Give me that touch
Sound system culture is a creative space in which, through dance, lyrics, music and highly gendered codes of performativity, Black men and women engage in public negotiations with each other – about desire, love, heartbreak, race, gender and sex. Yet, despite the increased presence and power of women as performers, participants and sound system practitioners, it seems that reggae sound system culture remains predominantly a masculine-governed arena in which women’s self-empowered presence is repeatedly appropriated to service the enjoyment, enhancement and validation of regulated hierarchies of Black masculinity and heterosexual gender relations. This often results in women’s feisty claims for their own creative space within sound system culture becoming the stimulus for a conversation between men that is centrally about themselves (Lewis 2013: 2; Noble 2000: 164) and their representation of authentic Blackness. So it is important to understand dancehall culture as a Black public space in which Black men and women negotiate and play with the contested norms of Black, Caribbean and national norms of race, gender and sexuality. It is also a very homosocial and phallocentric arena in which working class Black men talk and compete with each other to amass countercultural male reputation and regulate Black masculinity. Although much of this man-talk lacks critical reflectivity regarding gender and sexuality, it is nonetheless important because, as sociologist of the Caribbean, Linden Lewis notes, ‘men are constantly talking to each other, both verbally and non-verbally.
Moreover, men claim the right to speak, and speak all the time, irrespective of whether or not they are knowledgeable about their choice of topic’ (Lewis 2007: 2).
So, despite the presence and visibility of women, the dominant dis courses of sound system culture are gendered male and thus sound system culture remains a privileged site for the production of specific forms of Black masculinity, ‘homosociality’ and ‘homolatency’. The term homolatent was coined by African American scholar Moya Bailey (2013: 191), who also created the term ‘misogynoir’ (Bailey 2010) to refer to the specific kinds of anti-Black misogyny aimed at Black women within hip hop. Homolatent refers to the capacity of hip hop homosociality – that is, the way men relate to each other – to provide a space wherein Black men express their complex emotional attachments and their non-erotic love for each other. Bailey claims that this heterosexual masculine sociality is nevertheless one that often involves positioning women in a violently eroticised visual and emotional economy, one in which Black men construct homosocial worlds in which they engage in narcissistic displays for each other of hyper-masculine heterosexuality.
There are aspects of reggae sound system culture that, with the rise since the 1990s of the variously named ragga/bashment/dancehall genre of reggae, can be regarded as homolatent. Contemporary dancehall is characterised by a focus on sex, money, and rugged individualism, in contrast with both the Rastafari-inspired politically-infused roots genre that dominated reggae through the 1970s and early 80s, and the romantic sentimentality of the lovers rock genre of reggae that was also very popular in the UK at the same time. The self-defining visibility and empowered status gained by women in early ragga forms of the bashment genre appear to have given way to homolatent man-talk and a phallocentric male gaze, in which women’s claims to erotic power are increasingly appropriated by a largely heterosexual pornographic male discourse of sex and power. At the same time, we need to recognise that the global popularity of bashment reggae has intensified its complicity with neoliberalism’s commodified and hyper-individualized notions of freedom. In this context the transgressive self-fashioning and creative practices of women within sound system culture can be transformed into commodities to be traded for money, sex, reputation and celebrity status – by both men and women. Thus to be seen and valued in contemporary Jamaican reggae sound system culture often requires women to validate, or at least negotiate, the power of the men who run the arena. One way women can do this is by capturing the male gaze and thereby securing approving male attention. A woman can achieve this through a highly sexualised and commodified form of self-fashioning involving expensively groomed hair, nails, revealing clothes and proficiency in ‘wil’ing out’ – that is, performing very sexually explicit and extremely physically demanding dance moves. Increasingly, the women’s dances emanating from Jamaica require ever more risky athletic physicality, and sexual explicitness. Demanding feats of bodily contortions have become core attributes of the most celebrated dances, such as the rapid spinning of the head in the dance Dutty Wine, or the ability to move in time to the music while upside down spinning on your head, or to ‘win[d]’ your bumper‘ or buttocks as a man performs dry sex, grinding his crotch into a woman’s up-ended buttocks, as in daggering. Proficiency in these often dangerous dance moves can garner both money and celebrity for women.
Caribbean anthropologists, cultural theorists and choreographers have written about dance in the context of general discussions of dancehall culture in Jamaica (Henriques 2014; Hope 2006; Patten 2018; Stanley-Niaah 2004), but relatively little has been written about dancing in the context of UK sound system culture. As the dances primarily originate in Jamaica and are circulated through sound system culture across the transnational Caribbean and beyond, it is tempting to assume that the uses of dance are identical in Kingston, Birmingham or New York, but in relation to the UK, this would be wrong (Noble 2008). Although these dances may be toned down by the time they reach the average UK dancefloor, I have attended parties in London where women have been pressurised by groups of men to perform dances. While there is generally much light-hearted, playful sexual banter surrounding these dances, there is also an undercurrent of masochism, violence and misogyny, that indicates the sexism, phallocentricism and homolatency lurking within aspects of dancehall culture.
The raucous, risky and risqué moves of the bashment women contrast sharply with the romantic, slow, erotic couple-dancing that I remember from the parties and clubs of the 1970s and 1980s. This was a form of couple-dancing associated with the intimacy of darkened rooms and young sensuous Black bodies engaged in shared rites of erotic, loving, soothing healing on the dancefloor. Rocking rhythmically to the Jamaican reggae balladeers such as Gregory Isaacs, Freddie MacGregor, and Delroy Wilson, and the Black British lovers rock singers like Deborah Glasgow, Carole Thompson, Janet Kay and Brown Sugar, lovers rock echoed the transnational Jamaican and African diasporic sensibility of the conscious Rastafari-inspired roots genre of reggae. For sociologist Lisa Palmer, it also ‘signalled the emergence of an early Black British transnational soundscape’ in which Blackness in Britain was ‘intimately formed within the social confines of black urban settings as well as upon the outward trajectory of postcolonial and transitional forms of [B]lackness dispersed through the cultural mesh of Caribbean, Africa, and North American transatlantic flows’ (Palmer 2011: 181). One personification of this is Jean Adebambo, a mixed Montserratian/ Nigerian lovers rock singer and songwriter who found fame with Paradise in 1981 (Adebambo 1981).
Despite lovers rock’s representation as a largely female commercial genre of music, and of less political and cultural value than the masculine gendered ‘conscious’ roots reggae of the 1970s and early 80s, Palmer has argued for an understanding and appreciation of its erotic politics and how it shared a central place with roots music in the formation of British reggae sound system culture. Sound system culture’s world-making across the transnational Caribbean has always been highly gendered in its allocation of roles and value (Palmer 2011: 182). Across the transnational Caribbean the roles and skills associated with the DJ, selector, sound man and member of a sound system crew have been overwhelmingly male domains. In the British development of lovers rock as a named genre of reggae, singing romantic songs of love and heartbreak became over-represented as a female activity performed mainly by teenage female singers, such as the trio 15, 16 & 17, so named after their ages. However, in reality many male and female artistes moved between genres, for example in the early 1980s South London based singer Sister Audrey had hits with a self-penned social critique of the British Nationality Act, English Girl (1984), and a romantic cover of an old Stylistics R & B song renamed I Love You (1984). Furthermore, sentimental love songs have always been part of Jamaican sound system culture (Tafari Ama 2017) and predate the emergence of UK lovers rock in the 1980s.
As Lisa Palmer makes clear, the dialogic quality of dancehall sound system culture has always blurred these gendered demarcations, with men waiting as keenly as women for the lovers rock ‘slow wine’ tunes so they could wrap up in amorous couple-dancing, ‘where bodies would rock, rub, slide, dip and whine’, disrupting the borders of gendered demarcations and challenging the British public perceptions of [B]lack erotic identities’ (Palmer 2011: 183). In 1970s Britain, a large cohort of the British-born and raised children of post-war Caribbean migrants were encountering racism in education, the criminal justice system and employment, and in the media representations of young Black men as work-shy muggers and irresponsible fathers. Young Black British women, in turn, were often seen as sexually immoral and unmarried welfare-dependant teenage mothers. Against this backdrop, Palmer argues that ‘lovers rock and roots music created a discursively flexible space where erotic and political boundaries are at once established and at the same time agitated and dismantled to open up multiple ways of feeling’ (Palmer 2011: 184). Despite this, the mainstream codes of close couple-dancing were not disturbed, such as the unmarked patriarchal rule that a woman must wait to be invited by a man to a slow dance in which he was always the lead partner. In reggae’s take on Black respectability politics, heterosexuality ruled and Black British women’s public sexuality was confined to the acceptable eroticism of the ‘slow wine’. Nevertheless, lovers rock of the 1970s and 1980s affirmed the lovability of young Black British men and women. In the space of sound system culture, it is through songs, dance, and the sociality of the dancehall that young British Black people were able to express their pride in Blackness, their love for each other, and the potential of the erotic to assist in the corresponding construction of a Black British identity rooted in Black diasporic and transnational Caribbean forms of critical political, cultural and social consciousness.
Lovers rock’s centring of women enabled a form of visibility and presence for Black women as creators and participants in sound system culture. Yet, as lovers rock singer, songwriter, and producer Carol Thompson has revealed, male producers did not take the women singers and their careers as seriously as they did the male performers: ‘In an industry where young women often felt pigeonholed by male peers into being merely “lovers rock singers”’ (Palmer 2011: 186), female visibility did not always indicate self-determination, respect or power. Rather, ‘agency was negotiated and compromised by age, a lack of female ownership of recording studios, the rarity of finding female musicians to form female bands, and the fact that some male bands were reluctant to be seen in public playing love songs for girls’ (Palmer 2011: 186).
Ironically, the recent emergence and popularity of lovers rock revival concerts defies the trivialisation of the genre and the marginalisation of women. Audiences of women now sing along to live appearances by their favourite Black British lovers rock artists who, like them, have aged, but still prove that ‘Black don’t crack’, it stays young. Now in the solidarity of the concert hall rather than the dancehall, middle-aged women revel without embarrassment in memories of their younger days when they rocked in the warm embrace of a young man and in the power of the erotic to affirm Black women’s desirability, their love for Black men and Black people’s collective lovability. With this in mind, what are we to make of the apparent demise of face-to-face close couple-dancing amongst young Black people today in the UK? Instead, it seems the closest they come to the erotic intertwining dances of their parents is women twerking – a term that reveals global popular culture’s appropriation of Black dance aesthetics – and grinding their backsides against a man’s groin; moves that owe as much to the commercialised aesthetic of the exotic lap dance and the strip club as to women’s self-affirming eroticism in dancehall. The athletic ‘stunts’ required of women by dances such as daggering point towards a culture clash between the erotic and the pornographic. African American feminist Audre Lorde contrasts the potential of the erotic as a ‘replenishing and provocative force’ for women’s self-empowerment, with the voyeuristic phallocentrism of a pornographic gaze. Lorde argues that ‘pornography is a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling. Pornography emphasizes sensation without feeling’ (Lorde 2020: 30). While I agree with Lorde’s description of this distinction, it seems to me that in the aesthetics of dancehall the line between the erotic and the pornographic (rather than pornography) is an open field of tension, in which men and women engage in acts of negotiation, resistance and coercion, which reflect the unequal power relations of class, race, gender and sexuality.
Dancing is just one of the many untidy forms of complicity, accommodation and resistance occurring within and between diverse post-colonial Black poplar cultures and the flexible cultural logics of neoliberal capitalism. In the mutual opportunism of the entangled cultural flows of the African diaspora, the transnational Caribbean and neoliberal globalisation, standardised dance moves have the capacity to reproduce cultural identification; regulate Blackness and Caribbeanness from a distance, yet be supple enough to fine-tune their market potential in response to different national contexts – all while simultaneously resisting the cultural dominance of Euro-American global culture. In the synergy between what anthropologist Carla Freeman calls a Caribbean culture of ‘creative individualism’ and the flexible logics of neoliberal capitalism (Freeman 2007: 253), sound system culture provides a means by which culturally and economically marginalised Black people can insist on their share in the profits of a global culture industry that thrives on the commodification of Blackness and ethnic diversity. In this way, sound system culture and the wider global Black popular music industry of which it is part, are perversely both modes of Black countercultural resistance to, and complicit partners in global capitalism’s logic of ‘consumer cannibalism’, that Persadie argues seeks to displace and erase the cultural significance of the original source and deny its genealogy, history and legacy through processes of re/decontextualization (Persadie 2019: 59).
Reggae sound system culture was pivotal in the formation of a Black British identity for the children of both Caribbean and African immigrants in the post war era. It sounded out a new Black British identity that, like the speaker boxes, could move between the house party, the legal dance in a hired hall, or the illegal rave or blues in a captured building – stealing power from nearby electric supplies. In ‘these intimate subaltern spaces,’ as Lisa Palmer reminds us, ’working-class Caribbean communities came together for leisure, celebrations and entertainment,’ and used sound system culture to create ‘spaces of sanctuary’ that were ‘central to easing as well as ex pressing the tensions of urban inner city life’ (Palmer 2011: 181). Since those times, a generational shift has been taking place, so that the dominance of Jamaica and Caribbeanness in the construction of Black British identity and popular cultures has been unsettled by young people from Africa, or those born or raised in the UK of African parents, especially West Africans. This has produced a realignment of cultural power and influence that is reflected in the current chart dominance of Afro-beats with its fusing of African, Caribbean and North American popular cultural musical forms. The popularity of Afro beats within sound system culture expresses this shift, as well as extending the reverberations of an older musical Afro-modernity in which Cuban rumba, African highlife, African American and South African jazz, and Caribbean calypsos were fused, back in the 1960s, by Fela Kuti to form Afro-beat (without the ‘s’). As the Zimbabwean poet and cultural theorist Tsitsi Ella Jaji observes, ‘African diaspora music has long de-territorialised and re-territorialised spaces in which transnational Caribbean and diasporic African people engage in both history work and identity work, to work out their relation to each other and to place, time and belonging’ (Jaji 2015: 148). However, we continue to see women positioned in remarkably similar structural positions within both reggae and Afro-beats, and perhaps even more so in UK grime music. Male artistes, producers, DJs, and managers remain over-represented in all of these music genres and their associated cultures. This tends to obscure the important role and creativity of Black women in both the production and shaping of African diaspora music and sound system cultures.
Despite the complex gender and sexual politics in dancehall (Cooper 2004; Hope 2006; Stanley-Niaah 2004; Palmer 2011), the erotic and sexual negotiations over race, gender and sexuality within sound system culture have failed to generate sustained and serious discussions about gender within either the reggae industry or between men and women within Black communities. Women as dancers, and even more so as singers, producers and members of sound systems, continue to face a challenge to be fully present on their own terms within the within sound system culture. This bears out Black British feminist Gail Lewis’ observation that ‘the black woman as figure and as embodied/sentient subject has been made present/absent in different discursive registers’ (Lewis 2017: 6). Gail Lewis argues that presencing (ibid.) the Black woman’s experience and knowledge would require acknowledging ‘what becomes absent in us when we absent or disappear her particularity from our collective histories, current realities, future potentialities’ [and] ‘involve the development of our courage to acknowledge the harm done her, historically and in the here and now’. (Lewis 2017: 11). A certain structure of absent-presence continues to prevail in which women are present symbolically, physically and creatively in sound system culture, and Black popular music more widely, yet when seeking to be present in more powerful and self-directed terms are repeatedly positioned as interrupting in a conversation between men that persistently reverts to ‘man-talk’.
Adebambo, Jean. (1981) Paradise. Written by Jean Adebambo and Leonard ‘Santic’ Chin. Santic Records London, UK.
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— (2013) ‘Homolatent Masculinity & Hip Hop Culture’. Palimpsest, 2(2), 187-199. Carolyn, Carolyn. (2004) Sound Clash: Jamaican Dancehall Culture at Large. New York and Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.
Freeman, Carla. (2007) ‘The “Reputation” of Neoliberalism’ American Ethnologist Vol. 34, No. 2, pp. 252–267.
Henriques, Julien. (2014) ‘Rhythmic Bodies: Amplification, Inflection and Transduction in the Dance Performance Techniques of the “Bashment Gal.”’ Body & Society, 20(3–4), 79–112.
Hope, Donna. (2006). Hope, D. P. (2006). ‘Passa Passa: Interrogating Cultural Hybridities in Jamaican Dancehall’. Small Axe, 10(3), 125-139.
Jaji, Tsitsi Ella. (2015) Africa in Stereo: Modernism, Music, and Pan-African Solidarity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lewis, Gail. (2017) ‘Questions of Presence’, Feminist Review, 117(1), pp.1-19. Lewis, Linden. (2007) ‘Man Talk, Masculinity, and a Changing Social Environment’. Carib bean Review of Gender Studies. Issue 1. April 2007.
Lorde, Audre. (2020) ‘Uses of the Erotic’ in The Selected Works of Audre Lorde. Edited by Roxanne Gay. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Noble, Denise. (2000) ‘Ragga Music: Dis/Respecting Black Women and Dis/Reputable Sexualities’. Un/settled Multiculturalisms: Diasporas, Entanglements, Transruptions. Edit ed by Barnor Hesse. 148-169. London, Zed Books.
— (2008) ‘Postcolonial Criticism, Transnational Identifications and the Hegemonies of Dancehall’s Academic and Popular Performativities’. Feminist Review, 90(1), 106-127. Palmer, Lisa. A. (2011) ‘LADIES A YOUR TIME NOW!’ Erotic Politics, Lovers’ Rock and Resistance in the UK’. African and Black Diaspora: An International Journal, 4(2), 177-192. Patten, H. (2018) ‘Dancehall: A Continuity of Spiritual, Corporeal Practice in Jamaican Dance’. Narratives in Black British Dance: Embodied Practices. Edited by Adesola Akinleye. London: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 167-186.
Persadie, Ryan. (2019) ‘Sounding the “6ix”: Drake, Cultural Appropriation, and Embodied Caribbeanization’. MUSICultures, 46 (1), pp.52-80.
Sister Audrey. (1982) I Love You. Original: Stylistics 1971 If I Love you. Written by Thom Bell and Linda Creed.
Sister Audrey. (1982) English Girl. Written by Audrey Donegan. London, Jah Shaka Label. Remix Mad Professor (Neil Fraser) 1984. London: Ariwa Label and again remixed by producer Mad Professor (providing the inspiration and background singing vocals track to U Roy’s True Born African released in 1991 on the Ariwa label.
Stanley-Niaah, S. (2004) ‘Kingston’s Dancehall: A Story of Space and Celebration’. Space and Culture, 7(1), pp.102-118.
Tafari-Ama, Imani. (2017) Blood, Bullets and Bodies: Sexual politics below Jamaica’s poverty line. Beaten Track Publishing.
Dr Denise Noble is a cultural sociologist and author of several scholarly publications including her book Decolonizing and Feminizing Freedom: a Caribbean Genealogy (2016) which explores Caribbean Black British women’s cultures of freedom as forms of resistance to the coloniality of liberal freedom. Denise’s work focuses on the entanglements of race, gender and sexuality in Black political thought and Black cultural politics. In a 35-year academic career, Denise has taught Black Studies, Cultural Studies and Sociology in both the UK and the USA.
© Denise Noble