At any time of day, from just about every street corner, bus or car, the loud pulsating beats can be heard around Jamaica. The hypnotic beats and unwieldy lyrics reverberate with the intensity of the people with whom it has long become synonymous.
Dancehall music is a genre of music that developed in Jamaica in the late 1970s and gained worldwide popularity through artists such as Shabba Ranks and Shaggy. The dancehall is also a physical space where colourfully adorned men and women gather and dance into the wee hours of the morning to music blaring from large sound systems- large speaker boxes stacked to one side of the venue and at the behest of a usually loud mouthed, witty deejay or selecta who keeps the crowd energised with his clever intros well-timed musical selections. Alcohol abounds and the haze of marijuana usually fills the air.
Dancehall attracts a wide-cross section of people, including foreigners, who like locals, are either mere fun-seekers or true dancehall fanatics. Behind the music, fun and haze are questions about the treatment of women in the dancehall and the implications at the wider societal level.
Women play a central role in the dancehall. Their presence is often said to be a key lure for men. Dancehall flyers often feature the slogan ‘Bring yuh queen and leave yu machine’ ‘encouraging men to come with their partners. In many cases, cover charges for women are usually half those of men- another direct attempt to attract women to the ‘dance’. Their fancy hairstyles, sexy outfits, acrobatic and seductive dance moves are considered an attraction for male patrons. Yet as much as women are lauded in the spaces, so too are they ridiculed and often times mistreated by their male counterparts in dancehall. The objectification of women in the dancehall is a central feature that appears to have gained widespread acceptance.
A recent incident involving a well-known dancer and two other men who assaulted a woman in a party under the guise of entertainment and dancing, again put the issue at the forefront. The video clip which made the rounds on social media networks showed the men coercing the young woman to dance, chasing her across the stage, placing a bucket on her head and pulling away bits of her clothing all while partygoers looked on, a few with disgust but most unaffected by this form of ‘entertainment’. Some commenters defended the men’s actions, describing it as their way of dance accusing the young woman of allowing and even inciting the act.
Unfortunately that was not the first of such acts. In fact they have become a regular feature in the dancehall, accompanied by equally creative dance moves some of which have placed women in dangerous situations. One act which gained popularity a few years ago was that of men jumping from sound systems or rooves onto women who were laying waiting on the ground. The daggerin’ and dutty wine trends also allegedly left a few women nursing physical injuries.
More recently women were encouraged to take concrete building blocks and beat against their genitals to prove the dexterity of their body parts. Many partygoers have dismissed these acts as mere entertainment, a part of the dancehall culture where women simply choose to engage in these acts. One may argue however that women are instead trying to impress their male counterparts or prove their level of skill as it is seen as a measure of a woman’s sexual prowess.
Choreographer, Orville Hall, has described current dance trends as ‘abuse and disrespect of women’. Hall described the actions as a new level of abuse that often left women feeling ashamed or hurt. His colleague and international dancehall artiste Beenie Man also issued statements against dance trends which are potentially harmful to women.
At the macro level, gender based violence largely directed at women remains a sad reality within Jamaican society. There is a form of rape culture where certain forms of sexual abuse towards women are dismissed and Amnesty International reports that women in Jamaica face sexual discrimination on a daily basis.
The essay The Objectification of Women in Dancehall questions the relation between colonial portrayals of black women and the current depiction of women in dancehall arguing that there seems to be an uncharted mirror between these two periods that remains prominent in the Afro-Caribbean diaspora. Similar concerns have been raised about the portrayal of women in soca, a form of music which originated in Trinidad and Tobago. Soca lyrics have been described as degrading to women and the cause of moral decadence in that society.
While some regard it as exploitation of women, others consider the actions in the dancehall as a display of female empowerment. Tom Jennings in his article, “Dancehall Dreams’ describes it as Temporary escape from their (more or less) embittering daily grind (work). Local women dress up for the party and conduct themselves wholly on their own terms – deciding when, to what and with whom to ‘grind’ (i.e. dance), setting the tone for the success of the entire night. Parading the sexiest gear and most gymnastic contortions, the haughtily intimidating ‘dancehall divas’ clear space for all women to enjoy themselves without feeling besieged by men.” Many believe however that the women are simply seeking the attention of men and are creatures of years of socialization that have taught them to base their value on the how well they can twerk, grind or wine.
Questions of class and color have also figured in the discussions on women and the dancehall. Where predominantly ‘uptown’ patrons are gathered, some argue that the level of lewdness is tempered, while some argue that the only reason it is frowned upon in other space is because of the fact that the women are predominantly from the poorer segments of society.
Dancehall occupies a prominent place in Jamaican culture and its appeal continues to grow. It is as much a microcosm of Jamaican society as it is a catalyst for some of the social ills being played out in the society. It has long been regarded as an important medium for socializing our children as many idolize the dancehall artistes. Through its influence there is concern that ideals of misogyny and sexual exploitation of women will be perpetuated.
Civil society groups, particularly religious groups have hit out against dancehall for what it deems the negative impact it has had on Jamaican society. In previous years there have been calls for the government to regulate the industry or for an all-out ban to be placed on the music.
Despite notions of freedom and empowerment, any objective assessment of the location of women in the power hierarchy in the dancehall must acknowledge that they are too often treated as objects purely for the entertainment of men. At the very core of the problem is the matter of systemic patriarchy and a culture of abuse of women. Many argue that dancehall with its homophobic rhetoric is in fact the epicentre of misogyny. Any attempt to curb the negative treatment of women in the dancehall must start with concerted efforts to undo the gender stereotypes ingrained in our society.