Queer reflections on dancehall, Spice and coming of age in Jamaica

a Decolonial Performance Autoethnography in written and audio form by dub poet, theatre interventionist and scholar d’bi.young anitafrika

Spice will headline Pride ceremonies
Courtesy of Pride Toronto

panting percussive listen
can you hear the sounds of a
dancehall in the distance
womxn mxn
grasp each other firm 
finding salvation in dark spaces
in darker places still
mxn embrace each other, forbidden
womxn embrace other womxn as lovers
existing in the in-between of everything, including gender
lust and love abide by no laws 
dancehall transgressions 
just in time
to do a one-drop
skank, shake, wine 
reverberating rhythms that pulsate throughout the bass line
unknown abyss undulating waves
the memoirs of hips and lips
tongue-twisting to a hybridised jamaica nation language 
neo-african reggae beat 
betraying christian colonial conditionings
that beg to bind the black body in perpetual hegemony
but the black body beckons its own emancipation 
through gyration 
inna di heat of the dancehall

Jamaican-born dancehall recording artist, singer and songwriter Grace Hamilton (aka Spice) is set to headline Pride Toronto despite the protestations from people in the reggae community who often toe the line for homophobic patriarchy. Hailed as the current queen of dancehall, Spice is an electrifying performer and one of the most celebrated dancehall artists in the world. Her mixtape Captured debuted at number one in 2018 on the Billboard reggae albums chart. She also received a Best Reggae Album Grammy nomination for her 2021 debut studio album 10. I saw Spice headline in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Costa Rica, a few weeks ago – and it took me back, way back.

Have you ever experienced the transcendence of being inside a Jamaican dancehall? Ever felt intoxicated by the riddims of a sound system? Ever witnessed the vocal dexterity of the DJ as she bellowed incantations on the mic? Here, your body moves in possession of an unapologetic sense of self. That sense of self transcends colonial binaries of gender, sexuality, class and ability; even while the content of the music perpetuates a paradoxical mashup of Black liberation, patriarchy, sexual freedom, homophobia, partner violence, misogyny, decoloniality, cultural pride, respectability and a rejection of all that is considered respectable. 

I grew up witnessing (and sometimes participating) in these dancehall rituals back home in Maxfield Avenue, Kingston, Jamaica, where I listened to early queens of dancehall – Lady Saw, Patra and Tanya Stephens. They put forward an unnamed project of womxn liberation as professional dancehall DJs in a male-dominated industry. 

I grew up working-class, being warned at home to not be seduced by the lewd lyrics of these womxn, singing about their pumpums (vaginas) and the pleasure they derived from all manner of pumpum-stimulation. I was also warned about what happens to young womxn who resist gender and sexuality respectability politics. I was told to stay away from the dark corners of the dancehalls where shadow figures grind to a slow rub-a-dub; high-volume speaker boxes drown out the pleasure moans of dancehall divas who knew what they wanted and how they wanted it. Other bodies performed gymnastic contortions on dirt floors, possessed by the spirit of resistance, invigorated. 

d'bi young
[u’Don Dixon’, u’photographer’]

I also grew up at the feet of the pioneer dub poets; my mother Anita Stewart being one of them. Dub poetry (more so than dancehall) embodied a staunch political critique of colonialism and its resulting systemic oppressions, performed through lyrical manifestos written in Jamaica Nation Language and accompanied by dub-reggae riddims. Dancehall possessed an irresistible magnetism as a musical, cultural and spirited form. 

Many of us growing up in the garrisons of Kingston, Jamaica dreamed of becoming a dancehall DJ. This was a viable option for social mobility within our class-stratified neo-colonial society. I fantasized becoming some combination of a dancehall DJ, a dancehall queen and a dub poet; whether backflipping and landing in the splits to Patra’s Romantic Call or shouting rewind and come again, on the mic like a true dancehall DJ and then chanting radical lyrics to uplift my people (like the dub poets did on the 1986 Woman Talk album and at Poets in Unity performances). I wanted to assert my sexuality and my desire in the face of a colonial patriarchal hegemony that dominated the dancehall space. To wear tight-fitting clothes and writhe in and outside of my own body; enchanted by the erotic and sensual womxn-power gods Ochun and Oya, Orishas of the Yoruba of Nigeria. I wanted to kiss on Black girls, Black boys and Black non-binary folx through whose lips and tongues I could better understand my place in the world. These were otherworldly beings because, like me, they were queer and therefore must have come from another world, or so we were told. I imagined them speaking sensuality to me in our Jamaica nation language before I knew what the sensual was; before I knew about “the uses of the erotic.” All of this seemed possible within the conundrum of Dancehall. 

Dancehall music, dancehall culture and the womxn who make a living as dancehall DJs represent a complex, layered and entangled web of de/colonial practice, resistance movements, colonial trauma, systemic oppression, socio-cultural conditioning, humxn desire, performance rituals and the day-to-day survival machinations of life, which makes dancehall culture simultaneously transgressive, exciting, petrifying, subversive, oppressive, liberating, problematic, revolutionary and visionary.

Dancehall music like dub poetry is a branch on the tree of reggae. In the 1950s and 60s the literal dancehall was a social place where Jamaicans gathered to listen and move their bodies to music from sound systems accompanied by DJs. The Jamaican popular music genre as we understand it today took root in the early 1980s through the ongoing practice of stage shows, sound systems and studio-based sound engineering, alongside the African-derived cultural ritual of dance performances by attendees at dancehalls. In Inna di Dancehall: Popular Culture And The Politics Of Identity In Jamaica, Professor and socio-cultural analyst Donna Hope writes “dancehall culture is a space for the cultural creation and dissemination of symbols and ideologies that reflect and legitimize the lived realities of the adherents, particularly those from the inner cities of Jamaica.” 

Growing up, I understood that there was space for me in dancehall as a working-class-queer-dark-skinned-Black body. I could see myself in its proud celebration of Blackness, in its challenge to classist shaming, and in its proclamations of sexual curiosity. The blatant homophobia did not stop me from identifying with the radical message of Black joy that dancehall firmly defended. If dancehall DJs could challenge the status quo regarding race, class and respectability, then for me that meant there was space within it to also challenge everything else, including patriarchy, misogyny and homophobia. And here I am, alive in 2022 to see one of, if not the biggest, current international reggae stars accept an invitation to headline one of the biggest international Pride celebrations, even while receiving vitriol from patriarchal homophobic factions within the dancehall industry. In Inna di Dancehall, Hope writes:

“Gender politics and patriarchy remain vibrant parts of the dancehall. They filter through what has often been labelled vulgar, slack, sexually explicit, misogynist and anti-homosexual lyrics. These lyrics, however, reveal much more than a subculture or group actively engaged in the spread of sexually explicit, misogynist and anti-homosexual lyrics. The existence of these, together with what is labelled homophobia in the dancehall, is really a part of a cultural dialogue of gendered identity that draws on the historical and cultural legacies of Jamaica. This cultural dialogue highlights several core issues affecting not only the masculine and feminine [and non-binary] identities in the dancehall dis/place but also the broader masculine and feminine [and non-binary] identities in Jamaica.”

I agree with Hope’s observation that there is an urgent cultural identity dialogue occurring within dancehall. Spice, who’s been a dancehall DJ for over 20 years, occupies a liminal space of possibilities within this dialogue. She signifies a powerful shift; moving dancehall towards queer visibility and inclusivity. The Billboard-charting artist and alumni of the reality TV series Love And Hip Hop grew up working-class in Portmore, Jamaica with her mother and five siblings. She knew she wanted to be a dancehall performer from a very young age. 

In a 2021 interview with Forbes, Spice recalled that her mother “would cook one pound of rice and make sure that we all were full… I come from humble beginnings, and I managed to overcome all of the adversity and boss up… My tagline now is, From Homeless to Owning Houses… My journey has been a rough one, but I always tell people it’s not how you start the race, it’s how you end that matters.” Spice embodies quintessential dancehallness by embracing and widening the boundaries of the form itself, singing themes that range from describing her explicit sexual prowess in So Mi Like it, to lyrically burning down neocolonial practices of shadeism that pervade Jamaican society in the song Black Hypocrisy. 

Spice, who is also a mother of two and an entrepreneur, has been accused of introducing so-called deviant sexual ideology to dancehall, the latest of which concerns her acceptance to headline Pride Toronto’s annual festival. In response to her critics, Spice wrote at length on her Instagram page:

“I don’t discriminate! I love all my fans no matter what race or their sexual preference, it’s not my decision to make. So you’re upset because I’m performing at a pride event when you’ve been working for different pride organizers all your life? Well I’m very sorry but my music does not stop at your big stinking foot… You knowingly have lesbian and gay friends, that you and I both know, so I’m confused at this hypocrisy… All I want is for you to just make everything make sense or is it only when a “SPICE” unu have a problem?”

If dancehall is about liberation then Spice is emancipating dancehall itself by daring to carve out a radical path towards queer acceptance. Queer folx have always been here, there and everywhere. Queer visibility continues to grow in Jamaica through the presence of LGBTQQIP2SAA groups such as J-FLAG and We-Change who are actively resisting homophobia within the music and the culture. Change is the only constant and dancehall is no exception to that rule.  

As I navigate my own intersectional location as a Black-queer-Jamaican-non-binary dub poet, theatre-maker and educator, I imagine dancehall as a transgressive embodiment of emancipation for all Jamaicans; where, in the depths of a black hole, amid the timeless omniverse, root networks of deep dark forests converge, converse in infinite languages of baobab tree trunk branches, riding di verbal riddims from outer space to inner grace, dubbin di vibes, overstanding the revolutionary legacy of dancehall music, the rhizomatic roots of reggae culture. I imagine dancehall as a freedom song-in-dub, wailing to be chanted by anyone who desires decolonial liberation from within, emancipating the conditioned colonial capitalist constructions of race, gender, class, ability, sexuality and other such outdated limitations of body, mind and spirit. Reconceptualizing. Reimagining. Re-envisioning our joyful, beautiful, emancipated Black selves as whole, holistic, intrinsic, integrated, magically melanated. Healed. Healing. Transforming. Transitioning. Learning. Growing. Living. Questioning. Questioning the violence of colonialism within ourselves and within society. Making visible that which was present from the very beginning. I imagine myself at the dancehall, speaker boxes blazing as I jump on the mic and I chant …

d’bi.young anitafrika is an African-Jamaican-Tkarontonian, London-based dubpoet, theatre interventionist, decolonial scholar & Black-queer-feminist playwright who is committed to embodying liberatory art practice that ritualises acts-of-emancipation from oppressions inflicted upon the people & the planet. They are fundraising to establish an Ubuntu!, an international decolonial arts centre in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Costa Rica, which you can support here.


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