The Artists Bringing Jamaican Dancehall to Center Stage

KINGSTON, Jamaica — In 2016, the cover of the Yellow Pages brought Jamaica to a standstill. For the Kingston and St. Andrews editions of the directory, three artists were commissioned to create artwork showingcasing the people of Jamaica engaging with select music genres the nation had born: ska, reggae, and dancehall. However, only one cover was the catalyst for conversation: painter Lennox Coke’s colorful scene celebrating the energetic liveliness of dancehall. In hues of blue and purple with pops of orange and yellow, Coke portrayed Jamaican people gathered in a dance hall speakers outfitted with towering sound system, as a DJ spun a record and a man in a fiery tangerine ensemble toasted beside him.

The response was alarming. One organization in particular, the Jamaica Coalition for a Healthy Society, questioned whether or not this was an appropriate portrayal of Jamaicans for a book that was to be widely distributed. But such is the gift of dancehall: Its mere presence reveals once quiet, hushed, or insidious thoughts about the people who engage with and create possibility from the world it builds.

Dancehall both provides and prompts social commentary. We can parse through the artists’ lyrics to discern the social climate of a particular socioeconomic class within Jamaica, but we can largely gauge what people think about its practitioners and players from their own implicit biases. The exhibition Cyah Stall: Dancehall Aesthetics, Language & Resistance, on view at CreativSpace in Kingston earlier this year, sought to prosecute the reductive narratives that dancehall’s most vociferous dissenters have assigned to it through contemporary artists’ engagement and interpretation of the genre and culture. Curated by the newly formed art initiative Blaqmango Consultants, the exhibition’s title is inspired by the lyrics of Vybz Kartel’s galvanizing 2016 single “Dancehall,” and speaks to dancehall’s bold omnipresence within the fabric of Jamaican society.

Achim Clunis, “Poor People Fed Up” (2022), digital print on archival paper

“One of the things that the exhibition does is challenging perceptions of what dancehall should be and ought to be,” explained co-curator Dr. Winston Campbell. “[Cyah Stall] is an authentic showing of dancehall but it is family friendly and it sends a message that dancehall as a culture, as a brand, as a term, doesn’t have to be ostracized and pushed back into a corner.”

Since its inception in the late 1970s, dancehall has been referred to as the voice of Jamaica’s ghettos. Its raw and unfiltered retelling of aspirations and realities of life made it unpopular among the country’s elite and religious populations. Named after dance halls, informal sites where people would gather to dance with custom-built speakers, it is both a genre of music and a subculture.

Inextricably linked to that subculture is its syntax. In Samantha Hay’s artworks “Bere Vibes” (2022), “Pop Style” (2022), and “Hot Steppa” (2022), phrases popularized by lyrics used within the genre are carved into recycled cardboard. The works reflect the dynamism of Jamaican Patwah, as do Achim Clunis’s set of printed illustrations and handmade wooden phrases and words that draw on dancehall’s vernacular. While the Caribbean is not often associated with typography, Clunis’s is a direct expansion of the region’s own growing collection in a vein similar to that of noted Negril-based sign painter Nurse.

Dushaine Lorraine, “Dancehall Royalty I,” “II,” and “III” (2022), mixed media on plyboard
Samantha Hay, left to right: “Bere Vibes,” “Pop Style,” and “Hot Steppa” (all 2022), recycled cardboard

Speaking about Hay, Campbell shared, “The work reminds me of the ways in which the language and expressions that we hear in dancehall culture [are] often divorced from the Jamaican narrative. It is seen as other. It is seen as separate. It is seen as not quite sophisticated. In many instances, some persons, based on their actions and statements, give the impression that Jamaica can do without [them].” Despite Patwah being the language that is widely spoken in the island, Jamaican Standard English (JSE) is the country’s official language. Negative associations that a segment of the population holds regarding Patwah’s perceived unintelligence, and use of JSE in hospitals, courts, or other civic institutions have made it difficult to replace; However, linguists have long rallied to make this a reality. Among the aims of the Cyah Stall exhibition were to celebrate the language and remind viewers of how it functions in tandem with dancehall’s music and culture.

It’s only right that Coke’s work would be featured in Cyah Stall. “What Lennox actually facilitated is the further acceptance of dancehall within spaces that are traditionally not associated with the culture,” Campbell stated.

For his contribution, Coke foregrounded the musicians, DJs and dancehall dancers. In the acrylic painting “Dancehall artists Galaxy” (2017), four — Popcaan, Alkaline, Mavado, and Vybz Kartel — stand against a dark sky, almost like gods of the genre, orbited by vinyl records that seem to mirror planets. Coke’s work is a bold statement artists about the global influence of the genre, and culture despite their marginalization in Jamaica.

Jowaine Graham, “Poor People Governer (Box Detail 2)” (2022), digital design on matte paper

Dancehall is not exempt from critique, and Cyah Stall‘s curators were mindful of its complex mechanics. Like any other genre of music and the subcultures they influence, dancehall is still fraught with discriminatory themes like sexism and homophobia, but the exhibition presented the art of dancehall with care and intention, which was all the more important given the fact that it was staged in February, Jamaica’s Reggae Month — a genre that is comparatively more palatable. “Dancehall culture is an important aspect of the Jamaican experience,” Campbell told me. “Other [exhibitions] that are ongoing tend to focus more on a sanitized version of our Jamaica popular culture, a reggae aesthetic. Not to say that dancehall isn’t a part of that aesthetic, but depending on who you’re speaking to, it’s an aspect of the aesthetic that is best left in the private domain or best left in some geography that are less accessible. We were strategic in attempting to bring dancehall [to the] center.”

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