Dancehall: The global force

This is an edited version of a speech given by Professor Hope at the recent launch of the dancehall show New Rules, featuring deejay Alkaline, set for the National Stadium on July 2.

My words come from many perspectives. That of a university professor, researcher, author and mentor, a media commentator, and intermittent talk show host, and also as a Jamaican woman hailing from the working classes of St Catherine, and a lifelong fan and supporter of dancehall.

For me, dancehall culture has provided openings and opportunities for young men and women from Jamaica’s working classes, from the garrisons and ghettoes, to shine and soar.

Connected to the core of Jamaican identity, dancehall, as both culture and music, continues to uplift many from the cages of poverty and lack to which this society has confined them.

Dancehall has created, and continues to create, kings and queens and superstars. So, as we found in the dancehall violence research conducted in 2010, many young people aspire to work in the dancehall industry to be an artiste or a manager because they understand clearly the importance and value of this culture and music. Many young men, spanning several generations, have drummed out beats on the backs of chairs and desks at primary and high school as they articulate their desires to be the next dancehall artiste to buss. The critical connections between Jamaican music and society remain stronger than ever. Dancehall culture carries the hopes and dreams, the fears and fantasies and the unfulfilled desires of many young and not so young Jamaicans.

As a globally renowned music and culture, dancehall’s fans, creators, and innovators now cut across every continent, impacting youth in diverse places.

This launch of the long-awaited return of New Rules highlights all these connections and more. As you will recall, plans were way advanced in March 2020 for the second staging of New Rules at the National Stadium when COVID-19 came to Jamaica and shut everything down. Since that time, New Rules has been hosted in Miami and New York. Many of us recall that first staging in 2017, including the jam-packed venue and the intense waves of excitement and adulation that came from the approximately 30,000 fans in attendance.

The impressive growth and professional development of Jamaica’s music product, in this instance dancehall, is often a talking point in boardrooms, lecture halls, and seminars, far removed from the street parties, stage shows, and studios where the music makes its first mark on many. There are plans, proposals, and projects that speak to the life and work of many in the industry, which make very little mark on their real lives or careers. Yet, what I have called the dancehall ecosystem continues to thrive and provide sustenance for many and, in some instances, the good life, a great life, for some. We see it all around us.

New Rules is an important contemporary example of the value of dancehall as an entertainment product. It stands as a critical component of the creative industries that we spend so much time talking about here in Jamaica. Indeed, all the associated brands, oriented around one “Man Himself”, showcases the creativity and savoir faire of a highly professional team that is in sync with the connections between the music, the society, and the culture, both globally and nationally.

We have long moved beyond the time when an artiste’s music, his songs, are the sole product of the creative ethos that pushed him into the public eye in the first place. The Vendetta brand is oriented not just around the Alkaline music in all its forms, digital and otherwise, but also around the Detta clothing lines (New Rules Merch, Sell Off collection, Top Prize merch, etc), the Alkaline Foundation, New Rules Festival, and more. This is the evolution of dancehall as a global entertainment product that incorporates multiple income streams.

Today, cresting on the waves of millions of fans across the world, an artiste, like Alkaline, navigates the interconnected strands of a dancehall brand that is rich with potential, holding out the promise of both fame and fortune.

The Pricewaterhouse Coopers’ four-year Entertainment and Media Outlook for 2022-2026 tells us that digital music-streaming subscriptions are driving growth in the recorded music sector, where revenues are forecast to rise from US$36.1 billion in 2021 to US$45.8 billion in 2026. This is a multi-billion dollar industry that connects back to the edgy and contemporary dancehall music and culture. The same dancehall music and culture that makes the rounds of the streets and byways of life here in Jamaica. More than ever before, the potential for monetising the dancehall brand beyond the local ecosystem is at its highest point. How do we benefit as a Jamaica that has gifted the world more than six music forms?

Youth culture, married to the exciting and sometimes taboo outpourings of popular music culture sits at the nexus of today’s dancehall music and culture and it is here that we must connect the dots. The relevance of dancehall as an in-demand entertainment product for export globally is undisputed and so there is a critical need for all stakeholders to balance the culture with the sometimes competing needs of global culture. One important aspect of this is to provide opportunities to educate and support entertainment professionals as entrepreneurs in the space, to provide them with the tools and the knowledge to empower themselves and their teams as they navigate local, regional, and global networks.

At The University of the West Indies, my department, the Institute of Caribbean Studies, offers a bachelor of arts degree in entertainment and cultural enterprise management. Pioneered more than a decade and a half ago, this programme provides young people with both skills and information that prepare them to work as trained professionals in our entertainment sector in a variety of capacities. Every Reggae Month, the Jamaica Reggae Industry Association (JaRIA) provides a variety of seminars and panel discussions with local and global entertainment and music industry professionals and insiders free of charge. The university hosts the Global Reggae Conference, where researchers, artistes, professionals, and others network, debate, and theorise on the varied aspects of culture, music, and entertainment.

One other critical aspect is the sharing of information, of course, within limits. You can’t give away the keys to the city that you have earned. But I must underscore this because many times we call on artistes, producers, and team members in dancehall culture to share with people who are not yet a part of the industry and they hesitate. It is in the sharing with others who are not yet a part of the industry that you build networks beyond the ones that you already have. And so when my students want to bond with an artiste, they want to learn about the artiste. These young people, your fans, your supporters, those who carry the industry on their backs, are also interested in being beneficiaries of the knowledge you have, and let me say this knowledge does not reside only in a high-level degree from a university.

Today, Jamaica’s dancehall product stands as a global musical force that connects with the society at home but moves outwards to stretch its tentacles across every single continent. It reaches outward, through music, dance, fashion, attitude, style, slang, and brings back home a growing wave of fans, researchers, and interested parties from all over the world. It is this connection to the world that positions dancehall as a critical and very rich product for global export. Everybody wants a piece offa wi. Indeed, each time I recall fondly my first trip to the TopUp Dancehall Dance Camp in Berlin, Germany, in May 2016, Alkaline’s song City always comes to mind. City was almost the theme song for that three-day event, played at every party, every rave, and during every dance class and activity. It was on every playlist. The Man Himself loomed large. Every single time I hear City, I am transported back to Berlin, to Yaam Club and to the moments spent under the warm embrace of Jamaican dancehall music and culture surrounded by Europeans. Berlin is still my favourite European city. Dancehall is my forever soundtrack.

Today, Alkaline remains one of Jamaica’s top dancehall artistes with millions of fans worldwide. As Reggaeville tells us, in 2021, Alkaline was among the top 3 most-streamed Jamaican artistes on YouTube, amassing just about 61 million views and plays. He is also one of the top-streamed Jamaican artistes on Spotify. In highlighting the global value of the dancehall brand and style, Alkaline’s music and fashion were heavily featured by Givenchy last Wednesday on the haute Paris runway during the first major collection of Paris Fashion Week’s menswear season.

Reports say that Alkaline’s music and personal style served as an inspiration to designer Matthew M Williams’ first stand-alone menswear show since being appointed in 2020.

Songs like After All appeared on the Instagram pages of Givenchy and Williams, and other songs, like My Side of the Story and One More Time, were featured during the presentation of the collection. These are the kinds of interconnections and networks that position and reposition not just Alkaline and his brand, but moreso dancehall music and culture as a global brand.

With a loyal fan base of Vendetta fans from day one, a committed and top-notch team working to monetise his brand, the only way to go is up for Alkaline. As we look ahead to New Rules Jamaica 2022, we must also look ahead to the growth and continued development of Jamaica’s entertainment product and to the rewards and successes that lie just ahead.

Donna P Hope, PhD is professor of culture, gender and society at the Mona campus of The University of the West Indies. A staunch advocate for Jamaica’s popular music, she has been a global representative for Jamaican music and culture in the print and electronic media, and on many academic and popular stages globally.

Professor Donna Hope

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