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Why Isn’t Jamaican Dancehall Bigger in the U.S.?

When acts like Hoodcelebrityy break through here, they’re overcoming major structural obstacles to their success

HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 16:  Rapper HoodCelebrityy performs onstage during Day for Night festival on December 16, 2017 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Rick Kern/WireImage)

Jamaica-born, Bronx-raised dancehall singer HoodCelebrityy performs onstage during Day for Night festival on December 16, 2017 in Houston.

Rick Kern/WireImage

In the first week of May, the American music industry commenced a semi-annual tradition: singling out a lone piece of Jamaican music and sending it up the charts. 2018’s lucky winner is “Walking Trophy,” a confidence-boosting single by Hoodcelebrityy, a Jamaican-born, New York City-based singer. By early July, two months after appearing on the mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop airplay chart, “Walking Trophy” was reaching an audience of around eight million listeners a week.

“There’s one Jamaican record every two to three years,” explains the producer Jaxx (Kranium, Jada Kingdom). “The last big record was Konshens [‘Bruk Off Yuh Back,’ 2017]; before that it was Kranium [‘Nobody Has to Know,’ 2015]; before that it was Gyptian [‘Hold Yuh,’ 2010]; before that it was Serani [‘No Games,’ 2009].”

Singles like these often become popular when the weather begins to warm in the Northeast U.S., but when fall approaches, American gatekeepers promptly abandon Jamaican music. “We’ve always been trying to figure that out: Why are we only subjected to the summertime?” asks Ricky Blaze, an artist-producer who crafted the beat for Gyptian’s “Hold Yuh.” “We make cool music all year long.”

Maybe conditions are finally in place for Jamaican artists to break the de facto seasonal embargo. Streaming has helped multiple global genres of music achieve prominence; Thanks to huge YouTube numbers and beefed-up Spotify playlists, more Spanish-language songs than ever before are reaching the Hot 100, and within the last year and a half, K-Pop has also started to cross into the U.S. market. Jamaican music has been more historically influential than either reggaeton or K-Pop; could it be the next genre to break globally?

Even the most casual American listeners know the reggae template. Dancehall is effectively a sleeker, rowdier descendant, with electronic programming in place of reggae’s live instrumentation and a more declarative vocal style relative to reggae’s laidback, melodic singing. Together, the two forms have shaped wide swathes of modern pop, starting with hip-hop – reggae helped popularize “toasting” over a rhythm-heavy backing track – but extending far beyond. Several of the biggest Top 40 hits of the last five years have a Jamaican foundation, including Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” Sia’s “Cheap Thrills” and Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You.”

“Dancehall is the son of reggae, but the father of several genres,” says Sean Paul, likely dancehall’s biggest crossover superstar. “The influence dancehall has brought to the table is evident right now in Afrobeats,” he adds, citing the popular Nigerian sound that has in turn inspired hits by Drake and others. The speedy strain of dance music known as drum and bass and the English hip-hop subgenre grime also owe much to Jamaican templates.

Most important for American listeners, dancehall played a key role in the creation of reggaeton, a collision of Jamaican rhythms and Spanish-language hip-hop. Without the distinctive drum programming invented by Jamaican producers – the reggaeton beat is still known as dembow, named after a 1991 song by Jamaican singer Shabba Ranks – and the forceful bass patterns borrowed from dancehall, you don’t get crossover hits like N.O.R.E.’s “Oye Mi Canto,” Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina” or, more recently, Ozuna and Natti Natasha’s “Criminal.”

But when it comes to dancehall itself, “people are afraid to give it a chance,” the singer Kranium says. Then he reconsiders. “They kill it even before they give it a chance.”

Let’s tally the challenges facing a dancehall singer hoping to reach the American market. “The first and biggest is the way we speak,” Paul says. “Most of us sing in patois, which evolves every year, so you can’t write it down in a textbook, you can’t teach it to someone unless they live it.”

Jaxx, the producer, points to another underlying problem: the Jamaican market’s lack of robust infrastructure for international distribution. “In America, there are major labels that you can bring your artist to and then you have a platform,” he says. No parallel institution exists in the Caribbean: as Ricky Blaze laments, “we don’t have a Def Jam Jamaica.” “It’s very hard for a record to make it far outside of Jamaica without a mainstream label behind it,” adds Linton “TJ Records” White, who produced “No Games” for Serani.

There are also often constraints on the travel of dancehall artists themselves, who may face complicated border control measures when attempting to enter the U.S. Stephen “Di Genius” McGregor, who has produced for Sean Paul and Vybz Kartel, points to the crackdown that occurred in 2010, when U.S. Homeland Security revoked the visas of five dancehall singers simultaneously during a battle with the Jamaican government over the extradition of Christopher “Dudus” Coke, now serving time for drug trafficking. “Most of the frontrunners [in dancehall] had those issues in recent years, which strained the entire industry,” McGregor says.

Paul notes that reggaeton artists have not faced the same visa problems for one obvious reason: “If you look at where reggaeton broke from, it’s a U.S. territory,” he says. “It’s Puerto Rico.”

Some dancehall producers point elsewhere, suggesting that the music has been aesthetically stagnant recently, limiting its ability to hook new listeners. “I think there’s a lack of creativity on our part,” says the producer Tyshane “Beam” Thompson, son of well-known Jamaican singer Papa San. “If I put two Jamaican beats from this year or last year together, they all sound the same.”

Both Thompson and Jaxx pin this effect to now-imprisoned star Vybz Kartel’s mid-2000s rise. “Anything Vybz went on became a big song, so it made the market lazy,” Jaxx says. “People were just throwing stuff out there, and if he jumped on it, they wouldn’t even mix the track, they’d just put it out. Vybz is super talented. Other artists were trying to keep up with him, but didn’t have the same ability to create several hit songs at a time. It caused a drop in quality.”

The dancehall singles that make it past these obstacles in the U.S. generally start on New York’s Hot 97 radio — “the biggest supporter of Caribbean music in America,” explains Julian Jones-Griffith, a veteran dancehall manager who now works with Charly Black and Jada Kingdom. After that, songs spread to Hartford, Boston, and other East Coast cities with a notable Caribbean presence.

Reaching the rest of the country is harder, in part because of the strict formats imposed by terrestrial radio stations. You’re most likely to hear a dancehall record on an “urban” station, slotted next to rap and R&B tracks. But if a key station in a given market is “rhythmic” – i.e., it plays a mixture of rap, R&B, dance music and high-energy pop – dancehall records often hit a wall. “Walking Trophy,” for example, was played 3,838 times on urban stations in the second week of July, according to Mediabase, but just 722 times in the rhythmic format.

The climate for dancehall at rhythmic radio is actually relatively hospitable compared to pop stations, which have barely played “Walking Trophy” at all. Pop radio largely plays white performers; even non-white rappers who reach Number One on the Hot 100 struggle to achieve a major hit on the pop airwaves. This means dancehall records almost never get the kind of cross-format push that leads to a genuine hit in the U.S. 

“It could be a massive record in New York, like Hoodcelebrityy,” Jones-Griffith says. “But to translate it to Kansas ­or the West Coast? That’s like the holy grail for us – we never get L.A.”

Even making it to a major label – like Hoodcelebrityy, who’s signed to Epic Records – is no guarantee of success. “Walking Trophy” is slowly sputtering out, with a 7 percent week-over-week drop in spins the last week of July. “Most labels don’t understand how to market the Caribbean culture,” McGregor says. Promotion staffs are mostly still split by race; the pop department takes care of acts that are predominantly white, and the urban department works with acts that are predominantly black. Dancehall singers will be thrown under the urban umbrella, but the same strategies that work for hip-hop and R&B acts may not work when applied to dancehall.

“Some labels don’t want to go 100 percent all-out as they should,” adds Charly Black, whose “Gyal You A Party Animal” and its remix have upwards of 300 million Spotify spins combined. (Black is on the Universal imprint Aftercluv and clarifies that he’s happy with his treatment there.) “Your manager has to have some direction over and control of how you’re marketed,” stresses Bobby Konders, who helms the show On Da Reggae Tip for Hot 97.

But in the end, a sparse handful of major-label dancehall acts are stuck competing with rappers and R&B singers for one, at most two, slots on a radio playlist while the weight of an entire genre rests on their shoulders. Jones-Griffith asks, “If Sony puts 600 grand into [Hoodcelebrityy] but they take a big hit on it, you think they’re gonna look to sign another dancehall artist?”

Streaming seems tailor-made to mitigate many of these problems. Services like Spotify and Apple Music have a proven record of sidestepping the language barrier when it comes to Spanish and Korean-language songs, and they enable artists to do an end-run around the conservative gatekeepers of terrestrial radio.

But streaming – or more accurately, the absence thereof – may actually be hurting dancehall rather than helping it. “It used to be hard for us at radio, I think it’s even worse now with streaming,” Jones-Griffith says.

That’s because Spotify and Apple Music are not available in Jamaica or in parts of Africa where dancehall is immensely popular, meaning that hardcore fans can’t signal the music’s popularity in the streaming economy. “You can’t just go up to Hot 97 and give them a record,” the reggae singer Protoje explains. “You have to create this buzz so they can look at their Shazams. It’s very number-driven: Is it already popular?

YouTube is available in Jamaica, and that’s one platform where dancehall thrives. But here, geopolitical realities play an important role: Compared to the Latin market, which encompasses over 400 million Spanish-speakers worldwide, Jamaica is a small country. A big hit for the Puerto Rican singer Ozuna easily reaches a billion views on YouTube worldwide in less than a year. Kranium’s biggest hit, “Nobody Has to Know,” has around 90 million views across the videos for the original single, the remix and a special dance clip over multiple years.

The stark difference in numbers helps explain why streaming services seem reluctant to engage fully with Jamaican music. “It’s tougher for us to get Spotify to pay attention, or even properly tag records within the genre so that they’re really feeding people who are listening and giving them good recommendations,” says Lem Oppenheimer, C.E.O. of the reggae label Easy Star Records. Other genres have an individual programmer – or several – assigned to them; in contrast, Oppenheimer says, “it’s usually someone who handles jazz that will handle reggae: ‘Here, you look at it.'” According to some Jamaican artists, Spotify recently created an African & African Diaspora Music Editor position that will now include some Jamaican music playlists. Spotify did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

“Spotify’s playlist for dancehall is OK,” the producer Beam says. “But I go to a lot of dancehall clubs. Those songs that they play, like ‘Genna Bounce,’ those aren’t in the Spotify playlists. Whoever’s doing that [programming], it’s either they don’t like what’s going on right now, or they don’t know.”

A few factors might scramble the status quo.

There’s always the possibility of an assist from a mainstream star: Latin pop songs were already reaching America in unprecedented numbers in 2017, but Justin Bieber’s feature on Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” helped push Spanish-language hits further into pop’s center.

But when a Jamaican singer manages to score a hit, it does not seem to yield much benefit for his peers, or even for that artist’s subsequent releases. Kranium, Konshens, Gyptian and Serani have each scored a minor hit since their initial breakthroughs, but not a string of hits.

Adding to that, the American mainstream has partially erased the important contributions of several Jamaican musicians in recent years. An initial version of Drake’s “Controlla” that leaked online featured the Jamaican singer Popcaan, but when the album Views arrived, he had been excised. More brazenly, Agent Sasco, formerly known as Assassin, provided key contributions on Kendrick Lamar’s “The Blacker the Berry,” but he wasn’t credited as a featured vocalist on the album, unlike the many other background vocalists and chorus singers identified as featured performers on Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. (Lamar’s label, TDE, did not respond to requests for comment.)

“I’m grateful for the opportunity, because they could have not put the verse on there,” Agent Sasco says. “But if they are going to use it, then let it be used in a way that more access is granted and more opportunities can be granted. We need access, and we need proper leverage.”

It’s also possible that, in their never-ending quest for market share, Spotify or Apple Music may set up shop in the Caribbean. This, too, seems unlikely, at least in the near future. “I pleaded with [Spotify]: Why are you not available in the Caribbean?” Jones-Griffith says. “They said it was some licensing issue.”

The best way for Jamaican artists to reach U.S. listeners, counterintuitively, may be turning their eyes elsewhere – towards South and Central America. There are two advantages to this tactic. First, reggaeton has maintained a close relationship with its Jamaican forebears – listen to Farruko’s “Inolvidable,” in which someone yells, “it’s a dancehall ting!” before Farruko raps the rest of the song in Spanish; or the Jamaican singer Popcaan’s “Wine for Me,” which is textbook reggaeton. Second, Latin American listeners have proved they have the streaming power to launch songs not only around the world but even into the narrow-minded U.S. market.

Aftercluv is already pursuing this strategy. “It’s a much more democratic world out there,” says Pedro Guzman, the club-music imprint’s SVP. “You don’t have to count on major markets like the U.S. and the U.K. to make a song go global.”

He points to Charly Black’s “Gyal You a Party Animal,” which Aftercluv licensed. “Panama and Costa Rica are huge dancehall markets,” Guzman explains. “‘Party Animal’ started growing there, then went to Colombia, then Peru and Chile. We started working it in Europe, and it caught on. Then we did a remix with Daddy Yankee that also became huge.” Eventually the song made its way into America, reaching Number 18 on the club chart.

Jones-Griffith calls the success of Black’s single “a moment.” He also finds hope in Natti Natasha and Ozuna’s “Criminal.” “A lot of people in America don’t know that record,” the veteran manager says. “That’s got a billion views [on YouTube]. You can do a massive record, get major money and major touring without America even knowing about it.”

Granted, “Gyal You a Party Animal” needed a feature from a well-known Latin act to go the extra distance. But the lesson remains. “I’ve been trying to run down America all these years, but there’s a massive market that already loves our music and their arms are wide open to us ­– that’s Latin America, Central America and Spain,” Jones-Griffith says. Ironically, no longer looking for mainstream U.S. acceptance may be the best way for dancehall to get it.

In This Article: RSX

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