Ri-Ri, Kartel, Patois, and the politics of language
By Leah Ching, Editor-In-Chief
“Dancehall turned the world into Jamaica”, wrote British journalist Rob Nash in 2008. “The sounds of Kingston’s dancehall craze revolutionized music and shaped the hits we listen to today.”
Dancehall, often referred to as reggae’s rebellious cousin, emerged as an underground genre in mid-1970s Jamaica. Sound systems began popping up on street corners, attracting large crowds resembling a “dance hall”, from which the genre takes its name sake. Dancehall artists and DJs would toast (similar to rap) over a digital riddim (rhythm) characterized by an upbeat quick moving tempo, and increasingly in the 1980s, digital beats and fast paced rhythms.
The genre’s history is rich and deeply woven into the threads of Jamaican culture. As social and political climates changed in 1980s Jamaica, so did dancehall. Old themes of repatriation, the Rastafarian movement, and social injustice gave way to more boisterous raw themes of drinking, partying, violence, and sexuality.
The dancehall of the 1980s, particularly salient for its impact in the inner city, had the ability to draw the entire community into a party. At the “sound clash”, rival sound systems would unleash fierce battles against each other (think Netflix’s “The Get Down”), playing the latest dub tapes chosen by the most experienced selectas. The hottest DJs would talk over the gaps between songs and in between the instrumental sections of records while women in scantily-clad outfits would unleash sexually charged wining on the anticipatory crowd.
Dancehall has always been an integral part of life in the Caribbean. Adolescents grow up hearing the sounds of Vybz Kartel, Mavado, Spice, and Lady Saw (perhaps to their parents disdain) and learn to wine and bruk it at fetes, clubs, and during carnival season.
Now, in 2016, contemporary pop music samples from the sounds of dancehall considerably. Issues over appropriation, misrepresentation, and lack of credit have sparked fierce debate, with famous pop artists and Caribbean critics on opposite ends of the frontlines.
Look no further than everyone’s favourite Canadian popstar brat, Justin Bieber. When the Biebs dropped his hit single, “Sorry,” music writers and producers had no trouble connecting Sorry’s breezy melodies, vocal flow, and pulsating drum patter to a Caribbean style of music. Few publications were willing to recognize or give credit to this fact. The Biebs himself, and Sorry’s producer Skrillex (who has been known to rampantly sample from Dancehall music in his songs), remained silent on the matter.
It wasn’t until Bieber’s music video for “Sorry” came out, ripe with popular Jamaican dance moves like the “Gully creeper” and the “muscle wine”, that uproar on twitter arose, with many accusing the video’s dancers of cultural appropriation and failure to give credit where credit is due.
Truthfully, Jamaican women have been wining in an unabashed display of sexual agency for
generations. Whitesplaining Jamaican moves into terms like the “Crawling Booty Pop” and the “Squatting Hip Shake,” Goebel, the lead dancer in the video used not one dancer of Jamaican origin in her choreography.
After coming under fire, she responded with acknowledgement that indeed, her routines were inspired by dancehall which she “has massive respect for.”
The video is now the 4th most watched video on YouTube, so It’s not that folks weren’t receptive to Goebel and her troupe; the frustration mainly stems from the fact that artists that developed the style and engage in it for deeply cultural reasons do all the creative heavy lifting and seldom get representation or appreciation for their efforts.
This whitewashing also erases the efforts of female dancehall artists like Spice, Lady Saw, and Tifa, who engage in dancehall as a form of cultural resistance, pushing boundaries in their lyrics and performances in efforts to redefine women’s sexuality and agency.
Jamaican dancers acknowledge that despite dancehall’s lyrics and dance styles gaining popularity on the international circuit, few opportunities are coming their way, with North American singers and musicians preferring to represent black culture with white bodies.
Orville Hall, a famous Jamaican choreographer, explained the situation to the Jamaica Gleaner by saying, “I don’t think we get any credit at all for the dancehall moves being used on the international level…There is no respect for the creators or the foundation, for where it is coming from, and that is something that needs to be addressed. Our dancers are not being viewed as choreographers, but as mere street dancers who aren’t good enough for the international scene. Many choreographers sneak into Jamaica, come into the parties, stand there with their cameras and videotape things happening in the space and then leave here and go and use the same set of moves and choreograph for people.”
One local dancer who has gained international prominence anonymously followed up Hall’s statements by saying, “They are hypocrites. A lot of them know us [local dancers], they know our capabilities and they know the struggle, but they won’t help when they get the chance… They only want to come to the dances, learn the moves and go back and scrape everything for themselves.”
Turning now to Barbados-born Rihanna, her dancehall tune “Work” is exemplary of this so-called “dancehall resurgence,” with the hit topping the Billboard Hot 100 chart for nine weeks. Soon after “Work” was released, Rolling Stone was quick to label it was “tropical-house flavoured” instead of crediting it for what it actually was: the artist placing her Bajan heritage at the forefront of her music, throwing on a thick Bajan accent and invoking a traditional Caribbean “patois”.
In North America, the musician’s speech was passed off as “gibberish” and “slurring,” (obviously failing to fall in line with Eurocentric ideas about proper enunciation of the English language). One intelligible review (bordering on producing some very racist ideas) reads as follows: “What begins as slurring soon just devolves into gibberish, ‘work work work work work’ becoming ‘wor wer waa wahhhhh wa’. Repeated listening is genuinely hilarious.”
This is a prime example of the willingness of Western listeners to indulge, enjoy, and appropriate dancehall and Caribbean culture while simultaneously criticizing and condemning Caribbean subjects for failing to adhere to “proper” language customs and traditions.
Going further, this represents a deeper ignorance and failure to attend to the historical colonial structures that make possible the virulent link between language and power, or more specifically speaking, correct usage and mastery of the traditional Oxford English.
Chastisement for failure to speak the language of the colonizer is indeed an act of racism with historic origins dating back to colonization, where the language of the colonizer has come to be seen as mark of distinction.
Even referring to the non-standard Caribbean English as “patois” comes with its own problematic connotations. In the Caribbean, those in positions of power and privilege often denigrate the daily speech of poor by calling it “patois”, reveling in their mastery of the standard Oxford English dialect.
Scholar Frantz Fanon writes in his seminal work Black Skin, White Masks about the relationship between language and power, “To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of civilization.”
He continues, “Every colonized people – in other words, every people in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural originality – finds itself face to face with the language of the civilizing nation; that is, with the culture of the mother country. The colonized is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country’s cultural standards.”
Consider these examples from the Oxford English Dictionary: “He repeated some gibberish, which by the sound seemed to be Irish”… “The aborigines speak an unintelligible gibberish.” The underlying implication is that only people who speak with mastery of the language of the colonizer are fully intelligible subjects. In her song, and it’s accompanying music video she is reclaiming the very “patois” that the colonized subject is encouraged to throw off. In this vein, Rihanna’s “Work” can be seen as a direct contestation to these norms, a reaffirmation of her position as a member of Caribbean society.
Turning now to the real thing, in Jamaica, Vybz Kartel’s “Fever” and “Western Union” topped the charts for most of the summer. With many hailing the past year as the “resurgence of dancehall,” talk to anyone in the Caribbean, exposed to the genre on a near-daily basis, and they’ll ask you where dancehall ever went in the first place.
Donna P. Hope, scholar at the University of the West Indies, defines dancehall culture as 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.”
She goes on to argue that the culture of dancehall creates a space for its creators and consumers to take hold of their own representation, contest conventional representations of power, and exercise levels of cultural, social and political autonomy. Dancehall is thus a controversial celebration of the self in postcolonial Jamaica.
Giving the cultural significance of the genre, and its historical origins as an act of resistance, it becomes more than frustrating when dancehall’s “revival” occurs through an act of whitewashing, uncredited sampling, and appropriation. Considering the cultural and social politics of “patois”, it is more unsettling when artists outside of that culture like Drake and Lucas DiPasquale claim and incorporate patois into their music, seemingly for social capital and to cash in on the latest musical trends.
Dancehall is indeed seeing a resurgence in North America but mostly from major pop and hip-hop artists who are sampling the music without giving credit where it is due. For residents of Jamaica and the Caribbean, dancehall never went anywhere, and artists still aren’t being recognized in the Western mainstream, except for their 30-second features in songs with Drake, No Doubt, and the XX.
This “resurgence” creates an uncomfortable feeling for Caribbean islanders who are bearing witness to what they see as the cultural repackaging and commodification of a culture that arose out of political, economic, social struggle and resistance. This creates an uneasy feeling for Jamaicans and those on the diaspora that their own cultural labour and art is not recognized, nor validated, until employed by artists from outside the Caribbean.
It thus comes down to ownership and preservation of a deeply significant cultural representation, whose originators are the ones often not reaping the benefits of this global dancehall resurgence. Most Caribbean critics agree that artists can borrow elements of a genre, but should be mindful that there are artists who have dedicated their careers to taking their personal experiences and hardships, and using them to shape these sounds.
What that looks like for musicians is acknowledging the artists whose music they sample and looking toward making original sounds that is reflective of their own experience and culture. What this looks like for listeners is researching and understanding the cultural significance of the music they consume, and not being hasty to dismiss dancehall’s dialect as “gibberish” without digging deeper into the historic roots and connectivities of colonization, language, and power.
Jamaicans, Bajans, and Trinidadians on the islands and the diaspora want to see their identities correctly represented and credited on the global scale without becoming victims to cultural colonization. Caribbean islanders welcome others to share and embrace the region’s vibrant and diverse culture, but considering the rich and controversial history behind how Caribbean genres were birthed, there’s rightfully a great deal of tension when it comes to what looks like Caribbean culture being whitewashed by North American artists for the sake of producing an economic profit.
Originally published on www.leahching.com