Reggae Final Paper
Fall Semester 2009
Rasta Girls: The Barriers Jamaican Society has placed on Women and the Artists that are Breaking Them
The gender gap is an issue that many countries around the world have faced in their developments. The issue of women in subordination has challenged many nations, and their reaction to said oppression is different across the globe. While many countries highly appreciate women as half of their rich population, many countries still oppress women and have lesser than equal rights for them. An example of this is within the Caribbean, especially in Jamaica. Gender inequality is rampant in this country, and it affects women there to this day. Because of their oppression, women’s contribution to the country’s music of reggae is often overshadowed; yet, women have had a great impact on reggae music. Their oppression is to be examined, as well as those female artists who broke free from the binds. The male perspectives on women in Jamaica as well as their attitudes toward women in reggae music also should be scrutinized. The majority of oppression should be understood, learned from, and appreciated in order for there to be movements toward gender equality.
Jamaican people as a whole were oppressed because of their race, sold into slavery and had white so-called “downpressors” watching their every move. Through their salvation and emancipation from slavery, the men in Jamaica still felt the need to keep the women of the land under subordination. “In Jamaica, the exhilaration of independence witnessed a flurried campaign in which women were markedly absent…the spoils of independence, it seemed, were the Jamaican men…and a sense of muscular vigor to the island’s emergent identity.” Women are not only absent from the ideas of independence, but they are seemingly forgotten in the literal history books of Jamaican society: “Little has been written about Bahamian women. General histories hardly mention them…there has been no systematic and detailed examination of women in Bahamian history.”  This absence of women from the records is common in many societies, but just because women were not written about does not mean they didn’t struggle to find their own place.
The lack of importance of women continued throughout Jamaican culture and left women with a vast array of negligible rights and liberties. The lack of education that women had to face was awful in Jamaican society, and was often classified by how “black” or “white” the child was. “Very light-skinned children from well-to-do ‘respectable’ colored families might be admitted…but most colored and black children, debarred by racist policies and prohibitive fees, attended government primary schools which were underfinanced, short of supplies, and lacking in trained teachers. Secondary education…was very limited for colored black girls…the elite thought them incapable of learning.” Fathers believed the elite classes that wanted money for higher education and often “saw no wisdom in providing their daughters, who would become housewives and mothers, with a secondary education.”
The idea of women being mostly wives and mothers was a widely held belief due to religion in Jamaica. With the bible proclaiming “Wives, submit yourselves on to your husbands,” the deeply religious women of Jamaica could only see one option for themselves, especially because of their lack of education. These ideas are also emulated in Rastafarianism, which places the male at a much higher level than that of a woman. “Rastafarian men are the spiritual leaders of the movement; women can only become Rastafarian through Rasta men; women are polluted”. The idea of pollution from the menstrual cycle was also a widely held belief that condemned woman for a natural process of their gender, leading many women to feel uncomfortable with their own gender and sexuality.
Women obviously were seen to be only good for their child-rearing abilities, and their mothering capabilities, and Jamaican men took full advantage of those stereotypes. The strict interpretation of Rastafarianism makes “women more susceptible to living out these scriptures because of the strict interpretation that Rasta’s lend to the bible.” While women needed to be faithful and produce an abundance of children, men were allowed to stray from marriages and father children with more than one person. The lack of education amongst women as well as the social norms put in place by religious beliefs dominated by males led the female gender to see these roles as fair: “Most women accepted the double standard which existed for men. Provided they cared for their families, it was not uncommon, or overly frowned upon, for men to have ‘sweethearts’ or mistresses by whom they had several children” Women, even if they did not accept the norm, didn’t have much of a choice if they did want to leave their marriage. “Divorce, which was almost impossible to obtain, was virtually unknown…Marriage was considered to be permanent and final.”
This lack of societal curiosity pegged women in a hole that was hard to get out of once said cycle started. Economic opportunities were scarce for women, and because of this they relied heavily on their husbands for support financially. Without the ability to be seen as an equal, it was almost impossible for women to break free of these confines and escape into a higher level of understanding and gender equality. If women did break free from these stereotypes they are looked down upon by society: “Women who do not elect or who reject the role of housewomen are portrayed as lacking in substance, as shallow, as superficial…The alternative stereotype is to depict women as sex objects without souls and without personalities, to be made a thing without a will, to be totally controllable.”
The idea of women being sexual objects is mostly inhibited within the Dance Hall sector of Reggae music. Dancehall is said to be “a disturbing mirror of contemporary Jamaican society. It embodies a set of debased values-values that openly embrace materialism, hedonism, and violence-that reflect growing anarchy and cynicism afflicting our society.” Lyrics that put down women and demean their gender are only supported by a male society that believes in male supremacy over women as a whole. It’s ironic that reggae music fights against capitalism and the corrupt nature of white worlds, and yet oppresses women just like many predominately white countries do today. “Dancehall is at best a conundrum…Long accustomed to a history of insurgent popular expressions that conform to a tradition of ‘protest’ and ‘resistance,’ dancehalls values appear to support the hegemonic structures that Caribbean popular culture supposedly opposed. To the disappointment of many...dancehall’s preoccupation with the acquisitive features of ‘the good life’-its celebration of money, expensive clothes, fast cars, light skinned women-appears to show the extent to which capitalism’s worst refractors have permeated the value structure…Dancehall politics seem to be the inversion of the autochthonous oppositional philosophies.” These goals to be obtained not only deride away from Rastafarianism, but also are capitalist in their nature and therefore increase separation of genders as a whole. Feminist theorist Alison Jaggar explains: “Capitalism and male supremacy each reinforce each other. Among the ways in which sexism benefits the capitalist system are: by providing a supply of cheap labor for industry and hence exerting a downward pressure…and by allocating to women, for no direct pay, the performance of such socially necessary but unprofitable tasks as food preparation, domestic maintenance and the care of the children.” Dancehall music stems away from the music of regular reggae toward capitalist culture, and mostly demeans women in said process: “While dancehall lyrics are often summarily dismissed as disrespectful to women, the dancehall scene has fostered a more complex dialogue about gender and sexuality…than had roots reggae, traditionally focused on race and class…In dancehall lyrics women may be wicked…their sexuality is subject to analysis and devaluation.”
Along with Dancehall being specifically belligerent against women, the genre also has a lot of influence for another reason. Dancehall in Jamaica is a way to escape. The importance of the genre of music stretches from the days of slavery to the present day-Jamaicans and Caribbean dwellers alike all found salvation in music and Dance. “Experience in music…provided...understanding…music and dance forms were of crucial importance to the building of national sentiment.” Jamaican people use dancehall as their main for of entertainment, relaxation, and social spheres. The surroundings they encase themselves in are truly repetitive; therefore, the negative values musicians place on women are reinforced in a social climate that is of great importance to all people in the country. The paradoxical negative ideals reinforced in a climate that is so sought out by women and men leave both with the subjugation of women in a subordinate position without even seeking out these viewpoints.
The best way to see and understand the dancehall “conundrum” is to look at the music’s popular songs and the lyrics within said compositions. Sean Paul is probably the most prominent dance hall artist today, and plenty of his songs put down women in a way the enforces the superiority of male figures. The song “So Fine” encourages the woman to be with Sean Paul in a sexual way, but only if she’s attractive, and leaves her boyfriend. “Sexy chicks that are my prerequisite/Hot girls got be my darlin’/All girls gotta head my callin/Listen to my voice, listen to my vocal/lock off your phone tell your man don’t call.” While it is commonplace of Sean Paul to get away with being with many women, he’s luring the woman in the song to commit a crime that is unforgivable in Jamaican society. Beenie Man, a popular dance hall artist, has a hugely popular song called ”King of the Dancehall.” In the song he proclaims that he intends to have sex “on the floor/on the bed/against the wall,” and explains that the woman shouldn’t ask questions and should just accept him between her thighs. The popular song “Jook Gal” by Elephant man is an entire song telling a woman to “back that ass up” on a man in the club. The majority of these music videos are explicit as well. Many of them feature women in scantily clad outfits-often bikinis-dancing provocatively for the men who are singing. Bennie Man’s general disrespect toward women justifies the common conception of Jamaican men using women as sex objects, rather than human beings. Another popular song is Shaggy’s “It wasn’t me” which portrays a man who has cheated on his girlfriend and all he can rebuttal with is the excuse that it “wasn’t him” committing the crime. These lyrics clearly go back to the notion of Jamaican society that has a lax view on men cheating on their significant others.
Lady Saw, a popular female Dancehall artist, refuted Shaggy’s song with a women’s perspective. Her knowledge of his alleged affair is told to a friend, where she insists that their relationship is over and that she pities him for thinking he was such a player. Lady Saw has many more Dancehall songs that help to balance out the male superiority within the genre of music, which should be further explored.
In Lady Saw’s song “Eh-em” she draws a line between friendship and love between her and a man who is making clear sexual advances. She asserts herself against him when she says “Whole heap a man a lust offa me,” and “Mi an him friend, dem neh stop call mi up.” Lady Saw establishes herself as the wanted one in the relationship between her and the male in her song, which is a very different perspective then Dancehall is used to.
In her song “Give Me A Reason,” Lady Saw holds her significant other accountable for stepping out on their relationship. The importance of her voicing these opinions stretches back to Jamaican norms that made it commonplace for men to cheat on their wives and girlfriends. “Just give me a reason/why we fuss and fight/Give me a reason/why I have to spend these lonely nights/Is there a reason why you fall for other girls/When I thought I was the number one lady in your world/ Just give me a reason/why you make me cry/Is there a reason why I have to spend these lonely nights/ Tell me the reason why you tow around the world/And why, in Gods name, you wanna make me into your girl?” Lady Saw’s lyrics are less pleading for a male to complete her and support her, and more of a plea to be treated fairly as an equal individual that the male should value.
Lady saw goes against typical economic norms in her song “Get a Straw,” especially in this verse: “A nuff a dem a act like dem higher dan di moon/ A chuck it like dem check she big woman a cartoon/Mek dem gwaan pass remarks till dem bust like balloon/Mi still mek number one tune/Choo mi a young pickney gal/dem nuh love how mi a strive/Mi buy mi mother a house before mi reach twenty-five/Dun two passport to di way how mi a chuh/Dem wish mi woulda die.” In these lyrics Lady Saw explains that the male class typically views themselves as higher than the women in society, and that women are a joke. She argues against that by saying her attitude will make the men talk about her, but in the end her song and said attitude will make her more successful than them. Having a woman in power to brag about her own success is a great feat for all women, as well as the genre of Dancehall as a whole.
Probably the most explicit of her songs, “Pretty Pussy” deals with something that is rarely explored or talked about-female sexuality in Reggae music and Caribbean culture. Men often label women as the sex object, and in result women aren’t really left with any options of exploring their sexuality for themselves. In “Pretty Pussy” Lady Saw tells all the women listening that their womanly parts are “Black and beautiful/Pink is fruitful/G-string wid chains ta pull/show off cute girl.” Her song goes on to explain that “Nuff gal wish dem did have it like dat/Any man wok yo pussy must come back.” Lady Saw’s appreciation of self-esteem is something that most dancehall music doesn’t explore, let alone her proclamation that once a man is with you he’s obliged to come back. The lyrics in this song may seem very explicit, but they actually foster ideas that most women exposed to Dancehall and Reggae in general are not accustomed to in the slightest.
Lady Saw’s song “Loser” is also really empowering for women. Establishing her self worth and standards for herself allows her to judge-and deny-the men who want to be with her. “Bwoy still live wid dem momma/dem a loser/have a baby-momma drama, dem a loser/bowy weh a beat up woman/dem a loser/nuff underage gyal dem a slam-dem a loser/ and a act like dem things de nuh wrong/ dem a loser.” Although Lady Saw’s song has a somewhat comical title and premise, her lyrics are really important. Her stress on men who beat women and date younger girls just accentuates a problem in Jamaican culture today that seems to be overlooked by the people in those societies. It’s important for prominent artists to shed light on issues like this, especially through song, since so many people listen and admire their work.
Ce’cile is featured in Lady Saw’s song “Loser” and is another prominent Dance Hall musician that is paving the way for other female artists. Her song “Betta Wuk” is a lot like “Pretty Pussy” in the sexual sense. The lyrics have her telling a male that he had better satisfy her sexually or else she is going to leave him. “Any bwoy want ease dem outa luck/hurrucan caan move mi cau mi stuck/never knew one man could a really make mi feel like so oh/you betta wuk.” Explaining that she isn’t easy, Ce’cile takes female sexuality into a newer place-she brings the idea of pleasure into the women’s sphere, which is something that seems to be neglected in a lot of male-dominated lyrics. Rarely is it about the woman being pleased. The view that as long as the male is happy the women should be happy is explored and explained to both men and women, which translates into further separation of gender roles.
Ce’cile has another song entitled “I’m So Fly,” and Beenie Man is featured on it. It’s interesting to see the dynamic between the two. The lyrics sung by Ce’cile sing “I’m so fly keep blowing your mind/I’m taking you like right up to the sky/Glimity glamity oh baby I got it/Full stamina baby I got it/First class nana na baby I got it.” While touting about her wonderful self, Beenie Man can only think about being with her-in a safe way. He assures her in the lyrics that “condom in a attaché/pan di head.” It’s interesting to see a woman’s influence on a male’s choice of lyrics, especially in comparison to Beenie man’s male-dominated songs. Ce’cile is raging against the Caribbean norm of men being allowed to impregnate many women, while still being able to have fun and enjoy herself in the dancehall.
Tanya Stephens is another honest songwriter that’s popular in dancehall today. Her lyrics are truly moving and are very raw, which is what women in Dancehall need to bring to the forefront of their musical movement. In the song “Cant Breathe” Tanya Stephens really explores the pain women feel when they realize their men have stepped out on the marriage or relationship. While most women were said to be fine with it because it was a social norm, Stephens voices the pain most women probably have felt for a long time. “I should allowed to be bitter cause its only fair/I’m falling apart but you don’t care/why is she so happy/why do you smile/and why aren’t you guys fighting all the while like we did/usually me woulda say goodbye and I wish you well/but not to you/I hope your life turns out to be hell.” These honest lyrics help show what many women most likely feel when their significant other fathers children with another woman. Just because it is highly accepted as a social norm does not make it any easier for women to come to terms with.
Stephen’s song “After You” is another song relating to being left by a man, but it has a lighter approach than “Cant Breathe.” Delving into the old norm of women not being able to be granted divorces from their cheating husbands, Stephen sings: “If me know divorce woulda been so sweet/I woulda beg di good Lord long time fi mek yuh cheat.” The idea that women had to stay with a man if they were cheating and even fathering other children is absolutely absurd, and unfair to the women that had to deal with such tumultuous relationships for years. The importance of this song goes back to that unjust calculation on the government’s part, and shows a woman rising above and making her own future.
In her song “These Streets” Stephens examines the rough life that is Jamaica and the issues that many men have to deal with-drugs, guns, poverty, and fending for themselves in a corrupt world. She explains: “These streets don’t love you like I do/you need fi know that/you wanna keep your woman loving you/and you need fi show that/the love we have it take so much effort fi build/you about fi blow that.” She goes on to say she wished her man would love her as much as he did violence, weed, and his possessions that he values so greatly. Not only is Tanya Stephens putting in perspective what is truly important in life, she also is merging the way back to true Rastafarianism with her understanding of the power of human relationships over material possessions.
Songs like Cecile’s that feature men like Beenie Man are greatly important in reggae music’s growing appreciation for the female gender. Exposing men and holding them accountable for sexist ideals is one thing, but having them lay a track down and proclaim their respect for the female gender is another. Many men in reggae dancehall have followed suit and have produced songs that praise women and value their importance. Taurrus Riley is a main example of a dancehall artist that has very genuine lyrics that praise women. A good example is his hit “She is Royal” which has lyrics like: “She is royal/yea so royal/the way she move to her own beat/she has the qualities of a queen/she’s a queen so supreme/nuh need no make-up to be a cutie.” Moving to her own beat as a metaphor for the woman’s independence is such a giant step away from typical oppression of women from their male counterparts. The admittance of not needing make-up to look beautiful is also an important step away from capitalist culture and back to Rastafarianism. Loving yourself in order to appreciate others clearly would exempt needing to wear make up or being light-skinned, especially based on Rastafarian- themed dance hall lyrics. Tarrus Riley also has another song entitled “Stay With You”, in which he promises his significant other that he will stay with her no matter the circumstances. Steering clear of mistresses and adulterous relationships Riley states in his song: “In this life we all know/friends they come friends they go/but through the day I know I will stay/and in the end will find/love so beautiful and divine/for a lifetime I will stay with you.” Having monogamous, long lasting relationships popularized by a male is important for both genders. It makes women understand that men can and should appreciate the importance of a unitary woman in their life; similarly, it shows men how they should be treating women.
Riley also branches out with songs that speak directly to the men in Rastafarian culture. He speaks out against the violence seen on the streets of Jamaica much like Tanya Stephens’ song “These Streets.” He warns against “shottas” and shows his opposition of the violent culture males usually find themselves in: “It’s a shame to see brothers killing themselves/wasting energy should be uplifting themselves/what we need is brain/food and belly full for our health/because dem turn to Rastafari/then all and all woulda alright.” The moral opposition as well as the important pointing out of the straying from true Rastafarianism is important in all these songs. While dancehall doesn’t preach Rastafarian beliefs, these artists believe that they should, especially because the opposing message is so hurtful to both males and females. The view Riley shares about women is articulated in his songs and on his own website. He explains: “I target women and children with my music because slavery tampered with the woman’s mind…She’s the head of the household so she has the power to influence the young men and women of tomorrow.”
While its important that men support and understand the importance of women’s progression in Dancehall music, what they may never seem to grasp in the double degradation women have felt. Not only suppressed as blacks, women are still suppressed through Dancehall music and beyond because of their gender. The famous Judy Moat explains this trial and tribulation in her powerful song “Black Woman,” which seems to encompass all the pain that women in Jamaica, and women across all racial and gender bounds, have felt to this day. “Black woman/troubled long/you trod one of life’s roughest roads/you got the heaviest load/to be someone/to belong/don’t give up now/just pray for strength now/for you I dedicate my song.” While men’s part in the movement help, black women are the only ones who can truly relate and appreciate each other’s struggles. The importance of the dual repression leaves women with something more to fight for, and something much greater to hope for.
What all these artists seem to understand are their ability to influence, and the need for that influence to be a positive one. Women in Jamaican society need to benefit from the music that defines their culture-not be demeaned by it. The history of Jamaica, the Caribbean, and Rastafarianism in general has left women underprivileged and truly neglected. The social norms set up by male readings of the bible have been widely accepted and carried on for many years. Through the artists examined such as Lady Saw, Ce’cile, Tanya Stephens, Judy Mowatt and Tarrus Riley, it is clearly evident that the importance of women and the strength of their voices is growing. The artists today, through their lyrics, have shown opposition to the gender-biased norms of Jamaican life, and have broken barriers that have been in place for many years. This creative outlet has surpassed the influence of women and has crossed over into the men’s sphere of Dancehall as well. The need for more women steering away from old social ideals through music is highly evident in the works seen within the twenty first century. The music being produced, written, and heard today is greatly different from the oppressive sounds of yesteryears. One can only hope that women are praised more in Dancehall lyrics, especially because of the vast popularity of Dancehall in Jamaican culture. The ever-present gender neutrality that is arising in Dancehall music can only mean that men and women will one day be equal on the dance floor, and in Caribbean life as a whole.
What will this eventual shift mean for women? Social ideologies that appreciate the importance of women lead to more educational opportunities and greater amounts of girls in political spheres. Balanced educational opportunities will lead to a lesser amount of girls getting pregnant at a younger age, and more fulfilling educational dreams of college degrees and jobs outside of the home. Political participation leads to more balanced policies and fairer deliberations that often end in non-violent resolutions. Women’s appreciation may only start with music, but because music is so important in Jamaican and Caribbean life, it has such an immense impact. The power of music and lyrics is truly demonstrated in the reforms being made to the Dancehall genre. In the words of Sister Carol, a famous dancehall artist, the importance of the female in both music and life should never be forgotten: “We not just another girl. Original "Rasta Girl." Emphasizing the reality of our feministic side and how important it is in terms of the whole creation of civilization and motherhood and all that comes with it. Again asking for that respect, or to re-edify or remind or reeducate the society that all man came through the womb. So, yes, you have the male specie and the female. But if you continue to suppress the female side, then we’re heading for chaos. Because too much imbalance right now. There has to be balance. The females have to be represented. They have to be acknowledged. They have to be loved and cherished and honored and respected and given a chance so that they can contribute to society. As it was back in the days of even Egypt and before. So I try to bring about a renaissance or a rebirth for the respect of woman. Because if you disrespect me, and you keep on disrespecting Mother Africa, Mother Nature, the mother of the universe, then we’re heading for extinction.”
 Barnes, Natasha. Cultural Conundrums, Gender, Race, Nation& the Making of Caribbean Cultural Politics. The University of Michigan, Massachusetts, 2006.
 Saunders, Gail. Bahamian Society After Emancipation. Markus Wiener Publishers: New Jersey, 2003.
 Clarke, Peter B. New Trends and Developments in African Religions. Greenwood Press, Westport, 1998.
 Ibid, 149
 Barns, Natasha. 24.
 Saunders, Gail. 49.
 Clarke, Peter B. 149.
 Barnes, Natasha. 104.
 Jaggar, Alison. Political Philosophies of Women’s Liberation. Rowman&Littlefiels: New Jersey, 1997.
 Ross, Andrew. Real Love, In Pursuit of Cultural Justice. New York University Press: New York, 1998.
 Stolzoff, Norman C. Wake the Town and Tell The People Dancehall Culture in Jamaica. Duke University Press: New York, 2000.