Today's article for Black History Month is brought to you by Theresa Weber, a Düsseldorf-vorn artist whose work revolves around topics of transcultural identities and topics of interdisciplinary connections. We invited her to use our platform this month to dissect the roots and cultural components of one of her favorite music genres: dancehall.
Music as a tool of identification
Black music, such as Jazz, Soul, Blues, Gospel, Rap, and Reggae historically came from a deep inner desire for freedom and creating something for one's own, that the oppressor won’t understand and won’t be able to steal. It was hard work for many generations of the African diaspora to re-build their identity, which had been taken away from them. Music has been the core of this re-identification and self-emancipation in Black culture ever since. It is healing from trauma, it is the expression of emotion where words are not enough.
Of course, the world can feel this power. I think we can all agree on the fact that Black music is most dominant in the international music branch.
"Even if music should be for everyone, empowering, understanding, and supporting everyone, there are some issues in the industry to be pointed out."
Growing up in Germany as a mixed, light-skinned woman, I was born with a thirst and a desire for an unknown place. I now know this was caused by my partly Jamaican background and this missing piece in my family, which was speaking to me. I felt understood by Jamaican music. Seeing reggae icons on stage and being at Dancehall Parties made me feel like a natural tiny part of a bigger system, which was reaching beyond the short timeframe of my life. Music was healing to me, just as it probably was for many of my ancestors and my mother. This might be the main reason why I am now working on the narration of self-evaluation and the expression of identity as a visual artist. Additionally, I play music as DJane at several events.
I was born in 1996 and in my early childhood Black music, especially Hip-Hop started to become main-stream, so this was nothing new to me. And of course, everyone knew the Marley songs and the off-beat sound in Europe, and I was grateful for this. And then around 2010 a new sound came from overseas, which was Dancehall. Rooted in the mid-1980s, Dancehall developed from a digital version of Ragga, which was a faster version of Ska and Reggae, with faster rhythms. Key elements are the use of Jamaican Patois and the focus on track instrumentals.
White-washing for the mainstream
I started my musical journey with two CD-albums by Beenie Man and Elefant Man, which my sister had copied me in 2011 and I could not get enough of the sound. Dancehall started to become more and more popular in Europe and I was happy to start sharing my music with more friends. However there was an irritating aftertaste when Sean Paul was the only dancehall artist on the radio and at the so-called dancehall parties, the DJ played a mix-up of RnB and Hip-Hop, with Justin Bieber and Justin Timberlake. Then why call it Dancehall?! The only real Dancehall track the DJs had at the time was Miss Fatty by Million Stylez, which explains a lot because Million Stylez is a Swedish man. This whitewashed and simplified version of something much more complex and valuable was super present to me. One of the popular Dancehall moves has originally been called the wine or the wiggle and was now called the twerk, which became the international term, and suddenly people began twerking in the club to any music. Looking back, international Dancehall became much more versatile since then, and several Jamaican artists are now being represented, such as Popcaan, Spice, Konshens, and Shenseea.
Colorism, white-washing, and Black-fishing
However, we are facing another interesting dynamic, which I think is the same shifting problem. It seems that many Jamaican artists do not get the credit for their work and colorism* still is a big issue in the international industry. A lot of Jamaicans get upset and don’t like Major Lazer or Drake, because they think they only take and don’t credit. Major Lazer's Lean on became the most streamed single of all time in 2015 and has been given the dubious title of „tropical pop“. Then Justin Bieber`s mega-hit Sorry was mixing up a skeletal dancehall beat with pure pop and was underlined with dancehall moves in the music video. Additionally, dancehall artists like Assassin or Popcaan have marked songs with cut-outs from their songs for Kanye West and Drake, without credit. The Rolling Stone’s review of Rihanna’s Work described it as “a tropical house-flavored track featuring Drake“. It’s no surprise that the genre has been accused of whitewashing* Jamaican influences out of popular music.
And then another issue is coming to light: Many non-Black artists in the industry are causing discussions on Black-fishing*. Pop icons such as Ariana Grande are suddenly having the same complexion as Jlo, standing next to her on stage and performing Black community codes. Not only in Europe are we looking at the phenomenon of twerking white women with cornrows, hoops, a darkened complexion, and sometimes even contact lenses to cover the blue eyes, such as Shirin David in Germany.
"Be aware of giving credit to where it came from."
Black culture is successful and we could even go as far as to say that, Black is where the money’s at. Almost every consumer-based industry is jumping on the wave. This is why we are still battling cultural appropriation under new conditions. I do not think that authentic dancehall how it is done in Jamaica needs to be on top. Dancehall can be infused with Afrobeat, with hip-hop, with trap, and that’s fine with me. But we can learn to be aware of giving credit to where it came from. We can retrace why Black music and culture are so powerful and respect it the way it is.
You can find out more about Theresa's work over on her Instagram page, or her website. Check out her contemporary artworks and lifestyle content via her personal page @therrytail and get a taste of her music via @queent_original.
*colorism: prejudice or discrimination especially within a racial or ethnic group favoring people with lighter skin over those with darker skin
*whitewashing: non-Black people are being platformed for Black characters, work, or culture
*Black-fishing: the appropriation of Black recognition features by non-Black people, to profit from them and make use of them for entertainment purposes