Sister Rosetta Thorpe, the gospel musician and one of the inventors of rock and roll guitar playing, “would sing until you cried,” wrote an admirer, “and then she would sing until you danced for joy. She kept the church alive and the saints rejoicing.”
Black female singers perform a dazzling array of genres and styles and mashups of genres and styles. Back in the forties and fifties, Sister Rosetta was as raw and raunchy as Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. Billie Holiday, who could veer between aching romanticism and brittle irony, inspired a recent biographer to say, “A song is between talking and a prayer.” Ethereal, fiercely indignant like Nina Simone in her protest songs--whatever the mode--black women singers display an astonishing range of expression from Ella Fitzgerald, Mavis Staples, and Aretha Franklin to Lauren Hill, Nicki Minaj, and Rihanna. I know a guy who claims he sees God in them.
Lady G at Jamaica Day
In Jamaica, one of the world’s musical powerhouses, men have long dominated the recording and performing scene. Dancehall queen Spice and relatively new artist Tifa both complain they must work their acts harder, getting physically riskier on stage.
Spice mocks masculine dominance in her track Like a Man. In the tune’s official video, she dresses up like a cigar-chomping mogul, the song all about how her status on the island would rise up if she were an overbearing dude lording it over women onstage and off. Spice asks herself,
You think dem woulda rate me more
If me was a man and a drop it hardcore ... Eeehh
You think dem woulda rate me more
If me say you gal go fuck pon the floor.
Spice and Lady Saw
On the other hand, dancehall artiste Lady G (Janice Fyffe), who closed July’s Jamaica Day show in Montreal, told me backstage, "It’s not like back in the days when it was very hard for us. You could count on your hand how much producers there were. But now you have so many, you don’t have to wait on any particular producer to really get a hit song out there.
"There’s more female coming into the forefront right now. At one point you used to have a one-at-a-time situation when it was just Sister Nancy, and another time, it was Lady Ann. But now you have Queen Ifrica, you have Macka Diamond, you know.
Of course, for Lady G and most lovers of Jamaican dancehall, “Lady Saw is at the forefront.” The “First Lady of Dancehall,” a star attraction at the 2015 edition of the Montreal International Reggae Festival (August 14-16), ranks as one of the boldest female performers anywhere. Saw is famous for blatantly sexual, NFA (Not Fit for Air Play) lyrics. “I’m not from that type of music,” laughs G. “Saw will do it for me.”
In 2013, at the all-night Jamaican concert Sting, Saw (43-year-old onetime seamstress Marion Hall) demolished her rival Spice in a music clash. At July’s Sumfest in Montego Bay, she triumphed during a 6 a.m. performance that closed the festival. No woman had ever ended Sumfest’s Dance Hall Night before, particularly at Marion Hall’s age. Her performance eased in with a delicate, string section feel, and then, although she toned herself down for this particular event, she unleashed her big voice with its hardcore growl and shriek.
The timing could not be better for the Montreal International Reggae Festival. Everyone is curious about Lady Saw: her changing look, and how far she goes with her lyrics and dance moves. Everyone is also eager to hear Saw handling hits like her spectacularly raunchy song of desire, Heels On. Or putting more emphasis on her playfulness and romanticism, as in her steeped-in-Jamaica hit summer song, Summer Love.
The festival describes Lady Saw this way:
"She is the matriarch for all female dancehall deejays, and arguably some female rappers. She is the first female deejay to win a Grammy (with No Doubt for Underneath it All), to go triple platinum (with said single), to go gold (with Vitamin C for Smile), and to headline shows outside of her native Jamaica.”
Saw’s guest shot on No Doubt’s Underneath It All energizes the song, and she more than holds her own with two of Jamaica’s most dominant male deejays, Beanie Man and Sean Paul, the mixed-race artiste who lit up last year’s MIRF during a bone-chilling downpour.
The envy of other Jamaican female singers, who sometimes publicly feud with her, Saw can sing anything from the mad dancehall she’s known for to soul and gospel (she will release a CD of spiritual music). She also writes, is a sharp businesswoman who produces and involves herself in causes like building a shelter for abused Jamaican women. In contrast with her fierce staccato deejaying, Marian Hall comes across as a good-natured woman who, in the aftermath of her Sumfest success, charmed the socks off interviewer Winford Williams on his widely-watched show, OnStageTV.
Touching her heart, Saw told Williams that people are drawn to you “when you’re clear here.”
Follow this link for Part II.
© Maurie Alioff, 2015
Maurie Alioff writes about movies for publications off and online, including Canadian Cinematographer, Take One, POV Magazine, Salon .ll., and The New York Times, and is a screenwriter currently collaborating on a documentary featuring Bob Marley’s granddaughter. Alioff is also researching other Jamaica-related projects including a magical-realist crime story drawing on stories he hears on the island.