While both defenders and decriers of dancehall (a segment of reggae music) will likely agree with the first two descriptors, I’d like to make an argument in support of the third.
As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in a home with Jamaican parents, including a dad who, back in his hey day, was the selector (DJ) of a sound system (DJ crew). Coming to Canada didn’t stop his flow, so I came up in the game thinking it was normal to have club speakers, turntables, mixers, microphones, and crates upon crates of records in our basement.
My mom liked the smooth sounds of artists like Dennis Brown, Alton Ellis, and Luciano. My dad ventured between rootsman (Bob Marley and Peter Tosh) and gunman (Bounty Killa and Burro Banton). I grew to love them all. Mom would make noise if Dad started playing his “slackness” – but I loved listening to all those songs that I probably shouldn’t have been.
Sex is not a taboo topic in dancehall music. It surely isn’t today (hello, Vybz Kartel!), and it wasn’t when I was growing up. Male artists did not shy away from discussing their sexual prowess, what they will and won’t do, and the wonders of women’s anatomy, but they rarely spoke about women’s sexual satisfaction. Red Rat chided his bwoy Dwayne about the fact that “yuh caan have a girl and every night she complain” – but I found the male discussion of female sexual satisfaction separate from their own to be lacking. That’s OK though, because in the mode of sistas doin’ it for themselves, women like Tanya Stephens, Lady Saw, and Patra came through.
Lady Saw was just…raw. Nothing I recall about her image during my childhood was anything but. Her outfits, her dance moves, her song lyrics – she was the Queen of Slackness and held her court well. In her track “Hardcore/It’s Raining“, she held no punches about how she wanted pleasure from her partner, and discussing sexuality from a woman’s perspective became her trademark. On the business front, she made waves by fighting gender discrimination – while she would get banned from performing on certain stages, her male contemporaries (who were just as slack, if not moreso) routinely booked stages all over the island. Lady Saw fought for her right to perform and make money just as easily and successfully as men, and in doing so paved the way for other female artists.
One of those artists was Tanya Stephens. There was something about the way Tanya Stephens sang her records about sexuality and satisfaction. “Yuh Nuh Ready Fi Dis Yet” and “Goggle” were open letters to so-called “bedroom bullies” whose boastful mouths did more work than their penises when it came to sexual finesse. Tanya let these dudes know that they a) weren’t going to chat big without delivering on their promises; b) were going to please her to her level of satisfaction; and c) were going to respect her own sexual power. Tanya wasn’t any man’s sexual prop – her songs turned that idea on its head and put men in that role.
For me, no one really brought feminine sexual energy in dancehall like Patra. In all fairness, I acknowledge that she probably stands out for two particular reasons. One being that she came out at a particularly vulnerable time in my life (that point where you’re an open sponge, soaking up all the different ways to carry yourself in this world), and two being that her introduction to an international audience meant more available visuals than other artists. Patra’s videos were like nothing I had seen – slick and sexy, with enough rawness to tantalize new audiences, but enough authentic winery to satisfy born and bred Yardies. I was mesmerized by Patra’s body-confidence – the catsuits, batty rider shorts, waist-length braids – nothing was dainty on her. Everything was bam/pow/in your face, and I soaked it all up. The way she commanded attention was fresh to me – instead of it coming across in a kind of pandering, please-accept-me way, it was more of a this-is-me-like-it-or-leave-it-but-I-bet-you-love-it way. I took Patra’s boldness, folded it up, and packed it away for a time when I’d be ready to navigate my own sexuality and self-expression.
One of my faves from Patra – come test mi, nuh!
Patra didn’t just tell you how she liked it, she showed you. Thanks to the videos I’d record on MuchMusic’s X-Tendamix (or BET’s Caribbean Rhythms when we were lucky enough to have it), I saw how she’d sing her lyrics and bite her lip, or stroke her body, or wine her hips. It was all part of a package for me – a package that represented a unique kind of feminine sexual power resting more on the woman’s terms, not merely seeking to please the male gaze.
Now, no genre is perfect. I acknowledge the fact that dancehall has staunchly planted itself in cis/heteronormativity, and there’s much more room and opportunity for discussion around these limitations – even with the above-named artists. Homophobia, paranoia, and irrational shunning of certain sexual practices run rampant in the genre, and that is no secret. [On a side note, take it from me. If you’re in a dance and any song about bunnin’ out bowcat (shunning oral sex) comes on, keep an eye on how many men fling their gunfinga in the air. I guarantee you that a good chunk are lying. Guar. An. Tee.]
Back to the main topic. For all its negativity, its “slackness,” its overt and sometimes crass lyrics, I was able to find a special sweet spot in dancehall, a genre that isn’t above reproach, but one that I dearly love. I’m grateful for the women I’ve named, who’ve shown me a new space in dancehall – an area for women to manage and for men to respect. Listening solely to many of their male counterparts, it’s easy to see why so many view women’s default role as that of passive partner for male sexual satisfaction, only allowed to tun up di ting as much as the man found suitable. Women like Lady Saw, Tanya Stephens, and Patra presented a different possibility – the possibility that women in dancehall could access their agency and not only control but call the shots when it comes to their pleasure. For that, I’m thankful.
Big up di gyal dem.