There is something polarizing, or at a minimum off-putting, about Shenseea. Normally, I would have referred to her as Dancehall artiste Shenseea. But I won’t because she recently announced she no longer wants to be labeled as such. She also shared plans to follow in the steps of her childhood idol Rihanna and pursue Pop music, her “first love.”
This is among the issues critics have with her, many of whom are Jamaicans themselves. Some argue she simply lacks talent, which I’d contend she disproved during her flawless freestyle on Hot 97 Funk Flex in July 2021. Atop the music from fellow Dancehall deejay Skillibeng’s track, “Crocodile Teeth,” Shenseea flawlessly chats, “Nig*as are dogs but my pu*sy is gold / If he get it dat nig*a is a Golden Retriever,” followed by a playful laugh.
But beyond skill, many don’t think she possesses the hardcore edge and authenticity needed to truly dominate in Dancehall. Others feel she’s a sellout for frequently working with acts outside of Reggae including Soca artists Bunji Garlin and Nailah Blackman, singer Christina Aguilera, rappers Kanye West, Tyga, and Megan Thee Stallion, who appeared on “Lick,” the lead single from her forthcoming debut album ALPHA slated to drop on March 11.
Still, the argument that’s most problematic to me is that she’s stush or boasy because she’s “light skin” or mixed. Born Chinsea Lee in Kingston, Jamaica, the 25-year-old’s mother, a Black woman, passed away suddenly in June 2020. Though she’s never met her father, she previously revealed she was told he was a Korean gangster who traveled for work and left her mom at six months pregnant.
But Shenseea certainly doesn’t help negate her naysayers by taking to Instagram to tell her 5.2 million followers, this is why “some Americans don’t even fu*k with Caribbean people ’cause y’all be actin’ stupid as sh*t and that’s just the fact. Some a y’all dumb as sh*t.” She herself admitted to speaking with an accent intended to make her more understandable to her American fans.
The truth is, the newly named Apple Music’s Up Next artist is a product of and represents a new era in Dancehall music in which the traditional tenons have dramatically deviated including production, lyrical and thematic content, deejay and vocal styling, even down to the artists’ image. The influence of Afrobeats, Soca, and Hip-Hop on the sound of modern Dancehall is undeniable. In fact, the fusion between Dancehall and Trap music specifically, has become so ubiquitous it’s even spawned the subgenre Traphall.
I rarely listen to contemporary Dancehall and when I do there are instances my ears are genuinely confused by what and who I’m hearing. It usually sounds like one giant dutch pot full of vaguely familiar flavors but mostly foreign accents, slang, flows, and music with no thyme, pimento, or scotch bonnet pepper. Ultimately, good music is good music, so every so often I hear a song that connects the way any chune on the Showtime riddim or even the Dark Again still does. But the charge is usually short-lived and sporadic.
It usually sounds like one giant dutch pot full of vaguely familiar flavors but mostly foreign accents, slang, flows, and music with no thyme, pimento, or scotch bonnet pepper.”
Of course, it’s easy to write me off as a “hater” or an old head who needs to get with the times. But I’m not just an avid fan and frequent consumer of Dancehall, I’m also a champion and scholar of both the art form and culture. Therefore, as a purist, I can’t help but notice how the new music makes me feel, or not feel, which is typically an organic, primeval, and spiritual connection, what Boyd, one half of veteran Reggae producer/DJ duo, Alric & Boyd, described as the ability of the drums and deep basslines to “really work into yah soul!”
On Feb. 23 the pair took part in The Influence of Jamaican Music on Black American Music, a Black History/Reggae Month panel discussion alongside host Debbie Bissoon and Billboard contributor Patricia Meschino who specializes in writing about Caribbean music and culture.
Alric & Boyd elaborated on other defining elements of Reggae that make it so unique like lyrics, relatability, militancy, spirituality, and humanity, also touching on its origin, which stems from an amalgamation of various musical influences including R&B, Rock ‘N’ Roll, and Mento. This sparked an insightful back-and-forth between the participants about the interconnectivity between Reggae, Dancehall, and Hip-Hop leading to the age-old debate—what came first, the chicken or the egg?
A chat about exchanges between genres and crossovers naturally put Shenseea in the hot seat. Meschino expressed concerns with the “Pure Souls” artist’s decision to abandon her “Jamaicaness” and rebrand herself as a Pop act. The writer accused her of “dumbing down” her musical identity, questioned her “authenticity,” and suggested outsiders were pressuring her to change to appease the masses.
“The bottom line is, still be true to who you are. Be authentic,” pled Meschino, concluding, “Her Jamaicaness is what’s special about her.”
Shenseea told Apple Music she credits her “Loodi” collaborator, veteran Dancehall deejay Vybz Kartel, as one of the top influences on her writing and sound. But to be fair, she’s also made it clear that despite starting her career in Dancehall her plan has always been to crossover. “I have never aspired to be a Dancehall queen in my life! Never! Because I am not only going to be doing Dancehall,” she vehemently vented.
Therein lies the root of the problem and paradoxically also the solution, not just for Shenseea but many new Dancehall acts and producers. Their hearts are not truly invested or connected to Dancehall, which is why the music doesn’t quite resonate with some hardcore fans. Instead of looking within and creating the real thing, they’re desperately trying to emulate the same international music that ironically comes from and is inspired by the same music they’re no longer interested in making.
“It is a conundrum because I would like it to remain organic,” remarked Boyd of the changing landscape of the genre.
“Right now, the Dancehall we are producing right now,” he continued before hesitating to make a very controversial statement, albeit one that many, myself included, agree with: “I gwan say it … It’s the worst it ever been. That’s all I can say—it is the worst it has ever been because they are not being inspired by our roots culture.”
Watch the full panel discussion, The Influence of Jamaican Music on Black American Music, below.