Surely, dance is one of the oldest forms of cultural expression for human beings that can be applied to a variety of settings: Voltaire said that it could do no harm to the world, Shel Silverstein, in the poem A Light in the Attic, implores us to do a looney- gloomy dance that has not been done before across the kitchen floor, literary icon Rumi stretched the reason that we should dance to the margins with an audacious set of instructions. He opined , . . . dance, when you’re broken open. Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. Dance in the middle of the fighting. Dance in your blood. Dance when you’re perfectly free. Our own Jamaican reggae icon Bob Marley left us with the most straightforward of narrative, Forget your troubles and Dance. Contemporary academic Donna P. Hope writes that dancehall culture is a space for the cultural creation and dissemination of symbols and ideologies that reflect the lived realities of its adherents, particularly those from the inner cities of Jamaica
How then can we continue to slate the Jamaican Dancehall genre as purely a cultural aberration and a transmitter of debauchery? To what extent does Dancehall music eclipse the success of the Bob Marley influenced Roots Rock Reggae?
Dancehall has made no pretence to be the transmitter of good moral values; it is a hedonistic movement. This short discourse examines the historical trajectory of the genre, mired in controversy yet it constantly defies its critics and rebounds frequently from its low moments. Dancehall music and lifestyle are becoming a mainstay of world popular culture. This discourse examines the characters, controversies, casualties, ambiguities and alliances forged in the Dancehall movement who are the contributors to its success.
This music genre is a Jamaican current popular music form that evolved from reggae in the late 1970s. It has spawned a number of creative and rapidly changing dance moves that has merged with youth popular movement globally. The music itself has generated a number of other varieties of dancehall flavoured influences globally, on the back of its crossover success outside of Jamaica during the mid-to-late 1990. It is inextricably linked to the social and cultural processes by which the Jamaica society reproduces itself internally and externally. Young people in the Jamaican urban centres and across the ethnic enclaves of North America and Europe have grafted the dance hall lifestyle to their persona as they compete for a prime socio cultural space that is often highly competitive lifestyle marketplace. To be a young Dance hall fan bear nuances with being a rocker, a punk or a hippie. To be able to master the art form on the dance floors holds valid social currency and cements your dance hall credo. What once started as seedy underground movement in Kingston Jamaica in the 1970s then extended to a underground movement in North America and Europe and has now been elevated to world cult status across the major dance venues of the world
Dancehall music and dance movements are inextricably bound; both movements bubbled to the international surface in the 1990s but it was a reasonably long time in the making. It has spawned about three or four generation of Jamaican reggae musicians and dancers in the mid-1980s. It was made famous among the sound systems followers by Lincoln Sugar Minot and Wayne Smiths digital version of Sleng Thingproduced by the legendary King Jammy’s. The 1990 saw a shift in style and context of the genre and Shabba Ranks took the Dance Hall movement to dizzy heights internationally. Towards the end of the 1990s the genre received bad press when it descended into verbal clashes laced with violent innuendoes and homophobic name-dropping. Initially, there was friendly competition between DJs and Sound-systems which then descended into an orgy of misogyny, glorification of guns and violent tirades. Towards the end of the 1990s Shabba Ranks and Buju Banton successes had waned as a result of a backlash from the gay right’s lobby across Europe and North America. This period was one of Dancehall’s lowest moments and many commentators predicted that the genre could lose its’ international podium.
By 2000 the genre emerged from its dogmatic slumber with artists such as Elephant Man and Sean Paul achieving massive crossover success in Europe, North America and Africa. A new generation of young music lovers had arisen and the dancehall movement was conveyed to them culturally by music videos and the internet; the hard-hitting bassline and the dances proved irresistible. Once again, dancehall was the music of choice for a whole new generation in love with its raunchiness and rebellion as an art form. Meanwhile, in Jamaica, a debate began to fester that the music had become commercial and intellectually shallow and a host of young cultural and talented reggae artists were being stifled. It was generally felt that roots rock reggae was becoming a dying vocation. In the early 1990s Tony Rebel inspired a resurgence of cultural reggae music that was accepted by Dancehall aficionados. A number of hard-core Dancehall artists experienced a cultural epiphany and converted to the Rastafarian movement. It was felt at the time that Dancehall music was inspiring violence and material fetishism; a new moral direction was needed. As a result, artists such as Garnett Silk, Luciano, Buju Banton and Sizzla enjoyed both international and local notoriety during this period. Their success may well have extended to the new millennium but it was restricted by the continual opposition to accusations of homophobia from the anti-gay lobby in Europe and North America. Thus the international spotlight was thrust upon artists who toed the line and stuck to a feel good brand of Dancehall that could merge seamlessly with global popular culture.
One of the reasons why reggae music in its purest form (roots rock reggae) has lost its international hold to Dancehall music is as a result of Dancehall being a more flexible and liberal art form. Cultural reggae music is puritanical and in some cases, laced with conservative values and narratives. In contrast, Dancehall is a more dynamic genre that can fuse with numerous music genres such as Pop, R & B, Latino beats, Garage, Drum ‘ Bass, Jazz and Grime. Dancehall‘s commercial success is stymied by narratives of hegemonic masculinity and by the same token it offers the female protagonist a social space to escape and rebel . Women gyrate their hips, dress, and dance outrageously in an ever expanding corpus that fits neatly into the capitalist wold view of commodity fetishism.
The future of Dancehall is very promising as the new millennium has seen the development of professional reggae dancers earning a living from live videos and teaching the dance moves to a global audience. Many professional Jamaican dancers point to Gerald Bogle Levy as the first internationally acclaimed superstar who brought choreography, ingenuity, excitement and a creative and catchy inflection to the dancehall movement. Mr Wacky as he was often called was theDancehall Master. He had the ability to create dances without exertion and his dances became exceedingly popular and catchy. He created dance styles such as Willie Bounce, Wacky Dip, and Bogle Dance and these dance moves still hold sway over the dance floors globally; they are a timeless rhapsody that has contributed immensely to the magnetic pull of the ever expanding genre. Unfortunately, on 20 January 2005, forty- year old Bogle and four others were in his car at a petrol station when two men on a motorcycle rode by, shooting into the vehicle. Bogle died from the bullet wounds. Dance hall like Hip Hop music has its fair share of tragedy sparked by rivalry. In 1990 two reggae icons Pan Head and Dirtsman died by the gun in separate tragic incidents in Kingston Jamaica. Contemporary Dancehall artistVybs Kartel is now serving life imprisonment for the murder of Clive ‘Lizard’ William at his home in Havendale, a suburb north of Kingston. He was sentenced on 3 April 2014 and will not be eligible for parole for 35 years. Vybs Kartel is a hugely talented Dancehall artist who is revered internationally for an impressive catalogue of hits that generated a huge fan base. His trial was the longest in the history of Jamaica and his conviction plunged the Dancehall genre in a reputation freefall.
Nevertheless, the reputation of dance hall has emerged from the Vybs Kartell saga unscathed with Tessanne Chin, one of the latest reggae fusion artists. She rapidly achieved international fame following her win on The Voice, a U.S. television singing competition. A positive development in Dancehall is the collaboration of the art-form with other music genres; every Pop, R&B and Hip- hop artist in in North America and Europe that’s worth their grain of salt has sampled reggae tracks. It’s the current trend. Searching for the next Bob Marley to emerge is a romantic idea that is not entirely impossible but difficult to realise at this time. The world dance music market is receptive to hedonistic feel good vibes although this news might be an anathema to the left leaning music loving liberal. Conversely, Dancehall has brought joy and electricity to the feet and hips of a young generation who are politically apathetic to message music.
This article was written jointly by Donovan Reynolds CEO and edited by Ann Smith Managing Editor of Kingston-Mouth .com. Donovan Reynolds is an Independent Blogger and Human Rights Activists who is of a Jamaican descent and a legal academic that has an interest in Human Rights,Culture and International Development Issues.