March is International Women’s Month. It’s a good a time to talk about sexual politics in dancehall culture which is often dismissed by outsiders as misogynist. But dancehall culture can be seen in a quite different way as a celebration of full-bodied female sexuality. Especially the substantial structure of the Black working-class woman whose body image is rarely validated in the middle-class Jamaican media!
The uninhibited display of female bodies in the dancehall is vividly illustrated in the lyrics of two foundation deejays whose endurance is legendary: Shabba Ranks and Lady Saw. References to fleshy female body parts and oscillatory functions should not be seen just as devaluation of female sexuality.
In “Gone Up,” from the As Raw as Ever 1991 CD, Shabba, playing on the proverbial association between food and sex, notes that the price of a number of commodities is going up. To a chorus of affirmative female voices, he asks women a rather pointed question and proceeds to give advice on negotiating a mutually beneficial sexual contract:
Woman, wa unu a do fi unu lovin?
(Wi a raise it to)
Before yu let off di work
Yu fi defend some dollars first
Mek a man know seh
Ten dollar can’t buy French cut
No mek no man work yu out
A body line, old truck.
‘Everything a raise’
Shabba makes it clear that he’s not advocating prostitution. The complicated relationships between men and women cannot be reduced to purely economic terms of exchange. He insists that men must assume responsibility for their sexual partner. It’s a moral issue:
Is not a matter a fact seh dat unu a sell it.
But some man seh dat dem want it.
As dem get it, dem run gone lef it.
No mek no man run gone lef it
An yu no get profit
Everything a raise, so weh unu a do?
Shabba encourages robotic, domesticated females to stand up for themselves. They are often too timid to question the unequal exchange of services and resources in the household:
Have some woman gwaan like dem no worth
Hitch up inna house like a house robot
House fi clean, dem clean dat up
An clothes fi wash, dem wash dat up
An dollars a run an dem naa get enough
Shabba chastises irresponsible men who waste household resources on carousing with their male cronies:
Now yu have some man no want do no spending
Dem wuda do di spending pon dem bredrin
An naa buy dem darling a icymint.
An icymint is one of the cheapest sweets on the market. The depth of the delinquent man’s failure is measured in very common currency.
Erotica or pornography?
Lady Saw would certainly not put up with this kind of cheap man. In a decisive act of feminist emancipation, she cuts loose from conventional social expectations. Marian Hall’s spectacular performance of the role of “Lady Saw” is not often acknowledged as a calculated decision by the actress to make the best of the opportunity to earn a good living in the theatre of the dancehall.
Flamboyantly exhibitionist, Lady Saw embodies the erotic. But one viewer’s erotica is another’s pornography. So Lady Saw is usually censured for being far too loose—or “slack”. Even worse, she is often dismissed as a mere victim of patriarchy, robbed of all power. But it is Lady Saw’s anansi-like personality that appeals to a wide cross-section of intelligent fans – both male and female.
In addition to the sexually explicit songs for which she is infamous, Lady Saw’s repertoire includes impeccable hymns, country and western laments, songs of warning to women about the wiles of men and politically “conscious” lyrics that constitute hardcore socio-cultural analysis.
In a radio interview in the “Uncensored” series on Fame FM, Lady Saw boldly countered charges of vulgarity with absolute self- assurance:
Interviewer: Lady Saw, you do things like, yu grab yu crotch on stage. . . .
Lady Saw: Uh huh. Michael Jackson did it and nobody say anything about it.
Interviewer: And you gyrate on the ground. I mean, do you think this is acceptable for a woman?
Lady Saw: Yes, darling. For this woman. And a lot of woman would like to do the same but I guess they are too shy.
Shyness is not one of Lady Saw’s virtues. In response to the question, “Some people are saying that you are vulgar on stage and your lyrics are indecent. Do you think they are justified?”, she dismissively asserts: “I think critics are there to do their job and I am here to my job . . . to entertain and please my fans.”
So who’s in charge of the rompin’ shop? In the case of Shabba Ranks and Lady Saw it’s a clear draw. And, not so surprisingly, even the frontrunners of the reggae revival are singing rompin’ shop songs. Last Thursday evening, Janine ‘Jah9’ Cunningham gave a brilliant lecture at the University of the West Indies, Mona, tracing her musical journey to her first CD, New Name.
One of Jah9’s sweetest tracks ‘bigs up’ her ‘humble lion’ who is almost seven feet tall and wears size 14. He satisfies her with the ‘right remedy’: avocado. The aphrodisiac qualities of this fruit are well known. At the album launch at Redbones, she put on the mask of her sunglasses to sing “Avocado”.
Jah9’s lecture was the first in a series of ‘Reggae Talks’ that are being hosted by the Department of Literatures English. Protoje will give this week’s lecture on Thursday at 7:00 p.m. in the Neville Hall Lecture Theatre (N1). No-Maddz, Cali P and Michael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson follow. The public is invited and admission is free. The reggae dancehall rompin’ shop has many rooms.