As the opening act on Samoan-American reggae artist J Boog’s Love Over Everything tour, Jamaican singer Etana celebrated the release of her fifth album, Reggae Forever, on International Women’s Day (March 8), the same day the LOE tour hit New York City’s Highline Ballroom. Midway through her Highline set, Etana — whose robust vocals, inspirational lyrics and neo-soul influences on such songs as “People Talk” and “Roots” have made her a commanding presence in the reggae industry over the past 10 years — paused to share a career milestone.
“In 2014 I became the first female in 17 years to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Reggae Album chart with my previous album I Rise. That’s because of you, so I hope you will check out Reggae Forever, too,” Etana told a cheering audience who would, seemingly, go on to comply with her request. Executively produced by Etana (Shauna McKenzie Morris), Reggae Forever topped the Reggae Album chart for successive weeks ending March 31 and April 7, establishing Etana as the first female to have two consecutive No. 1 albums on the reggae tally and just one of three female artists to crown the chart since it was established in 1994. (Dancehall diva Patra and reggae/R&B singer Diana King released their chart-topping albums in the 1990s, so Etana stands as the sole female to hit the pinnacle position in the 21st century.)
That troubling distinction underscores Etana’s decision to release Reggae Forever on International Women’s Day. “We chose that day because women in reggae have come a long way but we have a long way to go,” Etana told Billboard prior to her Highline Ballroom performance. “Women have gone through some very serious things in this industry; some women have told me stories that would make you gasp, shake your head, cry, even. Everyone’s journey is different but the challenges continue, getting paid less, being unable to do things as you wish because a man makes the final decision. The promotional work that I put into my music is much harder than what men put in because women are not seen as reggae artists, they’re seen as a female reggae artists and there’s a big difference in that.”
Prior to reggae’s birth in 1968, Jamaican women had already played significant roles in shaping the identity of their island’s music. The late, beloved folklorist and poet Louise Bennett-Coverley (a.k.a. Miss Lou) celebrated the island’s native patois, a defining element within reggae’s dancehall strain, as early as the 1940s when many in (then colonial) Jamaica considered it an unrefined language. In the late 1950s dancer Anita “Margarita” Mahfood (who was fatally stabbed by her boyfriend, acclaimed but deeply troubled trombonist Don Drummond in 1965) fought for the musical accompaniment of Rastafarian drumming troupe Count Ossie and The Mystic Revelation of Rastafari at her recitals, which were held at prominent venues in the capital city, Kingston. Margarita’s insistence brought the culture of Rastafari (then a persecuted group by authorities) its initial exposure on a performance stage and it continues to be an identifying component within roots reggae. In 1964 teenaged Millie Small became the first Jamaican artist to have a major U.S. hit, the irresistible ska ditty “My Boy Lollipop,” which reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Yet 54 years after Small’s trailblazing achievement, little progress has been made. Typically less than a handful of female artists end up playing any given reggae festival around the world, many of which include more than 50 performers. And in the 38 years since the Grammy Awards established the Best Reggae Album category there have been just three female nominees: Judy Mowatt’s Working Wonders, 1986, Rita Marley’s We Must Carry On, 1992, (Marley and Mowatt alongside Marcia Griffiths toured the world as Bob Marley’s backing trio, the I-Threes) and Sister Carol’s Lyrically Potent, 1997; none have collected the prize.
“Getting to the Grammys, receiving airplay and other kinds of recognition involves more than the quality of your work. It’s who is paying attention to you and there isn’t as much support for female artists in terms of the endorsements they receive from other artists, or from people who invest in reggae,” comments Jah9 (born Janine Cunningham) who blends jazz inspired vocal phrasing and bass heavy dub influences into such distinctive songs as the mystical ganja hymn “Steamers A Bubble” and the revolutionary female ascendancy anthem “Greatest Threat to the Status Quo.” (Jah9 and another young dynamic female singer/songwriter Kelissa were the opening acts on Chronixx’s successful 2017 Chronology tour.)
“My reggae brand pushes wellness, I am a (certified) yoga teacher and I am bringing conversations surrounding ganja’s healing properties, which makes it even harder for me to fit into the preexisting mold that our brothers fit into. But when women don’t fit in, we create new spaces for ourselves,” adds Jah9, who has established the innovative Yoga On Dub series, which incorporates assorted yoga disciplines with live dub music played by her band, The Dub Treatment. Jah9 is also making strides as a producer: she steered the majority of tracks on her critically lauded 2016 album 9 and is currently co-producing her next album alongside Jamaica’s Clive Hunt, whose credits include Jimmy Cliff and The Rolling Stones. “I had to earn Clive’s respect in the studio and now we have a very amicable, productive relationship as co-producers, which will help me get into certain worlds that, as a woman, would be much harder. Because Clive Hunt rates me, others might too,” Jah9 reasons. “It sucks that things are that way but we do what we have to do.”
The legendary Sister Nancy did what she had to do and became Jamaica’s first female MC to deejay (i.e. rap patois lyrics) on a sound system. Her groundbreaking efforts paved the way for subsequent generations of female deejays including Lady Ann, Lady G, Hempress Sativa, Sister Carol and rising 17-year-old Koffee. Born Ophlin Russell, Nancy began her career in the late ’70s; the popularity of her brother, the equally venerable deejay Brigadier Jerry, facilitated Nancy’s introduction into the staunchly male sound system arena.
“When I started out some people told me ‘leave the microphone, you’re not good.’ Some people wanted to say even worse things but because of Briggy, they thought twice; I always wanted to do what my brother did so I just persevered,” Nancy reminisced on the phone from Switzerland while on an early spring European tour. Nancy’s half-century career defies industry norms: she has recorded just one album One Two, produced by the late Winston Riley; the final track added to the 1982 album, “Bam Bam,” has been sampled a staggering 89 times according to Whosampled.com, most notably by Lauryn Hill (“Lost Ones”), Chris Brown ft. Wiz Khalifa (“Bomb”), Kanye West (“Famous”) and JAY-Z ft. Damian Marley (“Bam”); even Beyonce featured a snippet of “Bam Bam” in her dazzling April 14 Coachella performance.
After 32 years of unpaid royalties from “Bam Bam,” Sister Nancy hired a lawyer in Dec. 2014. While she didn’t receive payment for all 32 years, Nancy was compensated for the last 10 years of her song’s usage and she now owns 50 percent of the rights. In 2016 she quit her full time job as an accountant in a New Jersey bank to better facilitate an increasingly hectic performance schedule. Nancy assesses things are easier for female artists nowadays, although pay inequality remains a major obstacle (“We work harder than these damn men,” Nancy fumes) and she cautions upcoming female artists to steadfastly maintain their value while in pursuit of their careers. “Some ladies sell themselves too cheap, some even walk naked just to sell their songs but I know they can do better; real beautiful black women, or women of any race don’t have to do these things,” Nancy says. “Money is a necessity but don’t sell yourself just for money. Stop using your body, use your talent.”
Sister Nancy made her name in the dancehall, but in the synthesized rhythm-driven dancehall reggae genre, created in the mid-1980s, few women have risen to stardom without cultivating a raunchy image, irrespective of their vocal skills. Lady Saw pioneered the lewd female persona in the early 1990s and reigned as dancehall’s queen before renouncing her bawdiness in 2015 and urging some of her female colleagues to do likewise; now a born-again Christian she sings gospel using her birth name Marion Hall. Today’s reigning dancehall queen Spice (born Grace Hamilton) shot to prominence on a duet with Vybz Kartel, the explicit 2009 hit “Ramping Shop,” which reached No. 76 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. Over the years Spice’s imaginative videos and stage performances, her provocatively chic fashion and her dynamic vocal flow have earned her a large, loyal following. The video for the risqué “So Mi Like It” recently surpassed 77 million online views, a record number for a Jamaican female, and on “Like a Man,” she tackles sexism in the dancehall business. At the 2017 BET Awards Cardi B professed to be Spice’s biggest fan and called the Jamaican star “an inspiration.”
Spice recently broke new ground for dancehall females by joining the cast of VH1’s Love and Hip Hop Atlanta. In an interview on VH1.com, vacillating between standard English and patois inflections, Spice touched on career obstacles and her reasons for venturing into reality TV. “In Jamaica it’s hard to get your songs played because it’s a male dominated business. No management made me grow into what I am today; I am now crowned queen of the stage because of the energy that I bring. I can’t get any bigger in my country so I am using this platform, reality TV, to elevate my career and introduce my music to a wider audience.”
“Kudos to Spice, she has something she wants to prove, she’s taking the criticism, taking the praises and going for it; females should think about what they really want to give and get from this music business because it’s not going to be easy,” acknowledges Queen Ifrica, born Ventrice Morgan, daughter of ska legend Derrick Morgan. An outspoken social critic who, away from the stage, has helped to broker peace between rival gangs in some of Kingston’s most volatile areas, Queen Ifrica’s catalog is equally redemptive, addressing women’s empowerment (“Lioness”), nation building (“Times Like These”) and the role of sex in troubled relationships (“Below the Waist”), each delivered with her signature, hypnotic fusion of deejay and sung vocals. Her most audacious single “Daddy,” which tackles the taboo subject of incest, was promptly banned from Jamaican airwaves upon its release. Nonetheless, “Daddy” found an appreciative audience and, as a result, new legislation was passed imposing stricter laws to protect children, with Queen Ifrica becoming an advocate for children’s rights and for sexually abused women and men.
The late Jamaican producer Philip “Fatis” Burrell acknowledged Queen Ifrica’s career-defining fearlessness by stating “she carries her balls in her back pocket.” “That’s how he rated me as a strong female,” laughs Queen Ifrica, “and as a strong female in the game I find that many of our women inject too much emotion into the process of becoming a musician. While difficulties are there, I say respect to Sister Carol, Sister Nancy and Marcia Griffiths — these women still work, they still tour, they are still in the game. No one can keep you in the game, you have to keep yourself there.”
Queen Ifrica is also a part of the executive team that presents Rebel Salute, a two-day reggae festival held each January in St. Ann, Jamaica, founded by her mentor Tony Rebel. Just seven out of the 50 acts advertised for Rebel Salute 2018 are women; when asked to comment on the lineup’s lopsided male-to-female ratio, Queen Ifrica, who is among those seven female performers, offered a response that went beyond any specific event: “Many sisters don’t separate their domestic affairs from their careers so when you draw for female artists, some have so many excuses, it’s almost like you should be reaching out to them for counseling. Either you have a team of family and friends to help you play the mother role or you have to take time off to balance your family and career. I suggest making that decision before you begin your career, otherwise you have to work things out on the job, which presents even more problems; that’s what’s happening to many of our female artists.