Spice Can Take A Likkle Heat
The dancehall superstar premieres her new video “Cool It,” and the ups and downs of being the 'Queen of Dancehall.'
Photo By Dee Williams
“BIG UP DI TIGHT PUSSY GYAL DEM!,” Spice yelled into the mic. The bassline of the artist’s “Under Fire” boomed out the speakers in a crowded New York venue, ushering her into a blanket of adorning supporters. All matters of wining, brucking out, and tick-tocking took place while Jamaica’s reigning dancehall queen continued to make her way through the throng of fans, posing for quick pics. Everyone had the the time of their life in the presence of such royalty while I mentally prepared for the reality that the most important interview in my life would likely be cancelled. Again.
Between October and November of last year, I prepared to travel to four different cities—Toronto, Atlanta, Kingston, Jamaica, and New York—all to accommodate Spice’s nonstop schedule and surprise release of her EP, Captured. Had it been anyone else—well, there isn’t anyone else. This is Spice, after all. I’d been a fan of Grace “Spice” Hamilton since I heard her on the “85 Riddim” in middle school. Though my prepubescent self had no real life experiences to corroborate with the artist's early-2000 “Fight Ova Man” single, I still belted the now-infamous “SCAWN DEM!” with all the Jamaican diasporic pride in me. Still, it was only the start for the then 22-year-old from Old Braeton, Portmore who’d unknowingly take the industry by storm.
Spice initially aspired to be a chartered accountant before taking an interest in acting and enrolling in Edna Manley’s College of the Visual and Performing Arts—basically Jamaica’s Juilliard—as a voice and drama student. She became a regular at the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission Festivals where she developed a love for performing onstage. After graduating, a friend of a friend introduced her to Heavy D of Supreme Promotions, the brains behind Sting—Jamaica’s annual (until four years ago) one-night only, battle royale, dancehall concert—who speedily offered an opportunity for her to perform. In the summer of 2000, she took the Sting stage and her life changed. She immediately won over the crowd with her charisma and wit.
Women pioneers in dancehall, like Dawn Penn, Lady Ann, Sister Nancy, Sister Charmaine, Patra and Lady Saw were able to accumulate massive success beyond Jamaica’s borders, but for some reason or another, weren’t able to maintain their consistency; a challenge that Spice was ready to tackle with unabashed boldness from the outset of her career. She frequently opened her sets by saying, “Dem ah gwan like dem nuh waan let in some fresh pum pum inna di business,” a telling statement of the industry that, up until recently, had a soundtrack that was largely scored by men. Meanwhile, women would be relegated to spontaneous pockets of visibility. But Spice brought a new dynamic to the scene while continuing the lineage of colourful women that came before her.
A Leo through and through, Spice has never shied away from confronting challenges head on. Even in the early stages, she took on major dancehall powerhouses in lyrical battles (Elephant Man at Sting in 2002 and Merciless in 2000) and spoke boldly about the obstacles she’s had to face as a woman. The moves she’s made within nearly two decades would go beyond mere idol worship and evolve into a reference point of sorts for my own career pursuits. So I was confused, when, just before travelling to New York, a few days after waiting hours in a Toronto hotel lobby for another soon-to-be cancelled interview, I was greeted with a seemingly fair-skinned Spice on Instagram.
Interviewed by Billboard’s reggae contributor over Instagram Live, Spice said that she’d decided to bleach her skin because of the negative comments she’d hear about her complexion. I was sure I’d seen a Black woman on stage in Toronto some nights ago. It didn’t make sense. I wasn’t alone in my confusion either as fans took to social media until she became an internationally trending topic. Though she’d not directly spoken about it, there had always been hushed conversations from practitioners and fans of dancehall on why certain artists were able to do well opposed to others. Skin complexion had always been pinned as one of the factors—a conversation that extends far beyond dancehall.
Even with the Instagram Live broadcast and the announcement of her surprise EP, hysteria continued when she premiered the music video for “Black Hypocrisy.” The visual showed both a melanin and bleached Spice recreating a social justice protest demanding there be no colourism. Three weeks later Spice would take to Instagram to formally explain that she had not bleached. Instead, she said, it was to raise awareness about colourism within the Black community.
Despite the theatrics, it is an important discussion to be brought to the forefront given Jamaica’s resistance to addressing racism. Even now, many still deflect to the common excuse of “We-don’t-have-a-race-issue-we-have-a-class-issue”, often backed by the national motto, “Out Of Many, One People.” But Spice pushed the conversation and parlayed her newfound infamy into appearances on popular outlets like The Breakfast Club, Genius and Hot 97. What would she do next?
I was still waiting for Spice’s management to confirm our interview while the NY release party for her EP was already underway. But it would be nixed once more. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the moment for what it was: an artist from Jamaica who had people from all walks of life come out to celebrate her and her accomplishments. The following morning, as I boarded the plane to go back to Toronto, I, solely out of ego and desperation, tried one last time to arrange a conversation. I’d shoot over a stern text message to a contact of hers about the dubious fate of this story. A couple days later, I'd receive a notification to my phone: “Is it too late to call now?” It was Spice. I quickly texted back, “No, not at all!” But in a state of pure excitement and, again, ego and desperation, I called immediately after. “Hello?“ she, finally, answered. After seeing her move across the globe in the twelve years that I had been a fan, and all the countless delays and cancellations, at last, we could chat about the year in Spice.
One of the obvious challenges of transitioning to a new industry as a musician is proving yourself to be a worthy commodity. Current international success doesn't matter. It’s about what you can offer in a particular country and between America and Jamaica there’s a world of difference. “To be honest, it's been difficult. Being here in America, I feel like a needle in a haystack,” Spice explains. “In Jamaica, I know the runaround, how to get my music around, how to do everything. But here in America, it's almost like I'm starting over from scratch. Now I have to figure out how it is to get into the hip-hop world, so for me, it's like a new start.”
To close the gap, Spice placed herself onto one of pop culture’s many playgrounds: America's television screens. A new audience was now paying attention by way of VH1’s Love and Hip Hop: Atlanta and she was ready to capitalize. Making an appearance on the reality tv series in its sixth season, Spice brought the energy of dancehall to a brand new format thus expanding her reach.
“Love & Hip Hop, as you know, is a huge franchise. That's really my main goal: to gain a wider audience. I'm trying to introduce the audience to love dancehall and also see if I can mix the two genres,” she says. During the seventh season of the series, she became a regular; a colourful debut that involved a couple arguments, a few fights and an instance of fat shaming (an issue that she’s apologized for) but left her sorely disappointed when, during the reunion, questions about her contributions to world of music were interrogated by one of the castmates. “You have to accept people will discredit you. You have to accept that it's like a cat's world on Love & Hip Hop, with all these girls [who] are trying to have a career and they're trying to be the star of the show. It really does not affect me because I know that outside of Jamaica I am very well known.”
Spice admits it’s still a case of trial-and-error navigating North America and one that requires her to switch her approach often. I asked if that experimental process extended to the thinking behind ”bleaching” herself. “It was my idea to do it and was birthed from the colourism awareness that I wanted to create. When I realized what I was going to do with ‘Black Hypocrisy,’ it led me to think of how I wanted to roll out. That's why I took off all the posts off my Instagram because I wanted, when I came out with that image, to have the world's undivided attention.” Even before she formally addressed the rumours, she received a significant amount of support from fellow Love & Hip Hop stars and apologies from individuals who had been complicit in being colourist towards her. It was clear that both the message within “Black Hypocrisy” and new music from the artist had been long overdue. But its delay wasn’t without reason.
In 2009, the artist signed a five-album deal with label VP Records. Under the label, she'd release her five-track EP in 2014, So Mi Like It, but as years passed with no release announced, fans started to inquire about an official album. She had been tight-lipped about the details of its pending official date and status with VP, but last year, as reported by Jamaica Star, she took to Instagram Live to tell fans, “go ask nasty, dirty, stinking VP weh the album deh.” As a result, the debut of her recent EP, Captured, partially came as an act of defiance.
Spice still feels raw about the situation: “I'm still legally signed to them but they're not doing anything for me. I do everything for my own career.” The EP’s title record, “Captured,” is vulnerable, reflecting the artist’s frustration at the label’s inability to make good on their promises while flexing her skills as a vocalist. In a recent Billboard interview, VP addressed Spice’s claims, stating that the artist hadn’t given them enough records for an album and turned down a budget they’d offered. In spite of this, Captured hit number one on Billboard’s Reggae Album chart as well as the U.S and U.K iTunes Reggae album chart. Another unexpected accolade was when the “Black Hypocrisy” single hit number one on the iTunes Reggae songs charts in the U.S., knocking out reggae icon Bob Marley. “I was actually sleeping and my assistant called me and say, 'Yuh tek Bob Marley off a di chart!',” she laughs. “I was in my sleep and I was like 'What?', and she was like, 'Wake up! Wake up!' But that was phenomenal. It was a phenomenal moment for me.” For the artist’s record to chart higher than reggae’s most seminal musician is a testament to her growing influence and perhaps even speaks to her ability to crossover.
Between live shows, performances, self-managing her music, and taping Love & Hip Hop, Spice’s second home isn’t in Atlanta or New York, it’s in the air. I ask what toll, if any, that this may have as a mother to two children, Nicholas and Nicholatoy. “My mother never had it financially. I can remember wanting a lot of things but had to do without, so that's my favorite part of being a mother: being able to provide for my kids and making them happy. The difficult part of it, being a mother and a woman, is being away from my kids... but it's also a sacrifice that I have to make for them to give them that life.”
She lights up, however, when talking about how she spends her downtime with them. “Just talking to them because they say the darnest things! Just being on the bed and having them fighting to lay beside me, fighting whose mother it is—because they don't seem to realize that I'm both their mother,” she laughs. “I remember touring and going back and forth for Love & Hip-Hop and just getting a day off so I would buy a ticket [to Jamaica], even if it's thousands of dollars, just to see them and come back. People would say, 'Oh, that's a waste of money,' but it means so much just to see them even for a day.”
As much as Spice is pursuing her career for herself and her children, it also, by proxy, benefits dancehall, especially the women within the genre. Currently, there’s a shift in who’s at the helm of dancehall’s turning tide as artists like Shenseea, Hood Celebrityy, Ishawna, Jada Kingdom, Lisa Mercedez and Stefflon Don (when she dabbles in it) continue to rise. Even so, Spice has continued to reinvent herself and hold the title of “Queen of Dancehall.” Like any other competitive field, however, keeping the top spot comes with many grievances.
One of the biggest strains for women in dancehall, historically, is the lingering tension around working together. Much like hip-hop, there seems to be an impasse based on the understanding that there can only be one successful woman at a time, which is wholly untrue. In the past few weeks, Spice has spent time hosting a series of Instagram Live sessions addressing claims of her “being a bully” ignited by a disagreement she had with past collaborator, dancehall artist D’Angel (despite her record of having worked with other women artists in the past). While accolades are a given for the forerunner in any field, so too, comes the baggage and critiques. And Spice seems to be navigating the best way she knows how.
“It does come with a huge responsibility because being dubbed ‘The Queen of the Dancehall’ means that you are the top woman in the game,” she says firmly. “I have to uplift the genre, push the genre. Sometimes it gets too heavy because people expect so much from you but I can't please anybody but myself. I'm a human first.”
On Sundays, I dedicate a portion of my morning to reading Jamaica’s two national newspapers, The Jamaica Observer and The Jamaica Gleaner. Between the two, there are countless stories of people achieving the unthinkable “despite all odds.” While these narratives are often framed as isolated incidents, I can’t help but think it’s a reflection of a specific trait ingrained in our national identity: the ability to work exceptionally hard regardless of the circumstances.
What the past few years have offered followers of dancehall is a glimpse of the enormous impact the genre has in the mainstream world of music, even though its staying power has largely been propelled by non-Jamaican artists. With the release of Popcaan’s second studio album, Forever, and Spice’s Captured, we’re finally getting our seat at the table; approaching a moment where the pioneers and innovators are the faces, bringing the genre ahead. Spice, in particular, pushes through countless cultural and societal barriers (she’s part of an emerging wave of dancehall artists who openly embrace their LGBTQ+ fans) to cement her legacy. And I believe that she’ll accomplish much more in due time. Spice is confident she will as well.
“That's why I put so much into my music videos, my performances, my wigs, the colors that I wear. To lift up the genre.," she says. "I spice up the dancehall, the entire genre itself. I want to be remembered as that lyrical, energetic, vibrant female who really brought a huge light to the genre. Also [to be known] as the most creative, unique and talented artist to ever emerge out of Jamaica.”
Sharine Taylor will never stop stanning Spice. Follow her on Twitter .