Monday, November 26, 2007

What is Dancehall Culture?

Born out of the late 1970’s in the urban communities of Kingston Jamaica, Dancehall music became the social and political voice for the historically marginalized people and disenfranchised youth of the ghetto, beset by abject poverty. Known for its deejaying of raw lyrics over various riddims (Jamaican patois for rhythm-an instrumental version of a song accompanied by a heavy baseline and pattern of drumming), Dancehall music defined a new form of reggae music that became a compelling form of Jamaican pop culture. Nonetheless, it was through this music that a whole culture developed, embraced and identified with, by its people. Everything from fashion and the latest trends, to what car to drive to the latest dance moves was influenced by Dancehall. Dancehall dictated popular culture in Jamaica and popular culture in Jamaica dictated Dancehall. It wasn’t too long until this popular new art form was able to leave the shores of Jamaica and became an international phenomenon, with followings as far as Canada, England and Japan, to name a few.

The international influence of Dancehall is undeniable. Recognized as the predecessor of Hip-Hop music, Dancehall’s influence gave birth to a multi-billion dollar industry within America’s pop culture. It was during the 1970’s, a Jamaican born dj by the name of Clive Campbell aka Kool Herc, introduced New York’s South Bronx to a Jamaican tradition of rhyming lyrics over reggae, funk and disco records. Herc’s technique of combining turn-tables and mega watt sound systems, sometimes plugged into the street lights at block parties, brought about a type of music that would revolutionize music entertainment within the urban community for generations to come. Likewise, how Dancehall set the trends and ideas for the lower economical class of urban Kingston, Hip-Hop did the same for the inner city youth of the South Bronx. Hip-Hop Icons such as Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaattaa and groups like Public Enemy used their music as a medium to convey the social injustices of the under-class and the necessity for a unification of the oppressed people. Nonetheless, just like Hip-Hop evolved, so did Dancehall, some feeling that at as it became more materialized and braggadocios, it moved further away from its message.

The materialism associated within the Dancehall culture comes from the daily reminder that within the economical struggle of the have-nots, you are essentially no one until you can show that you can afford the finer things in life. Image and validation by your peers became just as essential as any other necessity for survival. However, as fashion in dancehall transformed from its rootsy beginnings inspired by Rastafarianism’s conscious political movement, so did its display of fashion trends. The wearing of long skirts and turban
wrapped heads by its female supporters took a drastic transformation from one polarity to the next. Vividly illustrated, verbalized and displayed, dancehall started to unravel a plethora of controversy regarding its visual message and so called slack lyrics. This new wave of flashy garb or sometimes x-rated garb, by its female following, some say put forth by the
misogynous lyrics that exploited women, gave way to an evolution in Dancehall that is present today. In exchange for a more bold and salacious appearance, icons such as Dancehall Queen Carlene Smith became the poster child for the female dancehall image in the early 90’s. Women became increasingly uninhibited and less conscious of being too revealing in order to compete for the lime light or video camera. Females formed various crews or dancehall posses that would try to rival other crews in fashion, dance and status in order to seek attention, recognition and fame within the Dancehall community. This central idea behind the materialism and boasting became the defining line in understanding the façade that tends to collides with the reality of the Dancehall world. Perhaps, the reality of ghetto life can be so daunting and bleak, that the ability to manipulate your mind to live out an illusion rather than reality becomes sort of like a prescription for everyday life.

For some, however, Dancehall has become very lucrative and a means of financial upward mobility. It is this sort of economic opportunity that Dancehall has been able to bring to the forefront for many Artist and inner city youth with talent seeking a way out of the harsh realities of the ghetto. Since its beginning, the keeping of Dancehall parties has allowed many investors and supporters to profit from its existence. In Jamaica and Jamaican communities abroad, promoters, media, Deejays, Sound systems, hair dressers, dress makers, restaurants and politicians etc have all benefitted from some level of participation in the Dancehall Culture.

So, in essence the term Dancehall doesn’t only adhere to the definition of a genre of reggae music, but symbolizes an institution of culture, dance, music, media, community and politics woven into the social fabric of its global arena.


Anonymous said...

Great, I would love to see some pictures and videos related to what you are writing about.