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2019 Essence Festival - Day 1

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It’s no secret that Jamaica’s dynamic music scene has had an indelible influence on global pop culture for many decades. As the birthplace of six distinctive musical genres – ska, rocksteady, dub, mento, Reggae and Dancehall – this Caribbean Island of approximately 3 million people statistically holds the title of producing the most music per capita in the world. With good reason, Jamaica’s culture and heritage has become synonymous in the four corners of the globe with cultural consciousness, led by powerhouse figure heads such as Bob Marley, Dennis Brown and Jimmy Cliff. However, Jamaican women have long played an essential role in leveraging Reggae and Dancehall as a driving force for sustainable and inclusive creative development towards mainstream success. In an ever-evolving contemporary musicscene where female artists push for much-needed discourse onfreedom, feminism and familiarity – one legendary voice has longset the golden Reggae and Dancehall standard: Sister Nancy.


Born Ophlin Russell in 1962, Sister Nancy is well-known as the world’s first female Dancehall DJ, during a time where the industry landscape was heavily male-dominated. Her career began in the mid-1970’s during a critical juncture in Jamaican history – when the country had gained its independence from the United Kingdom just over a decade prior, following a brutal colonial history that spanned over four centuries. While a nation sought to find its collective voice, Russell explored the power and courage of her own. As the second-to-last of fifteen children, andthe daughter of a revivalist pastor, gospel music had a significant influence on her early music years. Her older brother, Robert – popularly known on the Dancehall circuit as Brigadier Jerry also played an important role in Sister Nancy’s professional and artistic development as her mentor, collaborator and guide in the secular music scene, by providing her with access to studio time and live stage performances with sound systems such as Jah Lovemuzik and Stereophonic. By her mid-teens, Sister Nancy had begun to display a clear level of creative independence as she vigorously pursued her music passion and quickly built a solid reputation as a female force to be reckoned with in the Reggae and Dancehall community.



In 1982, in her quest to complete her 10-track debut album One Two, Sister Nancy recorded Bam Bam in the capital city of Kingston which she released in 1982 – a freestyle Jamaican patois offering that sampled the 1966 Toots and the Maytals classic of the same name, in what would eventually become her signature vocal rolling pattern. Four decades later, and the single – produced by Winston Riley on the infamous Riley Stalag riddimhas undeniably become one of the most influential Dancehall melodies of all time, with artists such as Kanye West, Jay-Z, Kat Deluna, Lizzo, H.E.R. and Major Lazer all interpolating the classic hit with its distinct horns and bassline. In addition to over 130 contemporary hits using “Bam Bam” as a base sample, the single has also been featured in major pop culture moments – including the 2022 season of the hit Netflix series, Ozark; the legendary opening scene of Hype William’s 1998 movie, Belly and Beyoncé’s history-making performance at Coachella 2018, where the multihyphenate became the first Black Woman to headline the globally-renowned festival.



Dripping in reverb, Muma Nancy’s catalogue – with songs suchBam Bam, Transport Connection and Gwan A School – has enjoyed immense success both on and off the music charts, but enjoying the fruits of her labour did not come without a fight. Nancy’s career success not only ran parallel with her rebelliousness against traditional family and religious values and expectations of women and girls at the time in Jamaica who were not afforded the same access and resources as their male counterparts. Even as her cultural influence grew exponentially and her immense talent took her to international stage shows, gender equality also continued to be a pervasive topic of conversation for female professionals in Jamaican culture. With legal showdowns over the intellectual property rights and royalties access for “Bam Bam after 32 years of not earning a dime from the culture-shifting song, Sister Nancy did not receive her just due until 2014, when she eventually obtained 50 percent rights to her debut album.




It’s a familiar and layered series of career hurdles that popular Jamaican disc jockey and Grammy-nominated producer ZJ Sparks has seen time and again as a female Jamaican artist.

“If you want to talk about standing up and not cowering in the male space, then you have to commend Sister Nancy for her tenacity and respect her perseverance to win against all odds,” Sparks told MADAMENOIRE.

According to the beloved media personality, making space for the female perspective on Jamaican music continues to be a challenge and is symptomatic of a larger social issue, with men still capitalizing more on their earning potential and making crucial financial decisions despite the critical role that Jamaican female artists continue to play in driving Dancehall and Reggae culture forward.

We do have females in the space now and we aswomen have much more visible presence on stage today and that makes a difference. Now we see female artists like Shenseeaat Billboard Awards, we see Spice, Koffee, Lila Iké Jada Kingdom – today there are so many more female faces at the same time. Things are changing because we understand better thattalent is not all.

As she continues to connect generations of music lovers and cultural enthusiasts, Sister Nancy has certainly etched her name in history as a formidable female artist and a proud product of Jamaican soil. As a music pioneer, she has defiantly continued to make waves in the global Dancehall and Reggae circuits – breaking barriers as a veteran female disc jockey and live performer to this day, while blazing the trail that empowers otheremerging talent to take risks and pave the way for future female artists. With her undeniable bravado and staying star power, the proof is in her no-holds-barred lyricism that has dominated the entertainment industry and, consequently, stood the ultimate test of time.

RELATED CONTENT: Sister Nancy’s 40-Year-Old Track ‘Bam Bam’ Landed At No. 1 On iTunes Thanks To ‘Ozark

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