Dancehall, as the art form is currently known, began to emerge in the 1980s. In 1985 artist Wayne Smith recorded a song, called “Under Mi Sleng Teng”, which gained immediate popularity in Jamaica. This artist was one of the first to implement a drum machine and synthesized instruments in place of using an actual live band. Not only was this art form popular, but it was also a cheaper alternative for producing music. Some performers were at first hesitant to become involved with this newly “digitalized” music because it was thought that this new manner of making music required little skill and allowed people to become involved in music who formerly may not have been able to. As time progressed more sophisticated synthesizers and digital instruments were used, which caused a dramatic shift in the sound of the music from the early 1980s to the late 1980s. The later style of dancehall didn’t just remake old reggae tunes, but it also drew upon rhythms of Pocomania and Kumina, which are Afro-Jamaican forms. Artists such as Shabba Ranks began to develop similar themes in their music as their American counterparts involved in hip hop and rap music.
As this new genre was being created, there became an even heavier emphasis on how to display dancing as well as fashion. Many females stopped dressing in accordance to rastafari gender codes and began to dress extravagantly and scantily. At the same time that this manner of dressing became popular, it became even more obvious that sexism and sexual objectification was a part of dancehall music. At dancehall parties there would be competitions between the better off uptown models and the lower class female models from downtown. The girls from downtown were referred to as “dancehall models”. This phenomena led to the upper-class notion that women who participated in dancehall were involved in “slackness” and weren’t afraid to show their bodies.
Although dancehall is now laced with sexism it originated as a means of rebelling against social norms and was highly political in this sense. (Stolzoff, 234). Many people from uptown view dancehall as being socially disruptive and tasteless. Some involved in dancehall ignore the government’s complaints about the loud sounds at night form dancehall parties as a means of showing disregard for government policies. “Downtown people blame uptown for perpetuating the evil of racism, Eurocentrism, white supremacy, economic exploitation, the corrupt electoral system, and the predatory state and its mismanagement of natural resources”(Stolzoff, 234).
There is often a conflicting debate over whether or not dancehall music degrades women because it solely identifies them as sexual objects, or if it allows them sexual empowerment and control over men due to their physical features. According to one critic “Videos typically portray the male stud surrounded by scantily clad models; CD compilation covers look like porno ads; and lyrics routinely objectify women .... rather than [acknowledge their ] personalities”(Manuel 207). Songs such as “Bedroom Bully” and “Yaw Yaw” emphasize the physical force that men can exert over women. In some ways dancehall can promote violence and aggression towards women, but in other ways it celebrates the beauty of women.
These two ways of behaving may seem contradictory, because in one instance women are being brought down, and in the other it appears as if women are being praised, but I would argue that these two modes of behavior actually go hand in hand. In the first instance where acts of aggression are being done towards women, women are clearly being forced into submission, put into their place and treated with a lack of respect. On the other hand, in some songs women aren’t treated as if they are a nuisance to men, but they are still being treated with a lack of respect. I would argue that it is not just the beauty of the woman’s body that is being celebrated in these songs, but rather it is the sexual pleasure and satisfaction of sexual desires that men will receive from the body of a woman that is being celebrated.
The argument that sexual objectification of women by men allows women to have sexual empowerment because through their bodies they can exert control over men may hold true to a certain extent and in some cases, but it is difficult to say that the sexuality of a female will work on all men as a source of power. During the second wave of feminism in America, many anti feminists argued that they did not want equal rights with men because they already held power over men, which they gained through use of their femininity and the ability to have or withhold sex from their husbands. Yet this so called ability to manipulate their husbands through use of their femininity did not necessarily win them more rights or the ability to have their husbands respect them. In the same way controlling men with one’s body does not necessarily earn a woman the respect she deserves or the treatment she deserves.
Manuel, Peter, Kenneth Bilby, and Michael Largey, eds. Carribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae- Revised and Expanded Edition. Philadelphia, PA: Temple UP, 2006.
Stolzoff, Norman C.Wake the Town and Tell the People: Dancehall Culture in Jamaica. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.