Sonjah Stanley Niaah’s Dancehall Chronicles

Finally, someone with a PhD who speaks a language that de man pon de street can understand.” Nazma Muller loved Sonjah Stanley Niaah’s new book

  • Sonjah Stanley Niaah. Photograph courtesy photographer Donnette Zacca
  • Sound System Selectors at the controls (c 1969). Photograph courtesy of Jamaica Gleaner Co.,
  • Advertising the latest dance events a on utility pole. Photograph courtesy of Roy Sweetland
  • Swedish patrons at the Passa Passa dance event. Photograph by Sonjah Stanley Niaah
  • Book cover

The only problem with reading Dancehall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto is resisting the urge to put on some Beenie Man and just bruk out. Rarely has an academic tome so delighted a reader. Finally, someone with a PhD who speaks a language that de man pon de street can understand. And appreciate.

This is the Bible of dancehall. From Japanese DJ Ackee to the Zip It Up dance, it’s all here – the A to Z of a music, a movement that started in the Eighties in Kingston’s ghettos and can now be heard almost everywhere in the world. Author Sonjah Stanley Niaah chronicles dancehall as a distinct phenomenon from reggae, pinpointing the exact moment that the music of Jamaica began to change – from the “conscious” music of the Seventies to the riches-and-fame obsession of the Eighties and Nineties. She puts dance, movement of the body, and how it influences identity, at the centre of her thesis. She also highlights how dancehall creates a community of its fans, forged from the need for solidarity, a space where people communicate, without words, bumping, grinding, and shaking away their woes.

“Dancehall is space, culture, attitude, fashion, dance, life/style, economic tool, institution, stage, social mirror, language, ritual, social movement, profile, profession, brand name, community and tool of articulation for, especially, inner-city dwellers, who continually respond to the vibe expressed through the words, ‘Without the dancehall a wha’ wi woulda do, reggae music call you must answer to…’ (from ‘Pull It Up’ by Buju Banton and Beres Hammond, 1999),” writes Stanley Niaah. And she details each and every one of these elements.

Even if you are not a fan of dancehall, when you see British-Sri Lankan pop artiste M.I.A. shaking her booty in a batty rider to “Galang”, one of her many dancehall-inflected hits, you understand immediately the power of this music to cross geographical and cultural boundaries. In this exhaustive yet exhilarating study, Stanley Niaah maps out just how this came to be.

As she describes it, Dancehall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto is an ecological study of dancehall and the dance hall – as a performance “space” that ghetto people, living on the margins of Jamaican society, created to celebrate life and “livity”. What Stanley Niaah, a senior lecturer in cultural studies at the University of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica, has done is to trace the lineage of dancehall back to the almost infernal claustrophobia of the slave-ship experience to the corners and streets in ghettos like Rae Town and Matthew’s Lane, the narrow lanes with zinc fence on both sides, to Cactus nightclub in Portmore in the late Nineties where the A/C could never work hard enough to cool the hundreds of writhing bodies packed into the club, to its present-day incarnations in South African kwaito and Latino reggaetón.

Stanley Niaah highlights the power of both dancehall and the dance hall to unite communities. “My most memorable dance event – I love community events over stage shows – is one which used to take place in Fletcher’s Land called Dutty Fridaze,” she recalled. “It is one in which the entire community is involved and herein can be seen the essence of events being about realising the power of co-operative celebratory practices and economics. Orlando Patterson called this ‘bonds of solidarity’. I love that concept.”

Relying on her grounding in geography, sociology and cultural studies, Stanley Niaah has produced an exhaustive study that maps dancehall’s geography from new angles and deeper insights. Her research included interviews with DJs, singers, dancers and promoters; details of the numerous events held throughout Jamaica (Passa Passa, Dutty Fridaze, stage shows, the annual Dancehall Queen showdown); the dozens of dance moves created in Jamaica between 1986 and 2009 (wine and go down, worl’ dance, tatti, mock di dread, sketel, signal de plane, chaka chaka and tek weh yuhself are just a few); it even tables Buju Banton’s 2009 (pre-incarceration) Rasta Got Soul tour schedule.

But Stanley Niaah, the inaugural Rhodes Trust Rex Nettleford Fellow in Cultural Studies (2005), also brings an impressive bibliography of anthropological research from across the Black Atlantic to bear on this text. For example, when she talks about the athleticism of Stacey, Dancehall Queen 1999, whose forte is the head-top dance on roofs and on towers of speakers, Stanley Niaah references Omofolabo Ajayi’s Yoruba Dance: The Semiotics of Movement and Body Attitude in a Nigerian Culture (1998). To the Yoruba people of Nigeria, Benin and Ghana, “the body that dances with spiritual and pious fervour in worshipping God” and that same body dancing with “sensual pleasure and delight on social and courtship occasions” evokes no contradiction. Indeed, one only has to look at how easily dancehall has converted some born-again Christians, who hum and raise their hands to Mr Vegas’ “I Am Blessed”.

This meeting of the spiritual and sensual in dance is, perhaps, the secret to dancehall’s universal appeal. Stanley Niaah says: “There is no separation. I understand that life is about energy which can be transmitted or manifested in various ways. There is only energy. It was with this understanding and appreciation that I wrote the book. What’s interesting is that the meeting of spiritual and sensual is completely understood at the level of human chemistry by everyone. What interferes with the appreciation of this in the context of dancehall, of course, is class.

“However, this is a veneer that is put in place by those in positions of power only temporarily because of the puritanical moral ethic we have inherited from the civilizing mission and the process of Christianising the enslaved as part of the process.”

Although she is not a Rasta, Stanley Niaah describes herself as “Rasta at heart, which is more powerful for me. The centre of my being is oriented toward renewing ties to lost practices, lost ways of being and lost consciousness about the African world. Rasta keeps us reminded about the necessity to reconnect with Africa and I am Rasta at heart because I recognise the importance of the need for this connection.”

With Dancehall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto she has reconnected dancehall to Africa, to its roots and culture. With this work, she shows the potential for scholarship of real topics that concern and have an impact on ordinary people, and how they in turn have had a real impact on the world.

Dancehall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto Sonjah Stanley Niaah
(University of Ottawa Press, ISBN 978-0-7766-0736-8, 260pp)