All artists steal, but what Drake is doing to dancehall is highway robbery.
Thanks to artists like Sia, Jeremih, Drake and even Gwen Stefani, dancehall music is enjoying a renaissance. Carried by buoyant Caribbean rhythms, dancehall-inspired tracks have floated to the top of the music industry’s charts and won the hearts of young listeners?—?who, if asked if they’ve ever listened to Beenie Man, would respond with a smirk, “New phone, who dis?” Which is a shame not only because of the treasure chest that is Beenie Man’s discography, but also because they’re experiencing dancehall from second-hand sources. They hear “One Dance” and think Drake invented dancehall without realizing that’s like thinking Columbus discovered America.
The truth is, in the early aughts, dancehall had another moment in the sun, one in which its brightest stars were its creators, not its borrowers. Sean Paul, Beenie Man, Shaggy?—?these Jamaican artists became famous in their own right and their origins had everything to do with it. They were OGs straight outta Kingston?—?the original “kings of the dancehall” who made the genre, just like ska and reggae before it, one of Jamaica’s richest and purest cultural exports.
Flash forward 10 years and dancehall is now sadly synonymous with the most global hip-hop artist of all time: Drake. Drake is a half-Jewish Canadian. He was raised in Young Money’s swampy mansion in New Orleans and quickly became BFFs with Rihanna. He’s one of the few hip-hop artists whose hometown has nothing to do with his success. This dynamic allows Drake more freedom to experiment with genres than other artists have. Nobody would respect an Atlanta rapper who didn’t understand the city’s relationship to trap. The same goes for Chicago and drill, New Orleans and bounce.
But Drake isn’t restricted in his influences, which means he’s free to co-opt anything and pretend like it’s his. Like he made it; like he is it; and without him, it wouldn’t exist. All artists steal, but what Drake has done to dancehall is highway robbery. The Beatles borrowed from Chuck Berry. The Rolling Stones pick-pocketed the Blues. But Mick Jagger stopped short of mimicking Howlin’ Wolf’s drawn-out vowels. Multiple tracks on “More Life” find Drake copping a Jamaican dialect and using turns of phrase, including the native Jamaican expression “more life,” that don’t belong to Drake or his people…whoever they are.
Here’s “ta ting,” Drake: When you put on someone else’s accent, you commit the same heinous crime that pop artists have perpetuated against hip-hop artists since the dawn of MTV. In his excellent essay for MTV News, Carvell Wallace called out Meghan Trainor for this very behavior. In reference to Trainor’s use of the phrase “I be like, nah” on her song “NO,” Wallace writes, “She doesn’t sound like a black person when she sings; she sounds like a white person trying to talk black.” The same could be said of Drake when he utters the phrase, “That’s Baka/He’s a no-long-talker.”
“No long talk” is a classic Jamaican Patois expression used to express frustration with someone who talks too much. If only there was an idiom that meant, “Hey, asshole, stop stealing our expressions.”
There’s endless dancehall talent circulating throughout Jamaica right now. Popcaan?—?whose fans are furious with Drake’s behavior?—?and Spice, the “So Mi Like It” singer, are two artists both very deserving of America’s renewed interest in the genre. But who needs to go digging for dancehall when it’s being thrust in front of them by a goofy Canadian with as loose a connection to Jamaica as he has to the harsh realities of life in the trap?
Drake doesn’t owe all of his success to the beats and bars of dancehall. He’s gotten to where he is thanks to his endless ability to expand hip-hop’s restrictive boundaries in terms of both lyrics and production. But if he wanted to do the right thing, Drake could drop the accent. He could sign more dancehall producers to OVO Sound and relinquish his control over a genre that doesn’t belong to him.
But why would he do that? Ripping off dancehall has brought Drake epic commercial success?—?the dancehall-inspired single “One Dance” is, to this day, the biggest hit of Drake’s career?—?and more importantly, it’s given him something to identify with. In hip-hop, where you’re from matters. And with dancehall and Jamaica, Drake?—?a rootless, global artist?—?finally has a place to imperialize and call home.