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Small Axe
“Slackness Personified,”
Historicized and Delegitimized
Sonjah Stanley Niaah
Maps establish reality, but also representation. As with all maps some spaces loom large and
some escape focus, depending on the projection. For cultural studies and postmodern interpretations in particular, mapping speaks to territory as much as to reality, representation, and
articulation. Using the metaphor of the map for books on culture, it is important to explain
the conceptual territory Cooper’s Sound Clash: Jamaican Dancehall Culture At Large occupies
in the context of academic writings on Caribbean popular culture, in particular dancehall
culture, and the politics of what is made visible, excessive, or absent.1
Scholarly approaches to dancehall have largely gained access through its music, with
“readings” that exclude the lifeworld embodied in for example the geography, performance,
and performers other than the DJ. Thus, even authors who explicitly try to step outside of
this reading, this text, fall into a kind of “music-mania” because the DJs, their lyrics, stage
performance, and politics, still form the basis for analysis.2 Existing works on dancehall
1. Some of the ideas contained here were presented at the 30th Annual CSA conference, (Santa Domingo) Dominican
Republic, May 30 – June 4, 2005, under the title “ ‘Dis Slackness Ting’: A Dichotomizing Master Narrative in
Jamaican Dancehall.” Thanks to Jalani Niaah, Deborah Thomas, and Paul Thompson, who gave critical comments
during the writing of this paper.
2. Emerging literature on dancehall spatiality and transnation, which blends cultural studies, cultural geography,
and performance studies, include Marvin Sterling, “In the Shadow of (the Universal Other): Performative
Identifications with Jamaican Culture in Japan,” (PhD diss., UCLA, 2002); Beth-Sarah Wright, “Speaking the
Unspeakable: Politics of the Vagina, Memory and Dance in Dancehall Docu-Videos,” Discourses in Dance 2, no.
2 (2004): 45–60; and Sonjah Stanley Niaah, “Kingston’s Dancehall: A Story of Space and Celebration,” Space and
Culture 7, no. 1 (2004): 102–118, “A Common Genealogy: Dancehall, Limbo and the Sacred Performance Space,”
Discourses in Dance 2, no. 2 (2004): 9–26, and “Making Space: Kingston’s Dancehall culture and its philosophy of
‘Boundarylessness’,” African Identities 2, no. 2 (2004): 117–132.
small axe 21 • October 2006 • p 174–185 • ISSN 0799-0537
Published by Duke University Press
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SX21 • October 2006 • Sonjah Stanley Niaah | 175
have hardly contributed to a historicization of the culture.3 Rather, they create a particular
kind of view, because the music—that is, structures such as lyrics, their performance and
politicization—has been the fulcrum or energizing force.
Sound Clash is an important expansion on Cooper’s 1993 highly acclaimed essay “Slackness Hiding from Culture.”4 Its contribution is significant and one which places dancehall
squarely in the realm of legitimate academic subject. Cooper is undoubtedly a forerunner and
gains full credit for consistently engaging dancehall from within the academy. In a broad sense,
Cooper addresses the hidden agendas of not only critics of several variety: those who have
critiqued her writings, statements, or presence in the media, and those who have critiqued
(knowingly or unknowingly) dancehall, but also those who have used dancehall as a platform
for their own anti-dancehall activism. The book is evidence of Cooper’s passion for the subject
and deep commitment to the cause of interpreting dancehall for the uninitiated.
The broad scope of Cooper’s engagement—dancehall culture at large—and her attempt
to depart from a portrayal of dancehall culture totally centered on DJ lyrics for a fuller contextualization in Jamaican politicized and sexualized society and the culture’s transnational
significance, is only partially achieved. The chapter “Mix up the Indian with all the Patwa:
Rajamuffin Sounds in ‘Cool’ Britannia,” which locates dancehall as a transnational sound and
style in the work of the Punjabi and British DJ Apache Indian, does not effectively locate or
historicize the wider musical genre that locates him. Bhangra is given one paragraph and an
opportunity is missed to make the point attempted in chapter 10, “The Dancehall Transnation,” which has an overwhelming emphasis on linguistics, literary history, and style. Bhangra
has a diaspora of its own with Canadian and African iterations that ultimately expand the
definition, scope, and influence of dancehall. Links can therefore be made into a transnational soundscape, to other genres directly influenced by dancehall such as kwaito, reggaeton,
makossa, samba reggae, and Afro beat, among others. The risk is that readers could slip into a
kind of Dawesian reading: “Cooper is never exhaustive . . . the metaphor of forerunner who
clears the ground for more lasting cultivation suits Cooper’s work here very well. She manages
in each chapter to propose just enough of a case to warrant further study.”5
My intention is not to review the book but to engage the chapter “Slackness Personified,”
which fails to contextualize slackness historically and within contemporary performance. It is
3. David Scott argues that “there is as yet no adequate cultural-history of dancehall” in Refashioning Futures: Criticism
After Postcoloniality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 192.
4. Carolyn Cooper, “Slackness Hiding From Culture: Erotic Play in the Dancehall,” in Noises in the Blood: Orality,
Gender and the “Vulgar” Body of Jamaican Popular Culture (London: Macmillan, 1993), 136–173.
5. Kwame Dawes, “Sound and Fury,” in The Caribbean Review of Books, new vol. 1, no. 4 (May 2005): 4–8.
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176 | SX21 • “Slackness Personified,” Historicized and Delegitimized
notable that academics, especially Cooper, have continually used notions such as “clashing”
and “slackness” even where the very purveyors and creators of dancehall have delegitimized
them. Sound Clash, somewhat of an anachronism, does not fully succeed in expanding and
updating the definition of dancehall. This is an imperative with expressive cultural products
and practices such as dancehall that shift with the shifting spaces and bodies that occupy
them and that they occupy. Notably, recent works on dancehall, and important old works that
precede Cooper’s, are not used to make important and new points regarding dancehall and its
representation. There is a reliance on lyrics without additional texts to map the socio-political
dimensions and evolution of Jamaican popular culture.
“Slackness Personified” or
“Slackness Hiding from Culture” Again
With Cooper’s earlier work and its criticisms as a backdrop, the chapter titled “Slackness
Personified: Representations of Female Sexuality in the Lyrics of Bob Marley and Shabba
Ranks” stood out for me.6 The aim is to compare the lyrics of Marley and Ranks, epitomizing Rasta-inspired reggae and misogynist dancehall, respectively. The author concludes that
Ranks’s lyrics are more liberating for women. The reason for pitching this Rastaman into
an ideologically defined comparison with a baldhead is based on the exaltation of reggae
“soothsayers” of Marley’s cultural love songs over Ranks’s “violence” and “slackness.” Cooper
argues that Bob Marley’s status as ultimate performer of “love songs” is unfounded based on
the handful of love songs versus the overwhelming number of politically subversive songs.
Further, the political subversion Marley fashioned and deployed mirrors Ranks’s subversion
in the sense of his radical sexual politics.
The arguments presented seem consistently to reify the very categorization that the author
questions as a premise for her comparison. However, Cooper is intent on explicating the differential sexual politics of the two. While she does this fairly successfully, there are a few problems.
First, the comparison feeds into many critics’ own lack of understanding of dancehall as one of
the New World black expressive cultures which is a music, style, language, social movement,
profession, and space. Indeed, dancehall is an institution that does not begin with Marley and
end with Ranks. The word first described the venues in which dance events of the low-income
Kingston population took place. They flourished around the late 1950s along with local music
and dance. Dancehall linked somatics, kinesics, and proxemics, a connection between bodily
6. See, for example, Norman Stolzoff, Wake the Town and Tell the People: Dancehall Culture in Jamaica (Durham: Duke
University Press, 2000).
Published by Duke University Press
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practice, spatial character and use, and the aural.7 It tells the story of a people’s survival and
need for celebration of that survival against imperialism and systems of exclusion. Ultimately
dancehall is the “choreographing” and “choreography” of an everyday identity that negotiates
and critiques aspects of Western domination, with the rude boy, Rastafari, DJ, promoters,
dancer, and dancehall crew members as key social actors and producers.
It is the voices of dancehall practitioners outside the Rastaman and the baldhead in
question that are not given any currency by Cooper though they are capable of speaking for
and defending themselves. The exclusion of some actors over others, even if one’s perspective
is from the lyrics, leads to ahistorical or exaggerated readings of a firmly contextualized yet
shifting space of representations. For example, a key premise of the author is that the “frailty
of both male and female flesh” of biblical history, espoused by Rastafari through the encounter
of Adam and Eve and Satan in particular, is used as the platform on which to explain Marley’s
conservatism and Ranks’s liberal sexual politics and gender relations. The theme of “fallen
woman,” fallen from grace (of man) through her misdemeanor, is highlighted and explained
using Marley’s “Pimper’s Paradise” (83). Yet Marley is not the typical Rastafari, not even a
conservative one as his numerous biographies suggest. Neither does he represent some finite
interpretation of Rastafari. To which manifestation of Rastafari—Nyabinghi, Boboshanti,
Twelve Tribe, or Ethiopian Orthodox—is the author referring? Such readings do not explain
the evolution of Rastafari gender and sexual systems or logic reflected in the music of Sizzla,
Capleton, and I-Wayne as contemporary examples.
In nailing the point about Marley’s conservatism to the cross and using Hammond’s
lyrics to suggest other partners in that crime, the lyrics of both artists are overinterpreted.
While this is totally subjective, my reading of Hammond’s “Rock Away” did not lead me to
conclude that, “there is little of value in the contemporary Dancehall scene” (79). My reading
of Marley’s “Waiting in Vain” did not suggest the themes of whore and pathos, no sadness or
tragedy. In fact, the protagonist is even relishing the anticipation and waiting: he affirms that
“the waiting feeling is fine.” His concern seems to be an aversion to “puppetry” where he is
played at will with strings or treated like a fool.
Interpretation is a major pillar in the business of representation, and while interpretations
differ, is Shabba really saying anything liberating or just stating the reality that women can
outpace or outperform men in the sex act when he asks “Who sey dat woman can done?” and
proclaims “woman don’t come to done” (85). Further, while Cooper pays far more attention
to Ranks’s sexual politics, greater attention to Ranks’s reality tunes would have made for a
7. Proxemics is a science developed by anthropologist Edward Hall concerning how space is handled, human reaction
to space, how space is used, and how use communicates facts and signs to others. I use it here to signal my
understanding of these spatial factors, in this case, within dancehall.
Published by Duke University Press
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178 | SX21 • “Slackness Personified,” Historicized and Delegitimized
more holistic reading of his lyrical contribution. And, what of Shabba’s politics, especially since
Marley’s accessible ideological stance puts Ranks at a disadvantage? The similarities between
the two in a wider picture are also understated, especially the “Africa” that both deploy for
“roots, culture and reality.” One type of engagement could have acknowledged that, beyond
the umbilical facts, African performance stands apart from that in the West because it is clearly
part of the fabric of life. Music, for example, as Africans view it, is not a thing of beauty to be
admired in isolation. Rather it exists only as woven into the larger milieu that also combines
games, dance, words, drama, and visual art.
In using contemporary examples like that of Hammond, the author could also have
highlighted artists who have expositions on the themes of drugs and whoredom in woman
as quintessentially representative of sexual and body politics. For example, Mr Vegas’s single
“Last Week (Constant Spring)” speaks to the promiscuous woman, as does Beenie Man of the
sketel or woman of low moral standards, or Spragga Benz of the woman trying to take other
women’s partners in the 1995 single “She Wrong.” There is also Mr Vegas’s “She’s a Hoe,” or
I-wayne’s “Can’t Satisfy Her.” Chakademus and Plyers speak of another kind of woman in
“Murder she Wrote.” There is also an updating of Marley’s “Waiting in Vain” in Buju Banton’s
“Man a look you”: “nuff man a look you / but mi nuh inna di race / cause no matter what /
mi mus’ affi place.”8
On the other hand, there are Rastas with an updated view of woman. In an interview,
Patricia Meschino asked contemporary Rastafarian DJ Capleton, “As a Rastafarian, how do
you regard women?”, Capleton responded:
The women them, you can’t do without them and they make it happen. The only thing is men
try to degrade them, call them sketel, battery dolly, all degrading thing. I come uplift them and
say woman is the empress; woman is the queen of the earth. Without her the birth of humanity isn’t even possible. [Tunes like] “#1 ‘pon the Look Good Charts,” “Special Guest,” “Good in
Her Clothes,” “Pure Woman,” “In Your Eyes.” The message is the main issue too. . . . Babylon is
determined to make them live like a harlot or live like a whore. I and I chant down them thing
and burn down them thing. What really ‘cause the problem in the world is the[y] fight down the
woman power. She can’t go upon the altar at certain time, can’t do this, can’t do that. In the Bible
she never wrote a chapter. Man want to be like woman. They teach you about the God but not
about the Goddess. God himself have to be born from the womb, so that mean that womb have
to be a Goddess womb so that really cause a problem. . . . Jah say it’s a king and a queen that cover
the earth.9
8. Buju Banton, “Man a Look You,” Just Ragga, vol. 8, CD, Jet Star, 2003; Chakademus & Pliers, “Murder She
Wrote,” All She Wrote, CD, Island, 1993; I-wayne, “Can’t Satisfy Her,” Lava Ground, CD ,VP Records, 2005; Mr
Vegas, “She’s a Hoe,” Damn Right, CD, Greensleeves, 2001; Mr Vegas, “Last Week (Constant Spring),” CD single,
Steelie and Clevie, 2005.
9. Capleton, interview with Patricia Meschino, 2003, http://www.murderdog.com/june03_articles/dancehall_artists/
capelton.htm. (accessed 31 August 2005). Also, Mortimo Planno, Rastafari Elder and Marley’s mentor, asserts
Published by Duke University Press
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The intergenerational difference in the definition of dancehall, and I might add Rastafari,
is also downplayed and might explain why the comparison is not a successful but more a sensational one. The fact is Bob Marley is stuck in a time and context when the intertwining of
peasant values with Rastafari ideology held sway. Added to this, the dearth of representations
of female sexuality in the lyrics of Marley as opposed to the plethora of those from Shabba
Ranks makes the comparison unfair.
Historicizing Slackness
“Slackness Personified” does not historicize slackness, or point to where it has been done
inside and outside the DJs lyrics. Who personifies slackness? What is slackness? Whose category is it? What prompted its use in classifying dancehall when the early music had already
demonstrated similar characteristics? When did slackness become a popular commodity, even
a tabooed commodity, a status that undeniably increases its demand? Cooper falls into the
trap of using categories deployed by journalists and cultural critics who are often alien to the
expressive cultures they write on. I want to do something for historicizing slackness from a
multidisciplinary perspective for the students who would not be aware of the sources outside
mainstream readings of dancehall.
Much material published on dancehall (particularly post-1980) to date is within writings on reggae. Chapters or subsections of reggae histories have been dedicated to dancehall:
recordings, music, musicians, and artists, and to a lesser extent, its wider practice, sartorial
and other fashioning, economic benefits, choreography, and wider performance. Consistent in
all these histories are general arguments linking the death of Marley to the rise of post-1980
dancehall,10 and the influence of the elected right-wing Jamaica Labour Party with its ties to
Reaganomics and Thatcherism to political power.11 Claims are that increases in the drug trade
and guns seen in the 1980s, facilitated by the neoliberal political policy shift, propelled a new
“quick wealth” sensibility and the evolution of an exaggerated, ostentatious selfhood.12 The
term “ghetto fabulous,” used by citizens of the inner city and beyond, began to blossom in a
real way. Lyrics reflected this new sense of self, and Yellow Man and Shabba Ranks are seen
that there is no gender in Rastafari’s struggle. See “The Truth about the Rastafari Movement as told by Brother
Cummie,” interview by Tam Fiofori, Spear (Nigeria, 1979): 4.
10.See for example Chuck Foster, Roots, Rock, Reggae: An Oral History of Reggae Music from Ska to Dancehall (New York:
Billboard Books, Watson-Guptill Publications, 1999), 157; and Stolzoff, Wake the Town, 99.
1 1. This argument has been presented by Paul Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack (London: Hutchinson,
1987), among others.
12. Gilroy is one of the first to have made reference to this in There Ain’t No Black, 188. See also David Katz, Solid
Foundation: An Oral History of Reggae (London: Bloomsbury, 2003).
Published by Duke University Press
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180 | SX21 • “Slackness Personified,” Historicized and Delegitimized
to mirror the turn away “from the social concerns of the seventies” which fuelled the “ ‘new’
dancehall era with songs replete with sexual braggadocio, misogyny and violence, pandering
to concerns earlier reggae artists might call ‘Babylonian’.”13
Dancehall is generally understood as a distinct musical genre characterised by “the marriage of digital beats and slackness: that moment and music in which lyrics about guns,
women’s body parts and men’s sexual prowess come together,” in songs like that of Shabba
Ranks’s “Wicked in bed.”14 This definition highlights technology and slackness as two distinctive features, but it is slackness that has almost become the “brand name” by which dancehall
is signified. While Cooper in her 1993 essay argues strongly for slackness to be understood in
a broader discourse on Jamaican popular culture and wider power relations, she departs from
this broader discourse in the strictest sense within “Slackness Personified.”
This “Babylonian” brand of liturgy, by far the largest debate, arguably a master narrative
within dancehall and among scholars, social commentators, journalists, and cultural critics, is
not to be understood as simply emerging with a shift in the political policy of 1980s Jamaica.15
While it is clear that politico-economic factors affect the social climate of any country, the
invocation of capitalism as the main influence on the development of dancehall as a musical genre, and the explanation of slackness as a characteristic feature by some writers, seems
excessively reductionist.16 Two challenges are therefore posed in this review. The first is methodological: it is unclear what evidence was used to support these claims. Is it from the lyrics?
Is it the top ten hits of the period? And, which period are we looking at? The approximate
fifty-year period from the 1950s, or the post-1980 dancehall era divorced from wider contextualization within the evolution of mento, ska, rocksteady, and reggae? Without answers to
these questions, arguments from cultural critics and some scholars remain shallow.
The second challenge concerns the notion that the regime change and the death of Marley
signalled the rise of slackness as a unique expression of post-1980’s dancehall. The 1980s shift
to a neoliberal regime and capitalist policies cannot fully explain a performance culture that
predates Jamaica’s independence. Such statements do not adequately account for the fact that
Marley was not as popular in Jamaica as outside,17 or the role of the Rude Boys in defining a
13. Foster, Roots, Rock, Reggae, 157.
1 4. Chris Salewics and Adrian Boot, Reggae Explosion (Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle Publishers, 2001), 172. See also
Steve Barrow and P. Dalton, The Rough Guide to Reggae: The Definitive Guide to Jamaican Music, From Ska Through
Roots to Ragga (London: Rough Guides Ltd., 2001).
1 5. See Cecil Gutzmore, “ ‘Music a wi gun’: The Political Economy of Post-Marley African-Jamaican Dancehall Music,”
(paper presented at the Caribbean Studies Association Conference, Panama City, Panama, 1999), for a critique of
excessive focus on slackness as a post-1980 characteristic of dancehall.
16. See Salewics and Boot, and Foster, among others.
17. Katz, Solid Foundation, 299.
Published by Duke University Press
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dancehall agenda and aesthetic, the effect of later technology (the drum machine, electronic
keyboard and “sound system drum”)18 on the fast and furious production of rhythms, and
the blurring of public and private boundaries within the dancehall culture. If slackness is
defined as sexually explicit and violent lyrics, then how does one explain the influence of Rude
Boys on the music prior to the 1970s that contained lyrics about violent behavior and sexual
encounters even before the Rastafari influence on reggae emerged? 19
It seems to me that an historical approach is useful for delineating a popular music
continuum on which periods when music was varyingly classified as slackness, roots, and
culture, can be observed. A look at songs since the 1950s illustrates that slackness—or more
accurately—songs about women’s body parts, sex, and sexuality—existed in mento,20 ska, and
specifically in the Censored 21 album of Lloydie and the Lowbites, and in music from artists
such as Prince Buster among others.22 DJs such as General Echo (aka Ranking Slackness, and
before Yellow Man) considered a master of slack talk, released an album titled The Slackest
LP23 in 1979. Echo songs from this album include “Bathroom Sex,”24 “Stretch to Fit,” and
“Cockie No Beg Friend.” Mento singer Stanley, later of Stanley and the Turbines group, is
reputed to have recorded a fair number of such tunes, including lines like “gal how yuh pum
pum wet an no rain nah fall” (girl, why is your pudenda wet and there is no rain?). Additionally, interviews with elder dancehall patrons suggest that this slackness was muted by and in
the 1970s discourse on equality, justice, and national pride under democratic socialism, and
then blossomed again in the 1980s. The “real” dancehall for some dance patrons was one with
vulgar lyrics being played as one informant recalled of the 1950s. These features were present
in the dance prior to the period which is supposed to have seen a “slackness revolution.”
18. Kamau Brathwaite, Trench Town Rock (Lost Roads Publishers, Providence USA, 1994) 9.
1 9. Song lyrics about sound system rivalries, street fights, sexual encounters, boxing matches, horse races, and
experiences in prison were recorded on the ska beat. See Dick Hebdige, “From Reggae, Rastas and Rudies: Style
and the Subversion of Form,” Occasional Paper of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, University of
Birmingham, England, 1974, in Reggae, Rasta, Revolution: Jamaican Music From Ska to Dub, ed. C. Potash (New
York and London: Schirmer Books & Prentice Hall International, 1997), 124.
2 0. Mento (c. 1930s) is thought to have been influenced by Trinidad’s Calypso tradition. Topical humor and social
commentary were popular themes, but the most popular tunes were “bawdy, suggestive songs.” See Kevin Chang
and Wayne Chen, Reggae Routes: The Story of Jamaican Music (Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle Publishers, 1998)
14–15, 106.
21. Lloydie and the Lowbites, Censored, Lowbite LP, 1971. The album included songs such as “Open Up,” “Wine and
Grine,” and “Pussy to Kill You.”
22. See for example Clinton Hutton, “Sacred and Secular Eroticism in Jamaican Music,” Reggae Studies Lecture,
University of the West Indies, November 22, 2002; Ken Bilby, “Jamaica,” in Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music
from Rumba to Reggae, ed. P. Manuel, K. Bilby and M. Largey (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995), and
Chang and Chen, Reggae Routes, 106.
2 3. Ranking Slackness, The Slackest LP, Techniques LP, 1979.
2 4. This song was re-released on The Biggest Dancehall Anthems 1979–82: The Birth of Dancehall, CD, Greensleeves
Records Limited, 2002.
Published by Duke University Press
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Technological developments—vinyl records, video, radio, cable television—helped to
move all categories of music, particularly slackness, into the public domain. Yet, the lyrics are
modified for airplay. If one does not attend the dance, live near regular sound system playout
venues, or purchase the cassette recordings or records, there was and still is no public avenue
through which dancehall music containing adult content can be consumed. It is true that
the music pervades the society, but it is the “fit-for-airplay” version that is used outside “the
dance.” There are observable boundaries between public and private appreciation of dancehall
music and practice. Dancehall operates as a space for adult entertainment.
Further, continued reliance on a music-centered or lyrics-centered approach to justify
dancehall’s characterization as slack is just as much an oversimplification of the culture as is a
reliance on ahistorical approaches to account for the so-called rise of dancehall and its slackness beyond the 1980s. The lyrics are the only sample used for establishing patterns within
the music, of which slackness is just one within Jamaican DJ music.25 Therefore the generalizations that see DJ music as characterized by slackness, with permutations like misogyny,
homophobia, and commodification, speak rather to the irreconcilability of such characterizations as slackness within Western epistemology. Research shows that slackness has existed
since the inception of the music. A more appropriate explanation lies in problematizing the
maturation of Jamaica’s popular culture (which by the 1980s had a thirty-year history), and
the role of the media and technology in the movement of private symbols to public spaces
and increased consumption. As an example of the way symbols of fabulous wealth have been
reflected by the culture, the 1960s saw similar themes as did the late 1980s and 1990s. These
include songs about the gun, the vagina, male and female sexual prowess and promiscuity,
matie fights (women fighting over men), other forms of violence, and material possessions.
Notably, the CB200 motorbikes were the ghetto fabulous automotive choice, replaced by the
technologically superior Prado and F150 Sports Utility Vehicles by the late 1990s.
Slackness gained new popularity in the 1980s after DJ Yellow Man asked one of his
audiences, “What you want, consciousness or slackness?”. The crowd responded, “Slackness!”
When Yellow Man was asked about his introduction of slackness in the dancehall he replied:
“dem call it slackness . . . a just talk things that they do . . . use it as drama . . . story . . . people
liked it.” He said “dem is the one that start it . . . wid dem smutty mind . . . dem tek it serious.”26 The term is variously defined, hovering around untidy and illicit displays of especially
sexual practices sometimes referred to as nastiness.27 It can mean illicit sex, public displays
25. Cooper presents four major themes in the sample of DJ music she studies in “Slackness Hiding From Culture,”
1993.
26. Yellow Man, interview with Winford Williams, “On Stage,” CVM TV, May 25, 2002.
27. See Frederic Cassidy, Dictionary of Jamaican English (Mona, St. Augustine, and Cave Hill: University of the West
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of sex and sexuality, lewd language containing explicit references to sex or sexual innuendo,
or talk of body parts. There is another aspect to slackness: it can also refer to exclusionary or
degenerative social services, potential incompetence lauded or critiqued by many a DJ. This
is typified by Lady Saw’s tune “What is Slackness?” in which she redirects fingers pointed to
her own performance aesthetic, to the politicians’ (non)practice, deplorable roads, violence,
and exploitation by the state.28
Slackness often refers to the display of women’s sexuality whether through lyrics, dance
moves, and so on. As Cooper highlighted in her previous work:
this ability to “do the wuk” and “tek di wuk,” which separates the men from the boys and the girls
from the women, is the heart of slackness. And it is the sexuality of women, much moreso than
that of men, which is both celebrated and devalued in the culture of the dancehall.29
There are clear gender and age distinctions in addition to the play (foreplay, foul play, cultural
play) in the propelling force of the dancehall style. But this is just one aspect. The obsession
with sex and the body being a cultural factor is historically, possibly genetically coded, and
depending on the climate, dominant or repressed at different times. It manifests in sex talk
in the dance and talk about sex talk outside the dance. The perception of black dance historically has been a major part of the varying perceptions of slackness within the dance space.
The symbiotic relationship between performer and his or her everyday (the DJ sings what he
knows as part of his experience) and between the dance space and the wider society (the dance
exists within the ambit of scrutiny and commentary given by the society which can amplify its
intensity and influence) are factors to consider in the examination of the term slackness.
A profound example is how one dancehall practitioner defined slackness. With slackness
being such a master narrative within dancehall I asked dancers, sometimes thought to be
purveyors of this slackness characteristic, to define it.30 Most saw slackness within the domain
of the selector, or in the toasting of some DJs; they did not consider the dance moves to be
slack. Spandex said, “it is slack if you mek it slack.” Stacey was by far the most articulate on
this. Her opinion takes account of the dancer’s or patron’s garments, a lack of understanding
of dance moves in relation to African heritage, the perception of dancehall vis-a-vis Carnival,
slackness as a perspective held mostly by those outside the space, and the problem of
Indies Press) 2003; and Richard Allsopp, Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage (Mona, St. Augustine, and Cave
Hill: University of the West Indies Press) 2003.
28. Lady Saw asks, “want to know what slackness is? . . . cause slackness is when di road waan fi fix . . . when govament
break dem promise . . . when politician break dem promise . . . when politician issue out gun and let the two party a
shot dem one another down.” Lady Saw, “What is Slackness,” Give me the Reason, CD, Diamond Rush, 1996.
29. Cooper, “Slackness Hiding from Culture,” 156.
30. I interviewed dancers in a study on dancehall spatiality and performance conducted during 2000–2004, findings
from which are in my forthcoming book “Out of Many, One Dancehall.”
Published by Duke University Press
Small Axe
184 | SX21 • “Slackness Personified,” Historicized and Delegitimized
definition. An important highlight was Stacey’s opinion of her own acts and the wider perception of these as slackness. She was clear that her acts are performed in what is a private space
which is taken out of this context by the media in particular.
For Stacey, dancehall’s so-called slackness is not fully understood. She says, “dem nuh really
understand still, some girl might nuh have on no panty, that is slack.” Stacey explained that
she visited Africa and “waan dem go back deh go si how di girl dem . . . gwaan” (wants them
to go there to see how the girls go on). Further, Stacey compares Carnival with dancehall.
Look pon carnival. Dem lick out pon Dancehall an’ dem do worse than Dancehall . . . [When
me] draw down pants and show the g-string [is] for teasing man . . . a just me . . . [I] Feel like a
different person. A nuh nobody bring mi inna it mi just love it.31
Slackness in the dancehall is perceived mostly by those outside the space. Stacey says it depends
on their definition of slackness. She acknowledges that perceptions are changing with time.
Today, tolerance levels have changed and some of the song lyrics are aired without any censorship as a sign of changes in the conservative broadcast standards. Of her own acts and dress,
Stacey recognizes that her acts are performed in a private space which is intercepted by the
media:
as long as mi a keep it inna di dancehall it is appropriate. As long as yuh no tek it outa di dancehall;
dem time deh now yuh know you a violate the young . . . cau’ pickney nuffi come a dance. And
cable, yuh see if you have a child yuh suppose to supervise yuh child. If dem a watch TV yuh suppose to know wha’ dem a watch and how dem a watch . . . So if yuh nuh waan yuh pickney dem
si certain tings don’t watch di dancehall . . . dancehall it name. After hours anything gwaan. Me
do my ting inna Dancehall. Cau’ when me get up a day time fi go pick up mi ticket . . . mi nuh
dress like—breast—all dem ting deh . . . Yuh draw on yuh jeans and yuh t-shirt . . . Wha’ happen
a dancehall a big people ting and big people have a choice fi do anyt’ing dem waan do. So a so me
see it. Nobody no suppose fi lick out pon it. And if yuh see a picture tek . . . an yu see it inna di
paper . . . di public eye . . . is not our fault . . . that was happening in the dancehall. . . . the media
tek it out a di dancehall an put it inna di public eye, so it isn’t our fault . . . Yuh wi tek out five
picture and the media tek out the most slackest one . . . and put that one inna it just through dem
want a story and the whole attraction fi the paper . . . So a di media fault . . . A inna di dance wi
deh . . . a our ting an’ wi a enjoy wiself, as long as wi nah dweet inna yuh pickney eye sight an wi
nah come outa street wid it, leave wi alone.32
Dancehall is also to be understood as a condemnation of such categories. Diverse definitions, usages, interpretations, and counteractions are imposed on the word slackness. One can
be dismissed, without explanation at any time: no definition is vital. In the very persistence
of dancehall’s slackness component then, are the seeds of its delegitimation. As dancers, DJs,
3 1. Dancehall Queen Stacey, unpublished interview with reviewer, September 15, 2003.
32. Ibid.
Published by Duke University Press
Small Axe
SX21 • October 2006 • Sonjah Stanley Niaah | 185
and other practitioners, patrons, and producers display their own reality—around God,
home, self, subjectivity, and agency, counterposed with the formal or hegemonic order—they
demonstrate the disposability of each of these terms, slackness, and culture. Slackness and
culture as persistent themes are even deposed when necessary. Many performers discredit their
applicability as Lady Saw and Stacey demonstrate. As shanty town dwellers or the children of
shanty town dwellers, doubly negated in the political and cultural economies of the Western
project, the creators of dancehall rewrite the significance attached to self and culture within
their creative process.33 In Rastafari and its offspring cultures of reggae and dancehall, actors
reread self, cosmos, status, space, and symbols, staging “revolutionary . . . counter-invention[s]
of the self.”34 Are all these factors accounted for when dancehall’s identity is limited to binary
oppositional categories such as slackness or culture?
Intense attention to slackness occurs in cycles. Each cycle comes with new force and
definition wrapped in the ideological and philosophical agenda of the particular period.
Each period is different. Each generation’s view is different. I am suggesting that dancehall
patrons danced and performed a different idea of capital and nation in the 1960s, as they did
in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. This difference cannot be simplified into a one-dimensional
answer. This is the purchase of disciplines like cultural studies. The intellectual contribution
is its exploration of the constructive debates in the methodological, philosophical, and theoretical frontiers, opening new spaces within sociology, anthropology, and cultural geography
along with more textual and semiotic approaches. This allows for inclusion and scrutiny
of ethnographies and analyses of space, organization, and interaction, and symbols and
meanings all at once.
As a result of the historical differences in Western and African approaches to slackness as
a category, it has been the site of a large debate within the study of dancehall. I conclude that
the morphology and depth of this debate renders it irreconcilable in Western epistemology.
As the society of African parentage that sees no contradiction in the sacred and profane residing together, and British definitions and sanctions on licentious behavior continue to clash,
the notion that Jamaican society runs on a mind obsessed with the body becomes apparent.
Most importantly, the continuation of dichotomizing debates at the academic level does not
translate at the empirical level. This debate is used, misused, destabilized, and delegitimated
at the people’s will.
33. Sylvia Wynter, “We Know Where We are From: The Politics of Black Culture From Myal to Marley,” (unpublished
paper, November 1977, archived in C. L. R. James Collection, Brown University), 34.
34. Ibid, 36.
Published by Duke University Press
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