Everything Comes Back Around Full Circle: Dancehall and Trap Music Still Fight For Legitimacy in the Music Industry
Written by Tarik Graham
Growing up in a Jamaican household, the rhythmic sounds that characterize the small island in the Caribbean Sea felt like a soundtrack to my life. Morning after morning, party after party, and day after day, the sounds of reggae icons such as Garnett Silk, Beres Hammond, and Bob Marley flooded the house and tied itself to memory after memory. “Dis a real music!” my parents would often yell as their favorite tracks would come over the speakers. However, as Jamaican music evolved from reggae, to 90s dancehall, to modern day dancehall, my parents and many people of their generation seem to have lost their zeal for the music that dominates the island today. When I asked my mother why, she said “dancehall gone to the lowest of the low now.” However, she did also have the awareness to say that, “my mother used to cuss our music and I used to hate it. I don’t want to repeat that, but my music was the best.”
Speaking to some of my aunts and uncles who lived here in America long enough to experience the boom of hip hop music in the 90s at the height of Biggie and Tupac’s stranglehold on rap from coast to coast, they share similar sentiments. They loved their era of music and feel that rap in this era is too “herky jerky” and not “smooth” enough. They long for the era that was steeped in lyricism, with what they saw as having “something to say” and not just “mumbling”. Having had many dinner table debates over this, they ultimately feel rap has lost its meaning. When they say “rap” they mean “trap,” one of the newest waves of rap characterized by adding trap drums on beats composed of classic rap elements such as bass drums, piano riffs, and bass and guitar influence melodies. Go on any social media platform today and you will see that the most popular trap artists of the day, such as Young Thug, Future, Lil Uzi Vert, are constantly trending and influencing Black culture, and by extension pop culture.
However, it is not only within the older generations that modern music forms like dancehall and trap are taken for granted. It happens in official arenas as well, and in a much more consequential fashion. For many artists, the Grammys is the measuring stick of achievement that is revered as the highest award one can procure for their musical talent, due to its ties with giants
in the recording history and its long established history. The Grammys aim to “give musicians, songwriters, producers, engineers, and industry professionals a local lifeline to the Recording Academy, because a community's stronger when we stay connected.” However, the fans—the people who give the music its relevance—are often left out of the voting process, only being incorporated by streaming numbers and sales, which clearly were not taken into account this year, as popularity is not a commonality among the nominees. Therefore, having the whole subgenre of trap—which is currently the most popular of its entire genre—left off the nomination list completely is about more than music. What is just as important as sales, is how the album and artist shape or change the culture of the people who
listen to their music. The club anthems, the social media hype, the relatable two liners that have the ability to change anyone’s mood, and the words everyone knows better than they know their own social security numbers are all examples of how music entrenches itself in the consciousness of those who listen. This can’t be entirely captured by sales or streams. However, when sales and cultural impact are both prolific, the snubbing of musical projects for Grammy recognition becomes even more confusing. This is the case for trap and dancehall, two genres still fighting for a level of respect that mirrors their level of commercial success and influence.
In a year where Lil Baby, Future, Lil Uzi Vert, and Juice Wrld (posthumuously) have all dropped platinum albums, none were nominated for Rap Album of the Year. Rap albums such as those from thoughtful lyricists such as Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist, Royce Da 5’9, and Nas dominate the nominations, all being more 90s rap influenced. While I believe that all of these albums were fantastic, this nomination list tells us that trap music is still struggling for the official legitimacy that its influence within the culture affords it, which is reflected in charts such as Spotify, Apple Music, and Billboard, as well as general social media buzz. Future, arguably the most popular trap artist of all time, has four solo platinum albums and three gold albums, but has had no solo nominations for best rap album, much less wins. Young Thug, another giant in trap music, has had no nominations for best rap album. For many, Megan Thee Stallion has made important contributions to the women’s rap space, has created anthem after anthem for Black women to embrace their sexuality and display their confidence, and has dropped two albums this year. However, she has yet to be nominated for best rap album, for the 2019 and 2020 Grammy awards. Given these examples, you can imagine how the other talented artists, such as Lil Uzi Vert, Travis Scott, Gunna, 21 Savage, and Playboi Carti are faring. Trap is dominating the current hiphop landscape, but this is not the case for the most prestigious music award in the world.
Take a short trip overseas and similar patterns seem to recreate themselves. While reggae is undoubtedly the most popular genre of music ever produced from Jamaica, dancehall’s meteoric rise to the US (and western world) mainstream, starting in the 90s and booming when Drake forayed into the genre in 2016, is nothing short of spectacular. Dancehall is the modern evolution of reggae in the same way that trap is the modern evolution of r&b and hip-hop. Much like its American counterpart, it too has struggled for recognition in the official circles of the music industry. Popcaan, the current international standard-bearer for dancehall music, was notably snubbed by the Grammys, as he was not even nominated for Best Reggae Album (important to note that he is not a Reggae artist, but on an international stage—and especially for award shows—dancehall and reggae are often grouped together). He displayed his outrage in a rant on Instagram saying, “We unstoppable tho dancehall music” and the numbers show he was right to be upset. Popcaan was in the top three for most streamed “Reggae” Artists on Spotify at the end of 2020, his only peers being longtime American favorite Sean Paul, and arguably the greatest dancehall artist of all time, Vybz Kartel. None of the three were nominated, which is especially heinous for Popcaan. Sean Paul is a legend, but has been more popular among Americans than Jamaicans. Vybz Kartel is arguably the greatest dancehall artist ever, but has been in jail for the last few years. Popcaan may be third in sales, but his cultural influence in 2019 has been unmatched, especially in terms of bringing international eyes to Dancehall. From creating Unruly Fest, having Drake perform alongside him, being signed to OVO, making Barack Obama’s summer playlist with his record Twist and Turn, and dropping two commercially successful solo albums since December 2019, Popcaan has risen his stock and brought dancehall along with him. However, this success still goes unrecognized by the Grammys.
Dancehall used to be seen as the party music of ghetto downtown Kingstonians and was often rejected by the wealthier Jamaicans who lived uptown. Today, it is one of the most popular cultural exports that Jamaica has to offer the world. Similarly, trap music is seen as a music of criminality due to its proximity to narcotics and gang violence. Black music has always struggled to gain immediate acceptance because it is often associated with delinquency and struggle, two things that the wealthier individuals who control media conglomerates and the recording industry often cannot identify with or see past. The arguments from those in older generations are that new forms of music are too violent, raunchy, and gaudy, but it is rife with hypocrisy. The hiphop of the 90s and 2000s were filled with braggadocious and explicit lyrics as well, as was the reggae and dancehall of the 80s and 90s. Furthermore, Black music never has the luxury of simply being accepted as just that—music. There are always extras attached to try and delegitimize the art form, instead of just accepting it for the art that it is.
Humans and their tendency to hate change result in new art forms often being rejected early on, until they become too big to fail. In terms of influence and charting numbers, dancehall and trap reign. Whether you like them or the older more established sounds is besides the point. The numbers show that these music genres deserve their flowers and their time in the limelight. I imagine that twenty years from now we will be seeing this same argument, as people from our generation delegitimize new music forms that people of the next generation will come to love. These types of attitudes trickle up to the institutional level and deny talented Black artists a chance at the recognition that Grammy nominations and wins afford them. It’s not only recognition, however. Grammy nominations and wins often open doors to a more lucrative career. When we talk about creating spaces for Black people to climb ladders and expand our opportunities, the recording industry has to be a part of that conversation. That starts with undoing negative perceptions around new forms of Black music and who better to start this process than what many consider to be the pinnacle of the industry? The Grammys have to do better.
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