“It is slack if you mek it slack”—Spandex, dancehall queen
It is widely understood that cultures do not exist in a vacuum. In fact, cultural exchanges occur between countries, even travel across oceans. Critics of globalization have speculated that globalization is hastening cultural homogenization, however dancehall culture provides an interesting example of how culture can be appropriated, re-interpreted and re-contextualized as something unique. Jamaica, like many other Caribbean islands continues in the tradition of creating Creole cultural expressions by adopting and adapting foreign practices. Accused of embracing and mimicking Eurocentric traditions at the demise of ‘traditional culture’, Jamaican cultural expressions such as dancehall reveal that music, dance, speech, and style have been made new, reemerging as something authentic. Humor and cleverness are ubiquitous in the production of Jamaican dancehall culture, exemplifying the self-conscious nature of human mimicry. Perhaps the most fascinating feature of this cultural exchange are the foreign individuals from around the world who mimic dancehall culture. From Japan to Poland, people not necessarily belonging to the African Diaspora, imitate and look to Jamaican dancehall culture for inspiration. Among some of it’s incarnations, kwaito, reggaeton, afro-beat, makossa, samba reggae, and bhangra, are musical forms inspired by dancehall.
African cultural retentions, creolized dance and inner city styles merge with technology, creating a new cultural commodity for export. Disenfranchised Jamaican youth are especially empowered by new technology like the video camera, which allows them to project their identities past the confines of the Jamaican hierarchical society, outward onto new international stages. These fluid global selves are projected as dancehall queens, kings, and superstars.
Hugely influential on the international stage, dancehall’s multilayered nature allows for different linguistic groups to attach their own meanings. Because of the multiplicity of meaning, clashes of interpretation have been unavoidable. Interpretations of dancehall even vary at the local level, let alone at a global one. Just as the title of this article exemplifies, each individual is left to interpret dancehall for him/herself. I do not wish to dismiss social theory altogether, rather, using a phenomelogical approach, I argue that dancehall’s meanings are in constant flux, being re-created and re-interpreted—a reason behind it’s global success.
Japanese dancehall dancers:
Polish dancehall dancers:
Dancehall is generally understood as a distinct musical genre characterized by “the marriage of digital beats and slackness: that moment and music in which lyrics about guns, women’s body parts and men’s sexual prowess come together”. The term ‘slackness’ for most Jamaicans has come to mean ‘a woman of loose morals’. It can also mean, illicit sex, public displays of sexuality, lewd language containing explicit references to sex and sexual innuendo. Slackness, has been the site of a large debate within the study of dancehall. Questions such as: what is slackness; who personifies slackness; when did slackness become a popular commodity, even a tabooed commodity; can lead to traps set by cultural critics and dancehall dilatants who are alien to the cultures they write about. I am not privileging local interpretations of what is authentic over foreign interpretations, rather I am simply outlining the dangers of analyzing such a complex cultural hybrid without the necessary background.
Memorializing Dance Moves
Dancehall has come to be known for dance moves created by both Jamaican males and females. Many dance moves have names that tell stories of cultural hybridity, often identifying with local and global characters, vibes, phenomena, body parts, and Afro-Jamaican traditional forms. The “Jerry Springer” and “Erkle,” for instance, place dancehall within the text of two television characters originating from the United States: one a talk show host and the other a nerd from the series Family Matters.
Bodily movements in the dancehall space, reveal potent modes of community throughout history, which exemplifies developed forms of commentary, and memorializing. Below is a chronology of various popular dance moves, many of which are still danced today. Dances can also be classified according to gender. Bogle in an interview (1993) discussing two of his creations, explained that the ‘Bogle dance’ is for men and the ‘Butterfly’ is for women. It is apparent that gender roles are strictly policed though different dance moves. It is interesting that women in Jamaica recognize and respect these gendered dances, women abroad in countries like the UK, and the United States have appropriated some of the dance moves reserved for men.
The introduction of video cameras has encouraged rapid dissemination of the latest dance moves. As a result new moves are invented weekly, falling out of style as quickly as they are created.
The early years Cool an’ Deadly, Water Pumpee, Body Move, Shoulder Move
1980-1989 Bounce, One Foot Skank, Stuck, Della Move
1990-1991 Crab, Head Top, Poco Man Jam
1991-1992 Bike Back, Big It Up, Roun’ di Worl, Santa Barbara, Bogle
1992-1993 Imitation Bogle, Butterfly, Armstrong
1993-1994 Worl’ Dance, Tatti, Soca Bogle, Position, Limbo, Kung Fu
1994-1995 Erkle, Mock di Dread, Body Basics, A Capella
1995-1996 Go Go Wine
1997-1998 Mr Bean, Pelpa, The Flip
1998-1999 Jerry Springer
1999-2000 Jerry Springer, Angel, Screechy
2000-2001 L.O.Y. (Lords of Yard), Zip It Up, Log On
2002-2003 Log On, On Line, Drive By, Curfew, Martial Art, Tall Up
Tall Up, Higher level, Wave, Pon di River Pon di Bank, Row like a
Boat, Parachute, Signal Di Plane, Blaze
2005-2006 The Myspace, To Di World
2006-2008 Tek Weh Yuh Self, Hot Fuk, Hot Wuk, Mavado, Frog Back, Chat to Mi Back, Dutty Wine, Bad Man Forward, Father n’ Son