Out There Without Fear: Jamaica's Dancehall

Out There Without Fear: Jamaica's Dancehall

Sunday, May 24, 2020

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Joelle Powe is an aspiring Jamaican anthropologist in her third year of university at Bard College in New York who believes that for almost half-a-century, Jamaica's dancehall dancers have been observing and interpreting the world through dance. She cites the over 1,000 named dancehall moves today that are connected to some national or world event, or an aspect of Jamaican culture, as a point of reference. “Many of these dance moves have travelled around the world,” she opines.

Not one just to bemoan a situation she's created a documentary, Out There Without Fear: Jamaica's Dancehall, which spotlights the cultural impact of dancehall dancers and the challenge to be recognised at home and abroad despite the widespread influence of their art.

Style Observer (SO), never one to feign indifference to the tenacity of youth, shares an exclusive interview

Style Observer (SO): What inspired you to make Out There Without Fear: Jamaica's Dancehall?

Joelle Powe (JP): I was inspired to create Out There Without Fear: Jamaica's Dancehall because of my own fascination with the creative processes of dancehall dancing. Dancers take their inspiration from everyday life: the news, the suffering and the extraordinary. I was frustrated by the limited amount of free, online academic material and educational films dedicated to this unique dance form. For hip hop, tango, and flamenco, there is an abundance of online resources available to provide a deep understanding of the histories and important promoters of the art. As a budding anthropologist, I wanted to contribute to the online documentation and analysis of dancehall dance by creating an accessible, provocative, and educational film.

SO: Why is it important for Jamaica to archive its cultural heritage?

JP: Marcus Garvey said that “a people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots”. As a post-colonial society, it is important for us to write our own stories. In the past, colonisers took photos of us and produced historical records without consulting any of our ancestors. As an independent nation, it is our responsibility to rise to the task of writing the narrative.

SO: Who are you pitching this documentary to?

JP: This documentary is for Jamaican nationals and Jamaicans at heart everywhere. If something about our history, culture, or our movement touches you, then you will find things of interest in this story. Corporate Jamaica should use more dancehall dancers for advertisements. Tourist organisations should recognise this special dance culture and the role it has played in positioning Kingston as a global tourist attraction. The US government should give more visas to our dancers. Our dancehall dancers should be appreciated for the incredible art form they have birthed to the nation and the world. Aspiring scholars should actively seek to create materials for the global public to consume.

SO: How long has this project been in the making?

JP: It has been nine months in the making. I first applied to Bard College's Community Action Award for funding in April 2019. In the summer of 2019, I spent two months at Adtelligent in Jamaica developing the script and working through the first rough draft of the film. The first two weeks were spent hunting down all the dancehall celebrities and scholars while learning video editing software, and writing the story. Two weeks to collate the raw footage for the documentary, the other eight months while at college, I worked with Adtelligent's team to edit. Part-time project; full-time passion. I now know what I want to do with the rest of my life: Create an anthropological record through books and film of the Jamaican experience.

SO: What, if any, pitfalls did you encounter?

JP: Being a young woman touring the dancehall parties at all hours of the night created a few concerns with my close family. The Adtelligent camera crew and I attended several dancehall sessions with two secret bodyguards. When there weren't actually bodyguards, there were older cousins, parents, and relatives.

Raising money for the film was a challenge. I applied for many grants and got rejected. Finally, I earned funding from the Trustee Leader Scholar Program and the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College. I also took several jobs to raise my own funds. “Every mickle makes a muckle”. Adtelligent was gracious enough to supply a part-time team with camera equipment. But, I had to build extensive relationships in the field and convince many sceptical players that participating in the effort was worth their while. Difficult to do when you have no budget to pay.

As a first-time documentarian with no track record, my dreams of Sean Paul, Ding Dong, L'Antoinette Stines, Mutabaruka, and Chi Ching Ching went unfulfilled. I was particularly disappointed that I was not able to successfully solicit Dr Sonjah Stanley Niaah, the author of Dancehall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto, as this book drove much of my intellectual curiosity for dancehall. As a documentarian, however, you learn to work with what you have.

The shooting schedule was very tight because I was at the mercy of Adtelligent's professional schedule, so my shooting days were limited. We went from Latonya Style's Dance Jamaica to the Institute of Jamaica to see Herbie Miller, and after that, we hit the road for Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts to hear from dance advocate Maria Hitchins, all in one day. We took a rest and spent the night at Stone Love's Weddy Weddy Wednesdays. For about two weeks I barely slept, working side-by-side with my chief video editor, Richard Stewart, as we made critical decisions about the overall direction of the documentary and individual scenes. When it was time for me to return to New York for college, we still weren't done. I spent the next few months juggling school and the film.

SO: How does this all resonate vis--vis COVID-19?

JP: Looking back at the images from last summer makes it clear that dancehall culture stands in opposition to the pandemic's required social distancing. It is unfortunate that due to health restrictions, a large sector of the dancehall economy has collapsed. The return of dancehall will therefore represent a kind of cultural renaissance. It will indicate that we can now intermingle without fear. The emergence of dancehall culture, the coming together of dancers, fanatic European tourists, the coupling up on the dance floor, and night events extending well into the morning will symbolically represent the death of COVID-19. When Weddy Weddy Wednesdays at Stone Love reopens, it means we have overcome the pandemic as a nation. I will be there as a witness doing my victory w'ine.

Even now, dancehall has produced songs and dances responding to the pandemic. Ding Dong's Inside is an example of this. These new materials show dancehall's creative impetus is always to draw from what is happening now, so the creativity will never stall.

SO: And your final takeaway?

JP: I encountered many extraordinary people I would not have met under normal circumstances whose rich stories have enriched my life forever. The intellectual breadth and depth of Carolyn Cooper and Herbie Miller was astounding. The creativity of Latonya Style coupled with her sense of humour was a special point in the project. The incredible energy of Colo-Colo was so infectious that even when I wanted to give up from exhaustion, I couldn't. Kool Kid was my special guide who introduced me to a world that I had never seen. I will always remember Maria Hitchins' commitment to advocating for dancers. Hers is a strident and powerful voice. Special thanks to Shari Williams for her contributions.

I owe an incredible debt of gratitude to Craig Powe and the Adtelligent team for their creativity, discipline, structure, leadership, and support in making Out There Without Fear: Jamaica's Dancehall. I could not have done this without them.

Editor's Note: Joelle Powe's next project is an auto-ethnographic story about the COVID-19 pandemic in Jamaica.

The premiere of Out There Without Fear: Jamaica's Dancehall can be viewed on YouTube Today, Sunday, May 24 @ 3:00 pm. Find the link by visiting @Adtelligent on Facebook.


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