Stefflon Don & Jada Kingdom’s Clash Is A Win For Dancehall Culture—Like It Or Not 🔥

Words: Nadine White
Graphics: Hyperfrank

The internet went into a frenzy earlier this month when Jamaican dancehall artist Jada Kingdom, 25, and British-Jamaican rapper Stefflon Don, 32, went head-to-head in a lyrical battle across a series of scathing diss tracks and social media spats. The war is thought to have been fuelled by reported romantic links between the women and Afrobeats star Burna Boy. Personal shots were fired, insults were quite literally below the belt and, seemingly, no slur was off-limits, with Kingdom aiming for The Don’s family members, mocking her for allegedly instigating the beef “over a man” and pontificating on the condition of her nether regions across offerings which include “London Bed” and “Steff Lazarus”.

In response, Stefflon Don accused her rival of being a prostitute and lacking in ambition on her “Dead Gyal Walking” and “Dead Gyal Talking” tracks. While legions of fans lapped up the passa, with many hailing the affair as “exciting”, some patrons implored the ladies to abandon their differences and make peace while accusing them of giving dancehall a poor showing. Other critics suggested that Jada and Steff were behaving in a manner unbecoming of women, apparently holding them to different standards to their male counterparts who—by and large—are often free to lyrically battle without being policed in the same way.

Reggae artist Anthony B and dancehall veteran Sean Paul were among the critics, with Paul writing on Instagram: “[Women] should [be] warriors, yes, but [for] a cause. [You] should lead the way morally (...)” But the truth is this: the concept of musical clashes is quintessentially dancehall and, one could argue, fundamentally Jamaican. This reality was acknowledged by Sean Paul in a follow-up interview with The Sunday Gleaner, where he said: “We all have benefitted from clash culture. It helps everybody—the selectors who clash, upcoming artists who learn from the mistakes others might make, and the triumphs… It sharpens us a lot and makes us very potent and very creative emcees and musicians.” Despite Sean Paul’s general assertion that the battles are “rooted in a slavery mentality”, history shows that clashes are rooted in healthy competition.

Clashes are the lifeblood of dancehall music; it is impossible to separate the two while retaining the art in its authenticity. Dancehall is gritty, borne of those who were and are at the fringes of society; it is raw and, frankly, not for everyone—least of all polite society. Fierce musical rivalry is interwoven into the fabric of dancehall culture. Sure, it isn’t always cute or family-friendly—we’re not talking about gospel music here—but it’s real, and so too is the right to defend the practice.

While there’s nothing new under the sun, it’s worth remembering Steff and Jada aren’t the first Jamaican artists to do battle—and they will not be last. Some of the most epic modern musical battles are etched in the genre’s history, from Bounty Killer vs Beenie Man’s 1993 showdown and the 1991 war between Ninja Man and Super Cat to Lt Stitchie and Papa San’s counteraction of 1995 and Vybz Kartel and Mavado’s faceoff in 2009. History shows us that women taking to war isn’t a new phenomenon either. Dancehall pioneer Sister ‘Bam Bam’ Nancy routinely clashed with numerous contemporaries of her time, from Sister Charmaine to Lady Ann and more, from the 1980s upwards. “I clash with all of the early ones,” the elder stateswoman said of the battles. “I never had a bad day.”

Sting, an annual concert or ‘stage show’ that was once considered to be the premiere performance arena for dancehall, has played host to some of the genre’s most epic clashes since its 1984 inception. Its impact has arguably dwindled in recent years, but Steff and Jada’s battle is more than worthy of Sting’s stage in its prime, before recent scandals—such as this clash that went horribly wrong—plagued the institution.

The last landmark battle between two women took place at a Boxing Day event ten years ago, where former Queen of Dancehall Lady Saw and Macka Diamond went bar for bar in a lyrical heat following months of contention. I remember being among the crowd in Portmore, taking it all in. This decade-long gap reflects the lack of visibility afforded to female talent within the dancehall arena.

In 2012, Spice—who has since been crowned as the Queen of Dancehall—and Macka Diamond exchanged diss tracks online. At the end of that year, Spice turned up at Sting to clash with Macka Diamond, bringing a donkey onstage to demonstrate her point that the animal bore a resemblance to her rival. In the end, Macka didn’t turn up to back the beef. People were still talking about this war for days, weeks, months and years after that.

Spice vs Lisa Hyper, 2009: the former’s diss track to the latter, “Draw Me Out”, is one of the most scathing in the genre’s history. That same year, Lisa launched a lyrical attack—“Stop Chat”—where she slewed a handful of her female contemporaries from Spice, Stacious and Ikaya to Pamputae, Tifa and Ishawna. In 2017, Ishawna and Danielle DI released diss tracks aimed at one another... I could go on! The women have fought.

Jamaican music clashes have generally been happening for at least 70 years. The custom is thought to have evolved from soundsystem competitions where contenders pitted their skills of selecting better tunes than the other team while throwing remarks aimed at discrediting the opposing side. You know, trash talk. Among the first credited clashes was a reported stand-off between Tom Wong of Tom ‘The Great’ Sebastian soundsystem and Count Nick’s soundsystem in 1952, Kingston, Jamaica, which Tom is thought to have won.

With waves of postwar migration in the 1950s and 1960s, this practice and the spirit of melodic feud transcended the West Indies, emigrating to countries like the USA and Britain and influencing genres like hip-hop’s battle rap/diss track culture and the always exciting clashes in grime (see: Lord Of The Mics). Years later, we have commercial entities like Swizz Beats and Timbaland’s Verzuz, which entertained many during lockdown, and Red Bull Culture Clash battles that nod to the same clash custom that’s often maligned and misunderstood across the diaspora and beyond.

With the advent of the internet and social media, Steff and Jada’s war is an example of how, nowadays, clashes look and feel slightly different from back in the day. For example, the conflict played out in real-time; the ladies were able to record their tracks relatively quickly, upload them to online streaming platforms like Spotify and YouTube, rack up numbers, expand their profiles and feed their online communities with content. Content + community = currency. The dragging also felt accessible in a way that wasn’t the case in previous years because of technology; the instantaneous nature of media is such that Jada could go Instagram Live to address her adversary while Steff dropped word on her Instagram Stories.

What’s more, coverage was amassed in platforms like NME, Complex, Hot 97 and regional outlets, plus blogs and fans egged them on. Whether the beef was organic and inspired by true events or not, the clash was a performance at its core, theatrical and very much geared towards the audience’s entertainment. That’s all well and good; after all, rules dictate that as long as the opponents air their grievances musically and the situation doesn’t descend into physical violence nor advocate it, then it’s permissible.

At the end of the day: war is war. When it comes to clashes, there’s no room for threats to sue your adversary for defamation of character or bawl over your hurt feelings because no one cares, frankly. There can be tangible benefits to clashing, too. In some cases, musical rivalries have catapulted artists to higher levels of success, sometimes transforming people’s status and financial prospects for the better.

Take Patra’s 1989 Sting clash with Sister Charmaine, Lady G and Lady P: Patra says she walked off the Sting stage, more popular than ever, and into Sony Music studios where she emerged with a lucrative recording contract. Another example of this is Merciless’ epic takedown of Bounty Killer, Beenie Man and Ninjaman in 2000—it earned him street credibility and saw his career take off for a while thereafter. Notoriety is like bread and butter in these streets.

When all is said and done with cattiness aside, few can legitimately deny Jada Kingdom and Stefflon Don’s lyrical prowess. These are two talented women: one, a rising star in dancehall with Billboard chart-ranking success, and the other, an award-winning, platinum-selling emcee from England. Within the patriarchal music industry and dancehall sphere, where female talent is all too often overlooked, women must surely reserve the right to maximise opportunities and show their creative abilities just like men do. After all, isn’t that what equality is all about?

Posted on January 19, 2024