Queens of dancehall

Jamaican music has a reputation for being uncompromisingly male-dominated. But things are changing. Dave Stelfox meets Lady Saw and the other female artists breaking all the rules
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"Now the organisers tell me I have to behave myself," Lady Saw says of her recent appearance at Sumfest, Montego Bay's legendary annual reggae festival. "I had a little problem back in 2001. People thought I took things too far for a family audience, but I was just too hot for them to handle, y'know."

"Now the organisers tell me I have to behave myself," Lady Saw says of her recent appearance at Sumfest, Montego Bay's legendary annual reggae festival. "I had a little problem back in 2001. People thought I took things too far for a family audience, but I was just too hot for them to handle, y'know."

Such things are all in a day's work for Jamaican dancehall's reigning queen. Although her breach of protocol placed Saw, otherwise known as Marion Hall, at the sharp end of the island's obscenity laws, she knows that a frisson of scandal can only add to a carefully maintained reputation as one of the genre's most outrageous and energetic performers. Indeed, as thousands flock to her sexually charged shows, in which unsuspecting males are routinely dragged on stage for her amusement, and her frank, explicit recordings continue to win fans both at home and abroad, she clearly has a winning formula.

"I'm a very excitable person, so when I play live, I may lift a leg up and people may get a glimpse of my underwear, or I may cuss or say something I shouldn't. It's not planned; you can't help it sometimes. When a crowd is out there screaming your name, it's easy to get carried away, and the people love it. They know what Lady Saw is all about and they keep coming back for more," she says.

Fresh from this year's gig, which she insists "adhered to all the rules and regulations", Lady Saw, 32, is in ebullient mood and keen to talk about Strip Tease, her latest album, released on VP Records, the home to successful artists such as Sean Paul and Wayne Wonder. She hopes it will propel her to similar international fame. "Jamaican music is on the world stage, at the same level as hip hop and R&B now," she says. "It's a wonderful time to be part of it. I give maximum props to all the artists who have opened those doors, because I'm going to make sure I follow them. This time I'm not just putting a foot in; I'm going to get my whole body through."

That Strip Tease is Lady Saw's fifth full-length recording in 10 years is impressive for any artist working in a field known for its fierce, chew-'em-up-and-spit-'em-out turnover of talent. But for a woman, such staying-power is unheard of. Dancehall is often defined by the extreme machismo of artists such as Bounty Killer and Capleton, and precious few females have ever been admitted to its premier league.

But Saw is the first to recognise that a troupe of reggae divas, with distinctive, individual characteristics, are now ready to take their rightful place. Hot on her stiletto heels are the established players Tanya Stephens and Ce'Cile, not to mention a new wave of younger artists, including Ms Thing and Sasha, who have enjoyed crossover collaborations with Beenie Man and Sean Paul, respectively. And what this spirited contingent lacks in number, it more than makes up for in style and sass.

"Before, female singers like Patra were popular, so we're not the first," Lady Saw explains. "But several of us are getting respect all at the same time: that's the difference. I've had to work very hard to get where I am today, but I've been on top for a long time, kicking it as good as any man. I can work a dance and ride a rhythm as well as the men - and I make sure I get paid as well as them, too."

Lady Saw appears to be doing just fine. Her guest slot on "Underneath It All", the 2003 Grammy-winning single by the US group No Doubt, finally brought her to the attention of a worldwide audience. However, Strip Tease eschews such high-profile collaborations, keeping its focus fixed on the Kingston scene, with vocal duets featuring Sizzla and Ce'Cile on up-to-the-minute rhythms by the town's leading producers. Steering clear of the obvious MTV-friendly R&B crossover is a positive move, leaving Lady Saw's uncompromising patois rapping to shine through.

While it is tempting to draw parallels between the role of dancehall's women and that of their sisters in the big-bucks world of US hip hop, there are glaring differences. Sure enough, sex sells, but Lady Saw is a world away from the often uncomfortable objectification of such rappers as Lil' Kim. As confident and trenchant singing, "My legs are locked!" on "Lock It Up" as she is on the rapaciously libidinous "Do Me Better", this woman is in charge of her sexuality and doesn't care who knows it.

If Lady Saw is dancehall's Missy Elliott, then Gangsta Blues shows Tanya Stephens to be its Jill Scott, albeit with dick jokes. Mixing raw street soliloquies, contemplative, rootsy reggae and straight-up bashment fare, this album is a far smoother proposition than Strip Tease, held together by common-sense consciousness and a rich vein of wry comedy. "I'm motivated by very serious topics," says the 31-year-old Stephens, "but it's silly to try to make someone listen to an hour of rambling and complaining. Humour lightens things up, so the big issues don't encroach on the listener's space too much. I like to poke fun at things, so making people laugh is often the best way to get my points across."

Stephens earned her spurs in the 1990s with bombastic ragga anthems including "Yu Nuh Ready Fi Dis Yet" and "Big Ninja Bike", and a certain girls-on-top ethic has always been central to her work. "I don't want to be defined by my gender, because that is an insult to any artist," she asserts. "There are so few of us working in this style of music that it's not an accolade to be seen as one of the best women. I want to be measured against the men, not for people to say that I'm good for a woman!"

Referring to the intricacies of Kingston's studio system, in which multiple artists are called on to "voice" the same backing track or "riddim", each version then being released as a separate seven-inch single, Stephens continues: "A man can cut a track that's half as good as one by a woman, but theirs will always be the one that gets the airplay. That's why, just to be taken seriously, I have to make sure that the records I release blow everything else out of the water."

While it's often enough for popular male artists to turn up and throw down a bunch of default catchphrases and recycled rhymes, Stephens places the emphasis on content. Even with its finely honed repertoire of X-rated one-liners, Gangsta Blues shows a growing maturity and a desire to make every tune count. On songs such as "Turn the Other Cheek" and "What a Day" her "sing-jay" style - a blend of bouncy chatting and silken, soulful melody - proves the perfect vehicle for social commentary.

"Living in Jamaica, it's difficult to turn a blind eye to politics," Stephens says. "Our political parties are tearing each other apart, and the standard of living for many people is terrible. Some people can ignore all the violence and poverty in our society if it doesn't affect them directly, but I can't. I see the connectivity in everything and believe that the only way to get things right is to address the causes of our problems."

Like Lady Saw, who has three adopted children, Stephens is a mother. Looking after her 10-year-old daughter is a major part of her life and a constant source of inspiration. "The moment I gave birth was when I really became an adult," she says. "Most of the things I sing about now I didn't really care about as a young woman on my own. But when you have a child, you think more about the world you have brought them into. In that sense, my daughter is the most important member of my quality-control personnel."

In fact, many of dancehall's female stars lead considerably quieter lives than their strident public personae may suggest. Though her forthcoming album is entitled Bad Gyal, Ce'Cile Charlton is a disarmingly well-mannered former choirgirl. After getting a job as general manager of Kingston's Celestial Sounds studio, under the tutelage of the respected producer Steven Ventura, she recognised that an image makeover would be necessary to secure success in her own right. "I had to teach myself to chat dancehall," Charlton, 28, admits. "It wasn't an immediately instinctive thing. All my family come from Mandeville and are essentially middle class, so there wasn't any patois spoken at home. But when I was younger, listening to singers like Chevelle Franklin, and later Tanya Stephens and Lady Saw, I thought they had so much energy. I wanted to master that style."

The first fruit of Charlton's transformation into outspoken pin-up was her 2001 smash "Changes", a satirical broadside full of unflattering speculation on the between-the-sheets prowess of many of Jamaican music's biggest male names. It didn't stop there. She has ruffled many a feather by taking on the great masculine taboo of "bowing" (cunnilingus) with her single "Do It to Me", and sees testosterone-fuelled dancehall's tendency toward homophobia as "ridiculous".

In addition to being an especially fertile period for dancehall, the past few months rank among the most turbulent in its history for this very reason. A campaign accusing a number of influential male artists of performing lyrics designed to incite violence against homosexuals, run by the activist Peter Tatchell and the gay-rights group OutRage!, has led to an ongoing police investigation in the UK. Knock-on effects have included the cancellation of a string of European and North American live dates by Beenie Man, the withdrawal of Mobo award nominations for Vybz Kartel and Elephant Man, and the abandonment of London's Reggae in the Park concert earlier this month - an event scheduled to feature Sizzla and Kartel alongside such uncontroversial, old-school reggae stars as Marcia Griffiths and Gregory Isaacs.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the feminine perspective is somewhat more pluralistic. "I don't go on stage and tell people to 'bun batty man', because I don't agree with that at all. I only want to give positive messages, but it is frustrating that the media often seems to be interested in only that aspect of dancehall. My songs are about love, good times - and, yeah, sex," Charlton says with a laugh. "But the main idea is one of people coming together. People need to know that these messages exist, too, and that dancehall is here for everyone."

With their tough-talking, no-nonsense attitude, these artists regularly find themselves in demand by non-dancehall acts in search of a little Caribbean flavour. Take, for instance, Lady Saw's recent appearance on Steven Seagal's debut album (yes, that Steven Seagal - and don't worry, it's not available on these shores). Meanwhile, Stephens, who lived in Sweden for a number of years, and Charlton have working relationships with a number of European producers. Both have lately contributed vocals to the Wall of Sound label's Two Culture Clash album, a project that, for better or worse, brings US and European electronic musicians together with Jamaican singers. Still, the best way to experience the joyful noise these ladies make is to hear them in their natural rhythmic environment.

"I'm happy to get involved and work with different people," Charlton says. "But I've realised that the main thing for me to do is stay true to myself and keep on doing what I've always been doing. You only need to hear things like Kelis's 'Trick Me' - she's riding a reggae rhythm and singing. It was a massive hit and it's exactly what I've been doing for years!"

'Strip Tease' by Lady Saw is out now on VP Records ( www.ladysaw.net). 'Gangsta Blues' by Tanya Stephens is out now on VP Records ( www.tanyastephensmusic.com). 'Bad Gyal' by Ce'Cile is scheduled for imminent release on Delicious Vinyl ( www.cecileflava.com)