike to demand equality in the bedroom, a revolutionary step in Dancehall history.
The brave, fearlessness of the female artists is mirrored by the dancers who play an important role in dancehall culture. Street parties act as a stage for both male and female dancers – a place that they can step out with their crew to showcase their choreography and to promote new music from the artists. In another male-dominated space, female dancers have to fight for their time in front of the ‘video light’. Since the ‘gyal tunes’ are generally reserved for the end of the night, increasing numbers of females are beginning to master the ‘male steps’ or ‘gun steps’– a way for them to demand the respect and spotlight given to male dancers at street parties.
Women in dancehall are praised for an explicit, shocking performance – not only using a provocative dance style but also incorporating acrobatics and gymnastics into their moves with impressive flips and ‘headtop’ tricks. Their strength and agility are akin to that of athletes, and the bravery of performing stunts that leaves them at high risk of injury continuously counteracts the notion of being fragile, powerless women.
The final stage of the party is when ‘daggering’ begins: a form of dance that can only be described as dry-humping and wrestling in various impressive, contorted positions. While many consider ‘daggering’ demeaning to women, it’s important to understand there is a power play in this dynamic. Women respond by dominating their male partner, often lifting or tripping them up, so they fall onto the floor and then aggressively jumping on top of them. Sometimes several women will overpower one man in an effort to emasculate him, egged on by the Selector on the mic. This is often displayed on stage by Spice’s dancers Dancing Rebel, TC and Pretty Pretty – the trio regularly force a man to lay on the floor in submission while they take turns overpowering him, all in the name of entertainment.
Whilst it can be said that the attitude and voice of women in Dancehall can be likened to a feminist movement, there is, of course, a strong counter-argument that Dancehall is anything but feminist. With endless song lyrics that include slut-shaming, misogyny and other oppressive discourses against women, it is impossible to ignore the ingrained cultural gender inequality. Despite the celebration of ‘independent ladies’, the idea that women are a possession of their boyfriend is disturbingly still present in parts of Jamaican society, even going as far as the normalisation of domestic violence. It is also difficult to proclaim that Dancehall embodies sexual liberation when it is still largely homophobic and for the most part rejects women’s right to pleasure through oral sex. All sides considered it would be unfair to deny the female artists’ and dancer’s active resistance against male patriarchy in Jamaican Dancehall culture. By aggressively commanding their own sexuality, they are refusing to be oppressed in a male-dominated space, giving the power back to the women.