In recent weeks I have been exposed to a number of Internet and newspaper articles and discussions that include so many different descriptions and definitions of Dancehall they would make anyone’s head spin. The definitions vary depending on whether you are a young newly exposed Jamaican music enthusiast or a foreigner in some far away country. Our inability to accurately define this very vibrant and valuable aspect of Jamaican culture, is another example of what happens when we fail to treat local music and entertainment as a structured business. Unfortunately, we may very well have to contend with this dilemma of informality for quite some time, as it appears that some of the biggest promoters of Dancehall are of the view that Dancehall by nature can only thrive in an unstructured environment. I however beg to differ on that point.
As far as I am aware, the term Dancehall was first used to describe the venue where dances were kept in Jamaica several decades ago. It is also my understanding that over time this definition has evolved to become the description of a new music genre derived from Reggae around the mid 1980s. I spent 12 years of my music business career managing and working very closely with producers Steely and Clevie who are recognized as the pioneers in the production of the rhythms that characterized Dancehall as a music genre. I therefore subscribe to the definition of Dancehall as a new genre derived from Reggae. There is ongoing debate however between many of our established musicians as to whether there is in fact a difference between Reggae and Dancehall as music genres. Some say Reggae and Dancehall are one and the same, while others argue that they are different music genres, in very much the same way that Ska is different from Mento. Today Dancehall has also been used as a term to describe the lifestyle that is identified with this new “branch” of Reggae, hence we have Dancehall culture.
Jamaica has had a very rich tradition in popular music that has gained the attention of persons all over the world. Over the past 60 years our music has evolved, primarily through African, Rastafarian and North American influences, to create recognizable genres such as Mento, Ska, Rock Steady, Reggae and arguably now Dancehall. Despite this, we have failed to take the lead in clearly defining our music forms, resulting in today’s confusion about what is Dancehall. I even read where someone described all Jamaican music created over the past 60 years as Dancehall music.
Our failure to clearly and consistently define and present to the wider global audience what we have created musically, has allowed others to categorize us as they see fit. I have very vivid memories of an attempt a few years ago by the Grammy committee to remove Sean Paul from the Reggae Grammy category and place him in the Rap category. This move was however stopped through a petition signed by several persons actively involved in the Reggae music business. Our failure to define what we have created in Dancehall has also allowed other top international artists such as R Kelly, Rihanna, Beyonce and others to perform our musical genre and call it pop and/or R&B. As someone said in one of those articles I mentioned earlier, Jamaicans need to wake up and smell the Blue Mountain Coffee.