KINGSTON, Jamaica — In 2016, Yellow Pages coverage paralyzed Jamaica. For the Kingston and St. Andrews editions of the repertoire, three artists were commissioned to create works of art showcasing the Jamaican people engaging in certain musical genres that the nation had spawned: ska, reggae and dancehall. However, one cover was the catalyst for conversation: painter Lennox Coke’s colorful scene celebrating the energetic liveliness of dancehall. In shades of blue and purple with splashes of orange and yellow, Coke depicted Jamaicans gathered in a dance hall outfitted with towering sound system speakers, as a DJ spun a record and a man in a set of flaming tangerines clinked glasses beside him.
The response was alarming. One organization in particular, the Jamaican Coalition for a Healthy Society, questioned whether or not this was an appropriate representation of Jamaicans for a book that was to be widely distributed. But such is the gift of dancehall: its mere presence reveals once quiet, hushed, or insidious thoughts about the people who engage and create possibilities from the world it constructs.
Dancehall both provides and elicits social commentary. We can analyze artists’ lyrics to discern the social climate of a particular socioeconomic class in Jamaica, but we can largely gauge what people think of its practitioners and players from their own implicit biases. The exhibition Cyah Stall: Dancehall Aesthetics, Language & Resistance, presented at CreativSpace in Kingston earlier this year, sought to undermine the reductive narratives that dancehall’s most outspoken dissidents have attributed to it through contemporary artists’ engagement and interpretation with gender and culture. Organized by the new artistic initiative Blaqmango Consultants, the title of the exhibition is inspired by the lyrics of the galvanizing single “Dancehall” by Vybz Kartel in 2016 and evokes the bold omnipresence of dancehall in the fabric of Jamaican society.
“One of the things the exhibit does is challenge perceptions of what dancehall should be and should be,” explained co-curator Dr. Winston Campbell. “[Cyah Stall] is an authentic display of dancehall but it’s family-friendly and it sends a message that dancehall as a culture, as a brand, as a term, shouldn’t be ostracized and pushed into a corner.
Since its inception in the late 1970s, dancehall has been considered the voice of Jamaica’s ghettos. His raw, unfiltered account of life’s aspirations and realities made him unpopular among the country’s elite and religious populations. Named after dance halls, informal sites where people gathered to dance with custom-made loudspeakers, it is both a genre of music and a subculture.
Inextricably linked to this subculture is its syntax. In Samantha Hay’s works “Bere Vibes” (2022), “Pop Style” (2022), and “Hot Steppa” (2022), phrases popularized by lyrics used in the genre are etched into recycled cardboard. The works reflect the vibrancy of Jamaican Patwah, as does the set of printed illustrations by Achim Clunis and handmade wooden phrases and words that draw inspiration from the dancehall vernacular. Although the Caribbean is not often associated with typography, that of Clunis is a direct extension of the region’s own growing collection in a vein similar to that of Negril-based sign painter Nurse.
Speaking of Hay, Campbell shared: “The work reminds me of how the language and expressions we hear in dancehall culture [are] often divorced from the Jamaican narrative. He is seen as other. He is seen as separate. It is considered unsophisticated. In many cases, some people, based on their actions and statements, give the impression that Jamaica can do without [them].” Although Patwah is the widely spoken language on the island, Jamaican Standard English (JSE) is the country’s official language. The negative associations that a segment of the population holds regarding the perceived unintelligence of Patwah and the use of JSE in hospitals, courts, or other civic institutions have made its replacement difficult; however, linguists have long rallied to make it a reality. Among the objectives of the Cyah Stall was to celebrate the language and remind viewers how it works in tandem with dancehall music and culture.
It’s only fitting that Coke’s work be featured in Cyah Stall. “What Lennox has really facilitated is the continued acceptance of dancehall in spaces not traditionally associated with the culture,” Campbell said.
For its contribution, Coke highlighted dancehall musicians, DJs and dancers. In the acrylic painting “Dancehall Galaxy” (2017), four artists – Popcaan, Alkaline, Mavado and Vybz Kartel – stand against a dark sky, almost like genre gods, orbited by vinyl records that seem to reflect planets. Coke’s work is a bold statement on the global influence of artists, genre and culture despite their marginalization in Jamaica.
Dancehall is not without criticism, and Cyah StallCurators were aware of its complex mechanics. Like any other genre of music and the subcultures they influence, dancehall is always laden with discriminatory themes like sexism and homophobia, but the exhibition showcased the art of dancehall with care and intention, which was all the more important as it was staged in February, the month of reggae in Jamaica – a genre that is considered relatively more palatable. “Dancehall culture is an important aspect of the Jamaican experience,” Campbell told me. “Other [exhibitions] that are going tend to focus more on a sanitized version of our Jamaican popular culture, a reggae aesthetic. That’s not to say dancehall isn’t part of that aesthetic, but depending on who you talk to, it’s an aspect of the aesthetic best left in the private realm or better in certain less accessible geographies. . We were strategic in trying to bring the dancehall [to the] center.”