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Review: Soundclash: Jamaican Dancehall Culture at Large by Carolyn Cooper

Carolyn Cooper’s lesson on different ways of being

Despite its focus on dancehall music, one of the key texts I would advise university-level Literature students use in the academic criticism of Caribbean performance is Soundclash: Jamaican Dancehall Culture at Large by Jamaican critic Carolyn Cooper. This work provides indelible assistance in understanding and discussing the manner in which Caribbean ways of being differ from standard Western ontological methods. This work proved more helpful and comforting to me in writing my Master’s dissertation in Caribbean Studies than any other work by any other Caribbean critic. This is because often Caribbean critics, professors and theorists alike use such distant, unwieldy language and overly-exhausted ideas that it alienates the reader. They write in this way to legitimise their work in the eyes of the international academy, though they already condescend those not of the First World, despite their supposed interest in ‘post-colonial studies’ , ‘minority studies’, ‘the exotic other’, etc. They believe that in order to be recognised by international theorists, they need to write like them. And so many Caribbean thinkers, attempting to endear themselves to those of the Empire, rather end up becoming the Empire.  They re-hash their ideas, speak their language better than the colonizers themselves. They become mimic men. One issue I’ve detected with post-colonialism is the fact that the hyphen and the word “colonialism” reveals a sustained interest in what the colonizers once said. It is a clear acknowledgement of the epistemological influence of the colonizer on the way so-called third world academics think today. The long and short of this critique is that much of it adds little to the originality. The ideas are not new and are not progressive in any way or fashion. Academics should push the boundaries of theory further to accommodate their realities.
This work does just that. It pushes boundaries. No doubt, one of the most talked about chapters of this work is focused on Lady Saw. One of the most important aspects of this chapter is its complete disavowal of Western objectification of women. The first page contains the bombastic quote:

The flamboyantly exhibitionist DJ Lady Saw epitomizes the sexual liberation of many African Jamaican working class women from airy-fairy Judeo-Christian definitions of appropriate female behaviour. In a decisive act of feminist emancipation, Lady Saw cuts loose from the burdens of moral guardianship.

Her direct language is compelling, and what is more, Cooper accomplishes this abrupt disavowal of male-centric, Judeo-Christian Western ideology through the scope of dancehall music, supposedly one of the misogynistic musical genres in the world. She does so by focussing on the space Lady Saw as a woman creates for herself in a genre traditionally dominated by men. She teaches the reader how to see beyond the opinion that women talking about genitalia is internalised misogyny by pointing out that black female expressivity does not equal slackness. She explains: “She embodies the erotic. But one viewer’s erotica is another’s pornography.”

Cooper answers her narrow-minded Western critics by highlighting the fact that black women’s bodies move in the so-called “lewd” way (gyrations), not because of lack of self-respect, but because it was inherited from African ancestors. She does so by discussing fertility rites of Africa, given different names in the Caribbean, thereby highlighting the syncretic mutliplicity of alternate epistemologies: obeah, kumina, etc. In so doing, she teaches the West that their way of bieng and seeing the world falls short when it attempts to condemn syncretic societies which are just as influenced by non-European pasts as European influences. Essentially, they do not possess the code to discuss Jamaica, and by extension the Caribbean. Cooper teaches them that they should not discuss what requires the alternate knowledge they will never fully understand as they exist within the schema of a dying Western empire.

Carolyn Cooper closes the chapter with:

Lady Saw’s brilliant lyrics, reinforced by her compelling body language, articulate a potent message about sexuality, gender politics, and the power struggle for the right ot public space in Jamaica. She is a woman who knows the power of sex appeal. As an entertainer, she fully understands the function of performance as a strategy for masking the self…[Erotic disguise] encompasses the cunning strategies that are employed by outspoken women like Lady Saw who speak subtle truths about their society”

In a way, what Carolyn has done is very similar to Wynter in … However, Wynter took an extremely long-winded and historicist method of getting to the same place Cooper arrived at. However, for the advanced academics (read: professor or at least postgraduate) I would recommend Wynter who analyses and deconstructs the Western self.

What texts can I use this play for?

Even though this work is not specifically written for performance, It would be especially helpful in discussing works by women or with central (or even marginal) female characters. Plays by The Sistren Theatre Collective like Bellywoman Bangarang which I reviewed elsewhere on the blog would be a good choice. There is also an entire chapter dedicated to the oral history of Lionhearted Gal by the Sistren Theatre Collective.

What other work by Carolyn Cooper deals with similar themes?

Noises in the Blood: Orality, Gender and the Vulgar Body of Jamaican Popular Culture is very similar indeed, but it’s an earlier work which has a wide scope as it deals with poetry, plays and film, in addition to dancehall and DJ culture.

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