A report by Evan Glazman for Konbini.
The influence of Jamaican dancehall music has slowly crept into popular music from cultures around the world. Some of the most popular artists – including those who have no cultural ties to Jamaica or the Caribbean to speak of – have incorporated dancehall rhythms into their music, widening their appeal to a global audience.
A bunch of Drake‘s most popular songs – “Passionfruit,” “One Dance” – appropriate a dancehall sensibility (somewhat controversially, among those who consider it exploitation). Ed Sheeran‘s “Shape Of You” is another dancehall-inflected track poised to be blasting from speaker systems all summer.
“Me nah gon’ compromise…”
One Jamaican artist, Ishawna, re-appropriated dancehall from Sheeran with her excellent new single “Equal Rights,” which remixes “Shape Of You.” But the controversy sparked by the track’s feminist message offers a crucial insight into the dancehall community and its relationship with gender.
“Equal Rights” is explicitly and unapologetically about sex. Its lyrics are upfront and quite graphic with repeated references to intercourse and oral sex. The song’s overarching message is “You give and you shall receive” when it comes to time in the bedroom.
The uproar that the song caused in the dancehall world was deafening. Diss tracks started popping up almost instantly, and Ishawna’s boyfriend and fellow musician Foota Hype reportedly broke up with her over the song’s content.
Why is a woman openly singing about her sexual desires so outrageous and upsetting within the dancehall sphere?
It’s an all-too-familiar dynamic for women, not only in music, but in the world at large. Women are always expected to be the objects of male sexual fantasies, never the subjects of their own.
Dancehall – like rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop, and basically every other subculture organized in and around music – is male dominated. As a result, the musical themes generally trend towards hyper-masculinity, which far too often manifests itself in a toxic way.
So Ishawna shamelessly demanding “Equal Rights” is simultaneously a breath of fresh air for women and feminist-minded men in the dancehall community, as it’s also an attack on the patriarchal masculinity that dominates the genre. An Ishawna fan told Dancehall Hip-Hop:
“Mi honestly believe say she deserve a Grammy because she brave. Other [male] artistes a sing bout them thing deh and no body nah lick out pon them.”
A Jamaican man gave Vox Pop a much more critical, dismissive answer when asked about his reaction to “Equal Rights”:
“People do all sort a foolishness and a mek money offa it. Is just a musical thing and I feel like she just want attention.”
The polarization within Jamaican dancehall culture is evident, and it doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.
Tipping the balance
Ishawna, who split her youth between Kingston, Jamaica and Brooklyn, returned to New York City last week for an interview with Sway In The Morning on Sirius XM. In addition to her personally getting a platform to speak out in defense of her song and its message, Ishawna has been garnering a lot of support from fellow women entertainers, such as Tanya Stephens, which is certainly an encouraging development.
“Equal Rights” is not a song that is about emasculating men, it’s a song about fairness and doing away with gender inequities, whether in the bedroom, the workplace, or anywhere they show up in the world.
Just like hip-hop is unfairly demonized for supposedly being a music of “violence” and “ignorance”, we should be mindful about not condemning dancehall to a similar fate. While dancehall certainly has its share of problems in the way it deals with gender, the problem lies not in the music itself, but in the societies and cultures that inform the music with such a masculine focus.