Readings on Dancehall

“Dancehall space — physical and political — is central to urban and national identity. It is contradictory, nomadic, communal, hierarchical, competitive, celebratory and sacred.”

- Sonjah Stanley Niaah

   Dancehall star Tiger composes at home.   (Photograph copyright Beth Lesser. Courtesy of Soul Jazz Records Publishing.)

Dancehall star Tiger composes at home. (Photograph copyright Beth Lesser. Courtesy of Soul Jazz Records Publishing.)


Researching Dancehall music went beyond reading articles and books, although those helped tremendously. I read the works of Carolyn Cooper, Sonjah Stanley Niaah, and Donna P. Hope--all Caribbean black women--who brought Dancehall culture and music to the forefront when discussing things like race, African diaspora, and Caribbean culture. I found it fittingly ironic that these black women were writing about aspects of their culture which is (still) dominated by masculinity, offering supporting, refreshing, and insightful criticism.

TEXTS I have read (still read) and recommend:

Dancehall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto by Sonjah Stanley Niaah: “DanceHall combines cultural geography, performance studies and cultural studies to examine performance culture across the Black Atlantic. Taking Jamaican dancehall music as its prime example,DanceHall reveals a complex web of cultural practices, politics, rituals, philosophies, and survival strategies that link Caribbean, African and African diasporic performance.”

Inna Di Dancehall: Popular Culture and the Politics of Identity in Jamaica by Donna P. Hope: “This work provides an accessible account of a poorly understood aspect of Jamaican popular culture. It explores the socio-political meanings of Jamaica's dancehall culture. In particular, the book gives an account of the power relations within the dancehall and between the dancehall and the wider Jamaican society. Hope gives the reader an unmatched insider's view and explanation of power, violence and gender relations in Jamaica as seen through the prism of the dancehall.”

Man Vibes: Masculinities in Jamaican Dancehall by Donna P. Hope: “Man Vibes: Masculinities in Jamaican Dancehall examines Jamaican masculinity through the lenses of the popular and highly controversial dancehall music and culture. Breaking new ground, this book joins the growing movement seeking to shift the Caribbean gender studies discourse from its highly feminized viewpoint to a balanced discourse which seeks to include men.”

Sound Clash: Jamaican Dancehall Culture at Large by Carolyn Cooper: “In this provocative study of dancehall culture, Cooper offers a sympathetic account of the philosophy of a wide range of dancehall DJs: Shabba Ranks, Lady Saw, Ninjaman, Capleton, Buju Banton, Anthony B and Apache Indian. Cooper also demonstrates the ways in which the language of dancehall culture, often devalued as mere 'noise,' articulates a complex understanding of the border clashes which characterize Jamaican society, and analyzes the sound clashes that erupt in the movement of Jamaican dancehall culture across national borders.”

Wake the Town and Tell the People: Dancehall Culture in Jamaica by Norma C. Stolzoff: “Jamaican dancehall has long been one of the most vital and influential cultural and artistic forces within contemporary global music. Wake the Town and Tell the People presents, for the first time, a lively, nuanced, and comprehensive view of this musical and cultural phenomenon: its growth and historical role within Jamaican society, its economy of star making, its technology of production, its performative practices, and its capacity to channel political beliefs through popular culture in ways that are urgent, tangible, and lasting.”

Reading these books really enlightened me to how deep Dancehall is rooted in Jamaican culture, even politics. You can’t discuss Dancehall without discussing the soundsytems, the style, the dances, and the ways in which Dancehalls are spaces of agency, freedom, and expression. To truly understand Dancehall music I knew I had to understand the culture it comes from and the people who create and perpetuate the culture.

ARTICLES I recommend for folks to read:

“Readings of ‘Ritual’ and Community in Dancehall Performance” by Sonjah Stanley Niaah:

“Through over twelve years’ participation in and observation of Dancehall events and their character, I want to highlight that the nature of these celebrations speaks to something ancient and new in the meanings attached to everyday life. There is a sense in which performance through dance in Dancehall events constitutes a street drama of total aesthetic and psychic transformation.”

“Fashin Ova Style: Contemporary Notions of Skin Bleaching in Jamaican Dancehall Culture” by Donna P. Hope

“This paper explores skin lightening or ‘bleaching’ in Jamaica through the lens of popular dancehall culture.  In Jamaica, skin lightening or bleaching is commonly problematized as the superficial manifestation of low self-esteem and/or ideals of whiteness purportedly working in concert to negate a black, African identity in a Eurocentric region.”

“Blackness, Resistance, and Consciousness in Dancehall Culture” by Angelique V. Nixon

“My focus on Blackness comes from what I hear in the music, but more specifically because I think reggae and dancehall have been, and continue to be, instrumental in defining and marking a Caribbean Blackness, which of course is linked in complex ways to U.S. Black culture. Blackness is conceptually at best indefinable, diverse, and complicated; yet we cannot deny the embodiment of Blackness just as we cannot deny the effect of commodity culture on Black subjectivities across the African Diaspora.”

DOCS I found helpful:

Noisey’s Jamaica series (2013): Each episode focuses a different aspect of Dancehall culture--from style, to dances and artists such as Popcaan, Spice, and Vybz Kartel. (link)

Made in Jamaica:The film starts with the murder of one of Dancehall’s leading stars, Bogle, which kicks off this raw, passionate and compelling documentary on the history and evolution of the Reggae and Dancehall music scene in Jamaica. This film is a must-see documentary for anyone interested in Jamaica's rich and vibrant music scene.” (link)

Out and Bad: London’s LGBT Dancehall Scene: “Noisey Films presents a new documentary about the LGBT Dancehall scene in London. In the early 2000’s the UK saw an influx of young gay Jamaican’s fleeing their country's anti-gay laws. They would either have to hide who they were or risk abuse and in some cases death, yet on their arrival in the UK they found home and family in each other, throwing the best underground Jamaican dancehall parties this side of the Atlantic in the homeless hostels they sought refuge in.” (link)