Photos Courtesy of the Gleaner Company Limited
A decade ago, Jamaican dancehall fashion was all about Sizzla dressed head to toe in khaki, Selassie flags, and head wraps and being black and not being into gays. At some point over the past decade, devotees of this resolutely homophobic Jamaican genre have started wearing tight clothes and diamanté blazers, getting their nipples pierced, and lightening their skin from black to a sort of off-black.
Donna Hope, senior lecturer in reggae studies at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, knows more about these confusing shifts in dancehall fashion than anyone else in the world. She recently wrote a book called Man Vibes: Masculinities in Jamaican Dancehall, which is an in-depth study of the thought processes that govern the behavior of the average fashion-conscious dancehall star. Let’s learn more about all of this.
Vice: So dancehall stars are bleaching their skin and dressing like the gay guys they’ve spent their entire lives being afraid of?
Donna Hope: Since the turn of the millennium we’ve seen men’s fashion in the dancehall scene move from being a very hardcore representation of masculinity to something far more flamboyant. These days dancehall artists and fans are a lot more poised and pay more attention to how they dress. Anything in particular?
They make a big fuss about how they do their cornrows, for example, while some have even started fashioning their eyebrows into different patterns and wearing clothing that, not so long ago, would have been considered almost gay. Pastel pinks and peaches have become very popular, as have wonderfully patterned shirts and pants that are what we call tights—very close fitting to the male body. These are things that traditionally in dancehall have been sort of anathema to how a hardcore male should look. Shoes are often the same color as the shirts, say purple or orange, and this getup is coupled with a lot of intense jewelry. Body piercings and tattoos are all becoming very popular with men in dancehall. This is far removed from traditional views of how men from working-class backgrounds in Jamaica should look. Where did this glamorous and somewhat effeminate styling come from?
The dialogue is more between dancehall and the fashion houses of Paris and “high fashion” than it is with another black music, such as American rap. It is a more European influence. It has a lot to do with people wanting to look beyond their actual physical location and wanting to prove that we can hold our own on a runway in Europe. How does that tie in with dancehall’s association with virulent homophobia? How does the scene settle with seeing its stars with belly-button rings and tight trousers?
These potential clashes in dialogue are part of what makes dancehall so special. Dancehall has gained a lot of notoriety in the international arena for its extreme and graphic denunciations of male homosexuality. But at the same time, these new waves of dancehall fashion seem to borrow from the impulses that speak to a gay man. From the perspective of my own work it is not a clash because it projects the same kind of dualities we find throughout dancehall. I don’t exactly follow.
Men who are hardcore can be that way while at the same time borrowing from influences that are considered far removed from “hardcore.” A hardcore man walking around in a pastel t-shirt and orange pants with a hairstyle more elaborate than that of the woman he is walking beside, with piercings and chunky jewelry, can remain hardcore because of the way he carries himself. It’s in the attitude, the talk, the walk, the screwface—the combination of all these elements presents a very conflicted picture of masculinity to outside observers. It has also led me to question where the Jamaican concept of masculinity is heading. So essentially it comes down to the old “if you are hard enough to dress gay you must be pretty hard” mind-set?
Well, it should be noted that not all people involved in dancehall are dressing this way, but there has been a surge in the number of people who look like this. Also, male dancers have become a far bigger part of dancehall culture—far bigger than they were a few years ago. Which musicians are leading the charge?
Vybz Kartel is currently one of dancehall’s biggest artists, and he is going to great lengths to present himself in this way—with piercings, tattoos, and skin bleaching. This has been the trajectory since the late 90s. Elephant Man, as part of the group Scare Dem Crew, had a song, “Bad Man Nuh Dress Like Girl,” which included the lyric “We nuh bore nose an we nuh bleach face an we nuh wear drop curls.” But then he actually started doing all of these things himself. He did indeed become colorful and flamboyant, with piercings and intricate hairstyles, but back then hardcore meant dark clothes. Wearing bright colors was not even up for discussion. Vybz Kartel is a representation of this shift we see now, and it is in part his dress sense that has brought him so much attention and made him so popular. You mentioned the skin-bleaching issue, and Vybz Kartel is one of the main characters in this debate. I can only assume that for such a racially proud genre, the idea of dancehall stars bleaching their skin is as controversial as effeminate dress, if not more so.
The issue of skin bleaching at present is now thrown into the public domain by artists like Vybz Kartel who are lightening their skin and publicly admitting to it and in a sense suggesting it as a good thing to do. Vybz Kartel has been advocating what we call cake soap in Jamaica, a type of soap used especially by poor Jamaicans as a part of laundry. It’s a very rough type of soap, cut from slabs and sold, and the blue version of it has become immortalized by Vybz Kartel because he has suggested that his skin looks the way it does now because he has been washing it with blue cake soap. What does the public have to say about the trend?
There have been huge amounts of discussion about this, and it is something I looked at some years ago in my work—the way that men have started this skin bleaching that had previously been seen as something women did. We already knew that women lighten their skin with all sorts of products to hide blemishes and so on. In terms of dancehall, not so many years ago it would have been something far, far removed from anything a man would ever do, but now it’s very popular among men. Over-the-counter soaps and lighteners don’t sound so awful.
People use a range of products to do this, from household bleach to soaps bought from informal vendors that contain too high a chemical level for the customer’s skin. Then there are other products, like corn meal and curry powder, a condiment added to the skin in a paste form. And when you ask these people why they are doing it, they give the reasons you might expect: Everybody is doing it, it makes them look better, it makes them stand out, and so on. Does this reflect any lessening of the extreme homophobia in the genre?
Dancehall has a preoccupation with what men do, and as a result there are very strong feelings about any act that transgresses what men are supposed to do or what is associated with traditional masculinity. In terms of homosexuality, there has been a retreat in dancehall from the “murder and kill and burn out of existence”-style lyrics. But you may get softened versions of that. Again, remember that this resentment toward transgressors of masculinity does not come from dancehall, but from wider Jamaican culture and traditional feelings of gender codes and culture that were then taken and hardened by dancehall into these harsh lyrics. Does it translate for non-Jamaicans who listen to this music?
The response recently to such lyrics outside Jamaica has resulted in far more subtlety—you would have to understand lyrics of a very contorted and metaphoric nature now to even know that they were discussing male homosexuality. So these rappers are using language to convey things that are not so obvious!
Yes, there has been a change in how these lyrics are used. Now we have a lot of lyrics name-dropping Vybz Kartel, everybody is calling for him, he is the figure people love to hate, and there are also songs about society and the things people want to see happening and so on. It is rare to hear someone talking explicitly about male homosexuality. The extreme and graphic denunciation of homosexuality that we saw so much of in the early 21st century has evaporated. What are going to be the next big looks, do you think?
Well, there are a lot of different things people are doing now: false lashes, painted nails… But it’s hard to see any creeping signal of a move toward a new major style. What I am watching, though, is what Vybz Kartel is doing. He is so locked on transgressing all the codes of polite behavior in Jamaica and being very defiant about it. I want to see what he will do in the next 12 months. There are rumors in circulation that he has a tongue piercing—though piercings have become more accepted, men with tongue piercings are generally considered to have gone “over the edge” and to have crossed a social boundary. Indeed!