Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Reggae Divas: The Visibility of Female Reggae Artists

Vybez Kartel. Mavado. Beenie. Bounty. Buju. Male reggae artists are constantly in the news, constantly changing styles, innovating Jamaican culture and dancehall culture internationally, and churning out music for reggae fans around the world.

Busy Signal. Vegas. Cham. Sanchez. T.O.K. Beres Hammond. The styles of each artist vary so uniquely from one another, that one can't help but love reggae music and the diversity that exists within it.

But while Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, Jennifer Hudson, and Keri Hilson can easily dominate the charts and media attention of pop and hip-hop...the female reggae singers hardly get the same kind of spotlight that their female counterparts in all other genres do, nor do they get the same amount of attention as other musicians in the reggae genre.

They are just as talented, just as provocative, and the music is just as sweet...but female reggae artists have yet to receive the same level of love and recognition for their years of musical contributions to the genre.

Enter Reggae Divas.

Curious about the amount of media and cultural recognition that these artists have received over the years, I was disappointed to find that there haven't been many books, articles, or features written exclusively about women in reggae. And so this is why I have started to create my own tribute to female artists in reggae music.

My book Reggae Divas (via Kya Publishing) will be an anthology of female artists in reggae music. And as cliche as the word "diva" is, it is the only word I thought could truly personify what these ladies are: glamorous and successful or distinguished female performers.

And there are so many. Althea & Donna, Judy Mowatt, Marcia Griffiths and of course Rita Marley come to mind when thinking of legendary female performers.

And the ladies that brought a new sense of style, confidence, sexuality, and redefined the image of women in reggae/dancehall: Lady Saw, Lady G, Nadine Sutherland, and Diana King to name a few. Their music made women everywhere feel sexy, liberated, in control, and had them taking control of their images.

So no badda come ya wid yuh gali gali trend
Just ease off breeze off
Yuh no hear sey skettel bomb no dey a road again
~Lady Saw

You've got the new soulful singers like Alaine, Cherine Anderson, and the sisters Tami Chynn and Tessanne Chin...not to mention other recent hit makers like Tifa, Timberlee, Macka Diamond, and Stacious. These ladies make you want to dance, celebrate, love life, and again, stand firm in your own image.

Conscious sisters like Queen Ifrica, Tanya Stephens, and Etana...their lyrics give us strength, wisdom, and of course vibes.

Even without the male artists, the female reggae artists carry heavyweights, lyricists, fashionistas, and again--enough diversity and authentic talent to warrant recognition and celebration. Their lyrics make women shout out loud and claim a space in reggae music.

Tell ah gal seh mi's ah girl mi nuh fight ova man
From mi lickel bit ah jus so mi tan
Dis yah gal only wan gi him one
After dat him tun fool cauz him jus get di bomb

Yet their visibility is limited. Their buzz isn't always as strong, although it should be.

I'm continually amazed at how much talent and power exists on island of Jamaica. How strongly reggae music plays from the Caribbean, to Africa, Asia, North America...and how others have eagerly adapted dancehall and Jamaican culture into the fabric of their own local environments.

On the surface...there are many of them. Their lyrics are memorable, their images are magnificent, and their stories are worth telling.

I see them coming after my soul....wanted to take control
Wanna give me locks, wanna give me bling....
Wanna give me all the material things....
I hear dem talking bout what the world has to offer, girl what you doing dont you see....
What they have done to Bed-ward & Marcus, Jesus and all of the Profits
But I am not afraid

So as I officially commence the research stage of Reggae Divas the written anthology, I am prepared to learn from their individual journeys, gain strength from their words, and of course vibe to their music.

They deserve to be documented in print. They deserve to be exhaulted and I definitely don't mind taking the time out to ensure that these ladies are written about and celebrated in a way that reflects their contribution to music and what they represent to so many woman (and men) around the world.


~"Reggae Divas" is a forthcoming anthology of women in reggae music, written by Stacey Marie Robinson, founder of Kya Publishing.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

A Woman's Worth [in the entertainment industry]

A few years ago I went to a Mary J. Blige concert at the Molson Ampitheatre at Ontario Place in Toronto. I've been a fan of Mary since the beginning, but somehow this was the first time I had seen her live. I was glad to be there, and glad to see a packed house, and hear her perform the songs that had been the soundtrack and inner dialogue to so many moments in my life.

She sang, she danced, she spoke to the audience about her life's moments that brought her to that place. She connected with us, as we had connected with her hundreds of times before listening to any one of her legendary albums that are obvious staples in anyone's music collection.

And when Mary got ready to sing her classic "I'm Going Down" (a cover of Rose Royce's hit from 1977) from her second album, My Life...all it took was a few intro notes from the band, and the women in the Ampitheatre began to cheer, clear their throats...and sing.

Time on my hands...since you've been away boy...I ain't got no no no no...

Instant goosebumps. While Mary originally intended to sing the song...she couldn't. The feedback from the ladies in the audience as they belted the tune out back to Mary was overwhelming. She stopped. She put the microphone out towards the audience, and she let us sing.

And boy did we sing.

Sleep don't come easy...boy please believe me...since you've been gone...everything's going wrong...

And it continued like this for the chorus. For the next few verses. For the entireity of the song, Mary did not sing one note! It wasn't planned but it happened. And it happened because we were moved to experience the song in the way Mary had. We were moved to sing the song at the top of our lungs. And although we had paid money to hear Mary sing it--along with her other hits--we couldn't help but take over the show.

I use Mary as a prime example, because she's one of the strongest artists that emerged, developed, and excelled in my generation. From she first came out in the early 90s until this day, married, mature, and still rocking the charts, Mary J Blige is one of those women that will always be influential.

And Mary's just one of them. I could easily list dozens of female entertainers in music, writing, film, and television, whose creativity has had an equally strong and moving effect on their audience members.

With International Women's Day taking place in the month of March, I began to think about what it means to be a woman in the entertainment industry. What does it mean to be Oprah, or Mary...what does it mean to be Mariah, Halle, or even Whoopi? What does it mean to have the ability to project your thoughts, your words, and your face to millions of others on a fairly regular basis? What does it mean to have other women reciprocate your work so strongly, that they can easily sing your song word for word, right on tune, without missing a single note?

There are plenty of women in other industries doing their thang: scientists, teachers, business women, and homemakers alike. I can appreciate the diversity of today's woman and know that there is an impact to be made across the board...but my attention is specifically set on the role of the female entertainer. What is her worth? Why is she the one that gets most of the recognition and praise?

And then I thought back to the Mary concert. And I remembered watching "A Different World" on television and seeing these young, fun, and likeable women of all shades and sizes pursuing a university education on screen. I thought about writers like Terry McMillan (as noted in my previous post), and reporters like Oprah Winfrey. While their business is entertainment, their mere presence was so much more than that to me. They were role models...women outside of our families and friends that we could look to for examples of ourselves. They were powerful.

Even as an adult, I still look to many of the women I grew up being entertained by, for strength, encouragement, and motivation. I put on an Alicia Keys CD when I need inspiration to start practicing my piano and tightening my skills. I'll watch a Mariah Carey or Kimora Lee Simmons documentary when I need to see a woman taking her industry and making millions and millions from it, and leading the most glamourous lifestlyes imaginable. I'll tune into Oprah, as she takes an audience of hundreds across Australia on an adventure, and I get moved when I see her cry at the simplest things like fireworks or a beautiful sunset. I'll read a book by Queen Latifah and celebrate how far she's come.

OK, so they're millionnaires. And they're off in Hollywood or wherever they reside "entertaining" for a living, while the rest of us tend to a nine-to-five. What is their real worth in the grand scheme of things? For me, it's a feeling. An energy. A hope. A gratitude.

Because Mary J. Blige wasn't always "Mary J. Blige." And Oprah and her millions used to be Oprah and her pocket change. The Williams sisters and their multi-national sponsorships used to be two little sisters playing tennis...and yes, even though they've reached unbelievable levels of success and recognition, I still feel the reality is that they are average women who had a dream, stuck to their vision, and never looked back.

And this I believe is the value of the women in the entertainment industry that we know and love.

We grew up with them. We see their lives play out in the media (good and bad) and we are entertained by their movies, we laugh at their TV shows, we jam to their music, and we depend on their creativity to tell our stories and do the things we aspire to do, at times.

Without taking away from the individual wonderful lives we lead...we can admire them from afar, and silently congratulate these women on turning their passions into a career, and turning their talents into a culture. This is the culture that we live in, and their work has often been the backbone of our experiences.

Specifically, with the black female entertainers...sometimes it was just nice to see their faces and recognize my experiences through them. Honestly. I've got love and appreciation for women of ALL ethnicities, but the black ones provided that extra sense of recognition, extra sense of self-love, and that extra motivation to excel. They REALLY spoke to me, in a way that I internalized on a personal level.

So while I'd like to pay tribute to ALL women for International Woman's Day, I created a montage of the black female faces that directly and indirectly gave so many of us the courage, the confidence, and the motivation to pursue our own dreams.