Dancehall is a beat-heavy, lyrically-dense, energetic, and synthesizer-driven music that has much in common with American hip-hop. It evolved in the early nineteen nineties out of the classic reggae of Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff—the often feel-good, reefer-party music championing the Rastafarian visions of social justice and pan-African celebration, which had powered Jamaica to worldwide recognition in the nineteen seventies and had catapulted Jamaican musicians into the far reaches of global iconography.
But dancehall is hugely controversial—inside and outside Jamaica. Detractors echo many of the same complaints voiced against American hip-hop, including that the music promotes misogyny and violence. But the brief against dancehall far exceeds criticism inveighed against any other genre of popular music. Dancehall is a crucible for Jamaica’s irreconcilable notions of class and masculinity and identity. Most of all, dancehall is accused of fomenting vicious anti-gay violence.
Dancehall, with its incorporation of global music trends and appetite for foreign audiences, has become a vibrant expression of Jamaica’s changing society. But the music is also a rebuke against important aspects of the country’s sense of national identity. For a start, the genre’s aesthetics pose a challenge to Jamaica’s delicate balancing act on race—Jamaican leaders like to trumpet both the country’s multiracial harmony and Jamaica’s historical support of a strong identity among pan-African diasporas. But a popular dancehall affectation among men is to bleach white their faces, necks, and arms, leaving many Jamaicans to wonder how many of the nation’s youth really feels about their black skin. Like with much else about dancehall, there is little agreement about significance: a large number of Jamaica’s punditry insist race has nothing to do with it; others, more convincingly, argue that it’s a little absurd to fail to see racial implications when Jamaican men undergo expensive bleaching treatments.
Dancehall’s anti-homosexuality often is camouflaged in Jamaican patois, a dialect of English difficult for non-Jamaicans to understand. But in translation, the emotions aren’t hard to decode. A song by Capleton called “More Prophet” includes the lyrics: Shoulda know seh Capleton bun battyman/Dem same fire apply to all di lesbian/Seh mi bun everything from mi know seh dem gay/All boogaman and sodemites fi get killed. “Batty” means backside in patois and “battymen” is a ubiquitous pejorative for homosexuals in Jamaica. This translates from the patois into, “You should know that Capleton burns homosexuals/The same fire applies to lesbians/Say I burn everything as long as I know that they’re homosexual/All homosexuals and sodomites should be killed.” Beenie Man, one of the top dancehall musicians, sings “Han Up Deh” with the lyrics Hang chi chi gal wid a long piece of rope, which means “Hang lesbians with a long piece of rope.” He is also the author of one of the first anti-gay dancehall anthems, “Batty Man Fi Dead,” which translates into “Homosexuals should be killed.”
The contradiction goes well beyond a curious taste in sartorial expression. It is more like a call to arms. Jamaica’s legions of young dancehall fans, the majority from relentlessly poor urban neighborhoods, have embraced a persona that is calculated to offend, even if by all rights it should also offend their own prejudices. It is also, it seemed to me, a preemptive strike: in a society where sexuality is under constant surveillance, where the smallest clue that a person is homosexual is a pretext for violence, dancehall provides the ultimate protective uniform. When everyone on the dance floor is flouting heterosexual conventions, it suddenly becomes impossible to single out anybody. “We have this fraught sense of sexuality—it is an irony—where we go to extremes in expressing sexuality but at the same time we have this horrible shame and violence about it,” said Thomas Glave in a telephone interview. Glave, a professor of English at MIT, was born in the Bronx but mostly grew up in Jamaica and sets his fiction inside the country.
(…) while many in the dancehall world defend Jamaican performers as simple vessels for the prejudices manifest in Jamaican society at large, it’s more likely that dancehall was what ignited the fuse in the first place. Until about twenty years ago, Jamaicans with whom I spoke uniformly recalled that men didn’t worry about accidentally brushing up against another man on a city bus. Homosexuality was hidden, but not radioactive. That changed beginning the early nineteen nineties, precisely the time when dancehall emerged, with its musicians exhorting fans to spill out of clubs and attack gay people.
Dancehall’s culpability is “clear—it’s really the one big difference between other Caribbean countries and Jamaica. Other countries have a cult of masculinity and powerful churches but what they don’t have is dancehall,” said Baz Dreisinger, a professor at John Jay College in New York and a prominent popular music critic who has published widely on Jamaican music.