Tanya Stephens has been referred to as “Jill Scott with dick jokes.” Some of her lyrics seem anti-man, some patently pro-woman, and some simply reflect the no-holds-barred stylings of female rappers we are used to in the U.S. What she does best is speak from a personal perspective on heterosexual relationships in which women feel unappreciated.
A listener unaccustomed to listening to Jamaican dancehall reggae (not crap American and British dancehall) will notice several things. First is the repetition of backing music. This isn’t sampling as we know it, but reflective of a producer-based music industry in which artists are vehicles for producer mixes, asartists are not tied down with music labels as in the States. This is changing as dancehall is becoming more of an international interest. The repetitious backing beats are labelled as riddims (rhythms for the painfully white) and are sometimes featured on full-length, ninety-minute CDs where artists lay vocals over them, resulting in ninety minutes of pure repetitive hell. I prefer them as singles rather than laid back-to-back in this manner. DJs, who remain closely tied with producers, often refuse to play new music unless they are highly compensated, reminding of the days of payola in early American rock ‘n roll.
The Jamaican music industry is almost unforgivably misogynistic in this regard. Artists who promote typical patriarchal ideals are highly rewarded, and so are the female artists that go along with it. There are always exceptions to the rule, but the patriarchal system prevails. One of my favorite reggae artists has been banned from the UK for promoting violence against gays and lesbians, even boasting: “I kill sodomites and queers, they bring AIDS and disease upon people.” The greatest shame is that he does so while promoting racial and spiritual unity.
Though the industry is changing, female artists are few and far between. Heavy hitters like Lady Saw and Tanya have been a staple for over a decade, and new artists like Ce’cile and Ms. Thing are up and coming superstars.
Tanya Stephens got quite a bit of flack for breaking from the producer-driven model and releasing an album through a Swedish label. Insiders accused her of selling out and abandoning her Jamaican heritage. Truthfully, the Swedish album is produced in a manner far more similar to American and European music. It sounds cleaner and her accent is less prevalent. But I speculate that the backlash came more from a sentiment she isn’t quiet about: “My goal on this record is to show my diversity not only as a singer but also as a songwriter and also to breakaway from the stereotypical female in Dancehall selling plain old cliche sex.”
If there is one thing about Tanya Stephens, the woman can chant. Some of the backing music is lacking in melody but I have included my favorites here for you. Right Click – Save As – Rename.
It’s a Pity (Doctor’s Darling Riddim)
This single came out shortly after Tanya’s three year stint in Sweden and was not well received by Jamaican critics. It’s a song about a woman lamenting her married beloved. She fantasizes what their life might be like should they actually be able to get together. The greatest strength in this song is the horn section, in part because it breaks from the usual riddim motifs.
Big Heavy Gals (Cuss Cuss Riddim)
This one has been featured before on Feministe in a slew of random songs. An anthem for “big heavy gals” who can still “get material,” it serves as a celebration of female sexuality in all bodily forms, and includes a few swipes at men who just don’t get it. This is one of my absolute favorite songs by Tanya.
Bounce Me (Medina Riddim)
A retrospective look at a failed relationship with a cheater.
What Makes a Gal Come
Self-explanatory — a few pointers for those who remain clueless.
All of the information in this post I have gleaned from various resources over the years. If there are any Caribbean readers who can confirm or deny anything I’ve said here, especially regarding the music industry, it would be appreciated. In addition, if any of these songs pique your interest, I have several more comparable female reggae artists I can feature. Drop a line and I’ll include them in a future download feature.