Jamaican Dancehall Queen Tall Up, who appears in “Bruk Out!” (photo by Cori McKenna)
“Bruk out” may be a phrase known only to Jamaican dancehall novices via the early Major Lazer song of the same name. Essentially it means to get wild, and by Major Lazer’s interpretation, the “Bruk Out” world centers around a gold-digging stripper named Jill. If documentary director Cori McKenna has her way, however, some may come to associate the phrase with a portrait of female strength via dancehall’s hypersexualized moves.
An alum of Morgan Spurlock’s documentary team and currently an editor on Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, McKenna, with her Brooklyn-based crew, is in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign for a documentary called Bruk Out! The film follows seven dancers from around the world as they compete for the 2014 International Dancehall Queen title, in a contest that took place earlier this year in Montego Bay, Jamaica. As seen in other documentaries highlighting dance-based subcultures (like 1990’s Paris Is Burning and 2005’s Rize), the competition narrative arc works well in terms of building up to a climax. But McKenna’s film, which was about 60 percent shot before its Kickstarter campaign launched on October 14, aims to tell the stories of its leading ladies outside of this competitive framework as well. As McKenna tells me, each queen has a different reason for committing herself to dancehall, “but the core of it is just total acceptance.”
In the American mainstream, female hypersexuality is rarely examined outside from its crudest implications, but as Bruk Out! aims to highlight, there’s nuance to be found in it. “At first glance, people who are uninitiated with dancehall see it as a sexual thing,” McKenna says. “And it is — you can’t really divorce it from sexuality. But it’s almost transcending and making sexuality so aggressive that it’s giving all the power back to the woman.” Someone like Nicki Minaj flirts with this dynamic, but Minaj actually wields power in the real world — quite a bit of it. For the queens of Bruk Out!, dancing is their primary form of true empowerment.
Spanish Dancehall Queen Raquel, who appears in “Bruk Out!” (photo by Cori McKenna)
Raquel “Dancing Princess” Koroma, the film’s Spanish queen, endured an abusive husband before she shifted from modern dance towards dancehall. “It’s like she was taking her sexuality past that objectifying stripper-y thing and flipping it on its head,” McKenna says of Raquel’s story. “It almost reaches a level of, ‘You want this? Well, fuck you. I’m going to destroy you.’”
For the film’s Montego Bay queens, sisters Keja “Tall Up” and Jahnoia “Danger” Christie, dancehall means tradition, even if Jamaica’s religious elders denigrate the style’s scantily clad dancers. The historical and societal context of dancehall in Jamaica is key in McKenna’s telling of these stories for a mainstream American audience, whose cultural touchstones of dancehall culture may revolve more around its vaguely reggae influence on ’00s pop hits from Robyn, Sean Paul, and Rihanna than its gymnastics-infused choreography, which has since influenced street-style hip-hop dance. The class warfare at the heart of dancehall’s late-1970s Kingston roots is even more obscured stateside. Some may view the dance as self-objectifying to Jamaican women who participate, but it’s also a form of self-preservation and an escape from oppression. “The Jamaican queens grew up doing this,” McKenna says. “When you’re two years old and you go to a party and do this kind of dancing, it’s how you learn to interact with your family and friends.”
Two of the international queens highlighted in Bruk Out! — Poland’s Ale Camara and Japan’s Manami “Pinky” Hirano — show dancehall as a uniting force, despite racial and cultural differences. “Ale said to me, ‘I am a whitey when they see me [down in Jamaica], then I start dancing and everything is just broken down,” McKenna says. “I think that’s the appeal for the Japanese girls too [there’s an active Japanese dancehall scene in Tokyo and beyond], because their culture is very different from Jamaican culture. They come from all over, and they feel at home — they feel free.”
Bianca “Famous Red” Watt, the film’s Jamaican-born, Bronx-based queen, flaunts her plus-size form as a point of confidence in her explosive dance moves, not a cause of shame. In the film’s trailer (above), she’s seen gorgeously posing on the beach in a red bikini, giving approximately zero fucks about hiding. It’s a brazen kind of positive body image and, yes, sexuality that American popular culture could stand to normalize.
“Bianca said to me, ‘When you’re in Jamaica, you can be fat, you can be skinny,’” McKenna says. “A couple of the other girls [in the film] said this too — people there don’t look at fat girls and say, ‘You can’t do anything,’ like they do here [in America]. They have another word to describe them. When she’s in Jamaica, Bianca calls herself ‘fluffy.’ There’s this cute scene where she’s walking around the competition introducing herself to people, and she says, ‘I’m gonna win this year, a fluffy can bend up too’ — as in, fat girls can dance too.”
Despite the apparent differences between these women (as well as the film’s final character, Italy’s popular Alessandra “AleVanille” Traversari), McKenna found that there was virtually no girl-on-girl enmity among the competitors. “I tried to drum up a ton of drama because I thought I should, but it did not work,” she says. “I thought that they would be more cutthroat, more drama during the competition. I had this real reality TV line of questioning for them, and they kept answering me in this funny way, like, ‘Uhhh no, she’s a great dancer, I love her, she did this one move last year that was awesome!’ I thought, too, that the Jamaicans would say, for example, ‘Oh, the Japanese need to get out of town, they’re gonna take over the contest.’ But it was more like, ‘The Japanese dancers are great! They get the routines down, they’re the most choreographed, and they are always so polite.’ Then you ask the Japanese about the Jamaicans and they say, ‘Oh, the Jamaicans are so cool! We have mad respect for them because they started this whole thing, and we’ll never be as cool as them.’ So everyone’s just super reverent and respectful.”
Japanese Dancehall Queen Pinky, who appears in “Bruk Out!” (photo by Cori McKenna)
McKenna found that the dancehall queens she followed weren’t just open to each other — they were among the most welcoming, least judgmental subculture she’s ever encountered. “They’re easily accessible, they want people to follow them on Facebook — they want to be local celebrities, basically,” McKenna says. “So that makes a lot of sense that they would see cameras and want to be on your TV show or whatever you’re filming. What did surprise me, as we were getting deeper with each of the girls, is that while they’re used to promoting themselves, they’re not used to talking about themselves in an intimate way. So I think they really needed it, in some way. People will ask them, ‘Where do you go dancing? What’re the cool clubs? What do you wear?’ And I’m asking them what their father did, and how they feel about their body image.”
But McKenna seems to need the raunchy, emboldened queens of Bruk Out! as much as they may need an outlet to explain themselves. “Something happened when I started listening to dancehall and seeing these girls,” she says. “I’ll never be able to dance like that, but there’s something about it. I get excited, I get that feeling in my chest: ‘I have to move, I have to dance.'”
The Bruk Out! Kickstarter campaign ends November 13.