From the urban ghettos of Kingston to the rural districts of the countryside – dancehall is the most popular form of culture in Jamaica. However, many dancehall songs tend to generate messages of sexual dominance and the objectification of women accompanied by gun lyrics. Consequently, dancehall performances reinforce the hegemonic structure when it promotes misogyny, the romanticization of violence and homophobia. As a result, these songs emit inaccurate messages to the wider society, especially the youths. Dancehall is also perceived as possessing the capacity to fundamentally challenge Jamaica’s race-class hierarchy and the colonialist ideologies of white supremacy. According to this view, dancehall performances facilitate the expression of disgust by individuals who are frustrated and have lost confidence in a system that treats individuals unequally because of their sex, class or ethnicity.
The purpose of this paper then is to show how ideas of masculinity and feminity are expressed in dancehall with the use of examples. That is, to demonstrate how conceptions of who and what a Caribbean man or woman is, is reproduced in: (i) mainly the lyrics of dancehall; (ii) the dress of men and women that attend dancehall sessions and (iii) the behaviour of these men and women. The writer will then conclude with a summation of the arguments presented in the paper and offer an opinion as to the possible future effects of dancehall on gender/power relations.
Dancehall or deejay music is the newest, often shocking, musical phenomenon to emerge on Jamaica’s popular music scene. John Storey suggests that “popular culture is a site of struggle between the forces of resistance of subordinate groups in society, and the forces of incorporation of dominant groups in society. This he terms ‘neo-Gramscian hegemony theory'”. It is within this definition that dancehall aptly fits as a form of popular culture.
That is, according to Norman Stolzoff, “dancehall is not simply Jamaica’s most popular form of entertainment and cultural expression, it is also an important institution that generates, mediates and reproduces the social order – that is, the hierarchical divisions of race, class, gender, and sexuality running through Jamaican society. Dancehall has thus played a primary role in the formation of a distinct lower class culture for more than two centuries”.
As a result, Stolzoff continues to argue that dancehall is a manifestation of the process of popular culture described by both Storey and Gramsci because “it is central to cultural creation and intersocial negotiation as a symbol of social divisions and a medium through which different groups in Jamaica’s social hierarchy articulate group boundaries and respond to each other. Consequently, social hegemony in Jamaica is not simply guaranteed by a fixed hierarchy; instead, it is contested and maintained in large measures through the practices and discourse of dancehall culture”. According to Winston Blake, “dancehall is a culture in itself. In a land where our influences came from the English – or those people – it is something that would seem to be very indigenous to us, something we have created. It basically answers to itself; it answers to nobody”.
This high profile accorded to the art form, contributed further to its popularity. Dancehall is found everywhere – in both the print and electronic media. Large circulation daily newspapers (The Daily Gleaner & Star), specialty tabloids (X-News), radio stations (IRIE FM) and television (TVJ and CVM), all dedicate a significant part of their coverage to dancehall culture. Not to mention the numerous websites on the Internet that provides a plethora of information on dancehall. In addition to its presence in the mass media, the symbols of dancehall are everywhere in the public space. Countless billboards and nearly every telephone pole and every wall of public buildings are plastered with posters advertising dancehall events. Dancehall is also not limited to a mere local cultural form but is a part of the global mediascape from Belize to Japan. In 1994, record sales for Jamaican popular music were more than US $300 million a year in the U.S. market alone.
The concept of dancehall is congruent to what Cooper describes as the oral tradition of Jamaica. However, she argues that dancehall primarily sits on the oral undervalued tradition because its literariness is marginalized by where it is performed – the dancehall where the DJ’s art is to “ram dancehall an cork party”. In addition to this, central to dancehall music is “slackness” or the graphic description of all things sexual – sexual organs, sex and money, homosexuality, and sex and violence. “Slackness” simply put, is the celebration of “extra sex”. Cooper concludes that the dancehall culture is one in which there is (1) an interrogation of other music forms with often comic and ironic effect; (2) a site of underground clash of patriarchal gender identity; (3) resistance to law and order and the undermining of society’s moral code and; (4) the reaffirmation of heterosexuality and violent vilification of homosexuality.
The notions of masculinity and feminity expressed in dancehall have to be located within the general context of the expressions of masculinity and feminity within the world and its impact on defining these expressions in the Caribbean in terms of determining who and what constitutes a Caribbean man or woman. It is no secret that it is predominantly the males that dominate the social relations in society and the social relations of production. According to Maurice Godelier, everywhere in social life men seem to dominate. This inherent dominance originated from the time of the stage of hunters and gatherers where men possessed greater mobility than women because women by virtue of their reproductive roles were rendered less mobile during pregnancy and after birth are constrained by breast-feeding and child-rearing functions.
“This it seems likely that a division of tasks forced itself upon the societies of hunters: men hunted big game and waged war; women hunted small game, gathered natural supplies and cooked the daily food. It appears that a differential value system attached to those tasks, setting a higher value system on men’s activity insofar as it involved greater risks of losing one’s life and greater glory in taking life”.
These divisions of labour that existed between men and women in pre-capitalist society according to Michelle Barrett were consolidated and reproduced within capitalist relations of production where men’s work was given precedence over women’s. As a result, men overthrew women and institutionalized this success thereby causing them to both influence the private sphere and dominate the public sphere. However, not all men dominate the social relations within society, and not all men participate equally in sharing power and resources in any given social context.
This along with the asymmetry of power relationships within slavery, indentureship and colonialism imposed its patriarchal rule on Caribbean society and economies. Male domination was inscribed in the culture and political economy of the region. This male domination of the social relations within the Caribbean society laid the foundation for the institutionalsiation of gender inequality in the region. The reality of the situation in the Caribbean is that the public sphere remains largely but not exclusively the domain of men. So we see that expressions of masculinity and feminity in the Caribbean have men as superior and women as inferior. It is these expressions that are displayed in the culture of dancehall.