French Canadian pop star Celine Dion has sold over 200 million soft rock/adult contemporary albums. Her new album, Encore un soir, debuts this week, and she sings all 15 cuts in French. Fans expect the record to play across Jamaica and the Caribbean, where she has become a fixture in dancehall clubs—many Jamaican artists listen to Dion's songs, cover her music, and remix her love ballads into dancehall anthems, as was discussed on MTV's Speed Dial podcast.
"Fuck the Pope," says a source connected to dancehall, who asked to remain anonymous. "If you want to shut down Kingston, bring in Celine Dion."
Dion traveled to Jamaica for a one-off performance in 2012, headlining the Jamaica Jazz and Blues festival at the Trelawny Multi-Purpose stadium, which is near Montego Bay. She was briefly taking time off her Caesar's Palace Hotel and Casino residency, where she has sold more tickets than "Elvis, Liberace, and the Rat Pack combined," according to Newsweek. Her concert broke attendance records, and traffic was even affected: The typically half-hour drive from Montego Bay to the stadium reportedly took two hours, according to the newspaper the Jamaica Gleaner.
Rose Marjorie Hosang, 70, a retired registered nurse from Jamaica, was at the concert. "Even I was amazed at the response of the Jamaicans to her," she says. "It took people three or four hours to get a few miles. She was just so down-to-earth… She was very, very humble, and so the people just embrace[d] her. Even she didn't realize people loved her so much."
Dancehall DJs played Dion's music at clubs and parties as early as her early 1990s "Power of Love" days. Like many songs of the genre, Dion's music consists of laid-back tempos, rich harmonies, and a spirit of unity and love. Her work is perfect for a dancehall setting because a large segment of the music programming leans on slow jams to contrast the heavier dance songs.
"Back in that era, you'd have 30 minutes of soul music, and that meant some Celine Dion," says Bobby Konders, a Hot 97 DJ and a member of Massive B sound system, a group of dancehall DJs and MCs. He recalls DJs playing Dion's "Mama" and "If Walls Could Talk" in the 90s.
"We had her stuff on white label. That's when vinyl was playing and it even got bootlegged on 45," Konders recalls. "If the crowd were the hardcore Jamaican crowd, they were into the music."
In the 1990s, Pam Hall covered Dion. Even Vybz Kartel—one of the hardest dancehall artists out there, known for singing about scamming—sampled "I'm Alive." The track very much lifts Dion's vocal. "Dancehall is often about gun violence or crime or blackness," Stephen Chin, 55, a Jamaican-born photographer living in New York, says. "She is like an antidote to that. Jamaicans love them sappy songs."
Ghost, a dancehall legend who has toured with Shabba Ranks and performed with Beenie Man, also covered "My Heart Will Go On" on a 1998 comp called Just Ragga. Once Ghost adds upbeat guitars and pan flutes, "My Heart Will Go On" becomes a reggae song, sounding more like an original dance song than a cover.
Dion's songs are poised for remixing because her melodies are so rhythmic; they can twist around any music. In addition, her tempos are also slow enough for a double-time shuffle to sound effortless on top. These covers, though, lack reggae's socio-political aspect, sounding more like rocksteady music from the mid-to-late 60s. A lot of the 1960s songs borrowed heavily from American soul lyrics, lending them romance.
"My memory of her influence was when erotic dancers came to Jamaica, by boat, to work at an exclusive club," says Clive McLean, 37, a Jamaican-born English teacher now living in Japan. "Two of the seven of them danced only to Celine Dion music. One was so pleasantly surprised that I could sing along to the music that she came off the pole and gave me a kiss on the cheek."
Dion remains popular in dancehall circles and Jamaica, but dancehall has changed. When he DJs today, Konder says half the music comes from American musicians, many of whom aren't even playing reggae. "I played out last night and they called it 'Reggae Tuesday,'" he says. "In two hours I played only one hour of reggae." Nothing should surprise audiences in 2016—even a backbeat shuffle over "My Heart Will Go On."