Tanya Stephens wrote dirty things in her school notebook and turned them into a career. Since the 26-year-old graduated from high school in Jamaica, she has been packing her naughty lyrics up against sizzling beats and delivering them into the public’s ear with a vengeance. In 1997, she dropped lyrics on a single, “Yu Nuh Ready Fi Dis Yet,” which climbed the charts to No. 1, and, with several other hits under her belt, she’s pepper-seeding her way into the arena of dancehall’s most recognized artists.
Mixing the art of singing and DJ-ing (rapping Jamaican-style) in popular songs like “Goggle” and “Handle the Ride,” she is known as one of the first female sing-jays to belt out a silky ballad, then switch to a rugged rap with a smooth kind of “slackness”—dancehall argot for nasty lyrics. Since artists such as Shabba Ranks, Patra, and, most recently, Lady Saw came along, the raw, descriptive sexuality that once was taboo in island music is now the center of public attention. This new genre of reggae has roots fans cringing to the core, wondering how the world gravitated more to this form than to the “conscious” or “cultural” style found in Bob Marley’s freedom songs. But Stephens proves that dancehall, too, can be used to liberate.
Even amid the sexual lyrics on a lot of her songs, she is waging a musical war against the oppression of women. In a male-dominated music industry, where men constantly sing about the many ways they could mash up de punani or pop de vagina, she warns against braggadocio, offering up wicked commentaries in return.
Her second album, Ruff Rider, packaged like a box of condoms, is a compilation of danceable tracks lubricated with lyrical prowess. No more missionary style: She’s doling out punishment to every man who has ever boasted about his sexual powers and turned out to have no skills whatsoever. She issues forth with versatile metaphors such as tires that need air and magicians who make everything disappear. Be careful, you could end up in the hospital, or worse. In tracks such as “Part-Time Lover,” a remake of the Stevie Wonder classic, she explains why women have a right to cheat: “If every time yu pick up de phone/Tell mi a lie why yu can’t come home/Yu ah go make mi draw fuh yu part time lover…Yu spend more time with Johnny Walker Black/Than yu spend with mi/And mi just can’t live with that.”
In other songs, such as “1-1-9,” she’s going for the gun, singing, “Mi nah call no 1-1-9/Mi love yu but if yu ever dis the program one more time/Yu gonna wake up in de morning find mi brushing your teeth with mi big TEC-9.”
In “Big Ninja Bike,” she says, “Before yu make another speech/Make sure your bike can reach/’Cause mi nah want yu pick mi up to carry mi Negril/and broke down at Treasure Beach.”
On Saturday night at Crossroads, when she invited some men out of the crowd to come up to the stage to show her their ninja bikes, there was a minute of hesitation. “You can dance?” she asked. The first contender, a man with locks, started gearing up, but in a matter of seconds, she chased him down, saying, “You’re so much fun.” Another man, dressed in cream-colored slacks and shirt, went up to show his stuff. The crowd backed him up, shouting “Hey hey hey!” But in a matter of seconds she chased him off, too.
Guy No. 3, a geeky-looking man dressed in black, was not to be outdone. He climbed the stage wobbling from side to side, put his hands on the floor, and rotated his butt for the audience. “Boop boop boop!” the crowd screamed in approval. But from the looks of things, he wasn’t cutting it, either; he was probably too eager; as Stephens sings, “It’s one thing I cyan’t stand, that is a boastful man.”
The night’s crowd wasn’t exactly typical dancehall. The rude boys had chucked their gold teeth and baggy jeans for suits, the dancehall queens had forgotten to put on their batty riders and matching wigs, and, most important, almost everybody looked over 35.
But the sound system was impeccable—loud as hell, but you could still hear every lyric. There were no disarming echoes and no irritating feedback as DJ G-Nice spun the hottest dancehall tunes as well as older favorites, interspersed with some plain old soca. From his dark corner next to the stage, he played rhythms that caused well-dressed couples to gravitate to the dance floor. The disco ball spun streaks of blue, green, and red across the floor, and Tony Carr, the show’s promoter, intermittently reminded people that Tanya Stephens would be on later. They looked up for a moment, then continued to dance.
At 2:10 a.m., Stephens was called to the stage by the sounds of a pulsating track that, as someone remarked, wasn’t one of hers, but by her rival, Lady Saw. A handful of young people keeled forward out of the sea of older folks to see her entrance. Stephens came forward in a black leather jacket and fitted cutoff jeans, whisking her long and raspy blond ponytail. There was no extra applause when, in schoolgirl fashion, she said she felt like chatting. The subject: her middle finger. Spacing it out from her other digits, she held it firmly in the air and talked about how women have to use all kinds of devices, including the finger, to satisfy themselves these days. There was some laughter as DJ G-Nice started up her song “Draw Fi Mi Finger,” but a few seconds into the tune, she commanded, “Hold de riddim!”
At that point began a pattern of wheeling without coming again: After about 10 seconds of one song, Stephens would tell the DJ to cut the music, and she would start talking again. They never continued or actually finished any given song.
Carr announced the final bar call, and Stephens told the men to go buy the women some drinks. In the credits to Ruff Rider, she bigs up “all the women who let their voices be heard in support of our mutual causes.” Some of Stephens’ songs speak to those who are tired of being neglected by their mates, tired of men who talk a lot of trash they can’t back up, tired of playing second fiddle. And, to judge by the passion of her singing, she sounds like a woman who has a lot of personal experience in the man department.
Throughout the show, there was no foot-stamping, and, worse yet, there were no visible signs that the crowd was into Stephens’ performance. For the most part, the audience members just stood there, staring at her. Eventually, she challenged them: “You have to work on your performance. It’s been three years.” Something about her tone suggested that the last time she performed here, the crowd response was pretty much the same.
If this had been Jamaica, the audience might have stoned her with toilet paper—after all, the Jamaicans booed Chaka Khan off the stage. But after 30 minutes, with about five minutes of actual singing—interspersed with her confronting the crowd about how dead it was—she waved us goodbye. As she bouncily left the stage, as cheerful as ever, my boyfriend commented, “She probably just woke up, came to the club, and after five minutes decided to go back to sleep.”
DJ G-Nice took over again, and everybody started dancing, more energetically than ever, as if Stephens’ performance had been just a little bothersome interlude. And the dancehall diva with the dominating vocals and dizzying tracks that had blared out of my CD player hours earlier didn’t have time for D.C., either. Having come live and direct from Jamaica, she headed for the airport shortly afterward, as if breaking off an engagement with a sub-par ex-lover who didn’t make the grade…and there really was no need for an explanation. CP