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For a woman, life inna di dancehall isn't always easy. At times, reggae culture is rough, male DJs are often aggressive, and trying to earn respect working sound systems as a female MC is one heck of a challenge. That's especially the case in a subgenre with as many machismo issues as dancehall music the most upbeat and competitive style of reggae on the market.
Jamaica's Lady Saw knows better than anyone the woes of coming up in the modern-day reggae industry. She's opened a lot of doors and made herself known as a major force within dancehall music, but her accolades haven't always come easily. Although she's one of the most popular and provocative female reggae singers of all time and the first to win a Grammy (for her appearance on No Doubt's 2001 hit "Underneath It All"), she can easily recall a time not so long ago when both success and her own safety weren't guaranteed.
"I used to try to get on the sound systems when I was first starting out, but you had to go home early as a woman, because you might get raped," Saw says via phone from Kingston. "Sometimes you couldn't stay at the dance as long as the men could. And I literally used to have to run home sometimes just to get away from men."
Negative experiences such as those didn't scare Saw away from dancehall culture, but she learned early on that she would need an edge to get herself noticed in a male-dominated industry. With that in mind, she developed a lyrical style that's as raunchy and frank as it gets. Dubbed the "Punany Lyricist" because of her penchant to sing at length about the power of her vagina, Saw managed to build a reputation as a proud vixen, home wrecker, and empowered woman, all at the same time. On wax, she'll gladly steal your beau and give him the best sex of his life, but if you go after Saw's man, expect a beatdown. In that vein, she's part Millie Jackson, part Betty Davis, and she puts rap starlets like Lil' Kim and Jacki-O to shame. Of course, with such song titles as "Pretty Pussy," "Best Pum-Pum," and "Life Without Dick," it's safe to say she's comfortable talking about the seedier side of life, a subject plenty of performers choose to leave out of their catalog.
Looking back on her 13-year career as a recording artist, Saw says she realizes that a good amount of her bad-girl persona is bravado as well as a reflection of her turbulent upbringing. She was born in the Jamaican parish of St. Mary's, the third of eight children. According to Saw, her father was abusive, and the household was filled with domestic violence as far back as she can remember. "My mom ran away and left us for some time when I was growing up because of abuse she used to get from my dad," Saw says candidly. "He may see it a different way, but us, the children, we knew the real deal. We all dropped out of school and were pulled from one part of the island to the next. Going from ghetto to ghetto. And as females, it was difficult."
She's trying to put most of those experiences behind her, but she admits that she still struggles with memories of her childhood, and, similarly, that she has hangups about continuing a relationship with her father. It's a relatively frank conversation to have off the cuff while talking to a reporter, but that's one area where Saw has always excelled.
"Everyone thinks I'm rich or happy, but they don't know what struggles I faced before I reached here," she says. "I had some really bad experiences growing up the way that I did. You'd be hungry for the whole week, and certain ways that my father raised us weren't right. Sometimes, the memories are tough. I support him, but if I dwell on the memories of how I was treated as a child, I wouldn't be with him."
Part of the reason Saw keeps these experiences at the top of her mind is that she's in the early stages of writing her first book. She's journaling more frequently and writing about her childhood, because she believes it's a story that needs to be told. In a way, she says, it's therapeutic, and anyone who has followed her career will notice that, as of late, not only is Saw maturing personally but she's addressing the material she sings about in a more mature manner.
Last month, Saw released her seventh album, Walk Out, which was a departure from her regular foul-mouthed persona. Although some of that material is still there, the album's strongest moments come when Saw leaves those antics behind and writes about topics that are empowering. On the tune "Not the World's Prettiest," she's offering encouragement to women with low self-esteem and offering the message that real beauty comes from within. The album's biggest tune, and the one that's generated the most buzz, is "No Less Than a Woman (Infertility)," on which she sings openly about her own struggles with pregnancies and the difficulties of being a childless woman in the Caribbean. By opening up about infertility and the stigma it brings, she hopes other women are able to find strength from the song. It's a tune long overdue, Saw says.
"A lot of people were asking me to sing about it," she says. "It's about my miscarriages. I had two, so I did a song to address that topic. In Jamaica, the entertainers talk a lot of shit and say Lady Saw can't have any children. It's to dis me, in a way. A lot of people call me Mama Saw or the mother of the dancehall, and some artists try to say, 'How can she be the mother of the dancehall when she doesn't have any kids?'" It's a low blow and one that Saw felt she finally needed to respond to in song.
But there's less vehemence in her voice and more positivity about life. She says she's not succumbing to the fickleness of dancehall feuds any longer, and she's more focused on healing and writing her book than squabbling with wannabe dancehall queens. In a sense, Walk Out is the first step in the process.
"I'm not getting caught up dealing with the haters in this world," Saw says with a laugh. "I'm walking out, taking the high road, and for me, that's a good thing."