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Dancehall Is Fighting to Protect – and Copyright – Its Dance Moves

The dance moves you might break out at Notting Hill Carnival this weekend are at the centre of an increasingly urgent debate about cultural copyright.

by Hannah Moore; photos by Constanze Han
24 August 2019, 9:00am

People at Carnival. Left: Janine Wiedel Photolibrary / Alamy Stock Photo; Right: Travelpix / Alamy Stock Photo

There's a dance for every year of Notting Hill Carnival. From Butterfly and World Dance in the early 90s, through early-2000s moves like Signal Di Plane, up to more recent examples, like Rope and Rock Di World.

In tightly-packed unison we dip and sway with sweaty strangers we'll probably never see again, holding our plastic cups of Overproof and cranberry above the heads of the crowd. It's these little moments of euphoria that epitomise Carnival; when the sun creeps out from behind the clouds and kisses your face, when the 2 million-strong crowd seems unified in movement, when London becomes just a little like a Kingston street party.

Sure, it's alcohol that fuels the fire, but it's the dance moves themselves that get the party going. We take our cues from the streets of Jamaica, and right now the dance everyone's doing there is Snappin', a deceptively simple step built around clicking your fingers, created by dancehall star Ding Dong and his crew Ravers Clavers.

Ding has dominated the worldwide dancehall space over the past few years, creating viral moves like Shampoo and Flairy. These moves have become part of the Jamaican national identity – the Olympian turned dancehall producer Usain Bolt has performed them on the race track, and Fling even won its creator, Chevoy "Kool Ravers" Grant, an award from the Jamaican Prime Minister.

While some dancers are getting the credit and pay they deserve for their work, many more in Jamaica complain of feeling ripped off by the international pop industry – seeing their moves used in mainstream videos by artists including Cardi B and J Balvin – and dance teachers in the US and Europe.

"It's coming from slavery days – from when we were colonised by the British – and since then foreigners have always been taking from us and our culture," says Kimiko "Versatile" Miller, a Kingston-based dancer who has worked with Vybz Kartel, Stefflon Don and Shenseea, among others.

kimiko versatile
Kimiko Versatile. Photo: Constanze Han

The appropriation issue came to the fore a few years ago with the release of Justin Bieber's "Sorry" video, when choreographer Parris Goebel failed to acknowledge that she had used well-established dancehall moves like Gully Creepa, Muscle Wine and Cow Foot throughout the routine (the New Zealander later stated in a Facebook post that she had "huge respect and passion for [dancehall]"). Since then, Jamaican dancers have been seeking to better protect their moves – both through legal copyright and by clapping back at imitators on social media.

Of course, the idea of "owning" a dance move is a slippery one – dance is a social form, enjoyable precisely because it passes from body to body, generation to generation, and across continents. Dancehall has itself developed from West African roots (note how many moves are danced with a low centre of gravity and bent knees) and Jamaican folk styles like Jonkonnu, which were created by people brought to the island as slaves in the 17th century. Dancehall scholar Sonjah Stanley Niaah even traces the Limbo dance – where you bend backwards to shuffle under a stick – to slave ship logs from 1664.

Kingston's dancehall community isn't trying to stop foreign artists doing the moves they create – and they're definitely not asking you to stop dancing at Carnival – but they do want people to take time to learn about the history of oppression from which dancehall has evolved. "Dance is free, but remember it is normally written in the blood and tears of a people, of a culture," says the veteran dancer Orville "Professor" Hall.

In a country where more than 19 percent of young people are unemployed, dance offers a viable income source to its creators, many of whom come from poor inner-city areas of Kingston. Claiming credit for their work is both a moral and financial issue.

"This is their life's work and their life's energy," says Donna Hope, a professor at the University of the West Indies who has been writing about dancehall culture for over two decades. "The resources that come back to them are really very important in terms of just keeping them alive, keeping a roof over their head and food on their table."

Hope and a few dancers approached the Jamaica Intellectual Property Office (JIPO) after the "Sorry" drama to learn how they could protect their work in the future. "Dance is a form of copyright. Copyright is automatic," says JIPO's executive director, Lilyclaire Bellamy. "Once it's in a tangible format [including an Instagram or Youtube video], and it is an original work, then you can get protection."

No dancehall artists have yet tested the legal route; some believe it would be futile to try. "We don't know what to do," says Nicky "Godzilla" Trice, recalling how a move by his former crew, Rifical Team, was used in Beyoncé’s "Run The World (Girls)" video. "It’s not like we can email Beyoncé."

The new dancehall generation is starting to realise their immense market value. Unlike their predecessors, they no longer have to spend money travelling to parties every night to get their moves to catch on (though that is still important); they can also distribute them much more widely, and at no cost, on Instagram. As Hope says, "It reduces all of the financial barriers, the geographical barriers, the temporal barriers." Dancehall stars bombard the platform with choreography, selfies and footage of themselves dancing at street parties.

Using captions, hashtags and timestamps on their posts, dancers stake ownership claims that Bellamy says could pass muster in the copyright office. But on Instagram, dancers don’t even have to make a legal appeal to call out thieves, as Kimiko Versatile and her fans proved in December, when a Chilean dancer posted a video of herself teaching Versatile's move, Watch Di Pumz, and did not credit Kimiko as the creator.

Versatile responded by posting a series of videos to her 30,000-plus Instagram followers in which she furiously attacked foreign dancers for "stealing" her moves. "Me affi speak up for my culture […] We know the true essence of dancehall, and share it, and you wanna come and be some [culture] vulture?" she shouted into the camera. The Chilean dancer agreed to take her video down, after thousands of people liked and commented on Versatile’s response videos, applauding her for fighting back against what they see as cultural appropriation.

But some crews, like Overload Skankaz, feel getting official credit is not important. When Ne-Yo used their move Chowblowow in the video for his 2018 single "Push Back", Overload reposted the videos on Instagram. They said that they were happy they had been featured, despite the fact that the promotion of both tracks made no initial mention of dancehall.

"Me more than happy, you understand," says Teroy Dobson of the group, who claims he has been able to use the attention to help himself score opportunities to travel and teach abroad – opportunities that have long been restricted to Jamaican artists because of funds or visa issues. In the past year he has made his first tours to Canada and Europe. "If we build a dance in Jamaica, in Bog Walk, and it reach so far across the water, it's a blast," he says.

"In dancing, every sweat has a meaning," says the dancer Godzilla. "Every sweat has a feeling, every sweat has a spirituality, every sweat has something to believe in." Like other dances of the African diaspora, dancehall at its core is a form of call-and-response; one dancer moves and the next responds by either repeating the move or presenting a complementary one of their own. And it’s part of a transatlantic conversation, too: as Jamaican dancers increasingly share their moves on social media, they’re demanding recognition.

@hansermoore / @constanzehan

Tagged:
dance
dancehall
Notting HIll Carnival
JAMAICA