There are 2.8 million people in Jamaica. To put that in perspective, that’s less people than live in Kansas. And yet, Jamaican food, Jamaican culture, Jamaica beaches, Jamaican music, and, yes, Jamaican fashion, are internationally recognised and respected. From rasta to reggae, the world looks to Jamaica for how to chill out.
But one of the country’s most influential cultural exports today is decidedly un-chill: Dancehall. Characterised by giant sound systems, street parties, and wild moves, dancehall has infected pop music around the world including international artists like Rihanna, Drake, and Justin Bieber. But dancehall is not new. Dating back to the ’40s, dancehall is said to be the grandfather of hip hop, EDM, and DJ culture, and has strong political roots. It was and still is a place for folks to escape from and protest against the harsh realities of poverty, unemployment, and violence.
But you don’t have to travel to Kingston to see it in action. Dancehall — along with dancehall queens, the sexily dressed, acrobatic, rubber-limbed women who rule the dance floor — is all over Instagram. The confidence they exude in their moves, their demeanour, and their risqué, skin-out style clothes (or lack thereof) is captivating. But part of it can also be upsetting. Many of the dance moves look like sex on steroids, with huge stunts that seem to reinforce male dominance and female submissiveness.
In a country where one in three women will experience domestic violence, dancehall seems to both reinforce dangerous gender roles and also push against it. So, is this empowerment? Or is this exploitation?
The answer, as always, is much more complicated than that. Dancehall exaggerates what happens in Jamaican society — the good and the bad. But it gives women a place to work out these issues with a support system of sisters and brothers behind them. It’s a big, bold first step to work through a much-needed discussion, and the women who dominate in dancehall have the moves to pull it off.