Daggerin’ and the Dancehall: The Politics of Representation

From all appearances, Daggerin’ has gone global and members of the international press are very much interested in covering it. Between the BBC and NEWSWEEK.com and also Youtube, there is no want of international attention on this issue. In fact, I too was recently solicited for an interview from a writer from NEWSWEEK.com. I was invited to speak in my capacity as a ‘writer/ critic’ (blogger) of Dancehall, from the ‘inside’. Unfortuantely, however, we seemed unable to coordinate our schedules. In between returned Facebook messages and phone calls by me, the story went to press without my inputs.

The article was an interesting account of the Daggerin’ dance phenomenon in Jamaica and also gave some implications for how the male sex organ may be damaged during these high voltage and very physical performances, as well as gestured to poverty here. A number of Jamaican sources, as well as one American doctor from Baylor Medical Centre were cited. The range of perspectives included known academics, to sound system operators and at least one other blogger. Entitled: ‘Really, Really Dirty Dancing: More On Daggering’ (http://blog.newsweek.com/blogs/thehumancondition/archive/2009/06/08/really-really-dirty-dancing-more-on-daggering.aspx), the narrative focussed on the dance form as especially sexy and provocative.

The story also highlighted some other key issues, primary among them the fact that Jamaica has, increasingly, come to be regarded in the international media as a (very) stratified society, in which concerns about class and access have very real implications for how the society works. Indeed, insofar as the author moves between the various sources referenced, shows what is potentially the very complex nature of Dancehall in Jamaica and, quite possibly, Jamaican culture, itself.

Still, there is a very real question which came to mind head after I read the story. What is the objective of the message regarding the stratified nature of Jamaican society and ultimately, the story? Is it aimed at highlighting the imbalances, in terms of how that presents Government with real obstacles for solving crime, or for that matter increasing the education budget and the levels of access which are had by those at the lowest levels in the system?

Or, could it be that by drawing attention to the stratified nature of Jamaica, it also highlights how the economy seems to be stagnating, even before the the current fallouts caused by the contraction of the world economy, globally? If so, then there are ideal opportunities for a discussion about Dancehall and its role in Jamaica, at this time.

If not, then there is need to further contextualise Dancehall and the phenomenon of Daggerin’, by extension; in part, because acts of representation are almost always political, especially those involving sex and sexuality. It behooves us ‘insiders’, then, to continue this very important dialogue, in an effort to widen out the discussion from just a narrow focus on sex and, in particular, damaged male organs, poverty and crime. After all, there is more to Jamaica than just this. Isn’t there?

The explanations offered, not so much in the story itself, but by some of the sources referenced regarding poverty in Jamaica, did not sufficiently interrogate the significance of that reality for Jamaican culture, or for that the culture of the ‘masses’. How is Dancehall produced and what does it mean for Jamaica’s own development as a ‘middle income country’, according to the designation of some multi-lateral lending agencies? Are those even applicable questions in this context?

Also curious is the seeming facination with the highly charged and very sexual nature of the Daggerin’ dance. This is not to suggest that Daggerin’ is not worthy of such importance as a discussion by the international press. However, it must be asked whether these media reports do not also help to reinforce a view of Jamaica as an especially sexually permissive place; where people are so destitute, marginalised and disempowered that their only means of survival is engaging in apparently lewd dances, at nights? The goal of which, it appears, is to seduce specific audiences whose main aim it also seems, is to voyeuristically consume Daggerin’ for purposes often disguised under the rhetoric of ‘research’, or even ‘curiousity’.

Why are poor, disenfranchised youth in the ghettoes of Kingston and elsewhere in Jamaica pushed to choreograph such explicit and provocative types of dances? Do these forms of entertainment have any implications for their real lives in a ‘stratified’Jamaican society? If not, then perhaps some of the bemused facination also require further exploration.

Of critical importance here, is a kind of middle-class logic which also seems bent on promoting an image of Jamaica almost as if to excuse the fact that the Daggerin’ dance not only simulates violent sex but is also very dangerous. The story did not, in my view at least, appear to give a simultaneous qualification that such dances, when consumed in a generalised context often breach codes of responsibility and civility.

Questions about the civic responsibilities of these very adult entertainers are not just about an effort to side against ‘poor people’; that is, in their push to eke out an existence, however marginal in class obsessed Jamaica. Nor is it a prudish, if not irrational attempt at controlling those who would otherwise exist in the unbridled freedoms of their sexualities, if even at the level of ritualising such liberation through dance. Indeed, whereas the over sexualisation of our children may not seem like much to frown at in the ‘dance and do what you feel like’ atmosphere which currently characterises the society, the breakdown in Jamaican family structures, over time, coupled with the ever increasing, if not alarming reports of illiteracy at particular grade levels, among other related factors should allow us pause in this discussion.

In fact, it is especially curious that most of those who would make remarks about censorship are often also able to shield their own charges from the direct effects of this kind of ‘cultural’ broadsiding, in which young girls are encouraged to dance on their heads, feet splayed wide for various men to entertain themselves with carefree abandon. Such was the opening of the Newsweek article. This is not to say, though, that this position strictly limited Jamaican middle-class notions of ‘freedom’. However, it is to make the point that, in many respects, Dancehall is very adult entertainment. A fact that is sometimes forgotten in the traditional haste to brand it, not only as popular but oppressed culture.

Beyond the health implications for broken penises and the near death defying stunts, as explained in the Newsweek story, little is mentioned about the links between dancing and the presumed permissiveness of black sexualities, historically. How does that impact questions of medical care for the growing numbers of teen pregnancies, sexual assaults and also the spread of HIV-AIDS, especially amongst economically and socially depressed communities? And, is there also a need to identify such meanings in the context of the toursim discourse of sun, sand, sea and sex for which Jamaica is known?

These issues are not just simple matters of relativising Daggerin’ with similarly licentious displays of middle-class Carnival-type ‘wining’, which itself further complicates such concerns. On the contrary, issues about Daggerin, insofar as dances like these place Jamaica in the spotlight of international attention, have very real implications for how development is considered here.

Regardless of whether Dancehall sees itself as having a crucial part to play in this conversation, however, does not change the fact that it has also achieved a kind of notoriety for which Jamaica has also become branded. As I have argued before in this forum, as well as elsewhere, there is no escaping the Dancehall’s need to rehabilitate its public image, whetherat the local and or international levels. This is, in part, because the time for matured responsibility has long been upon us.

Dancehall is one of the important ways in which international audiences think about Jamaica and Jamaican culture. The focus on the sexual permissiveness of its proponents, at the level of dance, coupled with the emphasis on homophobic violence and the general sense of mayhem often sits at odds with the ‘paradise’ motif with which Jamaica has been ubiquitously referenced in the tourism discourse of Government. Going by this conception of Dancehall alone, Jamaicans hardly seem like a serious people ready to embrace the complex realities around us and in which we also live.

On the contrary, an image of Jamaica as having a devoted penchant for extreme/ x-rated partying and also, a presumed hatred of sexual minorities, itself, characterised by constant sectoral violence/ turf wars has become part of the signifiers by which we are known, internationally. This was also referenced in the article.

The debate around Dancehall is also a discussion about where Jamaica now finds itself in the international human development indices, in many ways. This is not to suggest that, Dancehall’s producers and consumers must change, by necessity, to suit the whims of Government, insofar as it may be percieved to be failing at these responsibilities. Far from it! The marketing, production and consumption of Dancehall do not exist in isolation of other realities with which Jamaica also grapples, whether as a government and, or a nation.

Daggerin’ and other such explicit dances mask some very serious concerns about and within Jamaica; that is, if we were to look closer. Significantly more harm than good will be done to both Dancehall and Jamaica too, if this is not acknowledged as important in the inter/national narratives of awe and bemused, if not defensive ‘curiousity’ used to articulate Dancehall’s identity, whether to ourselves and or the world.

The problem is not that others write about us, but that they do not seem to either understand the realities of life here or are not as invested in doing so, necessarilly. We are obligated to pen our own histories from our own vantage points, as a result! Failure to do so will, undoubtedly, be a very costly mistake later on up the road! Such is the nature of representations of this kind, which are never without their accompanying and intractable politics.


5 thoughts on “Daggerin’ and the Dancehall: The Politics of Representation

  1. Raw Politics, the last paragraph of your excellent analysis regarding Dance Hall, Daggerin and The Politics of Representation is extremely apropos and poignant. Nuff respect!!


    1. Again, thank-you for your kind words! The reality is that the act of representing others almost, always has a political element to it, which clearly needs to be considered in this conversation about Daggerin’ and Jamaican Dancehall popular culture. The elision of the complexities of Jamaican society in the report by the Newsweek writer suggests this. If we do not put out our own positions from our own vantage points and tell and in the process rebrand the way the world sees us, whether through Dancehall or elsewhere, will be to our longterm detriment!

      Thanks, again for your comments! Much appreciated!


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