Jamaican Dancehall Star's Instagram ‘Diss’ of Cultural Icon Sparks War of Words

Screenshot of Ishawna and Miss Lou, taken from a DriveBy TV YouTube video discussing the controversy.

Out with the old, in with the new? A popular singer's alleged “diss” of a beloved cultural icon shows that, in Jamaica at least, things are rarely so simple.

Like many Jamaican dancehall entertainers, Ishawna Smith is no shrinking violet. She wears fashionable, often revealing outfits, and is well known for her raunchy lyrics. One newspaper article aptly described her philosophy as “devil may care”.

Ishawna recently gained some notoriety — and humorous applause, especially among women — for her song “Equal Rights”. The song celebrated the once taboo subject of oral sex, and offered an insight into Ishawna's taste for challenging convention.

However, her most recent publicity stunt appears to have backfired big time, drawing a negative reaction from Jamaicans across the generational divide.

Posting a photo of herself on Instagram, Ishawna wrote: “Mi nuh dress inna tablecloth like Miss Lou #RipMissLou”, (I don't dress in a tablecloth like Miss Lou):

Mi nuh dress inna tablecloth like Miss Lou #RipMissLou

A post shared by ISHAWNA (@mslegendary) on

“Miss Lou” is the popular name for Louise Bennett-Coverley (1919 – 2006), a poet, folklorist, writer, and educator. Her witty poetry and sharp social commentary was couched in humour and expressed in Jamaican patwa.

She was the first Jamaican to truly encompass the feelings of Jamaicans in their own language, and has influenced many writers and poets. In short, she holds a special place in Jamaicans’ hearts.

Good bandana or bad bandana?

Ishawna's “tablecloth” jibe refers to the Jamaican “bandana” or madras cloth, which was introduced by the British from India during the 18th century.

It was often worn by Jamaican working women from around the 1940s onwards, and was gradually adopted as national dress by the time the country became independent in 1962.

It is closely associated with Jamaica Festival, which takes place during the time of the Independence national holiday. In 2015 it was officially reintroduced to the annual celebrations in a different way — as a fashion statement — making it more relevant to younger Jamaicans.

With Independence Day (August 6) just a few weeks away, was Ishawna attempting to raise serious questions about national dress, or just generate controversy?

One of the sharpest responses to Ishawna's comment came from influential media icon Fae Ellington, who tweeted:

She then tweeted yet more of her bandana outfits:

I'm crazy, you know, with my many #Bandana outfits. Here are four [out of] many more.

‘Iconic significance’

Much of the criticism of Ishawna took the form of a protest in defence of Miss Lou's status as untouchable cultural heritage:

One radio talk show host even suggested Ishawna issue a public apology.

He pointed out:

I really don’t believe you fully understand the iconic significance, importance and history of Ms Lou…cause if you did you wouldn’t make that post with her name. Additionally, and importantly, the attire you referred to as ‘table cloth’ is the official national costume of Jamaica, deliberately designed to not only represent folk Jamaica, but also encompasses our story from colonial oppression to liberation. And that’s why Ms Lou always wore that costume in her performances.

But was Ishawna disrespecting Miss Lou herself, or simply criticising the bandana's colonial associations? And did Ishawna understand that Miss Lou actually wore this cloth in an ironic nod to ongoing colonial mentality in Jamaica?

Writer Kei Miller, made the valid point that the irreverent Miss Lou herself might not have given a hoot about Ishawna's comments:

There were, however, suggestions that Ishawna herself might be more strongly influenced by foreign culture than by her own; although Kingston-born, the star spent her formative years living in New York:

But another outspoken singer, Tanya Stephens, leapt to the beleaguered star's defence. Posting on her own Instagram page, she suggested Ishawna's critics had a less-than-perfect knowledge of their own culture:

Jamaicans really need to stop mandating their self imposed limitations.

A post shared by Tanya Stephens (@tanyastephensofficial) on

Culture wars in Jamaica? Don't get caught in the crossfire.

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