Phenomenal Women by Margaret Warfield
Everyone remembers where they were the day Michael Jackson passed. If not, perhaps it was the dreariness of the dove gray June sky; or the unseasonal chill we tried to ward off, huddled together in windbreakers and spring jackets in Harlem at the Apollo Theater. We knew instinctively that we had lost a great entertainer—one of a kind. Same goes for Whitney Houston, James Brown, Elvis, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Amy Winehouse, and others who have impacted our lives; people who have provided soundtracks through our growing pains and victorious breakthroughs. For me, dancehall artist, Lady Saw, though still alive, is one of them. But hers is a tragedy steeped in the murky waters of religion.
Yesterday I woke up to the headlines all over social media. In bold words they seemed to shout, DANCEHALL QUEEN, LADY SAW BAPTISED. I scrolled through my timeline, thinking it was a hoax. For years Lady Saw had been talking about recording a Christian album under her real name, Marion Hall. In fact, I saw her at a concert two years ago in the midst of this personal dilemma, humping the speakers on a stage during the first half of a performance then meekly emerging during the second half without a wig as Marion, singing about Jesus. It was like witnessing Jekyll and Hyde. I had hoped that this hoax—if it was a hoax—was just another one of the queen’s Jekyll and Hyde moments. But when I saw the pictures of the baptism, I knew the story had to be true. The queen of dancehall—who I loved and respected as one of the first females to have broken gender barriers in dancehall—was wearing a white robe, and standing next to a pastor wearing a similar robe. Lady Saw had her hands crossed over her chest and eyes closed, appearing ready to snatch that last breath of queendom before going under the water. She would emerge a humble servant of the one man she couldn’t cut down to size—God himself.
I stared at the pictures for a long time, unable to believe what I was seeing, and feeling a surge of loss. Not quite sure why I was feeling this way, I closed my computer and played all of Lady Saw’s greatest hits. Then it struck me. Lady Saw’s voice had resonated with me as a young woman who sometimes needed to be reminded of my strength. She was the auntie with the loose mouth who I could turn to when I was in need of advice that wasn’t quoted to me in a scripture.
If you know about Jamaican culture, you will know why I took this news so hard. A baptism is the end of the life of a woman—a Jamaican woman. This I learned while growing up. I witnessed my aunts, my grandmother, other relatives, and many family friends who had found the Savior and had taken to saving others, though I was convinced as a child that they were the ones that needed saving. All their talents and accomplishments and uniqueness were hidden under church hats with broad brims. I could no longer see their faces; and could no longer reach for their hands without the thrust of a small Bible or a pamphlet in return.
When I was in college, my grandmother had begun refusing my jewelry gifts for Christmas—watches that came in the Elizabeth Taylor White Diamond perfume set from Macy’s that she loved and used to treasure even after the batteries ran out. But my mother was the one who took me by surprise. Growing up with her, we only attended church on Easter Sunday. I was always comforted by the fact that I had a mother unlike other mothers who loved dressing up and going out. So when she visited New York last year and refused to go see a Broadway play with me, I felt like I was in a What Would You Do episode. This was the same woman who used to carry me and my siblings to the theater every year after Christmas. I made the mistake of asking my mother why she could not go to the play and to my chagrin, she replied, “I don’t go to the movies or plays anymore now that I’m baptized.” It took me a minute to process the letdown, the iceberg chip that melted in my chest. Right then she became a stranger, standing in the middle of my living room, appearing older now that she stopped wearing her beloved dangling gold earrings. Following her declaration, she twisted the knife further by telling me that because she was now a “serious Christian”, she could no longer stay with me and my wife like she had been doing for years. “I just can’t anymore. It’s wrong. God knows my heart,” she said. By then she had called my sister’s husband in Queens to come pick her up so that she could stay with them in their one bedroom apartment.
As a highly religious Christian culture, we have lost too many women that way—mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunties, friends—all of whom begin to look forward to the Day of Judgment, expecting its sweet relief. My aunt was one of the first ones in my life who I lost to religion. Like the church sisters she brought to our house for Sunday dinners, she completely purged from her life anything having to do with the secular world, which included nearly everything. She stopped watching Love Boat and complained about television having no filters. I was secretly glad that she still liked brown stew chicken and even ate the bone better than any man. She sucked the eyeballs out of fish head too, though I held my breath plenty times, hoping she wouldn’t choke on conviction.
It is no surprise that in a country like Jamaica filled with many churches—one located every square mile of the small island—religion is taken seriously. And the Bible, more than any other book of fiction, is taken literally. The same Bible that was used to justify slavery and later, to appease slaves by telling them to “turn the other cheek” and “thou shall not covet” what should rightfully belong to them too, is the same Bible used to oppress women in our society. A poor Christian woman with little or no education will cling to every word thrown at her from the pulpit. They turn their rounded backs on the world, weighed by defeat, and throw meager pensions and life savings into cloud-filled dreams.
Of course, I cannot talk about Jamaican culture without addressing social class. An upper class Jamaican woman, for example, might not be so bad. She might worship in a Catholic Church or an Anglican church, none of which demand their female members to wear hats to cover their heads or get rid of their favorite pants suits, though the restrictions and guilt might be the same. But unlike a poor or working class woman in a Pentecostal, Seven Day Adventist, or Church of God church—who feels obligated to adhere to the rules of the only community she might have—an upper class woman who has the means to explore places outside Jamaica, reads widely, treats herself to adventures and excitement on the island even after her children leave for college, will most likely preserve her identity.
But one may ask how come Lady Saw, who now has the means of an upper class woman, could turn to religion. Yes, Lady Saw has worked her way up through the rigid class ranks of Jamaican society as a successful dancehall artist; but at some point she may have come to terms with the fact that she has to retire. As a product of a religious culture, Lady Saw’s only alternative to dancehall is gospel; and to sing gospel, one must prove their “anointing of the Holy Ghost”. Nevertheless, the woman who could hold her own among her male counterparts, going as far as being the first woman ever to close out Reggae Sumfest in 2015, will be missed. Known for her raw sexually explicit lyrics that somehow became anthems for women seeking power and control in their relationships, Lady Saw inspired me. I might not appear to be the type to sing out loud the lyrics of songs like “Chat to me back”, “Sycamore Tree”, “Man is the Least”, “Hice it up”, and “Heels On”, but Lady Saw was to me what Tupac Shakur was to a lot of youth. Whereas some may argue that Lady Saw’s lyrics are crass, she’s the alter ego who gives a voice to women unable to voice their needs and demands in a culture that mostly caters to the needs of men. In other words, Lady Saw inadvertently was a feminist—a new wave feminist who owned her sexuality and challenged men to respect it. In fact, she challenged me to think about feminism in that light. Once a conservative feminist, I argued the detriments of the “male gaze”. I staunchly criticized Beyoncé for calling herself a feminist before I thought about the fact that as black women, we were socialized to be ashamed of our sexuality. Much of it was taken from us; and so we spent decades not thinking about it, much less claiming it. Lady Saw served as a reminder—at least to me as a Jamaican woman raised in a household of women who taught me to adhere to those gendered norms of female propriety—that I can be in control of my sexuality.
However, on December 15, 2015, Lady Saw left dancehall for good. When Jamaican news outlets confirmed the queen of dancehall’s baptism, I wept as though she died. Mostly, I wept for all the women I had lost over the years to religion, including the one woman who let me down the most—my mother. Lady Saw’s decision only reminded me of that pain. But while it’s easy to blame the church and religion for the loss of people close to me, I know I have to look at the broader picture. I have to remember the shadow of hopelessness drawn over faces I have known for years. I have to recall phone calls and letters telling me that there’s nothing to live for back home—that “Nutten nah g’waan.” No opportunities for upward mobility. Church was the only answer.
So in that instant, I wiped my tears, reached for my phone and whatsapped my best friend in Jamaica. “I love you,” I typed. She replied with a smiley face and a question mark. “What a thing about Lady Saw,” I said. “Promise me that you won’t be next.” I didn’t get a reply. That morning, ironically, I prayed to God, asking Him to never let me lose another friend or family member again to religion.