The upcoming Labor Day weekend marks the first in-person West Indian Day parade in three years, and longtime residents of Little Caribbean in Flatbush and neighboring Crown Heights find themselves facing a drastically different Brooklyn than the one they have come to call home.
Rapid gentrification has shifted the natural rhythm of a bustling working-class community in Flatbush and its slow buildup into parade season. The parade is an export of Caribbean carnival culture that has been preserved by their multigenerational immigrant communities since the early 1900s, and ultimately integrated into an indelible part of Brooklyn’s Black infrastructure. What was once a universally anticipated culmination of a magical Brooklyn summer in the community is now the source of ongoing anxiety. Noise complaints have been on the rise in the last decade and violent incidents on Labor Day tend to lead stories about the weekend’s events, which residents say stigmatizes the long-standing celebrations and dampens excitement around one of the biggest parades in the city.
It’s a rainy day in Soho, and Miss Lily’s is filled to the brim — both with people and decor, described by the owners as inspired by “West Indian diaspora.” The vibrant interior of the venue features checkered floors vinyl booths throughout, and walls affixed with a bevy album covers spanning “50 years of Jamaican music history.”
No chronicling of Jamaican popular music would be accurate without including dancehall — a genre that originated in the late 70s in Kingston as a shift from reggae into physical dance halls: spaces for large numbers of the working-class population to hear music via portable sound systems, that would evolve and change with technology and artistic needs in the genre. The early class of dancehall stars includes legends such as Yellowman and the oft-sampled Sister Nancy; the musical style would expand from a niche to a national staple by the 1990s, crossing over to US markets courtesy of Jamaican diasporas, and ultimately taking the charts by storm: Beenie Man, Buju Banton, Lady Saw, and Sean Paul all became household names to anyone who watched MTV.
Making her own mark in said history is singer, DJ, and singjay, Shenseea (pronounced ˈs(H)en,ˈsee,ˈēə) born Chinsea Lee, arriving at Miss Lily’s in all white. After premiering her first single with Interscope Records, “Blessed,” she simply asked one question: “Is it a vibe?” The answer in the room was a resounding “yes” — but more importantly, so was the case from her fans — the music video received over 2 million hits in just under two days, a wildly enthusiastic response from her #ShenYeng fanbase and just a sign of things to come.
In the months since the release, Shenseea’s single has made waves in the American music scene, peaking at Number 2 on Billboard’s Reggae digital sales chart and getting the eye of chart-topping crossover stars such as Cardi B. The distinctive opening trills of the song – Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat, ah – have become lovingly mimicked by fans. If the initial reception is any harbinger of things to come, Shenseea truly is blessed and quickly rising to the occasion.
“At the moment, I’m trying to infuse my dancehall genre with pop music, but at the same time I cannot do it straight,” she tells Teen Vogue about blending her Jamaican patois with mainstream American lyricism.“So what I’m trying to do is … I still have my tone of voice and everything, but just try to change a majority of the lines, of the words, and how I express certain things that I want to say, just so you guys can understand even more.”
The language hurdle is a delicate balance that she has taken great pains to identify in her music. “I still don’t want to leave my home genre, hence why I try to mix them as much as possible,” cheekily pointing out “and I’m literally from the Caribbean so I don’t see it as a crime.”
There was also a mixed reaction over the opening scene of the “Blessed” video (directed by Riveting Entertainment, who also worked on Tyga’s “Taste” and Chris Brown’s “Party”), which panned to a vista of her in bed with another woman – prompting discussion of Shenseea’s sexual identity. When asked about the nature of the scene, she slyly demurred on social media, “it’s my friend and we just came home from a party — remember, best friends have sleepovers too … just for her safety she slept over.”
It’s an interesting moment for Shenseea to find herself in, as Jamaica and dancehall have established a hypervisible reputation for having issues with the LGBTQ community. There has been increasing work toward carving out inclusive spaces within dancehall with organizations such as WE Change Jamaica, J-FLAG, and CONNEK. And over the last two decades, the conversation has evolved with key moments like Beenie Man, the “King of the Dancehall,” apologizing for homophobic lyrics in 2016. This year, Buju Banton, who, not long after his release from prison, put out a statement expressing his remorse for releasing his infamous homophobic “Boom Bye Bye” song, and declaring that it would not be available for streaming or purchase.
On Shenseea’s end, she previously declared her open support to the LGBTQ community during 2018 pride to her follower base on Instagram of 1.7 million. And her recent highly-circulated move on “Blessed” has received the qualified co-sign of Jaevion Nelson, the executive director of J-FLAG, on Facebook.
As we spoke while she was preparing for BET Awards weekend, she remained undeterred. “I’m not trying to emulate anyone’s trajectory,” she says, opting to be a trailblazer of her own. Sheensea sees herself as apart of how the new crossover dancehall sound should be defined from an authentic Jamaican perspective, as opposed to the various white artists that have entered the space in the American markets.
She has good reason to feel that way: At just 22 years old, the Kingston native and young mother of Afro-Carribean and Korean descent who first started singing in the church has grown from a club promoter and bottle service girl to the unofficial “Princess of Dancehall.” (the current Queen of dancehall title has been reserved for Spice, a trailblazing artist in her own right). Having left college for financial reasons, she gained an early following on Facebook, singing original songs and covers with a heavy reggae inflection akin to Tanya Stephens, before veering into a more appealing dancehall sound.
“When I heard my first song (“Jiggle Jiggle”) play for the first time, I was still doing promotional work,” she says. Since then, she has gone on to score major hits, from the breakout collaboration with the currently-incarcerated dancehall star Vybz Kartel (who she has identified as a lyrical influence), “Loodi,” to the bawdy and booming “ShenYeng Anthem.”
Punctuated throughout the videos for all of her biggest hits is a consistent love for her home country of Jamaica — treatments are lush displays of color and diverse groups of women in various positions of power. The official clip for “Blessed,” as an example, has no major appearance from any men save for the artist featured. No matter the scenario, as she has expanded her sphere of influence, she has ensured that she has put out visuals where women control the narrative — even when singing about submissive sex — but it doesn’t render them immune from criticism: The video for ShenYeng Anthem, for example, received a fair amount of pushback for the intermingled Asian imagery and yellowface deemed offensive. To this charge, she never responded.
But firmly putting out triumph after triumph at a rapid clip in the dancehall music scene gained her a solid fan base not just in Jamaica, but in cities with large Caribbean diasporas such as New York, Toronto, and London. Just two days prior to her single debut at Miss Lily’s, Shenseea performed to a packed crowd at Queens NY’s Amazura Nightclub in Jamaica — a popular stomping ground for artists such as Mavado and Aidonia — just as she had done the year before.
In July, however, she would make her return to Queens – but to perform at MoMA P.S. 1’s The Warm Up Series alongside artists such as Smino and Boogie, a distinctly different audience than her usual stomping grounds, and her first big outing as part of the Interscope family, following a number of show cancellations due to vocal cord trauma, which has caused her continuous frustration. “I really do not know to expect,” she admitted, “but I’m ready for it. I’m just going to go out there, do my best and interact with my people as I normally do.”
The day of the actual performance was, literally, one for the record books: with a heat index that was slated to go as high as 111 degrees, several events were canceled throughout the city, including OZY Fest and Triathlon. But for Shenseea, the show must go on – a 30-minute set to formally introduce her past, present, and future sound to the world, to a completely new crowd.
True to form, she delivered, triumphantly strutting out onto the Long Island City stage in a silver iridescent jacket, lime green thigh-high boots bustier, and cutoff shorts performing her dancehall anthem. By the time she would return to the song later in the set, her jacket and shoes were off, and she was passing the mic back and forth with the ShenYeng fanbase, who were ardently singing along: “nuh fight over man / mi nuh stress over yute / some gyal head full a air like parachute,” an ode to not letting the man ever be the prize or getting wrapped up in fights with women who insist on thinking that way.
The set had a bevy of other peaks as well: a strong and sultry rendition of Bob Marley’s “Is This Love” transitioned to a custom remix of her own, and the “Applause Riddim,” most famously used for Sean Paul’s 2006 hit single “Temperature,” blared through the speakers, while Shenseea comfortably exercised her underutilized rap freestyling skills.
By the time that she closed with “Blessed”, her opening words on stage, “my name is Shenseea from Kingston, Jamaica!” were ingrained in the heads of anyone in the audience who had yet to be introduced to her.
When it comes to new music, while an album is reportedly dropping in the fall, her fans, antsy for content, are unused to the traditional Western single rollout and are chomping at the bit for more music – and while she is currently focused on the bigger picture, Shenseea never plans on forgetting her original fanbase, saying; “I’m gonna release one more song just for the dancehall culture.”
In this new wave of attention to dancehall, Shenseea, more so than her peers, seems to not only be aware of the power of social media but has also worked to organically harness that power and momentum in a way that can create a flashpoint moment out of her next teaser on Instagram. It’s a relationship that has occasionally worked to her detriment, but currently, the future is looking bright.
Back in the green room after her performance, Shenseea is relaxed in a chair, surrounded by her close friends and longtime team. “It was good, right?” she asks, pleased with the results despite some intermittent technical issues with the microphones. She laughs, “I think [the heat was] just an excuse for people to drop their clothes.”
As for what Shenseea wants people to know? “I am coming. Even if they can’t pronounce the name or remember, they will remember quite soon enough. I said that when I was just coming on the scene — the first time I started doing music, nobody could pronounce my name properly. And what I told them is still valid — it will roll off your tongue quite soon, don’t worry. And so said, so done. Now everybody’s saying Shenseea.”