Sat | Jan 20, 2018

Carolyn Cooper | Dancehall for cancer patients

Published:Sunday | December 11, 2016 | 12:00 AM

It's not a new-age treatment for cancer. This is good, old-fashioned community service. Maxine Walters, a Jamaican film and television producer and director, is donating proceeds from the sale of her recently published dancehall book to the Consie Walters Cancer Care Hospice, named in honour of her father.

For 30 years, Maxine has been collecting dancehall street signs. It's an obsession. This is how she describes it: "... I could not travel anywhere without collecting at least one. I climbed light posts, walls, bridges, down hillsides - I would go anywhere to reach and capture a sign that attracted my attention."

Maxine now has more than 4,000 signs in her collection. More than a hundred of them are spread out in her book, Serious Things A Go Happen: Three Decades of Jamaican Dancehall Signs. The title comes from the name of a dance promoted by Sullivan & Bimbo at Mandella [so it spell] Lawn, Aboukir, St Ann, on Friday, June 22, 2001. A decade and a half ago, the entry fee was $300. One US dollar then equalled 46 Jamaican!




Critics of dancehall street signs see them as the visual equivalent of squatting. Loud colours, cluttering up public space and capturing attention in no uncertain terms! And some of these detractors don't even read the signs. It's all just a blur of colour: visual noise. And the louder the decibel, the more attention the signs demand.

Like the multicoloured wigs and weaves of female dancehall patrons, showy dancehall signs are designed to upstage the competition. Modesty is no virtue and wallflowers are decidedly out of place in this aesthetic. 'In your face' style is what matters. Pure bling!

The dancehall street signs collected in Serious Things A Go Happen accurately reflect cultural values. Dances have quite specific names, most of which, obviously, focus on sex: 'A Real Man Caan Live Without A Woman'; 'From Daggering to Staggering'; 'If A De Gal Dem Gi Mi More Pan More'; 'Fatty Girls' and 'Short Shorts A Dweet'.

Some of the dancehall signs also advertise 'cultural' events. Dancehall is not all about sex. So there's a sign from Rastafarihighnity: 'In Honouring The Earthday of The Hon Marcus Garvey'. But even the conscious Rastaman is concerned about sexual stamina. Queen Mother Dr Beriyah put on a 'Peoples Free Day' at the New Wholistic Health Centre. The sign promised, among other products, free 'Ginsing [so it spell)] Whole Root Tonic Male Strengthening Herb'.

Other signs highlight the struggle for survival: 'Hustle Fi Wah Wi Waah'; 'Di youths dem a pre di $ign'. One of my favourites announces that 'Eva & Armanifresh present a fish fry called Weh Yuh Know Bout Pressure'. Who feels it knows it. And when pressure drop, dance ha fi keep fi level di vibes!




The creators of these clever dancehall street signs are not always acknowledged as talented graphic designers. Sometimes, they don't even sign their work. So it is seen as public property, easily exploitable by others.

This array of street signs, collected so passionately by Maxine Walters, is a celebration of the creativity of all those graphic designers who 'big up' Jamaican dancehall culture with their arresting images. This book recognises the value of their work. It's a loving tribute to the proverbial craftiness of Jamaicans who know how to turn our hand mek fashion.

Serious Things A Go Happen will definitely give dancehall street signs new visibility. And it should encourage dancehall graphic designers to place more value on their work. Paying a fee for a sign does not give the purchaser any right to the intellectual property in the work. It belongs to the artist. One of the issues with the production of dancehall street signs is that the work is often done by a group of artists. So ownership is sometimes difficult to establish.

Furthermore, parish councils relentlessly take down and destroy signs if no application for advertisement has been made and approved. Balance needs to be found between regulation of public space and celebration of grassroots creativity. Maxine Walters has archived 4,000 signs that might otherwise have been lost. She has given a collection of these to the Jamaica Music Museum for posterity.

The book will be launched this Thursday. Maxine, aka Maximum, presents a Night Called Serious Things A Go Happen. Performances by Tamo J* Dre Island* Big Youth* Tony Rebel* and Protoje. Selectors Mutabaruka and Rory from Stone Love. Showtime 9PM. Memba fi buy out di bar. Red Bones Jazz Cafe. Dress: Strictly Dancehall Style. Adm: $1500. Proceeds in Aid of the Consie Walters Cancer Care Hospice.

Denva Harris, a Maroon sign painter interviewed for the book by Maxine, describes dancehall this way: "For the Jamaican people, going to the dancehall is a distraction from the oppression ... it is also a cry of the people. It's how they manage to express what they are feeling, because they have no other stage, no other platform that they can go on to say, 'I' am suffering. I am feeling this because no one is interested in the poor 'people'."

Bob Marley famously sang, "Life is one big road with lots of signs". As a society, we need to pay much more attention to the signs of alienation that are visible everywhere. Serious ting, fi true!

- Carolyn Cooper, PhD is a specialist on culture and development. Email feedback to and