Kingston is the capital city of Jamaica, located on the island’s south-eastern coast on one of the world’s largest natural harbours. This vibrant city is home to the most recording studios per capita in the world, and gave rise to six distinct musical genres– namely ska, mento, rocksteady, dub, reggae and dancehall. For this reason, Kingston was awarded UNESCO Creative City status in 2015. Kingston has famous museums which immortalize the origins of our musical genres but our music does not stop there. The Rastafari religion, reggae music and its raunchier cousin dancehall are intimately tied to the fabric of the Jamaican culture and its people. Named for the lyric in artiste Vybz Kartel’s song Dancehall (2015), Cyah Stall is an exhibit which narrates Jamaican dancehall as a musical genre, aesthetic, language and resistance. Here’s why you should catch it if you can.
New here? Subscribe for more posts.
Also, purchase my debut Jamaican travel guide on Amazon. Ships worldwide.
The Cyah Stall exhibit is being held at CreativSpace, a local coworking space with art exhibition facilities. CreativSpace is centrally located on 2 Windsor Road at the corner of Old Hope Road just on the outskirts of New Kingston. Cyaa Stall runs from February 1- 19, and is open from Mondays to Saturdays at 11am until 5pm. Admission is free! There are twenty pieces on show from eight local artists who, using various media such as cardboard, acrylics and digital prints, were able to narrate some part of Jamaica’s dancehall culture. If something catches your eye, it can be yours as all twenty pieces are on sale!
Dr. Winston Campbell, one of the exhibit’s co-curators, brought the exhibit to life for me. You have the option of quietly seeing the exhibit on your own or have a curator walk you through it. I suggest you choose the latter as the curators are very knowledgeable about dancehall, its history and the pieces themselves so the tour will be more enlightening that way. I visited one weekday afternoon alone so I had Winston’s undivided attention. We enjoyed an enlightening discussion about dancehall culture which I’ll get into shortly.
The exhibit seeks to showcase dancehall for what it is– the sound systems, the sound clash and lyrical warfare culture, the flamboyant fashions, street dances and of course, the musical kings and queens of the genre. This visual commentary on the dancehall culture does not condemn or applaud the genre. Instead, the main focus is on the beauty and quality of the art pieces which imitate life in Jamaica’s dancehall.
Perhaps the most striking piece is Renard Harris’ Yeng Culture, a life-sized motorcycle replica made from cardboard, paint and lights which stands on a yellow base and serves as the centerpiece for the exhibit. Jamaican street dance culture is a regular weekly event in many rural and inner city communities. These are held in any open lot or clearing, with a large boombox and DJ to bring the space to life. In Jamaican pop culture, the popular guys will enter the dance on their Yeng Yeng bikes with a girl on ‘bike back’ as the pillion rider. Thus, it’s quite fitting that a motorcycle replica was featured in the exhibition and these dancehall legends stare down approvingly in Lennox Coke’s Dancehall Gallery.
My next favourite pieces were the depictions of the Queens of Dancehall, even if I didn’t think Shenseea deserved that title just yet as an upcoming albeit talented artiste. I would’ve preferred seeing a Tanya Stephens or Macka Diamond on that wall, but great pieces nonetheless. I had no objection to Jowaine Graham’s chosen dancehall kings. He even had boxes which listed the ingredients of the dancehall kings. I believe he was spot on in his ingredient list. Lastly, special mention to Samantha Hay and her use of recycled cardboard to create fantastic wall art inspired by phrases from popular Jamaican dancehall songs.
Jamaica’s Love/Hate Relationship with Dancehall
I left the exhibit beaming with pride for my country’s musical prowess, much like I did after leaving a reggae exhibit called Jamaica, Jamaica! at the National Gallery in 2020. However, it forced me to ponder and confront my mixed feelings about dancehall.
I enjoy the music, the riddims and dances. I love seeing foreigners, mostly eastern Europeans and Asians, cling to the culture, travelling to Jamaica just to learn and master the dances and their joy at finally visiting a real Jamaican street dance or getting featured in a music video. Dancehall music was born in the 1950s as a lyrical revolt against the status quo of that era. Over time, the lyrics got lewder and began celebrating promiscuity, drugs, guns and crime which are the negative features of Jamaican society. Many Jamaican dancehall songs are not fit for airplay and have been banned from radio airplay in numerous countries– not that this has stopped the production or consumption of these explicit lyrics. There’s no denying that dancehall has contributed to the moral decay of Jamaican society despite these artistes’ insistence that they only sing about what is already happening in Jamaican society rather than inciting it. While art imitates life, I’m a firm believer in the relationship of art and life being a two-way street. This explains why dancehall music and culture is often frowned upon by the upper classes and religious groups.
Nonetheless, dancehall isn’t all bad. It’s still the means by which many artistes, producers, videographers, DJs and dancers have escaped poverty and provide for their families. It’s still a means of creative expression and source of entertainment for thousands. Also, dancehall provides an amusing and astute reflection on the current affairs and social ills which plague Jamaican society. In short, dancehall isn’t all bad but this opinion will depend on what you listen to, and who you ask.
Exhibits showcasing the taboo aspects of our culture provide a well-needed outlet for healthy discourse and forces us to challenge our own formed biases. Tell me, how do you feel about dancehall music and culture? While you’ll likely never find me at a street dance or sound clash, you’ll find me bobbing my head to the lyrics on which I grew up in the early 2000s. I know several of the latest songs, but am not able to recognize majority of the new artistes because I think they all look alike with the latest distasteful skin bleaching fad and their outlandish appearances. What we choose to consume and absorb from Jamaica’s popular culture is up to each individual. Thanks to the curators and creatives of Cyaa Stall for providing this exhibition and forum for dancehall analysis and appreciation. Much respect!
Subscribe for new posts!