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11 Sep

Spice: the queen of dancehall reflects on her wild

Spice: the queen of dancehall reflects on her wild

Together with her embrace of the queer community and insistence on female beauty in and out, Spice’s inclusive tackle dancehall brings bashment culture kicking and screaming into the twenty first century

This story is taken from the autumn 2023 issue of Dazed. Pre-order a duplicate here.

There are several defining moments at any given Spice show; the telltale signs are as inevitable as her ostentatious display of brightly colored wigs. One: If she decides to walk out in a pair of over-the-knee stiletto-heeled boots, trust that they’re merely there for show and will likely be kicked off faster than she will be able to command the DJ to “run di riddim!”. Two: The Olympic-ready assortment of acrobatic abilities she’ll display are challenged only by Team Spice, her women-only dance crew consisting of round-the-way girls with untameable energy. Their scene-stealing antics showcase a comprehensive mixture of tumbles, somersaults, speaker-box mounting, stage-truss climbing, splits, shakes, bumflicks and loose hips, which throw the gang right into a frenzy of ascending decibels. She’ll hand-pick girls from the audience to share the stage together with her and offer up a great seeing to by the Queen of Dancehall herself for one lucky man. Last but certainly not least are the stage props, including a live donkey, a shovel, a set of Wakanda guardians with not one but two Black Panthers for good measure, and a carry-on suitcase that she’ll wheel out to the tune of Stylo G’s “Touch Down” as if she’s tip-toeing towards the arrival gate. It’s a high-energy, unashamedly risque and comedic performance that leaves no questions as to how she bagged the title Queen of Stage before she was ever bestowed the title Queen of Dancehall.

“[My performance] is just so engaging and entertaining,” says Spice over the phone. “I at all times attempt to do things that folks have never seen before and I believe that sets me other than all the opposite artists coming out of Jamaica.” Spice is asking from Atlanta, where she’s been living since moving from Jamaica in 2020. Nevertheless, it’s Grace, the girl and mother of two behind Spice – a nickname inspired by her sometimes feisty and witty persona – who takes centre stage here. No hype, no antics and most surprisingly, no wig. “It’s nice to satisfy you,” she says, chuckling as she adds, “I wish I could put my video on but I just took my wig off.” Though I can’t see her, I imagine she is a vision in blue. It’s her trademark color, in spite of everything, and one she vowed to wear daily for everything of this 12 months as a thanks to fans who supported her after a damaged hernia caused her body to enter sepsis in late 2022. Born Grace Latoya Hamilton, the Grammy-nominated dancehall dynamo appears somewhat demure today for a girl whose signature dance move involves her hoisting one leg up within the air to a vertical split as her fans, or ‘besties’ as they’re affectionately known, scream “Skin out mi pum pum!” Hamilton wears her Dancehall Queen persona just like the well-plucked lace fronts she collects (seriously: she’s got lots of), donning and removing it as she deems fit. At this moment, she’s simply off-duty. “After I take the dancehall aspect away from the brand Spice and also you see me with my black hair, people realize it’s Grace Hamilton, not Spice. I benefit from the transition [between] being a mother and being Spice and my fans know that as well. If I’m on the street they know how you can address me based on my dress code.”

There’s a humility to Hamilton that might be traced back to her humble beginnings. Born in St Catherine, Jamaica, in 1982, she says that her mother made essentially the most of what little they’d. Her father was a Rasta, who filled the family home with the sounds of Peter Tosh and Bob Marley. Sundays were for church and Sunday school, and he or she recalls singing within the choir from the age of 4. To at the present time, gospel is her favourite genre and “still what I wake as much as and sing within the morning; it’s still what puts me to bed; it’s still what brings that peace to my heart”. She would sleep top-and-tail together with her 4 siblings in a single bed, but despite the dearth of space she remembers that there was at all times “a variety of love” at home. When a fireplace burned down their house, they lost every little thing and were left sofa-surfing between family and friends. Then, when Hamilton was just nine, her father died. “For those nine years, all I can remember is him pushing me into music,” Spice tells me. “I began making guarantees to myself that I used to be going to make it. I’m going to take my mum out of poverty. I’m going to purchase her a house and all of that.”

Hamilton has a motto she mentions as she opens up about her past: “From homelessness to greatness”, a reminder of exactly how far she has come. Once upon a time, she was only a schoolgirl who became popular by beating the desks and spinning lyrics out of her teachers’ lessons. In her last 12 months of faculty, a friend introduced her to Junior ‘Heavy D’ Fraser, the famed music manager and promoter of Sting, Jamaica’s longest-running reggae and dancehall stage show. “He said to me, ‘I hear that you just mash up St Catherine High School, but are you able to mash up Sting?’” says Hamilton. As one in every of the country’s best-known dancehall shows, Sting can also be feared for taking part in host to a few of the hardest crowds known to man, a far cry from any playground antics. This was in an era when glass Heineken bottles were hurled as nonchalantly as a chorus of boos if an act couldn’t satisfy its patrons (plastic bottles were eventually mandated for public and talent safety).

Certainly one of those early Sting performances is on YouTube, much to Hamilton’s amusement. She laughs each time she thinks concerning the four-minute clip, during which the young performer’s precocious talent might be clearly heard through the grainy recording. Back then, she’d walked out with only a microphone and backing band, nervous as hell within the wee hours of the morning considering, “‘Oh my God, that is either gonna make me or break me.’” In a skintight fur-trimmed collared shirt, a cloche hat cocked to at least one side and a bumped platinum-blonde wig, she received rapturous applause throughout the first minute. “I did my freestyle like I normally do and, to my surprise, that’s where Spice was born,” she recalls. “I buss the gang; the place was in a frenzy! Every time I got here off the stage, they’d call me back on and I’d perform. I got called back 4 or five times.”

Though it took ten years to materialise on account of difficulties together with her former label, VP Records, her aptly titled debut, 10, was nominated for a Grammy in 2022. She became the primary hardcore female dancehall artist to be nominated in the most effective reggae album of the 12 months category. When she departed VP that very same 12 months, she released a follow-up, Emancipated, the title of which she braided right into a blue ponytail for her Recent York Fashion Week appearance last September, its tip trailing on the ground behind her as she walked. Within the accompanying Instagram posts she quipped: “If you’re willing to sprain yuh neck to advertise your album.” Then there was Barack Obama’s inclusion of “Go Down Deh”, the lead single from the album, in his annual list of favourite songs. Spice’s response: “Just when I believed my 12 months couldn’t end any higher Mr President @barackobama announced that he has been listening to my song.” All of this from schoolgirl lyrics and sneaking out of the home to clash [dancehall legend] Bounty Killer before she’d even graduated. “Quite a lot of people don’t know that I used to be clashing Bounty Killer in my very first performance and I at all times tell people he was the primary artist to supply me a microphone in dancehall. He was so surprised at my age and the way lyrically genius I used to be and he said, ‘You will be the subsequent Queen of Dancehall.’” It’s a prophecy that stood the test of time.

“My music could be very empowering to a variety of women although people would take a look at it as being explicit. It forces any woman, regardless of their size, their body, their race, wherever they’re from, to only walk out and dance and be blissful and freely express themselves anywhere” – Spice

On “Go Down Deh”, Spice ponders, “Wine ’pon yuh good mek sweat ah drip off a mi body yeh / How yuh full ah chat and yuh cyan sustain wid mi energy?” Her songs are stuffed with her teasing sexual exploits like this, but in addition affirmations like on “Inches”, where she reminds us all that “My hair long to mi back / real or fake my money buy that”, or “Yaaas Goodie”, an anthem for the women who she describes as “well proper, yuh healthy, yuh strong, yuh look good, yuh have all ah di suttin deh bout yuh”. A private favourite is “Under Fire”, where she reasons, “Under me feel so aquatic caah you make me feel so erotic / Till me wish me coulda tek you cocky put inna me pocket.” She will also be reflective of the ills in dancehall culture, just like the pervasive trend for skin-bleaching. When she posted a selfie sans melanin to her 4 million-plus Instagram followers in 2018, it caused a furore. Every week later, she announced that it was a stunt aligned with a recent single release, “Black Hypocrisy”, on which she attests: “Mi love the best way mi look / Mi love mi pretty Black skin / Respect on account of mi strong melanin / Pleased with my color, love the skin that I’m in.” Her music breeds a specific type of energy: confidence, self-belief and pride. “My music could be very empowering to a variety of women although people would take a look at it as being explicit,” she explains. “It forces any woman, regardless of their size, their body, their race, wherever they’re from, to only walk out and dance and be blissful and freely express themselves anywhere.”

This comes with the character of being the Queen of Dancehall. It’s not only a title one throws around: it comes with a legacy, expectations and a specific set of necessities. Many men are intimidated by the brightly colored hair, the boldness, the assertiveness and skin-baring fashions, the express lyrics and sexual know-how, the autonomy of self that Spice embodies. This is meant. But those whose interest is piqued by the Queen’s embrace of ‘slackness’ – Jamaicans’ name for the lewd lyrics which have long been a staple of dancehall – are in for a wild ride. Women, however, are empowered. This, too, is meant. While the boys of dancehall are busy being boys, the ladies infantilise them, calling out just how easy a conquest they might be and exactly where they’re falling short (use your imagination). The ladies of dancehall insist on their independence, their beauty in and out, and their sexual desires. Spice’s lyrical content is usually fixated around boastful claims, but behind every exaggeration is a point of truth, be it about Spice as a person or the legion of girls who will, want or can relate to it. They usually do, in truckloads. Just as Spice throws on her Dancehall Queen persona, her fans can throw on her music and, in those three or so minutes, gain a newfound confidence they will take with them into their days.

Take for instance Cardi B, whose dancehall-themed twenty ninth birthday in LA boasted brassieres as clubwear, batty riders and an onslaught of red, gold and green, with guests starting from Megan Thee Stallion to Lizzo in mesh marinas. Spice was a musical guest and also you don’t have to go looking far for clips of the bashment that ensued. “I remember Cardi B telling me she’d discovered my music after I had just began,” says Hamilton. “She said, ‘I used to see you in Ed Hardy on a regular basis and I used to at all times tell my father I desired to wear Ed Hardy like Spice!’” And Madonna, who was filmed dancing to “So Mi Like It” at her 62nd birthday bash in Jamaica, was spotted partying with Spice last 12 months alongside Diplo at a LaQuan Smith afterparty at Recent York Fashion Week.

It’s not only celebrity fans, either: Hamilton was moved to tears after one performance in Jerusalem where she began evenly, cautious of how they could react in such a foreign place, but to her surprise found the gang singing along word for word although many couldn’t speak or understand a word of English, let alone Patois. They were “dancing like they were Jamaicans, they were on their head top, they were dancing the other way up on their heads. They were jumping, doing the things I used to do on the speaker box, like… every little thing, and I cried. I used to be just in shock; I couldn’t consider it.” After I mention the legion of queer fans who also participate and feel the identical confidence no matter gender or sexuality, she brings up her headline performance at Toronto Pride 2022: “My fans from the LGBTQ community can relate since it’s music that’s telling you we don’t care who you might be, just walk out and dance and be blissful and be happy with yourself. I embrace them, I show them love because I don’t discriminate. Music is a universal language. I got a bit of backlash from some people in Jamaica due to it but I didn’t care. I used to be willing to go up against anyone in defence of my fans.”

When she was booked for the Bomboclat festival in 2019, a “music festival that brings Caribbean spirit and sounds to the beaches of Zeebrugge, Belgium”, she couldn’t quite consider the goings-on. Hundreds of individuals had come out, mimicking Jamaican culture with jerk pans in tow. They were hanging out prefer it was a daily dancehall street party and so Hamilton took out her phone to video record “because I wanted to indicate it to my prime minister in Jamaica, to indicate him how other people outside of Jamaica embrace our culture”. Paradoxically, ‘bomboclat’ is on a listing of words recently purged from the airwaves in Jamaica. Back in 2009, Hamilton felt the sting of such political attacks on her music when “Romping Shop”, her wildly raunchy remix of Ne-Yo’s “Miss Independent” with Vybz Kartel, was banned by the Broadcasting Commission of Jamaica (BCJ) on account of its explicit content. Where Ne-Yo croons concerning the way a girl moves, Spice leaves little to the imagination in how she likes to be handled within the bedroom (“Cah me haffi wine pon di cocky like dis, Kartel spin me like a satellite dish”), while Vybz Kartel retorts in equally explicit detail. (“Take care of yuh breast like me crushing Irish, Spice I never love a pussy like this.”)

True to form, there was never a sample clearance as this was for the streets, not the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop charts the track would find yourself spending 15 weeks on, becoming a success in its own right. Within the Caribbean diaspora, there’s an in-joke that when a DJ plays the primary few seconds of the “Miss Independent” beat, you never quite know if it’ll be Ne-Yo or Vybz and Spice but ultimately, we’re all waiting for the latter, announced by Vybz Kartels’ immediately recognisable tag Addi Teacher. Hamilton laughs as I tell her this. “‘Romping Shop’ is the quickest song that has ever blown up for me within the history of my profession – it literally took 24 hours for it to change into the preferred song I’d ever done,” she says. “There’s no show I can go to without singing that song. And I don’t even should sing it; the riddim comes on they usually sing it from top to bottom. It’s one in every of tracks that propelled [me] to international stardom. And that’s why even to at the present time I give a lot loyalty to Vybz Kartel, although he’s incarcerated, because I feel like that song helped to propel me. And I’m blissful to know that I actually have one in every of the largest collaborations to ever come out of dancehall.”

This story is taken from the autumn issue of Dazed, which is on sale internationally from 14 September 2023. Pre-order a duplicate here.

Photography CIESAY, styling MARION B KELLY II, hair color and styling EMPRESSLYGLAM, make-up SKYE using JUVIA’S PLACE, photographic assistants BAILEY NOLFE, NICK NOLFE, videography ARTIMIO BLACKBURN, styling assistant JOHN ALLEN, production WEST OF IVY, production assistant BEN FENISON

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