Man Vibes: Masculinities in the Jamaican Dancehall

Donna P. Hope
Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, 2010
ISBN: 978–976–637–407–5 (paperback only)
RRP: US$24.95 (paperback)

Marvin D. Sterling

Indiana University (USA)

Given the predominance of men as DJs, sound system crew, promoters and industry executives in Jamaican dancehall, many social observers have noted the ways in which this subculture reflects a strong privileging of male sensibilities, anxieties and desires. This acknowledgement, however, often gives way to more generalized discussions of the subculture or, where gender does indeed become the focus, to commentary on its manifestations in the erotic dress and dance of female dancers. While these are certainly crucial to an understanding of dancehall subculture, the more complex sociohistorical, political and economic nuances of Jamaican masculinity as expressed in this space have remained largely unexplored. This has been the case at least until the publication of Donna P. Hope’s Man Vibes: Masculinities in the Jamaican Dancehall, a critical contribution to the growing corpus of scholarship on this subculture.

Hope employs a range of methodologies in her research. These include interviews with inner–city dancehall practitioners and lyrical analysis of the many songs, past and present, that speak to the multivalent construction of masculinity in contemporary dancehall. Hope, a Lecturer in Reggae Studies at the Institute of Caribbean Studies at the University of the West Indies, begins by articulating her principal concern with how dancehall culture, viewed by many Jamaican social critics as variously hostile to the values of the Jamaican middle class, is in fact engaged in a deep conversation with it. In the first chapter, Hope mobilizes the Gramscian concept of hegemony to define that particular manifestation of masculinity—strong, straight, financially secure, and sexually promiscuous—which is considered normative in much of Jamaican society. She explores the literature on the colonial and capitalist terms in which black masculinities have historically been circumscribed throughout Jamaica and the Caribbean. Hope is interested in a tension whereby poor Afro–Jamaican men engage in extreme performances of a subcultural masculinity that is at the peripheries of the Jamaican middle class experience, even as these performances in many ways reinscribe the hegemonic masculinity of that middle class.

In each of the next five chapters, Hope focuses on a key term in which this process manifests itself. In Chapter Two, she focuses on promiscuity as one such term. Male dancehall practitioners’ emphatic declarations of their sexual prowess and conquests would appear distasteful by monogamous, Christian, middle–class standards. However, Hope notes that many middle–class men, too, secretly engage in this behavior; the ability to father and financially provide for many children in and out of wedlock is a measure of manhood for many Jamaican men across classes. In the third chapter, Hope focuses on gun violence as another aspect of hardcore dancehall masculinity; as is true in many other societies plagued by such violence, those who bear the guns are often only the desperate proxies of more powerful individuals higher up in the social order.

The fourth chapter focuses on an intense homophobia as one of the more notorious expressions of masculinity in dancehall culture. Hope notes that here again, such expressions are not confined to the dancehall but rather reflect a sentiment more generally felt throughout much of Jamaican society. Hope frames dancehall homophobia in relation to the mainstream in a range of ways: as “arguably a radical and extreme variant to Jamaican masculine paranoia of the feminine where in many instances, male homosexuals are deemed gender traitors who violate the accepted rules of gender identity and/or gender performance” (69–70); as legally normative; as partly a product of religious fundamentalism; and as an attitude whose effects are socioeconomically inflected, whereby gay men who happen to be relatively privileged bear a degree of insulation that comes with class–based respectability.

The fifth chapter focuses on conspicuous consumption as another prominent aspect of dancehall masculinity. Hope chronicles the range of brand name commodities—from luxury cars to cell phones to alcoholic beverages—that have been in vogue throughout the history of contemporary Jamaican dancehall. In her discussion of the British Link–Up Crew, an especially extravagant group of men who have promoted dancehall events in Jamaica, Britain and the United States, Hope notes that dancehall as an expression of desire to escape poverty is significantly situated not only in local terms, but also vis–à–vis Jamaican migration to the colonial mother country and the geographically proximal superpower of the United States.

In light of the strident homophobia of the dancehall, the sixth chapter of Man Vibes is perhaps the most intriguing. Here, Hope identifies what she sees as a recent shift in expressions of dancehall masculinity towards a “feminized aesthetic”, one which includes “regular visits even by the most hardened ghetto youth to cosmetologists for facials, manicures and pedicures … regular visits to salons for hair care … conspicuous and intricate hair styles (e.g. intricate cornrows), and plucked, trimmed and fashioned eyebrows” (125). Skin bleaching, conventionally associated with women but also now evidenced among men (allegedly including the superstar DJ, Vybz Kartel), is a further manifestation of this trend. The recent popularity of dance—again, conventionally the province of women or heterosexual dance partners—among individual as well as groups of men is for Hope another indication of the emergence of this “‘softened’ variant of dancehall masculinity” (ibid.), one whose homosociality verges ambiguously on the homosexual.

Hope astutely notes that homosexuality—despite this trend toward a softened masculinity—remains marginalized in the Jamaican dancehall, and discusses a subsequent backlash in which several dancehall artists have criticized this development in their songs. Still, she views the trend as potentially transgressive. She writes that “this radically transgressive variant to dancehall masculinity … raises questions about the current constitution of hegemonic masculinity from which dancehall culture ultimately draws its strength” (142), and suggests that this development might be seen as an extension of a narcissistically embodied commodity aesthetic drawn from such transnational sources as Western high fashion. While there may quite possibly be latent homosexuality in the feverish homophobia of the Jamaican dancehall, Hope’s suggestion above leads one to wonder how much this development is really about the feminization or homosexualization of dancehall masculinity. This is as opposed, or relative to what may more immediately be a local and transnational commodity aesthetic whose aspects of gender and sexual orientation are secondary (which is not to say unimportant).

Hope rightly abstains from facile social psychological observations about the meanings of this trend toward the feminization of dancehall masculinity, but concerning the quote above, on which this chapter ends, it would have been interesting if she had more extensively addressed the “questions” she believes this development raises about hegemonic masculinity in Jamaica. Indeed, I would have liked to have heard a bit more about what precisely Hope believes are the challenges dancehall masculinities pose to hegemonic Jamaican masculinity, beyond its partial status as something apart from the middle–class.

The book contains some editorial infelicities which, smoothed over, would have given greater force to Hope’s otherwise clear writing. But this aside, what one garners from this book is the sense of Hope as a scholar with an extraordinarily close ear to the ground of Jamaican dancehall culture, and a sense of gratitude that she has taken on the fraught but important topic of masculinity in the dancehall in the systematic, sustained and sensitive way she has. Man Vibes is a welcome work that will advance the national, and international, conversation on this topic, hopefully, as its author writes in closing, in ways that will disclose more direct and socially beneficial “routes to empowerment for Jamaica’s future men and women” (168).