UK soundsystem Heatwave’s new compilation celebrates female dancehall MCs, such as Lady Saw and Macka Diamond. How long before one rivals the likes of Sean Paul?—asks Hattie Collins ni this article for London’s Guardian. [Follow the link below to listen to come clips.]
When talking to people about dancehall, the “V” word crops up an awful lot. “It’s just a viiiiiiiiibe innit. It’s liberating, and it’s hype,” exclaims north London dancehall artist Lady Chann. “In Jamaica they have Passa Passa Wednesday, in Harlesden, every day there’d be a rave. Growing up, we used to have all-dayers in community centres. They would start at midday and finish at midnight, and it would get so rammed. You’d have all the junior sound systems coming through … those were the days, that was the vibe.”
The Jamaican-born genre has traditionally always been associated with big-name male performers – from Beenie Man to Sean Paul – the popular presumption being that, like hip-hop and rock, dancehall is a man’s world. However, a new compilation put together by UK soundsystem Heatwave aims to redress the balance. Gyal Power brilliantly repositions female performers as an important voice in the world of dancehall. Lady Saw, Macka Diamond and Ce’Cile, it insists, are as powerful a presence as Elephant Man, Mavado and Tommy Lee.
They may not have racked up the multi-platinum albums of their male counterparts, these women’s achievements shouldn’t be overlooked. Dawn Penn – though not strictly a dancehall artist – appears on Gyal Power with her No 3 smash No, No, No, as do Louchie Lou and Michie One, famous for their cover of Lulu and The Isley Brother’s Shout. There’s also the amazing Patra, known for teaching the world how to butterfly as well as her slow-grind cover of Grace Jones’s Pull Up to the Bumper. There are newer names too, such as Natalie Storm, O, Spice and British MCs Lady Chann, RoxXxan and Stush. In fact, over the course of the hour-long mix, there are 49 different female performers, reggae from Amy Winehouse and remixes of Adele by Jamie xx and Heatwave.
“Some of our favourite dancehall tunes have been by female artists but female MCs are often sidelined by other artists, or by DJs and promoters,” says Heatwave’s Gabriel. “Obviously there are more male artists, but they are over-represented in many ways. Because there are so many artists who we love who are female, we always try and give them space and extra shine. Gyal Power is just the logical conclusion to that.”
Dancehall has been around since the late 70s but it’s undergoing yet another commercial resurgence. A$AP’s Ferg and Rocky just dedicated a song to Mr Loverman (Shabba); Florence Welch recently took a trip to Kingston to gather “viiiiiiiibes” for her new album, while Kanye West samples Popcaan, Assassin, Capleton and Beenie Man on his Yeezus opus.
That the world revolves around men is hardly news, points out Ce’Cile, who was born in Kingston and appeared on Sean Paul’s multimillion seller, Dutty Ruck. “Jamaica, culturally, is pro-male in everything, not just music. Men are deemed the head of the household, the ‘boss’, the breadwinner, while women are deemed the child bearer and home keeper,” she says. “It just takes certain women to break that mould.”
South London MC Stush agrees. “If you are a woman in dancehall, you have to be good. You’ve got to have double what the guys have to be able to come through. You can do it, but you have to be of a certain calibre. I got my respect from my stage performance; I’m fearless, I don’t have time to be scared.” Tracks on Gyal Power like Tanya Stephen’s Power of a Girl, Lady Saw’s Man a Di Least and Lexie Lee’s Women Run It underscore these sentiments. “Of course I’m more talented than lots of seemingly bigger male acts,” says Ce’Cile. “So is Lady Saw, Alaine, Queen Ifrica and so on. Don’t play with Tanya Stevens. She’s more talented than a lot of them [men] combined.”
Some people might expect dancehall’s sexually enthusiastic lyrics (known as “slack”) to put women off. In fact, a listen to Tiana’s audaciously amazing Pum Pum Phat track tells you that women can be as fantastically filthy and, crucially, in control as men. “The female artists who are slack, they never talk about how they’ve been mistreated by a guy – sexually or otherwise,” Stush points out. “Instead they show that they’re empowered and that they’re dominant. It’s not really about the exploitation of women. If anything, it’s the other way around.”
On Gyal Power, you can expect to hear a lot of “risqué” talk, including various demands for cunnilingus and what women think of sexually incompetent partners (step forward again the always excellent Saw and her Mr Short Cummings over the Sexxx Tape Riddim).
“I don’t think dancehall is exploitative. I feel it’s more that woman are sexually liberated, and that’s why they express themselves through dancehall,” says Lady Chann, whose explosive Eye Too Fast appears on the compilation. “This is a liberating, expressive genre. It dates back to how we would express ourselves, through dance, back in the day in Africa. It’s the same thing. The beat of the drum signifies the heartbeat, and that’s what we go by, that’s what we do. Daggering, dancing, wi’ning, dropping it low, whatever. It’s just expression. I mix my lyrics. Sometimes I can be slack, because that’s a side of me that exists, but it’s not the only side.”
Heatwave’s Gabriel agrees that women in dancehall are as forthright and demanding as the men, and says that the female dancehall audience can be as influential as the performers. “It’s often the women patrons who will make tunes hits,” he says. “They’re the powerful force in the dancehall.”
So will there ever be a female Sean Paul equivalent, a woman that can transcend the specialist and become a worldwide superstar? Ce’Cile thinks so. “We already have talented females so that’s never been the issue. Women don’t usually get the type of airplay it takes to get a song to the next level. I strongly believe if we got the support male disc jocks give to the male artists it could, and would, have happened. We need more female disc jocks.”
And, of course, an audience and industry that actively supports the music. Granted, dancehall hasn’t had the best press – the genre has been plagued by charges of misogyny and homophobia (although this is slowly starting to change). Yet, four decades on, dancehall continues pumping out song after song. And if Sean, Shabba Ranks and Shaggy can breakthrough beyond the Caribbean, surely it’s time for one of these brilliant, funny, forthright women to take the world by storm too?
“If I can get one person who wouldn’t listen to bashment before me to listen to bashment after me then I feel fulfilled, because that’s what I’m here to do,” says Chann. “Some people don’t understand every thing we say, because not everybody’s first language is English, let alone patois. But this is what is so wicked about music. Music is not about verbal language, it’s just about vibes. And when people understand your vibes and your energy, whether you’re a man or woman, then that’s what’s important.”
Gyal Power is out now. theheatwave.co.uk
For the original report go to http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2013/jul/18/female-mcs-gyal-power-dancehall