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Lady Saw is known as the "Queen of Dancehall," a trailblazer for other female artists who want to express female sexuality in song. Marion Hall, as she is also known, is a mother, a nurturer, and a healer. Her honesty about the female experience may shock some, but it empowers others. "I remain Marion, and yet, I'm Lady Saw," she says of the divide.
Hall's career took off with Jamaican sound systems when she was 15 in the early 1980s after she took the name Lady Saw in honor of reggae artist Tenor Saw. She is the first woman to headline dancehall shows outside of Jamaica, and she won a Grammy in 2002 for her triple-platinum duo with Gwen Stefani, "Underneath It All."
When we spoke, Hall was holed up in Florida, writing new material. She has her own independent label, Diva Records, and is working on a new, self-titled album, Marion Hall. She'll be flexing her talent muscles on this endeavor by including other genres — like blues, gospel, and even country — in her songs. "I'll still drop a few of Lady Saw in it. Not the hard-core Lady Saw, but I'm planning to drop a few dancehall tracks on it," she says, referring to the work as her masterpiece. "Two years ago, I was the first female Jamaican artist to really go and do jazz and blues, and I really blew everybody's mind."
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The album will also include a song she did with UB40 singer Ali Campbell. It takes on a topic she's familiar with: cheating. "I also sing songs about cheating, because I'm a woman, and I've been through a lot of that. Broken marriages and broken dreams, things like that; that's what I'm touching on right now."
A relationship of 16 years had just ended when we spoke. "I left before he left," she says. "I didn't shed a tear. But I guess there'll be days when I'm down and days when I'm sad, but I pray about it, and God knows what's ahead of me and what's best for me."
The adoptive mother of three, Hall bravely took on a taboo topic with her song "No Less Than a Woman (Infertility)." "It was based on my story when I had four miscarriages and was having problems holding a baby," she says. "I also touched topics about rape, because I lived in the ghetto for part of my life when I was younger, growing up. I went through things; I listened to other people's stories."
As one of the first women to sing explicitly about sexuality, her gentler side also recognizes the universal challenges women face. "I feel all women have the same experience. It doesn't matter where in the world you live."
One thing that sets Lady Saw and other female icons' experience apart from the common woman is that their lives are also full of attention and praise. Every day, she says, women approach her, thank her, and tell her how she's inspired them. Even Beenie Man, she says, pointed out, " 'I love Lady Saw! She's my favorite artist, truly, because she's like fine wine: The older she gets, she writes better.' "
As for fame, "I enjoy it, I take it in stride, and," she concedes, "I hide sometimes."
Her recent stay in Florida was one of those times. "My family stress me the hell out, but they're family. They'll always be there. My man stress me out by making babies while we're together and then he expect me to take him back and forgive him. I forgive him, it happens again. I'm stressed by losing my own kids and not being able to have none yet. I'm stressed out by having to pay everyone's bills and all my bills." Hall finds solace in prayer.
As accessible as she is, people contact her and tell her their problems. Hall relates a story about a young girl who called her and announced that she was going to commit suicide. Hall asked herself, "Why did God send this girl to me?" The girl had been raped by five guys, her mother lives in Miami, and her grandmother said they couldn't go to the police because the men were criminals.
Hall told the young girl what she believes: "If you kill yourself, you won't be seeing God's face."
"I'm already in hell, Ms. Hall," the girl lamented.
Hall told her the story of her own rape, something she'd kept to herself for years. Growing up in the country, life was peaceful and quiet, safe, but when her family moved to Kingston, Hall's whole life was torn apart.
"I've been raped too. I've never allowed it to break me. I'm still here. I'm very successful. Never allow people to break you. Never let them see you broken. You pray about it and be strong."
She was inspired by the girl's story and her own to write a song about it. The girl later called back. She's still alive, and she'd heard the song. "If my story can help a little girl not to take her life," she says, "of course I'm happy."
She believes that what got her where she is today wasn't luck but talent. "What I do on record is what you get onstage," she says. "The producer doesn't have to use a computer to fix my voice or make me sound like a chipmunk."
Though she believes dancehall remains relevant, she is disappointed in the trend of musicians paying off disc jockeys to buy radio time and even awards. But she's willing to keep up with dancehall's changing musical direction. "In Jamaica, people are saying dancehall has changed, because a lot of people not been in the real dancehall rhythm. They're making it like hip-hop."
Though Hall continues to explore other genres, singing gospel is more personal for her. She hums it in the shower. Sometimes then, words come to her, and she sings, "And where do I go when my heart is broken? And where do I go when words are spoken? I fall on my knees and beg the Lord please."