Isis Semaj-Hall

In the region that I come from, there is a fear, it seems, that freedom of expression is a contagious, moral disease.  

I am partially talking about the fear that permitting curse words at a high-decibel concert, for example, will infect the airwaves with bad morals. And I am also partially referring to the 2019 Edna Manley College of Visual and Performing Arts valedictory speech heard across the internet. But it seems that using “bad words” is not the only contagion.  What else is there, you ask? Let me show you via the digression of a personal story from the margins of music and gender. 

In July of 2019 I was invited to moderate the Reggae Sumfest Symposium panel on women in Jamaican music. I did my research and put together some powerful opening words. I spoke with women singers, managers, agents, and an actress in the business. I was stirred by their stories of gendered discrimination and I recognized that the space of that symposium was not enough to unburden them of their gendered experiences. But, for all the dynamism in the panel discussion, it is in an off-handed introduction and an awkward whisper that I reveal the unspoken anxiety that goes untreated in Jamaica. 

When I arrived at the symposium, I had seen my father and gone to greet him as he stood with a few men.  I said hello to all and my father offered my introduction. “This is my daughter,” he said to the men. Then in what was meant as a joke, he quietly whispered to me, “even though you seem to look like a son.” I held my smile, considered my response, then said, “Do you have a problem with my summer white pants suit?” He seemed to pause and deliberate, then ultimately answered non-verbally with two flatly raised eyebrows. Of the two-hundred-plus guests and speakers present at the event, about half were women. I had not noticed it then, but I was the only woman in a pants suit. The joke made me question how my femininity was being perceived and what intentional or unintentional messages I was sending as a woman in that space.

I could digress further to tell a story about the hair cut that some folks warned me not to get in Jamaica because it would be “too masculine;” but I would rather make my larger point by noting that despite that warning, over the last three and a half years, the most common comment that my hair has motivated men or women across class and other lines to say to me is: “I wish I could wear my hair like you.” I used to respond with encouragement and the phone number of my barber, but their follow-ups exposed that follicular fortitude and a proper stylist were not what held these commenters back. They elected to limit their own self-expression because they were restrained by fear of judgement and discrimination associated with non-conformity and non-normativity in Jamaica. 

 “Maybe in ten years there won’t be ‘men’s clothes’ and ‘women’s clothes,’ maybe there will just be clothes.”

Ideally, we should all dress how we want to dress, style ourselves how we want to style ourselves, and identify however we feel to do so.  Ideally, we are Ms or Mr or Mx, confidently throwing caution to the tropical winds. But, to quote the questioning call for this issue of PREE, are we all “free to bumboclaat be”?  No, it doesn’t seem that we are there yet. But there is hope because the contemporary music mix tells me so. I have been looking and listening for the possibilities and change is here and it is growing. Before I continue though, I offer this disclaimer. 

My analysis of the sights and sounds of Jamaica’s contemporary music scene reveals inclusive possibilities. My assertions are grounded in critical analysis of the visuals and lyrics presented by a few music artistes or their marketing teams. My analysis is not of the intent of the artistes themselves nor are my critiques directed at the artistes as individuals. Instead, I am showing that these contemporary artistes are releasing music and visuals that can be read as inclusively aware of the needs of a new generation of music listeners who are ready to express themselves free of gender’s constraints and free of sexuality discrimination.

In 2017 the New York-based Portmore-born dancehall singer Hoodcelebrityy released “Walking Trophy” and one of the two official music videos released to YouTube audaciously features Instagram personality Chrissy DHK.  Chrissy DHK, “a chubby, bearded man in a platinum wig and skirt appears, dropping into a split in the fashion of Jamaica’s dancehall queens. It’s not the sort of inclusion we’re used to seeing in dancehall, for decades associated with the anti-gay fervor of songs like Buju Banton’s ‘Boom Bye Bye.’ 

But dancehall does have a gay and lesbian following. For practically the first time, someone with a voice in the genre is acknowledging their presence,” to quote music writer Jesse Serwer. Through the casting decisions used for her music video, Hoodcelebrityy can be read as a dancehall artiste who is not just praising those cisgender women who choose to subscribe to traditional gender norms, but also celebrating those who are transgender and transsexual as well.  Furthermore, by incorporating the aesthetics of queer ballroom culture “Walking Trophy” shows how blurry the line has always been between ballroom aesthetics and some of the aesthetics of dancehall. With this music video, Hoodcelebrityy can be seen as creating an inclusive space for all listeners – regardless of their body type, gender presentation, or sexuality – to be recognized as “walking trophies.”  

In 2018 Chronixx’s Chronology album was nominated for the reggae Grammy. Many of the songs have become crowd-pleasing anthems: “Spanish Town Rockin,’” “Skankin’ Sweet,” “Smile Jamaica,” the Coldplay-esque “I Can,” “Black Is Beautiful,” and the dancehall style “Likes.”  The album was released in 2017 and the album’s artwork immediately struck me as a simultaneous departure from traditional reggae imagery and a curious return to one of the more controversial reggae lyrics of all time.  

Examining the shapes and colors presented on the Chronology album cover, I was flooded with the 1971 words of Bob Marley on the Lee Perry produced “Sun Is Shining” single: “I want you to know, I’m a rainbow too.”  The arched font of Chronixx’s name above and the downward-arched album name below the singer’s face in profile were in the shape of right-side-up and upside-down rainbows. I looked past the gray-scale head of the dreadlocked singer to take in the background colors. More than the red-gold-and-green of Rastafari are seen in the colorful spectrum.  Even without the red and violet edges of a rainbow, the album could be read as a flag of inclusion.  

Analyzing the album’s bold visuals, I wondered if this design was meant to communicate a signal of welcoming embrace to the LGBTQ fans of Jamaican music.  I wondered if this album cover could help to undo the international perception that Jamaica’s music is wholly homophobic. I wondered if the artwork presented on Chronology employed rainbow colors and rainbow shapes to present a Jamaican covenant of peace to the LGBTQ community.   

And now in 2019, I continue to wonder about the messages that our contemporary Jamaican artistes are sharing intentionally or unintentionally to the world. I think of the young Koffee and the Grammy nominated EP Rapture that was released at the start of this year. The worldwide love that this young, fresh artiste has received has been inspiring. And Jamaica has been more than proud of the way that Koffee has used rhythm and words – not sex – to sell music and grab number one positions on the music charts. 

On closely analyzing the EP, I have taken note that Koffee grabbed top-slots and a Grammy nomination without using a single self-identifying gendered pronoun. On each of the Rapture tracks, Koffee has referred to Koffee as Koffee. Whether this is Koffee taking a position or Koffee simply trying to reinforce brand recognition for the listener, the fact that Koffee’s lyrics do not refer to Koffee using any pronouns, can be read as radically inclusive of the genderqueer fans of Jamaica’s music. Notably, Koffee has also maintained this non-pronoun status when featured on other artistes’ singles. Reading Koffee this way may suggest that Jamaica’s contemporary music is moving towards greater inclusion and can free a listener to be herself, himself, or the gender neutral themselves.

Hoodcelebrityy, Chronixx, and Koffee, at just nineteen years old, have released these music projects during a revolutionary couple of years.  Whether we are in active battle or not, we are all soldiering through a gender revolution that some traditionalists might argue is a war on society. This revolution may be quiet for some, but it screams at, exiles, closets, and kills others. And this revolution – like all of our confrontations with oppression – is being recorded in our music. 

I sighed and mumbled, “aren’t the bathrooms in your homes gender neutral?”

Walter Rodney was seen as someone who was disruptively infecting Jamaica’s poor and educated with the confidence to be rebelliously self-expressive, and for that he was barred from re-entering Jamaica in 1968.  Today the perceived carriers of self-expression enter much more easily through social media and cable television. For example, CNN and the BBC have presented Jamaicans with the very public American and European discussions and court cases regarding gender neutral bathrooms.

I remember being in the Tax Office queue in Crossroads in Kingston and seeing a scroll about “male/ female/ gender non-disclosing” restrooms being displayed at the bottom of an American news channel. One woman who was ahead of me on the line was audibly disturbed by the report. She kissed her teeth loudly, folded her arms, and said to anyone who would return support, “That is why my pickney will never go live inna foreign. I rather dead than have my good-good daughter go to America and turn into a man. Not my daughter!  America full up ah problem! My daughter nah go America and decide say she is a man. My daughter a go stay right yasso, inna Jamaica.” 

The amens came in as soon as she finished her speech.  Queue members called out their support: “Ah so dem stay in America!”, “Man fi go ah man bathroom and woman affi go a woman bathroom, no bodda confuse di pickney dem with nonsense neutral toilet!”  The initial preacher closed out her brief sermon with a final word: “Too much gay and lesbian ting in America.”  The Tax Office congregation all nodded with a few last “mmhmms” and quiet was restored to the government queue. I sighed and mumbled, “aren’t the bathrooms in your homes gender neutral?” The grumblers’ “mmmhmms” were too loud. No one heard my question.  

A gender-neutral bathroom does not alter one’s gender identity. But living in a family community or a national community that accepts you for how you self-express your gender or sexuality is still just a dream for many in Jamaica and in the Caribbean. But maybe the danceable messages in the music will help to free the people to be more inclusive. Maybe instead of preventing exposure to self-expression, just maybe we will seek a cure for ignorance, shame, and discrimination.

In the 1980s, my Jamaican father was banned from traveling to Antigua, Dominica, St. Kitts and the British Virgin Islands. The reason given was that his hair was too provocative, as his dreadlocks did not conform to standards of normativity. Because he looked like a Rasta rebel, he was treated like a Rasta rebel. This would not happen today. Times have changed. Give thanks to all those who blazed that trail. Still there is more work to be done. I will continue to assert myself as a woman whose femininity is not limited to clothing choices and hair style. And in my own little family, my husband and I will continue to raise our strong girls free of gender’s crippling constraints.

That said, I have one more digression. Very, very recently my daughters were discussing their fashion plans for when they become big-big adults. Currently limited to the very traditionally gendered school uniforms of primary school, they are looking forward to wearing sneakers most of the time and sporting super high heels when they felt like it. They also said they will wear “men’s shirts as dresses” and maybe even “men’s pants” like Alessia Cara. They asked what I thought of this. I smiled and replied, “Maybe in ten years there won’t be ‘men’s clothes’ and ‘women’s clothes,’ maybe there will just be clothes.”  They paused very briefly then burst into cheers of excitement for this is the kind of reality that makes sense to them. Let no fear hold them. Let the children be free to bumboclaat be.

Image credit: Marlon Rampersad @funkyzombie. Trinidad and Tobago.

Isis Semaj-Hall is the Riddim Writer. She is a decolonial feminist and cultural analyst with a creative practice nurtured by sound. She is a co-founder and editor of PREE and the author of the “write pon di riddim” blog. Her “For Posterity” podcast is loading and her manuscript titled “On the B-Side” is forthcoming. Dr. Isis Semaj-Hall is a lecturer in the Department of Literatures in English, where she specializes in Caribbean literature, the creative digital, and Caribbean popular culture at the University of the West Indies, Mona.