The death of Tiarah Poyau and the dance He couldn't have

In the early hours of the morning during the annual West Indian Day parade (New York, 2016) a young black woman, Tiarah Poyau, was shot by a black man for refusing to “grind” on him. She was shot in the eye at close range for having the audacity to say “No!” Amongst the other reported crime incidents at the J’ouvert festival in New York the death of Tiarah Poyau drew the most media attention, especially as the young woman was not affiliated with gangs or criminal activity. As a “victim of male entitlement and male aggression” (Blay, 2016) and “another [inner city] killing” (Powell, 2016) in the black community within New York it has become necessary to use Poyau’s death as part of a much needed discussion on black feminism, race, gender and culture. Though I do not excuse the atrocity which was carried out and agree this was a cold blooded murder I do believe that this incident was a product of racist ideology and cultural appropriation, as opposed to its former categorisation as “black on black crime.” Reports of the shooting have documented that the incident was linked directly to misogyny, in my opinion the rhetoric should be expanded to include a debate on the cultural dancing activity (“the grinding”) at the centre of this argument. I argue that the same retaliation people have been carrying out to fight racism within Black Lives Matter chapters/ movements should also focus on the defamation of black cultural movements by the "West." I also argue that the performances of hyper masculinity which seek to bring about physical dominance over women within black dance cultures (commonly practiced during carnival or West Indian fetes) are carried out as a result of derogatory reflections of dancehall culture generously showcased by the Western media. This continues to cultivate the fetishism of black women thus leaving them more vulnerable to attacks such as this. It is an overlooked problem in the black community and therefore must be a focus of the anti racist and feminist/ black feminist networks.

To do this I have composed a short essay addressing the different factors which played a role in and influenced the incident. Firstly I will examine the conflicting ideas of freedom between law enforcement, the working class and the suburban space demographic. This will include a contextualisation and brief history of Labor day and the West Indian presence in New York. I will briefly explain the culture from which these dance performances originated and identify the spaces which have been influenced and are characterised with black cultural activity, thus cultivating subcultures and new identities. I will then evaluate the miscommunication of displaying West Indian dances as a type of misogynistic behaviour, rather than a creative approach to manifesting a sense of freedom. This will be done by focusing on the role of the dancehall queen and the reluctance of showing her as a formidable dance character in Western media. I will be identifying how this relates to the exploitation of black women and then conclude as to why this accumulation of issues within the black community should be addressed by charters, organisations and movements seeking the eradication of racism. I will be drawing on the works of black feminist writers such as bell hooks and Patricia Collins, referencing Sonjah Stanley Niaah’s work on dancehall culture and Barry Chevannes on the Jamaican identity.

Labor Day was created in America in the late 19th Century as an annual holiday to support and honour labourers and trade unions which also included a national public parade. The social significance of Labor Day within the black Caribbean community is exemplified in the West Indian carnival parade which commemorates the "labourers" of Trans - Atlantic slavery and their descendants. Therefore, hosting a parade dedicated to the cultures of the African Diaspora provides an important role in honouring black working class organisations. The parade is held on the first Monday of September and it was in 1947 when the first West Indian carnival parade was held in Harlem, New York though it is now held in Brooklyn. Both areas are densely populated by peoples of the African diaspora especially a West Indian community. Being a black suburban community it can be acknowledged “as the space that characterizes performances in the Black Atlantic” (Niaah, 2010, p.69) A flurry of colourful parading bands, sound systems and caribbean food stalls are in full bloom and in the midst of the vibrant atmosphere stands rows of policemen securing the area and spectators seeking West Indian action of a different kind which can be found in the soca/dancehall scene. J'ouvert/ Mas/ Caribbean fete culture plays host to a legion of West Indian peoples who use the space as a means to exercise freedom in the form of dance. The fetters will either carry out pre choreographed routines or improvise using movements derived from an African background. Over time with the help of provocative music, the boundaries between sexually explicit and appropriate adult behaviour has been strained by the revellers. During Trans Atlantic slavery, carnivals/ festivities and annual celebrations were used as rewards and a means to encourage the production of goods on plantations and to placate the slaves further by allowing them to entertain and intoxicate themselves to subdue their needs to revolt. For example, in Barbados the Crop Over Festival was a celebration held for field slaves after a successful harvest. These events featured characters which can still be found today across the Americas for traditional value. Rodriguez King - Dorset (2008) explains how blacks imitated European dances as a form of mockery towards their oppressors and evaluates how various European influenced social dances fulfilled an important role among the slaves. It is important to understand that the purpose of one’s dance motif evolves to fulfill the needs of the performer which will change over time. As partner group dances strayed out of fashion into the 20th Century, movements considered to be afrocentric void of obvious European influences demonstrated the black community’s need to maintain a distinctive identity and psychological connection with their heritage, thus maintaining the notion of escapism at the festival to still be formidable part of the carnival. Therefore, movements performed by the people would play tribute to the notion of freedom and release, hence the word“free” often used as an adjective used to describe movements at carnival. For example, a “free waistline” is a common term used at carnival events to describe someone dancing by rotating their centre as if their hips were "loose." This is a stark contrast to sharp and controlled break dance movements like body popping which alludes to ideas like mechanisms, labour, control and manipulation. The presence of the heavily armed police ready to prevent unruly behaviour engrossed with the concept of honouring labourers/ working class individuals at a parade, specifically dedicated to descendants of the victims of the most horrific crimes against humanity, creates a dangerous and contradictory understanding of freedom and human rights. The dancing performed within this space at Labor Day is therefore reminiscent of conflict. Space is endowed with meaning by its occupants. It is now necessary to understand the activity which transformed the streets into a fete, thus ending in a penultimate masochistic horror story.

Soca legends hailing from Trinidad and Barbados like Machel Montano, Lil Rick, Alison Hinds and Bunji Garlin have managed to preserve the uniqueness and expand the infectious vibes and riddims that make soca music. The dances in soca are usually focused around the pelvic region to create dances such as “wukking up” which are carried out by men and women alike. In the Caribbean, men can be seen moving their waistlines as eccentrically as women and although men of African descent do practice these movements at fetes across the world, it is the women who are mainly broadcasted performing this style. Sonjah Niaah has written extensively about dancehall, her observations on the how modern Caribbean dance styles are projected to the masses can be used to reference the same scenarios in relation to the styles performed to soca music. In Niaah’s writings on dancehall she writes, “...through amorous display and sexual provocative or explicit dance styles that in many cases simulate intercourse.” (2010, p.142) Explaining that the focus on sexual and violent behaviour is a key part of these subcultural dances’ selling points, Niaah reminds us that despite the proud beginnings and exceptional creativity of these movements they are still imprisoned within the gaze of Western colonialism. Dancehall is a subculture originating from Jamaica, but its presence in New York is important not only because of its popularity but it's similar beginnings to Hip Hop culture, which emerged from the streets where most black subcultures begin. Although there are many peoples from Jamaican descent in New York the “Yaardie/Ghetto” derogation is used commonly to brand most West Indian peoples of the black suburban West Indian community. In Barry Chevannes’ writing on the term “Yaardie” in relation to the Jamaican identity (2001) he identifies the streets/ ghetto as a male dominated space which establishes a perception of “toughness and fearlessness” to those who congregate in these areas. By demoting the role of black women to the household and being the pawns of men’s activities reinforces Tiarah’s case as “black on black crime,” insinuating that a black woman has little freedom in the streets where the carnival takes place. Therefore, the Caribbean dances which are revived on the streets of Labor Day take on new characteristics defined by the revellers. Within the “black ghetto” dancehall performances, like so many other subcultural displays of expression, exhibiting personal and communal freedom, have been locked inside a cell of deviance including a strong patriarchy pushed to the agenda of the Western media.

Sonjah Stanley Niaah makes a strong correlation between the emergence of dancehall queens and Jamaican Independence in 1962 and the growing independence of women. Niaah explains, “For the dancer, and the queen in particular, dancehall is a stage, an institution that bestows a status outside the social constructions of everyday life, a space in which to emerge and maintain stardom on the basis of physical attributes and/ or dancing ability.” (p.138, 2010) The space therefore for the dancehall queen becomes an area in which she gains the privilege of endowing a sense of greatness onto herself. Though the music or mc may motivate a particular type of movement the women will execute the movement in their own style, for example on hearing the lyrics “break your back” (2016) this dance should feature isolated spine movements and women can do this a variety of ways, on different levels and planes. The dancehall space is an important area of self identification and when the space is shared with other women or other men a mutual respect should occur and dancers should choose to interact with each other as they wish. Describing the space as “celebratory” and “ritualistic” Niaah adheres the rules and unwritten codes of the dancehall floor that the performers are the masters of their own actions, thus initiating a great sense of power between themselves and their practice. The respectability and enjoyment gained from freestyle/individual dancing in a shared space mostly focused on a circular forum. This is a common theme among African diasporic dance cultures (including breakdancing and krump), which makes it all the more suspicious that the dances of the black community emanating from the streets would be disguised as something so abhorrent to fit within popular culture. The repackaging of the dance becomes especially dangerous for women as the branding, which is based solely on sex, leaves little room for the independent and spontaneous uses of the dance floor that were once established by the dancehall queens of Jamaica. Though Niaah’s study on dancehall culture ventured into the more explicit scenes of dancehall where exposing the body and overtly bordering on erotic gestures are commonplace, there is never a sense of violation towards the performers or disruptions within the dance. The space can therefore be understood as sacred and the movements are given a sense of spiritualism when delivered under such power and expression as opposed to the average discotheque. The carnival parades will feature the same sense of bedazzlement, power and excitement for the performer and though the space travels on route there are frequent opportunities to use the urban environment as a canvas for the art. Niaah explains,

“The sacred and the secular are not antithetical in character, but coexist in synthesis they create, which renders the contradictions that some might see as mere omens in the mind. Jamaica’s popular cultural space is a cutting - edge site of autonomous creation and negotiation of identity for mostly disenfranchised families and, especially, the inner-city youth.” (Niaah, 2010, p.14).

A contradiction arises in the West when dancehall culture meets popular culture, this conflict occurs when movements of the dancehall lose the original concepts of strength and freedom. So how does this affect the community? Patricia Hill Collins cites the importance of physical safe spaces for women, “By advancing Black women’s empowerment through self - definition, these safe spaces help Black women resist the dominant ideology promulgated not only outside Black civil society but within African - American institutions.” (2000, p.111) Her evaluation contributes to this argument which identifies the need for established spaces that can encourage black female empowerment, but also highlights the counter surveillance/ monitoring on these sites which infringe restrictions on resistance and freedom thus helping to perpetuate racist ideologies. The parameters of free expression and suppression are continuously tested as are mental and physical spaces like in Brooklyn. Tiarah Poyau’s personal space and spiritual place of enjoyment was violated, and then after the shooting the surrounding area was no longer able to maintain any form of cultural expressions of freedom. I would go as far as to argue that any crime committed on the sacred space of African diasporic dance is an attack on freedom itself.

Although it is highly rewarding for any individual to have a liberating role on the dance floor, it is not a necessity for women to create the space like the dancehall queens of Jamaica. However, the intentions of the dancer is more likely to become responsive to the needs of those who culturally appropriated these dances. Within the cultural appropriation of dancehall motifs there is a focus on seeking the pleasure and approval of the male gaze. It becomes less about defining and exploring a woman’s individual sexuality and more about exposing her sexuality to make it available to observers. When Tiarah moved her hips, the man who desired her felt entitled, and so shot her when he could not get what he wanted. The woman’s right to create space and perform on her own is denied during Labor Day and though it is hard to pinpoint the blame on one factor, had the movements not be consistently showcased as remnants of pornography or solely for the purpose of arousing men, maybe the murderer would have respected Tiarah’s right to dance and her decision to say “No!” In the Caribbean gender roles in dance are re defined and consistently evolving, for example, in Barbados the men demonstrate creativity with their hip movements as competitively as the women and in Jamaica intricate foot movements can be executed by women and popular footwork has been created by them. Yet in the West it is the role of women to dance provocatively thus being dominated by a oppressing sense of masochism.

There are of course videos hailing from Jamaica which depict men behaving violently and aggressively towards women. Men can be seen thrusting their manhoods with excessive force on the women causing them to to lose their balance and even forcing women into strenuous positions which often results into injuries. This is a new form of dangerous behaviour on the dancefloor which has undoubtedly tarnished the culture of dancehall and Jamaican dance cultures alike. Rather than falling under the categories for concern (like reported violence and criminal activity) these videos on social media are often ridiculed and circulated for humour mocking Jamaican culture. Indeed many African American media outlets play host to Jamaican dance videos demonstrating only wild Jamaican dance culture and although these revellers are of Jamaican descent these scenes demonstrate only a fraction of dancehall culture. Stereotypes are fed not only from the oppressors but from the victims themselves of ethnic minorities; as is the case with most gang violence the majority of people who are associated with criminal and derogative behaviour tend to carry out the self fulfilling prophecy. One could argue that the repression and appropriation of dancehall culture has been successfully used as a weapon against those who once used it as a sense of agency. Like most black subcultures the power is subdued when the activity becomes exploitative, sexist, and indeed self destructive.

The most recent viral dancehall video demonstrates this as a woman’s encounter with a young man quickly escalates into a shameful attack. A woman close to an unoccupied dance floor becomes the target for a group of rowdy young Jamaican men. On the edge of the circle she makes small movements with her waist to the music, it is safe to assume she is not attempting to engage in any "wild" activity due to the subtlety of her movements. She is then dragged by her shirt into the centre of the dance space by two men. Regardless of whether she was familiar with the men who attacked her there is no excuse for what happened thereafter. The first man tears her top exposing her bra, he forces her head down between her legs and smacks her bottom continuously to watch her flesh jiggle. The second man jumps towards her rear end thrusts his pelvis aggressively against her. The woman pushes the first man away as she feels the other man on top of her. Though she tries to escape the two men continue to “dance” with her. Now, there are four men grappling her arms and waist, the crowd watches in amusement and the mc mocks the spectacle. The woman is now on the floor having fallen over with the four men taking turns to jump on top of her. She is smiling but keeps pushing the men away, though trying to make light of the situation she is clearly embarrassed and eager to escape. We do not see her escape, she is dragged to another part of the room where a bucket is placed on her head and bashed vigorously by a man holding her head in a choke hold as the other men try more outrageous ways to engage with her. Finally showing concern the dj shouts a few warnings which are not clear in the video but alas the damage has been done. Although the woman is not raped in the video, the aggressive and violent way in which the men handle the woman like a plastic sex doll is beyond disturbing. The reactions the viewers gave to the video were thankfully disagreeable, many believing the scene to be traumatising for it verged on the line of sexual assault. The internet is swarming with similar videos of sexual abuse and sexual harassment within the dancehall scene. Dancehall videos including other African derived dance styles can also be commonly found on porn sites while other dance styles which do demonstrate desirable qualities such as flexibility and arousing movements are not considered “sexual” or “vulgar.” In relation to videos which display dancehall with moderate sexual dance references and a variety of movements where there is no disagreement between genders, there is a clear difference in popularity, views and distribution. I argue that due to the onslaught of violent attacks on women being disguised as “dance moves”, this has encouraged a insensitive attitude towards such videos and a standardisation (and bastardisation) of dancehall culture. As this showcase of brutality against the black female is part of the colonial gaze it is accepted as a normal aspect of dancehall culture and is circulated as such, as opposed to being an anomaly. The wider the distribution, the more likely the repetition of events, the more likelihood of normalisation. The men who behave violently towards the black female like Reginald Moise (accused of shooting Ms Poyau) when bashment music is played, have been brainwashed into thinking that this is an appropriate way to behave in order to establish sexual dominance. Live videos are showing a reality but, it is right to question why there is a focus on a particular reality, in this case a clearly brutal and sexually explicit engagement on the dance floor.

The movements men and women carry out on the dance floor can be equal, but due to the anatomy of the body there are specific movements which cater more to each gender hence why they could be carried out more by a specific gender. For example, in breakdancing though women often demonstrate the capability of executing styles using mainly their upper body muscles these movements are dominated by men. Similarly in dancehall, pelvic and core movements which articulate the curves of the body are more likely to be used by women, due to the higher fat content of this region etc, for example dances which emphasis the buttocks. Therefore dancing can be gender orientated but this does not mean the woman's purpose is to stimulate arousal or she is bound to performing in this way. In the viral video example the men believe the woman's dancehall duty is to move for their pleasure and so a “taming” is initiated which proceeded to the men’s savage attack on the woman's body. The shooting and resistance of Tiarah Poyau is a metaphor for such "taming."

Patricia Hill Collins identifies prominent images that have plagued the identification of the black woman such as the “mammy” figure and though these “controlling images” shift it is interesting to analyse how different dance cultures work into the three continuous criteria as identified previously. “In binary thinking, one element is objectified as the Other, and is viewed as an object to be manipulated and controlled.” (Collins, 2000). As Patricia Collins explains, “Denying Black women status as fully human subjects by treating us as the objectified Other within multiple binaries demonstrates the power that binary thinking, oppositional difference, and objectification wield within intersecting oppressions.” (Routledge, 2000) Indeed black men have also been endowed with a lewd fetish again via Western propaganda and it is possible that the emasculation of the black male is a possible reason as to why black men become eager to establish an overtly masculine role resulting into repulsive and demeaning behaviour. Like thunderous rain clouds racism still looms over black people across the globe. With trauma from the past that will always linger in the hearts of black folk and within our DNA there is a genuine reluctance for black women to speak out against black men, which black feminist writer bell hooks addresses. She explains,

“We too have been socialized to accept sexist ideology, and many black women feel that black male abuse of women is a reflection of frustrated masculinity - such thoughts lead them to see that abuse is understandable, even justified. The vast majority of black women think that just publicly stating that these men are the enemy or identifying them as oppressors would do little to change the situation; they fear it could lead to greater victimization.” (hooks, 2000, p.76).

Black women and girls will continue to be endangered and treated like damaged property from the lingering effects of colonialism unless we expand our focus on maintaining the integrity of the cultural events/ products and experiences that has assisted in our freedom and self identification that is continuously attacked by Western ideals. This is why I suggest that the death of Tiarah Poyau and the dance itself that has become yet another way of objectifying black women should be a Black Lives Matter issue. This also encourages the evaluation of “black on black crimes” as a Black Lives Matter issue too as various situations may well have been incited by a destructive system. With regards to victimization my intention is not to shift the blame from the identified criminal (for people are still responsible for their actions as hostility, rape, abuse, etc is never acceptable) but to expand the rhetoric on “black on black” crime and understand the scenarios which have encouraged negative stereotypes and misogynist violence within black communities. Her name is Tiarah Poyau and she died because she refused to dance for the man.


#sayhername


Bibliography

Blay, Z. (2016). Tiarah Poyau’s Murder Exposes The Black Male Fragility We Don’t Talk About. The Huffington Post, [online]. Available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/tiarah-poyaus-murder-exposes-the-black-male-fragility-we-dont-talk-about_us_57d1751be4b00642712bd58a [19.9.2016].

Chevannes, B. (2001). Jamaican Diasporic Identity: The Metaphor of Yaad. In: P. Taylor, ed., nation dance, Indiana University Press.

Collins, P, H. (2009). Black Feminist Thought. Routledge.

hooks, B. (2000). Feminist Theory: From Margin To Center. London: Pluto Press.

King-Dorset, R. (2008). Black Dance in London, 1730 - 1850: Innovation, Tradition and Resistance. McFarland & Company, Inc.

Niaah, S, S. (2010). Dancehall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto. University of Ottawa Press.

Powell, T. (2016). Student shot in the face in New York ‘after telling man to stop grinding on her’. Evening Standard, [online]. Available at http://www.standard.co.uk/news/world/student-shot-in-the-face-in-new-york-after-telling-man-to-stop-grinding-on-her-a3339046.html [19.9.2016].

(Image from Daily Mail/ LinkedIn/ Google)

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