Dancehall Queens Past Present Future

Marlon James in conversation with Akeem Smith

Memory [Single-channel video, film still] (2020), Akeem Smith

An excerpt from “Dancehall Queens Past Present Future” featured in A#22 CURATED BY GRACE WALES BONNER

Akeem Smith When I started off, I interviewed a bunch of women of the dancehall. Memory was to counteract the truth with their experience, and I wanted to show this sort of landscape of footage from early dancehall when they started videotaping, which was in 1983. I grew up around dancehall and always connected it to gossip, money making, dating… I started collecting all my family photos and digitising them. My grandmother had an atelier, Ouch Crew (started by Paula Ouch in Kingston, Jamaica, Ouch Crew was the epicentre of dancehall fashion), where they’d take patterns from Vogue Patterns and alter them into the mode of a dancehall dress.

Marlon James That was like a religion in Jamaica! Vogue Patterns was always on magazine stands. A lot of this brings back nostalgia for me. I bought from Ouch Crew. And I remember things like Vogue Patterns in people’s houses too that I used to make dancehall clothes.

Memory [Single-channel video, film still] (2020), Akeem Smith

AS Women in dancehall, they’re the nucleus of it. They get the thing going and really keep it going. I wanted look at what they brought to dancehall and what they brought to me.

MJ A ‘Dancehall Queen’ is a woman, feminine expression and creativity. I remember how pissed off a lot of the women were when hip hop started to really infiltrate dancehall style, because people started to not wear dancehall fashion. Everybody wanted to look like Lil’ Kim or Aaliyah. There was a sense of one era ending, and I’m not sure everybody was that happy about it. It meant dancehall was just sort of subduing its identity into hip hop.

AS You mean when everyone started to gravitate from a dressmaker to a name brand? Aaliyah was an American thing. Lil’ Kim said she saw something from a dancehall video with the colours, but she definitely made her own thing of it, digesting it into her own sense of dress. From the outside, dancehall was looking for way to economise on itself and latched onto bigger things that were making money because there was no financial support.

In the dancehall, they really put their best foot forward. I got the other side of that, where I don’t want to look like like money. We are at a point where there’s third and fourth generation Nigerians, and a lot of young people are not aware they can start referencing themselves or their parallel communities. And as time goes on, that’s going to be a bit easier to do.

MJ Black self-possession applies not just to dancehall culture, but any sort of culture. Hilton Als mentioned that while yes, Martin Luther King got arrested, he got getting arrested wearing a three-piece suit. That when the haters come or when whoever come, I’m going to be in possession of myself, which also includes looking good.

Memory [Single-channel video, film still] (2020), Akeem Smith

Memory [Single-channel video, film still] (2020), Akeem Smith

Memory [Single-channel video, film still] (2020), Akeem Smith

Memory [Single-channel video, film still] (2020), Akeem Smith

MJ The sexual frankness and eroticism in dancehall, people think it is vulgar or disgraceful and attack it — even though these are the same people who grind when Carnival comes. But we don’t have these sort of Anglo-Saxon protestant views of sexuality. A dance where you are all over the place, but your crotches touch the whole time. They’d go: ‘What kind of nastiness?’ But it has nothing to do with that. Well, it is a little to do with sex. [laughs] What is over the top and who gets to decide that? A lot of women say, ‘I get to decide what’s “too much” tonight!’ Dancehall was reclaiming that before body positivity.

AS There was a time in Dancehall where the women were a bit more conservative. My grandmother’s friend, Bev, was telling me about partying in the 1950s, you’d have to make sure your belt was a certain way so that when you’re doing the dance, your skirt goes up. That was the X-rated-ness of dancehall back then. That was the ‘grab your pussy, grab your crotches’ equivalent. It’s hard to measure what is provocative to what people did before. I don’t like to compare what is considered provocative in 2000 to 1952 because they had their own version on what was being comfortable in their femaleness. It was a different way of displaying these sorts of behaviours that have always been there without a colonial gaze.

MJ I notice, especially in the early 2000s in dancehall, a lot of times the male gaze was upon men. It doesn’t necessarily involve queerness, like a man would dance with a woman. It’s sexual. It’s daggering. All of that. But a lot of men danced together in a row dancing a pattern. What always struck me about the pattern, especially considering Jamaica’s repetition for homophobia, is how delicate and how feminine it was. The female dances were pretty exaggerated and wild, but the men were almost trying a traditional West Indian dance.

Akeem Smith’s Queens Street opens November 18, 2021 at Heidi Gallery, Berlin

Queens Street [Film still] (2020), Akeem Smith




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