This lecture was delivered by Dr Carolyn Cooper (Head of the Department of Literatures in English and Director of the Reggae Studies Unit, Institute of Caribbean Studies, University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, Jamaica) to students of Warwick University as a part of the 2004 Walter Rodney Lecture Series.
The Document: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/c...res/erotic.doc (right mouse click + save target...)
Lecture - Erotic Disguise: (Un)dressing the Body in Jamaican Dancehall
Dr. Caroly Cooper
[c] “Me Know No Law, Me Know No Sin”, an eighteenth-century Jamaican popular song recorded in print by the bookkeeper, J.B. Moreton in his West India Customs and Manners, is an appropriate epigraph to this lecture on erotic disguise in contemporary Jamaican dancehall culture. This ‘vulgar’ song is a relatively early literary expression of those often subversive noises in the blood that articulate the preoccupations of a people and define the particular cultural contexts of their verbal creativity and bodily performance. The official, written histories of enslavement, voicelessness and erasure that seem to have absolute authority in neo-colonial societies such as those of the Caribbean are continually contested by alternate oral discourses that reclaim the self and empower the speaker. In the case of the personaof this song the issues of gender, race, class and voice intersect: the transgressive black woman, bearer of the composite burden of master, overseer and mistress, is triply oppressed – or so it seems. Reduced to the function of mere sex object, she signifies both the dehumanisation of the black person and the disempowerment of woman in a slave society.
But kisses go by favour and in the inverted hierarchies of her deformed society the enslaved black woman is often the preferred sex object. Michael Scott’s 1833 Tom Cringle’s Log records a John Canoe/Jonkonnu song that traces Massa Buccra’s gradual path from the soft, silken dove of his white love, to the brown girl, and, ultimately, we may presume, to the black devil herself:
Bullock caper like monkee –
Dance, and shump and poke him toe,
Like one humane person – just so.
But Massa Buccra have white love,
Soft and silken like one dove.
To brown girl – him barely shivel! –
To black girl – ho, Lord, de Devil!
But when him once two tree year here,
Him tink white lady wery great boder;
De coloured peoples, never fear,
Ah, him lob him de morest nor any oder.
But top – one time had fever catch him,
Coloured peoples kindly watch him –
In sick-room, nurse voice like music –
From him hand taste sweet de physic.
So alway come – in two tree year,
And so wid you, massa – never fear –
Brown girl for cook – for wife – for nurse,
This Jonkonnu song, fascinating in its nativist account of Massa’s prurient love of the near-human bullock capering like monkee, turns the dancing body of the masquerade into a metaphor of transgressive sexuality. The newly arrived white man in the tropics brings with him the border-crossing meanings of the masquerade as it functioned in England. In Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century English Culture and Fiction, Terry Castle confirms that:
Buccra lady – poo – no wort a curse.
Not surprisingly, English masqueraders typically impersonated members of national or ethnic groups with fashionably romantic associations. The fascination with exotic peoples was often indistinguishable from a fascination with their clothes; those groups considered most excitingly foreign in the eighteenth century were invariably those with the most unusual costumes. The spirit of Orientalism suffused masquerade representation: Persians, Chinese, and Turks remained exemplary subjects for sumptuous reconstruction throughout the century. American Indians, Polynesian islanders, Siberian Kamchatkas, ‘blackamores,’ and other supposedly savage races also offered interesting possibilities for impersonation. . . .
A primitive ethnography is at work here; one should not be surprised at its crudeness. A similar impulse informed the masquerade itself. Granted, one might see in foreign costume a mere displacement of imperialist fantasy; the popularity of the masquerade coincided after all with the expansion of British imperialism, and the symbolic joining of races could conceivably be construed as a kind of perverse allusion to empire. Yet at a deeper level, such travesties were also an act of homage – to otherness itself. Stereotypical and innaccurate (sic) though they often were, exotic costumes marked out a kind of symbolic interpenetration with difference – an almost erotic commingling with the alien. Mimicry became a form of psychological recognition, a way of embracing, quite literally, the unfamiliar. The collective result was a utopian projection: the masquerade’s visionary ‘Congress of Nations’ – the image of global conviviality – was indisputably a thing of fleeting, hallucinatory beauty.
This beauty is disputable. The (sexual) congress of nations in the Caribbean was quite literal, as the Jonkonnu song illustrates. The literal commingling of the English with the alien often reflected the racial/sexual politics of the times: exploitation of the savage native. The celebration of sexuality and death/life rites of passage that is naturalised in native masquerades like Jonkonnu, assumes pathological proportions when appropriated for entertainment by the slumming tourist/visitor.
Edward Long, in his History of Jamaica, notes that the Jonkonnu masquerader, “carrying a wooden sword in his hand, is followed with a numerous crowd of drunken women, who refresh him frequently with a sup of aniseed-water whilst he dances at every door, bellowing out John Connu! with great vehemence.” In a malodorous account of these carnivalesque Jonkonnu festivities, Edward Long exposes his fearful fascination with the contaminated body of the feminised Other. This dilatory passage, with its ridiculed aetiological tale, is a “complication of stinks,” worthy of full quotation:
These exercises, although very delightful to themselves, are not so to the generality of the white spectators, on account of the ill smell which copiously transudes on such occasions; which is rather a complication of stinks, than any one in particular, and so rank and powerful, as totally to overcome those who have any delicacy in the frame of their nostrils. The Blacks of Affric assign a ridiculous cause for the smell peculiar to the goat; and with equal propriety they may well apply it to themselves. They say, “that, in the early ages of mankind, there was a she-divinity, who used to besmear her person with a fragrant ointment, that excited the emulation of the goats, and made them resolve to petition her, to give them a copy of her receipt for making it, or at least a small sample of it. The goddess, incensed at their presumption, thought of a method to be revenged, under the appearance of granting their request. Instead of the sweet ointment, she presented them with a box of a very foetid mixture, with which they immediately fell to bedaubing themselves. The stench of it was communicated to their posterity; and to this day, they remain ignorant of the trick put upon them, but value themselves on possessing the genuine perfume; and are so anxious to preserve it undiminished, that they very carefully avoid rain, and every thing that might possibly impair the delicious odour.”
This rancid exhalation, for which so many of the Negroes are remarkable, does not seem to proceed from uncleanliness, nor the quality of their diet. I remember a lady, whose waiting-maid, a young Negroe girl, had it to a very disagreeable excess. As she was a favourite servant, her mistress took great pains, and the girl herself spared none, to get rid of it. With this view, she constantly bathed her body twice a day, and abstained wholly from salt-fish, and all sorts of rank food. But the attempt was similar to washing the Black-a-moor white; and after a long course of endeavours to no purpose, her mistress found that there was no remedy but to change her for another attendant, somewhat less odoriferous.
We may reasonably assume from this passage that Edward Long is one of those refined souls who have much delicacy in the frame of their nostrils, and would thus be easily overcome by such powerful animal smells. But the seductive fall is as complicated as the compound stink itself. As Stallybrass and White state epigrammatically in their conclusion to The Politics And Poetics of Transgression, “disgust always bears the imprint of desire:”
It has been argued that ‘the demarcating imperative’ divides up human and non-human, society and nature, ‘on the basis of the simple logic of excluding filth’ . . . . Differentiation, in other words, is dependent upon disgust. The division of the social into high and low, the polite and the vulgar, simultaneously maps out divisions between the civilized and the grotesque body, between author and hack, between social purity and social hybridization. These divisions, as we have argued, cut across the social formation, topography and the body, in such a way that subject identity cannot be considered independently of these domains. The bourgeois subject continuously defined and re-defined itself through the exclusion of what it marked out as ‘low’ – as dirty, repulsive, noisy, contaminating. The low was internalized under the sign of negation and disgust.
In the hierarchy inverted world of sexual fantasy, the “rancid exhalation” that forces the Mistress to dismiss her favourite servant, becomes the “genuine perfume” of the African “she-divinity” that draws Massa Buccra from the bothersome purity of his worthless lady’s bed.
Thus, the transgressive black woman is not simply a helpless victim in a racist/sexist society; she does exercise a complex measure of control over her own sexuality, that of the black man and of Massa. In the very first verse of “Me Know No Law, Me Know No Sin” the woman flaunts her cunning ability to capitalise on her body – selling her “maidenhead” several times over “[t]o many a handsome fellow.” Erotic disguise. The qualifying “[a]ltho’ a slave me is born and bred” declares her refusal to be commodified by anybody but herself. She may be a legal “slave” but she is free nevertheless to exploit her status as commodity in the sexual marketplace. She is able to seduce gullible men into purchasing a non-existent product, not her body, but the illusion of virginity and first conquest of undiscovered territory; the imperial myth (dis)embodied.
In a language of feigned innocence this woman declares her ignorance of (and therefore freedom from) the bonds of law and sin. Not to know is to be innocent of responsibility. Verbal cunning – that dubious not-knowing echoed in the no/know homonym – thus voices the essentially subversive relationship of the enslaved black woman to the dominant social/moral order. Indeed, she is apparently not at all ignorant of the complicated advantages of marginality: to transgress is to go beyond the enslaving boundaries that delimit her person and her place. Transgression thus becomes the acknowledgement of a rehumanised identity. Role-playing – erotic disguise – is a strategy for survival.
Turning from 18th and 19th century Jamaican popular discourse to its contemporary manifestations one recognises the dancing body of the black woman displayed with similar cunning. Jamaican dancehall culture is commonly disparaged as a homophobic, homicidal, misogynist discourse that reduces both men and women to bare essentials. Skeletal remains. In this dehumanising caricature, women are conceived as mindless bodies, (un)dressed and on display exclusively for male sexual pleasure. And men are represented as predators stalking potential victims. It is the animal nature of both genders that is foregrounded. It is true that sex and violence – basic instincts – are recurring themes in the lyrics of both male and female deejays. Understandably so. The dancehall is, essentially, a heterosexual space (some would say heterosexist) in which men and women play out eroticised gender roles in ritual dramas that can become violent. But sex and violence, however basic, are not the only preoccupations of Jamaican dancehall culture. There is a powerful current of explicitly political lyrics that speaks to the struggle of the celebrants in the dancehall to reclaim their humanity in circumstances of grave economic deprivation that force the animal out of its lair. Survival of the fittest is the name of the game.
Approvingly gyrating to sexually explicit lyrics (usually performed by men), the female dancehall fan, as both spectacle and spectator, does appear to be complicit in the representation of her person as sex object. Even more implicated in this discourse of objectification is the female DJ who, having upstaged her male counterpart, takes control of the mike and assumes the power to represent herself verbally and dance to her own beat. The self-assertive female DJ does speak back to the male, challenging many of the chauvinist limitations that are imposed on her gender. But, somewhat paradoxically, she often speaks the very same sexually explicit body-language as the male, causing short-sighted detractors to dismiss her as being even more culpable than the male DJs – and the women in the audience who take vicarious pleasure in her daring self-exposure.
Arguing transgressively for the freedom of women to claim a self-pleasuring sexual identity that may even be explicitly homoerotic, I propose that Jamaican dancehall culture at home and in the diaspora is best understood as a potentially liberating space in which working-class women and their more timid middle-class sisters assert the freedom to play out eroticised roles that may not ordinarily be available to them in the rigid social conventions of the everyday. The dancehall, thus conceived, is an erogenous zone in which the celebration of female sexuality and fertility is ritualised.
The fantastic dress code of the dancehall – in the original Greek sense of the word ‘fantastic,’ meaning ‘to make visible,’ ‘to show’ – is the visualisation of a distinctive cultural style that allows women the liberty to demonstrate the seductive appeal of the imaginary – and their own bodies. Transparent bedroom undergarments become street wear, somewhat like the emperor’s new clothes. And who dares say that the body is naked? Only the naive. In the dancehall world of make-believe, old roles can be contested and new identities assumed. Indeed, the elaborate styling of both hair and clothes is a permissive expression of the pleasures of disguise.
Complicated sexual fantasies can be fulfilled in the putting on of wigs, weaves and extensions in various hues. ‘Picky-picky head’ women go to all lengths to claim the sex appeal that is perceived to reside naturally in ‘tall-hair’ women – as evidenced in the dominant images of pin-up female sexiness in the mainstream media in Jamaica and elsewhere. In the words of Sandra Lee: “The extension add a movie look to us. . . . Is like a disguise. I want to look different tomorrow.”
Hairpieces do for some women what dreadlocks, and the even more fashionable ‘sisterlocks,’ do for others. As they flash their Rapunzel tresses, these dancehall divas, appropriating the border-crossing potential of disguise, simultaneously reinscribe and subvert the racial ideology that devalues the beauty of African-Jamaican women and undermines their self-esteem. Indeed, this hair-extension aesthetic must be related to traditional patterns of body adornment in continental Africa which have re-emerged in the diaspora.
In the patriarchal discourse of most societies women are required to be beautiful, unlike men who only have to be men. In the derisory words of the self-important male character, Ubana, in the novel The Joys of Motherhood, written by the Nigerian novelist, Buchi Emecheta: “[a] woman may be ugly and grow old, but a man is never ugly and never old. He matures with age and is dignified.” For many African diasporan women, the politics of beauty is complicated by racism. Unlike their African sisters, for whom beauty was traditionally defined in indigenous terms, many African women in the diaspora are judged by standards of beauty based on non-African phenotypes. Faced with these marks of erasure, many African diasporan women have had to settle for being sexy, instead of beautiful.
There is an old Guyanese joke about an African-Guyanese entrant in a beauty contest in the mid-sixties. The story was told to an African-Guyanese woman who worked at Fogarty’s, a Georgetown store which tended to have a disproportionately high percentage of Portuguese and other light-skinned employees. The unsuccessful beauty contestant is alleged to have responded thus to a malicious question about how she fared in the competition:
Not all African diasporan women share the confidence of this contestant. There is a disturbing trend in the Caribbean today for black women to bleach their skin in an attempt to approximate the standards of euro-american ideal beauty. This bleaching of the skin - usually only of the face and neck - is an obvious attempt to partially disguise the racial identity of the subject. The mask of ‘lightness,’ however dangerous in medical terms, becomes a therapeutic signifier of status in a racist society that still privileges melanin deficiency as a sign of beauty.
This predilection for playing the other – i.e. ‘playing mas’ – underscores a hidden continuity between the annual rituals of carnival masquerading in other Caribbean societies and the daily gestures of dissimulation in real-time Jamaican culture and its heightened forms of expression in the dancehall. The importation of an adulterated Trinidad carnival aesthetic into Jamaican popular culture has resulted in the cross-fertilization of traditions of role play in which costume, dance and music are primal signifiers. And just as the Byron Lee carnival aesthetic creates a platform for predominantly upper/middle-class brown and white Jamaicans to abandon respectability, parade their nakedness in the streets and ‘get on bad’ i.e. pass for black, on their terms, even so everyday Jamaican dancehall culture permits the black majority to enjoy the pleasures of release from the prison of identity that limits the definition of the person to one’s social class and colour. There are, it is all too true, profound psycho-sociological underpinnings of this desire to be/play the other that cannot be simply written off as mere entertainment. Role play both conceals and reveals deep-seated anxieties about the body which has been incised with the scarifications of history.
The dancehall thus constitutes a paradoxical social space in which race as a marker of identity is contested and sexuality, especially that of the woman, is celebrated with abandon. This affirmation of the pleasures of the body which is often misunderstood as a devaluation of female sexuality can also be theorised as an act of self-conscious female assertion of control over the representation of her person: “Me Know No Law, Me Know No Sin.” Woman as sexual being claims the right to sexual pleasure as an essential sign of her identity. Both fleshy women and their more sinewy sisters are equally entitled to display themselves in the public sphere as queens of revelry. Exhibitionism conceals ordinary imperfections.
In the representations of this multi-modal dancehall culture that are available in the film Dancehall Queen the disguise motif recurs. The film medium becomes a site of transformation in which the already fantastic culture of the dancehall assumes extraordinary status once transferred to the screen. The disguises of the dancehall – the hair, clothes, make-up and body language that are assumed – enhance the illusion of a fairy-tale metamorphosis of the mundane self into eroticised sex object.
Shape-shifting and mistaken identity are familiar motifs in folk tales of many cultures. In the Caribbean, popular stories of both West African and European origin encode disguise dramas. Alice Werner’s scholarly “Introduction” to Walter Jekyll’s 1907 collection, Jamaican Song and Story,concludes with an analysis of five stories which are classified as of the “Robber Bridegroom” type, “the Robber being the equivalent of an earlier wizard or devil, who, in the primitive form of the story, was simply an animal assuming human shape.” Werner elaborates:
The main incidents of the type-story are as follows:
(1) A girl obstinately refuses all suitors.
(2) She is wooed by an animal in human form, and at once accepts him.
(3) She is warned (usually by a brother) and disregards the warning.
(4) She is about to be killed and eaten, but is saved by the brother whose advice was disregarded.
Though Werner argues that “[i]n the Jamaican stories it strikes one that the idea of transformation is somewhat obscured,” she nevertheless does concede that various disguises are assumed by the Robber Bridegrooms to facilitate their duping of the gullible brides. Indeed, Werner notes that “Rabbit,” an unsuccessful suitor, “takes no steps to change his shape, being rejected on the ground that he is ‘only but a meat,’ i.e., an animal.” Dress thus becomes an essential sign of the assumed human identity.
The blurb for Dancehall Queen locates the film’s fairy tale antecedents thus: “Dancehall Queen is a modern-day Cinderella story, with no Prince Charming, but one very strong woman . . . .” The Caribbean stereotypes of the superhuman black woman and the delinquent black man meet the european fantasy of the nurturing Prince Charming; and part company. Shape-shifting Prince Charming becomes the Robber Bridegroom. At the centre of Dancehall Queenis a disguise drama in which the star, Marcia, outsmarts the Don, Larry, contriving to make him believe that she is other than her everyday self – an unglamorous street vendor, pushing a heavy cart through the streets of Kingston in the unending struggle to survive. She is the work-weary mother of two children, the elder of whom, Tanya, is a nubile teenager targeted for seduction by Larry, the Robber Bridegroom.
But Marcia is not inspired to assume the role of Dancehall Queen in order to seduce Larry. It is not the promise of sex/romance that tempts her. It is the prize money which guarantees a measure of economic independence, however temporary. And she is motivated to succeed in her bid for the crown of Dancehall Queen by her recognition of the power of costume to enable the transformation. When Marcia encounters the reigning Dancehall Queen in street clothes and in the glare of daylight she is struck by the unglamorousness of the woman. The glittering strobe-light world of the dance is an idealised space in which fantastic identities are possible. Once out of costume, the glamorous fairy tale princess/ hard-core Dancehall Queen, often loses her appeal. Stripped of stage props, she is put to the test and found wanting. Indeed, Marcia’s incredulous and malicious comment, ‘she look ordinary eeh!’, signals her own recognition of the distance between the nocturnal image and the daylight reality. When Marcia, herself, eventually does win the crown of Dancehall Queen it is essential that she resume the costume of street vendor in order to reclaim her own sense identity.
Marcia’s daughter, Tanya, is equally incredulous when she discovers her mother rehearsing the role of dancehall queen: “Mama, is that you?” The eroticisation of motherhood is the ultimate manifestation of the abandonment of traditional definitions of woman as desexualised caregiver. In both Dancehall Queenmotherhood is a condition that conceals the erotic potential of the woman. The sexuality of the older woman that is usually disguised by her role as mother is released in the taking on of the persona of dancehall queen. This re-eroticisation of motherhood challenges the presumption that after a certain age and especially after child-bearing the woman naturally loses her sex appeal and must be replaced by a younger woman – often her very own daughter in circumstances in which the woman’s putative mate is sexually attracted to his supposed step-daughter.
In Dancehall Queen, erotic disguise functions on various levels. The trope of the “Robber Bridegroom” is central to my reading of the film as an adapted reinscription of traditional folk-tale in which both bride and groom are now robbers. Both men and women employ subterfuge to best each other. The disguise motif is not limited to the eroticised adornment of the body. Disguise enables the exploration of more profound issues of betrayal as predatory animal nature, unsuccessfully concealed by the mask of the human face, stalks its victims. In Dancehall Queenthe female star is rescued from the Robber Bridegroom. But the message of this cautionary tale – which can be applied more broadly to the multi-modal discourses of the dancehall – is not just the fiction of the happy ending. Equally important is the warning that the patterns of seduction and entrapment encoded in folktale are archetypes, surviving in the contemporary dancehall in new guises.
Presumably "anonymous", appearing in J.B. Moreton, West India Customs and Manners, 2d ed. (London: J. Parsons, 1793) 153. Cited in Jean D'Costa and Barbara Lalla, eds.Voices in Exile: Jamaican Texts of the 18th and 19th Centuries, (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1989) 13-14.
'John Canoe' is defined in the Dictionary of Jamaican English as "The leader and chief dancer of a troop of negro dancers. He wears an elaborate horned mask or head-dress, which, by the end of the 18th and early 19th cents, had developed into or been replaced by the representation of an estate house, houseboat, or the like (never a canoe). The celebration takes place during the Christmas holidays, the John Canoe leading the other masqueraders in procession singing and dancing, with drums and noisy 'music', and asking for contributions from bystanders and householders." The alternate spellings indicate the English/West African eytmologies of the word. John Rashford notes in "Plants, Spirits and the Meaning of 'John' in Jamaica", Jamaica Journal 17.2 (1984) : 62, that "objects named 'John' are often associated in Jamaica with the world of spirits."
Quoted in Voices in Exile, 54. Note that in Jamaican, "him" is both male and female.
Terry Castle, Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century English Culture and Fiction (Stanford, CA.: Stanford Univ. Press, 1986) 60-62.
This argument is extended in the concluding chapter of this study where I examine Jamaica Kincaid's representation of the problematic relationship between Native and Visitor in the tourist industry - A Small Place; and in the experience of Caribbean migration - Lucy.
Edward Long, The History of Jamaica, 1774; rpt. (London: Frank Cass, 1970, Vol. 11) 424.
Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986) 191.
In chapter 3, "That Cunny Jamma Oman: Representations of Female Sensibility in the Poetry of Louise Bennett," the genesis of an indigenous feminist ideology is located in the cunning of the Akan trickster figure, Anansi.
Sandra Lee, Vox Pop on "Entertainment Report," broadcast on Television Jamaica, Friday, April 23, 1999.
Buchi Emecheta, The Joys of Motherhood, 1979; rpt. London: Heinemann, 1980, 71.
For this anecdote, I am indebted to Professor Hubert Devonish, Head of the Department of Language, Linguistics & Philosopy at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica. A rough translation of the verse: 'For figure and face I didn't place; but for boobs and arse I busted their arse.'
Walter Jekyll, ed. Jamaican Song and Story, London: David Nutt, 1907, xxxvi.