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Kingston's creative city and the dancehall ecosystem

Donna Hope

Thursday, September 26, 2019

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In December 2015, Kingston was one of 47 cities added to UNESCO's list of Creative Cities. The specific designation was for music, one of the categories recognised by UNESCO. While Jamaica, and Kingston in particular, can boast creative activities in film, literature, the culinary arts, and others, none of these stand at the level of music, with its more than half a century of activity.

During this time, Jamaica has gifted the world eight distinct genres of music, including mento, ska, rocksteady, reggae, dub, and dancehall. Kingston is the music capital of the entire region and is more than worthy of this designation. But this notion of a creative city is a 21st century concept.

The idea, coming from Charles Landry and his advocates, is that old ways of thinking and living have to give way to new ways of thinking and urban living. Old things have to be made new. This new creative city is an inclusive, participatory space in which the means to making a living is through culture and creativity. Nowhere has this been more evident in the 21st century than in what I call dancehall's ecosystem.

This urban ecosystem, founded squarely on a culture of chaos and noise, has continued to clash with ideas of the city as a primarily residential location, where creative and commercial activities take pride of place over the needs of residents for undisturbed peace and quiet.

Dancehall's ecosystem hinges on the heart of the urban centre of Kingston (read as Kingston and St Andrew). It operates in direct opposition to the 9:00 am to 5:00 pm dictates of the approved weekly timeline on the Monday to Friday workweek. When many people from the formal structures are retiring to bed this dancehall ecosystem shakes itself awake and begins its long vigil, usually from just about midnight to 5:00 or 6:00 am and beyond.

Its tentacles stretch outwards from the greater Kingston Metropolitan Area into Portmore, goes deeper into St Catherine and St Ann, and moves west into St James. It also curves across St Catherine into parts of Clarendon and beyond. And the direct connections between Kingston and St Thomas are very strong.

This dancehall ecosystem is the purest form of organic creativity inside of Kingston's Creative City of music. It developed out of the efforts of ordinary men and women who found a way to make a living from music and culture when other avenues were closed off or simply non-existent.

The 21st century version of this activity was heralded by the first wave of weekly dancehall events in 2003 with the now-defunct Passa Passa Wednesdays — a popular street dance held in the heart of West Kingston. The legacy and success of the model of Rae Town Sundays was clearly marked across this newer dancehall version, and the successive replicas that it spawned along the weekly calendar. These include Weddy Weddy Wednesdays, the longest-surviving (since 2005) at Stone Love's Burlington Avenue headquarters; Wet Sundays; Boom Sundays; Bounti Sundays; Mojito Mondays; Uptown Mondays; Sexy Tuesdays; Boasy Tuesdays; Magnum/Fantasy Wednesdays; All-Star Thursdays; Wappings Thursdays; and Day Rave Thursdays.

The current discussions around dancehall's calendar of weekly music events, and its chaotic role inside of Kingston and other urban centres, have hinged on the interplay between the livelihood of the individuals involved and the role that the application of the Noise Abatement Act of 1997 (along with other related pieces of legislation) play in managing their creative endeavours. In short, there has been a significant outcry about the Act being used to erode or permanently erase this livelihood and the impact it will have on ordinary people.

But who are the individuals and/or groups involved in this ecosystem? Aside from the foregoing weekly events which are (and were) the nexus around which this thriving ecosystem developed and flourished, there are several interconnected groups within this network. One very critical and very contemporary group is the massive and expanding wave of dancehall dancers. The post-millennial explosion in dancehall dancers, dance groups, dance troupes, and brand-name dancers with their popular dance moves is tightly connected to dancehall's contemporary ecosystem. Usain Bolt showcased his own understanding of the value of both these events and the dancers in the centre multiple times over at weekly dancehall events like Uptown Mondays, but moreso at the 2008 Olympics when he danced on a global platform to celebrate his and Jamaica's dominance in sports and culture.

On December 6, 2017, at the Prime Minister's Youth Awards for Excellence, Andrew Holness performed the 'Fling Yuh Shoulder' dance with the Ravers Clavers dancers to celebrate the award won by Chevoy “Kool Ravers” Grant for culture. Earning the title of “Andrew Ravers” for his dance prowess, Prime Minister Holness simultaneously revalued the new wave of dancehall dancing and further highlighted the Ravers Clavers and “Ding Dong” (dancer-turned-artiste) as worthy of recognition and support.

Unlike that “Andrew Ravers” moment, the rise to fame of many dancers inside this dancehall ecosystem is usually tightly connected to how they can showcase their moves at the weekly dancehall events, and then be highlighted on the live and archived videos of these events on social media and elsewhere. Popular groups include Dance Xpressionz Family, Elite Team, Rifical Team, Xklusiv Dancers, Hectic Dymondz, MOB Dancers, DanceJa Academy Family, Sopreme Blazaaz, Get There Squad, Overmarz Dancers, BGB Dancers, and too many others to list in this article. Some of them have been showcased on or work closely with Dancing Dynamites or the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission's World Reggae Dance Championships. More importantly, dancers usually make the rounds at these weekly events, earning money from their talent, gaining opportunities to tour locally and abroad, or to be showcased in music videos. They provide entertainment and hype at the weekly events and create a true dancehall spectacle that keeps the events booming.

Official figures from the Ministry of Tourism for 2018 show that a total of 89,500 Airbnb guests were reported in Jamaica, with hosts receiving an average of US$2,600 per year from these guests. My research conversations with many repeat dancehall tourists who began arriving in Jamaica since 2010 and beyond suggest that a high percentage of these Airbnb stays can be attributed to visitors from Europe, Asia, USA, and Latin America, who come to Jamaica to enjoy dancehall culture along its various contours all throughout the year.

Accommodations such as the Dancehall Hostel and Belleh House are directly connected to this dancehall ecosystem. These and other less-formalised locations provide not just housing and transportation, but also organise dancehall and culture tours, including structured visits to the weekly calendar of dancehall events. Today, many of these visitors many of them dancers, dance teachers and tour organisers have been to Jamaica six to eight times or more, some of them twice in one year. For many, Jamaica has become a second home and dancehall their stage. What is now the norm is that they bring others with them, often on organised tours of some six to 25 people, even more. These tours are variously titled: Jamaica Culture Trip, Jamaican Dancehall Trip, Dancehall Camp, among many other names.

Growing out of this local-global connection between the events and dancehall dancers, Jamaica's two first dancehall dance studios DanceJa Academy (Latonya Styles) and Dance Xpressionz Studios (Orville Xpressionz Hall, et al) opened their doors in Kingston in 2012. In 2018, Kimiko “Versatile” Miller also opened her Versatile Studios in Kingston. All three provide a variety of options for dancehall tourists, and locals, including dance classes, tours, lectures, events, and opportunities to learn Jamaican creole, sample local cuisine, and visit heritage and popular cultural locations.

Photographers and videographers are another group who are connected to this ecosystem. Aside from the enterprising photographer with his mobile printer-ready set-up to provide you with hard copy colour photographs at most dancehall events, there are a variety of social media-connected photography/video entities that are closely connected to the dancehall ecosystem, including Q Dazzle Photography, Foster Shots Photography, Vee Fashion Studios, Ten Fi Ten Photos, Rokin Entertainment, among others.

Then there are the fashion houses/vendors who sell the standardised, imported clothing that has become par for the course for costuming and clothing options for many dancehall actors. The erosion of Jamaica's custom-made fashion culture also exists inside dancehall, and long gone are the days of brand-name fashion designers who would “build a suit” or outfit for these parties and other events. These fashion houses — many operating through social media platforms — are also connected to the wig and hair vendors, the hair stylists, aestheticians, nail technicians, those who take care of eyelashes and eyebrows, with or without a formal establishment. Nonetheless, in this informal ecosystem, many individuals can ply their trade and make a living.

Vendors remain another critical component of this ecosystem. Following on a long tradition of the informal economy that is tied to Jamaica's music, these men and women can be seen at the weekly events selling food, beverages, soup, marijuana, cigarettes, lighters, and more. They do this six to seven nights each week, many following the daily and weekly calendar of events. What this means is that many of the individuals whose wares are mobile enough would be seen at Sexy Tuesdays and then turn up at the later party, Boasy Tuesdays, to continue plying their trade until the early hours of the next morning, then return home to prepare for their day jobs, and/or to take care of their families.

Other groups, including dancehall artistes (especially veterans), modellers, taxi drivers, sound system operators, promoters, producers, publicists, radio disc jocks, popular TV entertainment shows, songwriters, studios, and many others round out the main parts of this dancehall ecosystem. They all plug into and populate the wider economy of Kingston's nightlife.

Kingston is Jamaica's creative city of music. The understanding and expectation, therefore, are that it will host a variety of activities related to music culture. Thus, we must underscore the varying activities that intersect inside of this city. Discussions have been ongoing for more than a decade as to the best way to strike a balance between Kingston's (and Jamaica's) thriving nightlife and the need that residents have for peace and quiet and a good night's rest. What is clear is that even with talk of entertainment zones, very little progress has been made to date.

If Kingston is to remain a creative city of music then its indigenous musical output must also be taken into consideration. Here, there must be greater understanding of the richness of this dancehall ecosystem, whose surface I have skimmed. This will hopefully help to ensure that, where possible, it is seamlessly connected.

Many large cities (eg, Amsterdam; London; New York; Washington, DC) have had to elect night mayors (aka night czars, directors of nightlife and culture etc) to act as bridge builders, liaisons between nightlife businesses and government agencies. The truth is that, many people who can only speak the “nightlife language” or the language of the streets often have a difficult time having their voices heard within the halls of Government, even while proper representation is needed to negotiate that grey area between nightlife and regulation. It is only fit and proper that we do the same.

The men and women who populate this dancehall ecosystem are cultural creators, creating out of chaos, who have successfully managed to develop an entire ecosystem that is thriving, organic and uniquely Jamaican. I believe that efforts must be made at all levels, across all the different sectors, to preserve as much of this ecosystem as possible, while balancing the need for others to have peace and quiet.

We should not allow this thriving ecosystem to go gently into the night without giving adequate reflection to its value, its indigenous and authentic nature, and the richness of this culture that attracts so many non-Jamaicans from all across the world, and which encourages so many to replicate their own version of a Jamaicanness in far-off and diverse places.

Donna P Hope is professor of culture, gender and society at The University of the West Indies, Mona. Send comments to the Observer o r dqueen13@hotmail.com.


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