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Home > Media

The New Black? Part Two

On the other side of the Atlantic, we see a method of cosmetic language revision similar to Blazin' Squad's in the most popular Jamaican album of recent years. And to the same end: marketability.

Dr Keely Fisher

5 December 2003

The current enthusiasm for dancehall reggae in the UK and the US has much to do with the Americanized and bowdlerized form of Jamaican patois in the top-selling album Dutty Rock (2002). This was a deliberate linguistic policy by Sean Paul Henriques – a middle class, mixed-race Jamaican – who is renowned internationally for being Sean Paul aka 'the Dutty', a dancehall deejay famed for his gallis [ladies' man] patter.

In a recent interview on MTV, the deejay admitted that the Jamaican patois in his earlier music had been a hindrance to his international success: “I've been conscious of trying to tone down my accent”. His response to these anxieties of linguistic obscurity was to smooth over his Jamaican patois in Dutty Rock with vocabulary borrowed from the language of US hip-hop and r'n'b. Sean Paul explains: “It's the same language but just a certain street twang, [which still conveys] the whole culture of a country. In my songs I'm trying to express myself in a way that people can understand but still be hardcore.”

For Sean Paul, his hybrid patois has made all the difference – many of the single releases from Dutty Rock have reached the top ten in the US and UK charts; and Paul explicitly links the US number one success of Get Busy to his use of a US phrase in the title: “Get Busy is a hip-hop term… [which] paid off”'. Yet as far as World English is concerned, Sean Paul would be considered a key representative of Caribbean usage and of Jamaican dancehall culture.

The most significant modification in Sean Paul's patois is that of lexical tinkering: obscure patois terms have been replaced by US words and phrases that would be understood by anyone familiar with the language of hip-hop and r'n'b. Get Busy, for example, is replete with such US terms for dancing and sexual activity: Woman get busy / Just shake that booty non-stop / When the beat drops / Just keep swinging it / Get jiggy / Get crunked up, and Let's get it on. Further, all of the references to marijuana in Dutty Rock are US lexical items: the dro', trees, the chronic, and mi stash.

Moreover, although the songs in Dutty Rock characteristically focus on girls, sex, dancing and parties, their lyrics are remarkably clean, and graphically sexual ideas and images are eschewed. Caribbean slang for coitus - wuk [work: noun and verb] – is frequently evident; but beyond that, euphemistic bawdy is used: the part weh you got in a you centre [ the pudenda] ; di woody woody, me pole [the phallus] ; make me stone up / And tiger bone up… get me sittin' well grown up [Dutty's tumescence] and Just land di big jet 'pon di runway [coitus].

Sean Paul's experiments in decreolization are most clearly demonstrated in his depictions of Jamaican women. In songs from Stage One, local women are presented as sexually impatient, aggressive and demanding. Warfare metaphors in Infiltrate urge men to be sexually forward on dates: Dem nah guh feel violate if yuh accelerate 'pon a date / Dem waan yuh infiltrate / Woman dem waan yuh tear dung dem wall an dem gate. Not a trace of such advice survives in Dutty Rock. For the international, mainstream market: dem don't want fi wait is tantamount to promoting date rape.

Yet in spite of all the linguistic and cultural revision, Dutty Rock's message remains unintelligible to mainstream ears in the UK. Back in the weekend supplements, The Guardian's Weekend magazine in August positioned Sean Paul's lyrics as 'Going Up' in their style barometer with the following announcement: 'Ladies and gents, you mightn't know it, but you are humming to a lewd little number'.

It would seem that Sean Paul has pitched it just right. Not too aggressively rude to be perceived as threatening, but just rude enough to titillate the Guardian. Perfect.

< Part One Part Three >

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