March 16, 2016


We Need to Stop Whitewashing Dancehall Music in 2016

Getty Images
Getty Images

It’s time to make one thing clear this year: “tropical house” is not equivalent to dancehall. Throughout 2015 and now well into 2016, dancehall has become increasingly whitewashed as certain pop stars have taken influences from the genre's sound without crediting its origin. Being a proud Jamaican, I'm honestly sick of the whitesplaining that continues to come from people whose idea of our country probably doesn't extend past sipping rum punch on a beach while getting their hair braided.

Sorry to burst your bubble, but the popular music you’re hearing on the radio didn't originate in Europe—there are a handful of countries in the Caribbean impatiently tapping their feet as they wait for major artists to recognize their musical worth. As much as we’ve accepted the fact that it’s okay for genres like rock 'n’ roll to be fronted by white artists despite being originated by black ones, it should always be necessary to treat music with respect. It’s completely fine to borrow a handful of musical aesthetics, just as long as you know and acknowledge where it’s coming from.

Tropical house was first intended as "kind of a joke" by its founder, Australian DJ/producer Thomas Jack. The sound picked up speed in the house/dance world thanks to Kygo, Felix Jaehn and Autograf. Soon after, the sound flooded into mainstream pop. In a late 2015 interview, Jack admitted he's become annoyed with what the genre has turned into. 

“Tropical house was two years ago, y’know?" he said. "Then a lot people started copying off it and started changing the style of it. People would go grabbing, like, '90s pop songs and putting fuckin’ flutes over them." 

Dancehall, which can vary from no-holds-barred lyrics about having sex to heartfelt songs about the struggles of motherhood, first caught mainstream attention in the '90s due to storytelling artists like Buju Banton, Shabba Ranks, Lady Saw, Beenie Man and Bounty Killer. For the current generation, Popcaan, Alkaline, Aidona, Vybz Kartel and Masicka lead the pack. World Music Network describes the genre like this:

“[Dancehall] consists mainly of speaking over a sparse digital bass beat, giving the music a much more spacious feel than reggae. The music is associated with explicitly sexual dances such as ‘daggering,' and along with such a drastic change in music, came a change in fashion—women typically wear extremely scant, flashy and revealing outfits."

When compared to tropical house (which has beachy instrumentation, a 4/4 kick drum pattern and a slower tempo), dancehall and its rawer younger sibling, ragga, are typically hard-hitting, rapidly paced and rugged.

My annoyance with the lack of discrepancy between the genres first surged last October, when Justin Bieber dropped “Sorry." Now, I’m #TeamBiebervelli, but there's no excusing the fact that the song’s producers and writers have not given any credit to dancehall, which is where the track’s sound is derived. The breezy melodies, the syncopation of the vocal flow and the heart-palpitating drum patter all stem from Jamaican music. Few publications noted the island influences, but a majority of my fellow music writers easily wrapped it up as “summery neon-hued electronic production” or “an airy tropical-house banger” or a "vivid tropical house" that sounds like "sunlight drifting down through palm fronds.” Seeing a pattern here?

I pull my hair out thinking of how many of those probably hundreds of millions of "Sorry" viewers still have no idea about my culture's music.

While I do believe (beliebe?) that Justin should have noted the correct influences in “Sorry” in the many radio and magazine interviews he did during the single’s promo run, the song’s producers are also responsible for explaining where the sound came from. But if the lack of explanation from Bloodpop, Skrillex and Diplo (whose Major Lazer side group is a dancehall/EDM mashup) wasn’t enough of an eye-roller, in came the premiere of the music video a little over a week later.

The visual (choreographed by New Zealand dancer Parris Goebel) starred female members of ReQuest Dance Crew. Goebel explained the process to Us Weekly: "The word that comes to mind is 'spontaneous.' Nothing was planned too much, not even the dancing. It was more like, 'How do we feel on the spot?'" There's a slight problem here: a majority of the dance moves come from (you guessed it!) Jamaica.

At first, I was excited to see popular party moves like Gully Creeper, Muscle Wine, Over Yuh Head and Cow Foot being implemented in the video, despite not one single Jamaican dancer being involved in the production. But my annoyance perked up again as writers whitesplained the moves as “Crawling Booty Pop,” “Squatting Hip Shake,” “The Catwoman Claw” and “The Chill Chicken Dance” (what does that even mean?). And I had a valid right to be irritated: The “Sorry” video has racked up more than 1 billion views, making it the 18th-most-watched clip in YouTube history. I pull my hair out thinking of how many of those probably hundreds of millions of viewers still have no idea about my culture's music.

But it wasn’t until people began to accuse Goebel of cultural appropriation that she finally felt it was necessary to respond. In a lengthy message on her Facebook page, she wrote:

"The reaction and magnitude of this clip was something i wasn't ready for. It was done so last min and little pressure just fun. So grateful it has brought a lot of people joy to watch and connect to the video and us girls. I really can't believe it went this Viral. I'm definitely going to leave this in 2015 but i definitely would like to address something to make it clear before i do. If you know me personally or have worked with me before you will know that i LOVE dancehall and have such a huge respect and passion for it. A lot of my routines before sorry have been inspired by dancehall, you can see all over youtube...Mek it bunx up, whine & kotch can see i am heavily inspired by it. A lot of my close friends are dancehall teachers and i took a lot of my year this year learning about it because i love it so much. So when this Justin Bieber opportunity came along i thought it would be perfect to showcase dancehall inspiration in a commercial video clip to bring more LIGHT to Dancehall. Unfortunately people are reading so deep and misunderstanding the whole situation and creation of this clip.”

It’s nice to know that my culture helped to inspire Goebel’s dancing, but it would have been even better to give us the actual credit before she got called out and jumped to defend herself. Just imagine how easy it would have been to slip in the phrase “dancehall-inspired” in discussions about the “Sorry” video (you know, like in a certain Rolling Stone interview). As with many artist interviews, the opportunity was presented to Goebel to shed light on a culture that many listeners likely aren't aware of. To say I was surprised it didn’t happen would be a lie.

Drake's another part of the conversation about dancehall's erasure, as the Toronto native—whose city has a large West Indian population—has made his love for the genre clear since the 2010 “Find Your Love” video, featuring Mavado. Drizzy's fascination grew when he met one of the genre’s most popular singjays, Popcaan, whose 2013 “Unruly Rave” video was an OVO production.

Drake made a cameo in Popcaan’s “Unruly Prayer” in 2015, then riddled his If You’re Reading This It's Too Late mixtape with Popcaan influences. Popcaan's voice actually shows up on “Know Yourself” and “No Tellin,'" dropping an "OVO/Unruly" shout-out at one point. Two weeks before the tape, Drake's “wayyy-ayyy up, I feel blessed” hook on Big Sean's “Blessings” came directly from Popcaan’s “way up!” catchphrase, which has become a part of Jamaican teens’ everyday slang. Drake is also a fan of using patois slang on too many Instagram captions to count.

Most recently, Drake teamed up with Rihanna for her lead ANTI single, “Work.” Two months after Bieber’s “Sorry” video hit, Rihanna was returning to her Bajan roots. I didn't instantly love the tune, but being a longtime fan, I was excited to hear she'd gone back. It seemed other writers felt the same, with the reviews rapidly pouring in. (Rihanna drops a new song, the music industry goes mad. Duh.) 

There was one write-up that didn’t sit well. In one of their first tweets about the song, Rolling Stone described “Work” as “tropical house–flavored.” I responded: 

The publication changed its description from “tropical house–flavored” to “dancehall-inspired” in the original article; it was a simple but impactful research error.

The ignorance surrounding Rihanna’s “Work” single didn’t stop there. Upon the song’s release, unaware writers and listeners were quick to call the vocals “gibberish”—not realizing (or caring to realize) that Rihanna is actually throwing on heavier accented inflections and speaking her interpretation of patois, a dialect spoken in many Caribbean countries. More specifically, she is singing in Jamaican patois (albeit very loosely and slurred). Patois has made its way through pop culture over the past two decades—from Sean Paul’s music takeover heyday in the early 2000s to rappers sampling its sounds in their music. (See: A big portion of Kanye West’s YeezusKendrick Lamar’s “The Blacker The Berry,” Travis Scott’s “Impossible".)

So what made “Work” any different? Rihanna has musically placed her heritage in the forefront many times before—try her first two albums, or Rated R’s “Rude Boy,” or Loud’s “Man Down,” or Unapologetic’s “No Love Allowed." And "Work" openly derives from Jamaican influences. It’s produced by Kingston-born Boi-1-da and co-written by PartyNextDoor, who's Jamaican and Trinidadian. Rihanna chose to sing in that (toned-down) Jamaican dialect rather than her native Bajan creole, and she's doing it alongside a sample of Jamaican singer Richie Stephens’ 1998 “Sail Away” riddim.

With “Work” currently in its fourth week at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, a dancehall resurgence is either on the horizon, or Rihanna’s fans are just that die-hard. Either way, it's equally important to keep the conversation going about dancehall’s impact on current music trends, instead of wiping its strong identity away with misinformed YouTube covers

My culture's ready to be recognized in the mainstream; the days of dancehall as a meme need to end.