Thursday, January 31, 2008

Sexual Exploitation of Women in Dancehall Music

Anyone who follows Jamaican music, especially Reggae and Dancehall knows that dancehall’s lyrics are generally about four main subjects, two of which are women and sex. The sexual content is seen by some Jamaicans as being very disrespectful of women, but interestingly lots of women love these songs.

Go to any dancehall show and the people shouting the loudest and dancing wildly to songs, whose lyrics offer graphic details of a woman’s body, are usually women.

Those who embrace dancehall see the lyrics as part and parcel of the Jamaican culture and psyche. Beenie Man’s popular song of the 1990s, “Man Fi Have Nuff Gal” was a major hit, but what the song was essentially saying is that it’s ok for a man to have as many girlfriends/lovers has he wants.

If you believe that dancehall is the domain of male performers – think again. Lady Saw, the undisputed queen of dancehall, has made her fame and fortune from being as raunchy as, and sometimes even raunchier than her male counterparts. Even before the entry of Lady saw into the male domain of dancehall, there was Patra, who once ruled as the queen of raw sexuality. The new crop of female DJs’ and dancehall artists are generally not as sexually explicit, but they too have no fear of expressing sexual lyrics or flaunting their sexuality on stage.

Hip hop is said to have some root in Jamaican Reggae and Dancehall and judging by the sexual content and music videos, it is also ‘guilty’ in the eyes of some sectors of society of glamorizing the sexual exploitation of women.

Tom Jennings in his article, “Dancehall Dreams” explores to some extent the sexual exploitation of women in Reggae and Dancehall. His article however, confirms that the success of this exploitation in Dancehall is dependent on the support of women themselves. Jennings noted that “Nor should there be any suspicion that women merely ‘receive’ this attention passively in the dancehall. Although reggae’s sidelining of women as stage performers or recording artists has often amounted to outright exclusion, during the dance event women are actively central – indeed, slack lyrics make little sense without their and the DJs’ fully mutual call and response. Carolyn Cooper’s crucial Slackness “Hiding from Culture: Erotic Play in the Dancehall” illuminates the complementary rhetorical – and literal – functions of dirty talk in the DJ’s oral stage art and dirty movement in the cauldron of the dance.” He further said, and supports a common point used in defending women’s support of dancehall and its sexually explicit language, when he wrote, “Temporarily escaping their (more or less) embittering daily grind, 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.” Lovers of these musical artforms will contend that it is simply a form of expression for the people and of the people…referring specifically to the ghettoes. However, passa passa, a popular weekly session held downtown has its fair share of ‘uptown’ attendees.

For years to come the debate will continue as to whether or not Dancehall music and its derivatives such as hip hop promote and encourage the commodification and objectification of women.

-Jessica McCurdy Crooks

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