It’s 8 pm on a muggy mid-December night, and Kingston’s humidity is melding with my sweat, clinging like saran wrap to my skin. There is an electrifying excitement in the air; a readiness to indulge in the tantalising taste of freedom after months of government-enforced weekend house arrests and impossibly early curfews had kept our collective psyches captive in the solitary confinement of our homes. We, a motley crew of Jamaicans & red-green-gold loving tourists, have descended upon an upmarket herb house notorious for its large wrap-around wooden verandah, dark and cloudy smoke room, branded drug smuggling aeroplane and routine celebrity musician sightings. We’re here for Dancehall night and a chance to immerse ourselves in a semblance of pre-pandemic “normalcy.” The last few months had been particularly heavy. I had underestimated the social isolation I would feel as a returning resident, repatriating and rebuilding my life on the island, in the height of a pandemic, after 16 years living abroad. I am basking in this much-needed win, flanked on both sides by my blossoming social circle – women I found friendship with via social media and memorable chance encounters.
The DJ spins a chune and Vybz Kartel’s lyricism erupts from the speakers and begins doing somersaults through the night air: “Mi nah nuh change a change. A suh mi grow ah suh mi grow — Foreigners if unno neva know. Ask di tourist board, ’bout my scheme.” He is cheered on by bangs of approval: palms against counter-tops, fists against walls, vocal chords like fireworks, gun fingers sending off invisible bullets into the night air. It’s my first time hearing this song and I’m not quite sure how to join this collective outburst of energy. I give my best stush gyal shimmy, my shoulders puppeteered by invisible strings flowing from the spinning turntables. I’m finally settling into the rhythm when the mix switches and Ding Dong grabs the airwaves from Vybz, commanding us to “Flairy.” Once again the crowd erupts— in a synchronised wave movement— limbs flailing up and brought down with force, feet flowing sideways in unison and in waves with the beat. I watch in awe as a bad gyal wearing a batty-rider and bridgettes snakes her hips to Aidonia’s rhythm, smoothly making her way to the ground, defying gravity with her awe-inducing knee strength. A few feet away, a man wearing Clarks and fitted jeans belts out every word, lyric for lyric, with such emphasis and clarity you would think he penned the song himself. I look around at the self-assured crowd, equally captivated and sunken, clutching my sweating bottle of Red Stripe Sorrel. Stunned by lack of familiarity and self-consciousness, a wave of internal panic floods me with an unwelcome narrative that’s been on loop in my mind for years: “How you call yourself a Jamaican and yuh cyaan dance?” I opt to drown these thoughts with a stronger choice of liquid courage.
I edge my way to the bar feeling like a fish out of water in the midst of Crocodile Teeth, making it right on time for the Breadfruit. Externally, I look like someone waiting to catch the bartender’s attention so I can get my pineapple juice with white rum. Internally, I’m an anxious mess cycling through a rolodex of questions: Is there a YouTube or Tik Tok tutorial everyone memorised before they got here? If I turn my screen brightness all the way down will anyone notice if I take out my phone and Shazam this song? What is the equivalent of WD40 for your hips and knees? Will I ever know these lyrics, recounting them with the same passion, like we sing hand-over-heart our national anthem? Is my Jamerican showing? Am I even a part of this culture?
I pay for my drink and reunite with my little group, where I spend the rest of the night wrangling the only parts of my body that seem to be fluid and mobile. I’m convinced I stick out like a sore thumb, the foreigner who has been away for far too long. These beats hug my body like a skintight neon green leotard, which in the hands of any of these Dancehall Queens would have been styled and accessorised to perfection, but on me squeezes uncomfortably tight in all the wrong places, chafing against my insecurities. Would it have made a difference if I had spent my pre-teen years training my limbs to Beenie Man and Bounty Killa instead of the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears? It’s highly unlikely. Dancehall’s spirit reflects its lived realities, one I could never know as someone who grew up in the suburbs, far removed from the grit and genesis of its street culture. I left the party feeling a sting of defeat and a sense of loss; I’d repatriated hoping to renew my Jamaican culture card only to have my American card stamped and laminated instead.
It’s 7 pm on a breezy early-April night and I’m in the backseat of my boyfriend’s best friend’s black Kia bolting up the serpentine hills of St Andrew for an alternative kind of Sunday worship. My flowy leopard print dress and I are in the backseat trying to keep my stomach settled as we swerve around crater sized potholes in the narrow, cliff-side roads. I breathe a sigh of relief once we’ve finally parked, and my feet steady themselves on the gravelled ground. We make our way past hilltop castles towards Kingston’s legendary Dub Club, and I admire Kingston’s twinkling landscape in all her glory before being greeted by a thrumming bass and dreadlocked gatekeeper. We pay our $1000 JMD entry fee then descend a steep, winding path of stone steps to enter a United Nations assembly of dreaded kin who’ve flocked in from countries spanning the globe. Ganja tendrils swirl through the air, inviting the boys to fire up the coals for the steam chalice. My ears are tickled by all the different accents; some I can place— American, British, Jamaican, German. Others I can’t, and I am intrigued by the journeys they took to arrive here. I find myself trying to play it cool, and withhold from reaching for my phone to snap pictures of every inch of this beautiful space: the large, long-limbed tree that holds court in the centre of a sky-deck patio overlooking the city, the well-worn hammocks tucked away in the corner, the towering speakers labelled “Rastafari Rockers Sound Station” with off-kilter red, green and gold cutout letters, the bold faced typography adorning the flyers displayed on the walls, an archival gallery of past gatherings. This is the “reggae” aesthetic boutique hotels across the island pay designers to recreate in their spaces, hoping to lure in tourist dollars; their formulaic approach never quite captures the rugged authenticity that is ingrained in the DNA of this iconic space.
We get our drinks then make our way down some narrow stairs by the bar and up another set of stairs towards the main dancefloor, where the selector captains a sea of swaying bodies, shored in by a wall of pulsating black speakers. Tonight, I’m a student of different lessons in style; empresses with long flowing dresses and longer flowing locs, a mixed crowd donning hair in all its forms – fros, braids, pixie cuts, buns, kinks, coils, curls. The selector directs us: “mek dem tone, soak inna yuh bone” and a Rastaman hops to the beat as if in a trance, one leg alternating left/right/left/right clapping his hands in rhythm while spinning clockwise. Another is chanting the songs gesturing his hands towards the booth as if the artiste has taken his thoughts and gently led them into the night air. There’s an individuality in both of their movements that flows in concert with each other, conducted by the selector, and the bumping of the bass. Suddenly, the darkness is punctuated in quick succession by flashes from lighters, flaming fire torches and the crowd’s glee over the opening melodies of 5 Star Celestial’s soulful track – Govern I Path: “Anywhere I go, Anywhere I time I walk, Oh Haile I, Govern I Path, Through the hills and valleys I walk, even when the valley gets dark.” The air erupts with salutations and praise of the trancelike dub pulsing in the sky, luring our heart beats to a mystic land infusing its sense of home into our limbs and our spirits. Bouncing next to me, is my partner, decked out in shades of forest green, burgundy and brown that, on the surface, aren’t the most apparent match but somehow blend beautifully on his long, lithe stature. I smile in love as he moves fluidly to the beat, his favourite lyrics punctuated by a two-gun finger salute and the obligatory audible “bang, bang, bang!” I close my eyes and enjoy the sensation of decibels guiding the blood through my veins. I’m not quite sure what my body is doing but am assured by how it sways in sync with the melody. I feel more in tune with myself here.
Hours later the night ends and we make the trek back up the steep stone stairs, feeling the burn in my thighs, the drumming in my heart and my breathing shallow as I test my physical stamina rock-climbing up what feels like a never-ending incline. Once we make it to the top I look out once again at the glittering skyline and think for a split second of my more conservative family members and their scorn of all things Rastafarian. I grew up with a second-hand understanding that this culture was taboo — being one generation removed from a familial fear of children going off to college, smoking herb and turning Rasta. There are still large segments of the population whose opinions bear the scars of Bustamante’s bigotry: “Bring in all Rastas, dead or alive.” I think of resistance and its role as the bedrock of culture; how a Bad Friday in 1963 would over the years conjure what, for many of us, becomes the best part of Sunday; how this space, with its energy so humble, clean and pure, feels like a mini-sanctuary, for a community that is til this day still institutionally scorned: schools refusing entry to students with “non-compliant” aka afro hair, policemen cutting off teenager’s locks, deep-rooted violent histories baked into national policies…I shoo these interrogations away so I can hold onto this sensation of alignment a little longer.
It’s 4:00 pm on a scorching early-July afternoon and I’m dancing on the median on Knutsford Boulevard, parting a river of feathers, sequins and bursts of neon colours flowing down the New Kingston street. A big truck blaring Patrice Roberts slowly ambles by, flanked on all sides by wining revellers who’ve survived the sun and their rum to make it to the final lap of mas. My emotions are awash with euphoria, swimming in the sweet sounds of Soca: “It’s just a wine, Just a little wine, Ain’t no harm in that, right? Oh, we having a good time.” One by one, each truck passes, carrying with it another melody rinsed and repeated on my Spotify playlist.
I am most beautiful and at home within myself here. My joy and elation crescendo, I’m belting the lyrics as loudly as my vocal cords will allow me, my smile spread wide and beaming across my face, my sense of freedom unleashed in the instinctive, unyielding roll in my hips. I credit my mother for this sense of homecoming. In the summer of 1992, her love of all things Soca and Calypso intoxicated her at 7-months pregnant; beseeching her to ignore her doctor’s bedrest orders and convince my concerned father to drive her to a Soca party in St Mary, where she promised she would enjoy the party sitting. I arrived in the world two days later, impatient and unwilling to miss the revelry of a good fete. I was raised on the vocal strength and stamina of Destra Garcia, Alison Hinds and Machel Montano, all of whom mentored me on many late nights dancing in front of bedroom and bathroom mirrors, where I wined and wined and wined until my back hurt, working to ward off years of American stiffness from my waistline.
I glance over at my partner who stands still in the crowd. I observe how he takes in the debauchery unfolding around him. Earlier in the week, he revealed this would be his first time experiencing pretty mas and road march. It came as a shock. So many of my fondest childhood memories are of my family and I walking a few blocks from our home on Carnival Sunday, where my brother and I were hoisted on top of a wall. There, we would wait with our bag juices and cotton candy in anticipation of the music soaking the streets. I grew up daydreaming of the day I too could wear the brightly colourful and large feathered costumes paraded by the stunning beauty queens, with their liquid waists and celestial smiles beaming into the sun. It wasn’t until he brought my attention to the geographically specific locations of fetes and the logistical planning it would require of someone living down the Boulevard without a vehicle that I considered, with shame, how I had never once thought deeply about the exclusiveness of Jamaican Carnival, where costumes and parties can run you hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars, USD.
Later that week I call my mum and we talk about Soca and Carnival. She shares with me how her own love of the culture was born, reflecting fondly on her university years and memories of jump up days on UWI Ring Road. It started with Byron Lee who, with his band the Dragonaires, brought Soca and Calypso parties to Jamaica in the 80s and 90s. She shares a story of the time she brought my grandma, an avid record collector and lover of music— country, mento, ska, calypso— to a fete where they bonded over seeing Byron Lee and The Dragonaires perform. I make space for the sweetness of her nostalgia coming through the phone, before mentioning the earlier conversation with my partner. Only then does she begin to remember how party organisers, since inception, would price out the segments of the population they found undesirable from their parties. The irony of Carnival and Mas, birthed across the Caribbean from a spirit of resistance, reclamation and rebellion: enslaved ancestors brazenly making fun in the face of colonisers, repackaged now in Jamaica as an experience catered towards the wealthy and the privileged, is not lost on me.
It’s 11:00 pm on a mild late-August night in Bed-Stuy. I’m sitting at a wooden picnic table with two of my favourite fire-sign friends and we are basking in the brilliance of the Jamaican artist whose dancehall-inspired augmented reality art exhibit we’ve come to enjoy. Every now and again we grimace as we catch a glimpse of the invasive white male photographer who has been non-consensually capturing our image with his intrusive camera lens. Inside the DJ is playing the hell out of her mix, merging decades of dancehall and reggae, beckoning us back inside to the surprisingly empty dance floor. We say goodbye to our Sagittarius sister before the pair of us indulge our Leo proclivities by propping our phones on the wall in selfie mode, recording videos of ourselves laughing, being carefree and wining in circles on the people dem dancefloor.
Maybe it’s because the party has emptied out, maybe it’s because I’m overjoyed to be reunited with one of my best friends after months of geographic separation, maybe it’s the freedom of anonymity and being in a big American city, or maybe it’s because I no longer care. Whatever the reason, I finally unleash my tensions and stush gyal shimmy to the sounds of Konshens’ Bad Gal: “Gyal if yuh too stush mi nuh like you. If you cyan mash ants mi nuh like you…Gyal fi tun up inna dance and whine up yuh body like yuh sure seh yuh body nah drop off.” The assuredness I’d prayed I’d find at that Dancehall party all those months ago, finally makes a welcome entry.
Later that night, I’m in the back of a cab admiring the New York City skyline as we cross the bridge heading back to my hotel in Midtown. I smile when I think about how good it felt to indulge in a little bit of home while being 1500 miles away. I recognise how during our sojourns in foreign lands, Jamaicans cling tight to the things that make us feel safe: identity, tradition, nostalgia, norms. My experiences this year are the first time I begin to think deeply about nationhood and nationality; questioning what it means to be “from” a place, and how that influences our understanding of ourselves based on our familiarity with our culture.
I think about my upbringing and how I was not raised in the part of Kingston where the legendary aspects of Jamaican culture were born and built. If we are being geographically specific, I am really not from Kingston at all. I can trace my upbringing to the 5-kilometre bubble in St. Andrew where language is policed, appearances are judged, and subversive musical art forms are struck down by our elders who deem them buttu and booguyaga; scorned and snuffed out by notions of respectability—only to be donned and presented like badges of authenticity by my generation to signal our Jamaicanness when we build our lives abroad. I suppose it explains why someone like me — raised in a conservative, uptown bubble — instinctively shrinks in the face of dancehall’s gritty street culture yet feels fully confident unfurling my limbs to Jamaica’s exclusivist carnival.
I think about the legacy of elitism in Jamaica’s uptown culture and its hypocrisy. Mesh ensembles and revealing clothing too uncouth in one scenario, but sequined bikinis and bare skin equated with glamour in another. I begin to examine how elitism condemns and vilifies the most beautiful parts of Jamaica’s long and strong musical legacy of disrupting norms; reflecting on why it is staunchly protective of its comfort and unwavering in its desire for the systems in place to remain the same. I wonder how much further along our cultural economy would be had we invested in and amplified, rather than stifled and punished artistic expression and experimentation. What if we had heeded Bob Marley’s lyrical words — “You’re a builder baby/ Here I am a stone/ Don’t you pick and refuse me/ ‘Cause the things people refuse/ Are the things they should use/ Do you hear me? Hear what I say/ The stone that the builder refused/Will always be the head cornerstone.”
Even now I wonder, what does culture represent in a time like this? Especially for diaspora babies like me who find ourselves straddling multiple geographies and identities, deciding where we want to land. I grow more comfortable recognizing culture as this ever-evolving current and stream. On the one hand, this presents ample opportunities for discomfort and that flopping in a dancehall party feeling. On the other hand, it presents an unending flow of newness — an infinite number of chances for diaspora residents to wade in the current before diving in, no matter how long they’ve been away.
Of course, any efforts to readjust to Jamaica’s culture after building a life in farrin will always be met with what I can only describe as mucking your way towards a river bank, where the mud of unfamiliarity meets the clear flow of lived experience. Attempts at reintegration kicks up the sediment and makes the water temporarily murky as you begin to recognise time has moved on without you. New songs have been released. New dances are making waves. The lexicon has changed. The tides may have washed away everything you know and knew. The bank may look the same, yet the grounds are different. It’s not the same river edge, and you are not the same person you were when you left the island. Eventually, the confusion settles and your sense of self and belonging once again becomes clear.
With regard to dancing, I will always feel like my clumsy nine-year-old self; she was never quite able to hit the mark, yet still earned the “most improved” award for consistent effort in her dance troupe. She and I are moulded in this soil, rhythmless and sweaty in Kingston, giving our best stush gyal shimmy until we can one day two-step into choreographed dance land.
“It’s not the same river edge, and you are not the same person you were when you left the island.”
Something we in diaspora know only too well. Beautiful use of the backdrop of the island sounds.