CYAH STALL: Dancehall Aesthetics, Language & Resistance

Before there was dancehall, Jamaican performance aesthetics was heavily influenced by the retentions of performance aesthetics and cosmologies that originated in West African masquerade and ritual traditions. As our ancestors negotiated the colonial experience, many of these traditions were syncretized with other cultural forms and in some instances became indigenized.

The mid-20th century phenomenon, known as the dancehall space provides evidence of the continuity of these processes, as sound systems gathered to play the best tunes of the day in an open area for the enjoyment of patrons. The 1950s also provided us with another key aspect of dancehall culture, that of the Jamaican sound clash aesthetic. This is evidenced by the rivalry between sound systems such as Trojan (Duke Reid), Tom The Great Sebastian (Tom Wong) and Downbeat (Clement Dodd) at the time.

It was the sound systems that paved the way for the definitive DJ style of the dancehall music and culture, which was pioneered in the performance aesthetics of Count Machuki, King Stitt, U Roy as well as Johnny Obsbourne in the mid -20th century. The riddim structure that is central to the music’s identity came a bit later, in the second half of the 1980s. The combination of these musical, spatial and performance elements is what has given us the Jamaican dancehall music and culture that we have today.

This exhibition of 20 works is not about capturing the development or evolution of dancehall culture. The artists are not attempting to tell the entire story of contemporary dancehall either. Instead, the show reflects the unbridled opinion of contemporary visual artists highlighting aspects of the culture that seem worthy of commentary to them. As thinkers who offer philosophical positions about existential, metaphysical, aesthetic and ethical concerns, the artists have presented perspectives and questions about specific aspects of the culture for us to think about. Indirectly, the art comments on the state of dancehall music and culture in Jamaica today.

The artworks on display place emphasis on select dancehall aesthetic features, inclusive of style, fashion, performance, movement and enjoyment, as well as on language and enduring celebrity. What and who are present in the artworks speak volumes. The same is true of who and what are absent from the collective visual presentations. Essentially, the exhibition gives insight into what is currently resonating with some of our millennial thinkers, outside of perhaps offering listenership and YouTube views.

The aesthetics of Jamaican dancehall culture is a combination of several elements including dress, movement of the body, material possessions and communication. Core dancehall participants use these elements to communicate a combination of personal and communal ideas around gender, class and political preferences and roles. Effective communication by the selector is also a central element to the aesthetics defining the dancehall experience. Be it Sky Juice, DJ Naz, Jack Scorpio or Tony Matterhorn at the controls, the selector at the turn tables is the one who controls the tempo, flow and vibe. It is the selector who reminds us, often using an intersectional framework, of the politics of economics, violence and gender.

Whilst dress, movement and material possessions are critical communication elements, the nature of performance in dancehall culture necessitates the use of language. Words, whether in a song, or spoken by the selector, are central to documenting and transmitting the ideas that define the spectacle, ritual and performance elements of dancehall music and culture. Language use is also central to the experience, given the dual roles of spectator and performer which is played by core participants, especially when the video light is present. The sample of key verbal concepts presented here central to both dancehall linguistics and Jamaican daily communication, suggesting a symbiotic connection between the culture of dancehall and the daily Jamaican experience.

Dancehall recording artistes, especially in the past two decades, have positioned themselves as the most visible of Jamaican celebrities. Many achieve this through the potency and relevance of their lyrics, the melodies employed in creating their songs, the sound of their voices, and the quality of the music productions attributed to them. However, some have attempted to use bleaching, dressing as superheroes, sexual explicit visuals, feuds, the implanting of horns, or the feigning of tattooed eyeballs in order to gain visibility and status. Fortunately, celebrity status within dancehall culture is not about the short term offering. The works in this section raise questions about why some members of the dancehall fraternity who have been positioned for greatness have not yet achieved it.

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