Tanya Stephens Gangsta BluesTanya Stephens , “Gangsta Blues”
[Tarantula/VP, 2004]

“My goal on this record is to show my diversity not only as a songwriter and also to breakaway from the stereotypical female in Dancehall selling plain old cliche sex, says Tanya Stephens about her newly released Gangsta Blues on the VP/Tarantula Records release.

Breakaway from the standard female Dancehall mode she does on her third album.

Like many Reggae and Dancehall aficionados, my first glimpse of Tanya’s true brilliance was on It’s A Pity on the “Reggae Gold 2003” disc. Laid against the thick and horn-laden Doctors Darling riddim, she sings of the not-so-uncommon pain of being the other woman without sounding like a victim.

In fact, lyrics on most Gangsta Blues tracks seem borne of hurt, disappointment, betrayal, and pain. This is especially audible on tracks Little White Lie, It’s A Pity, What’s Your Story, This Is Love with Wyclef Jean, Can’t Breathe, and Sound Of My Tears. Gangsta Gal with Spragga Benz transports the listener into the heart of a rude gyal and shows her resolve to unflinchingly watch her man’s back. Her words are like the remnants of a blaze: fire smoldering to glowing embers, embers to grayed ashes. But her music is infused with resilience, strength, power, and hope. She rises from the ashes like a phoenix.

Even the giggle-provoking spoken word piece Damn is based on disappointment. Its a singsong rhyme detailing the excitement and swell of a seemingly perfect date that woefully ends with a record-breaking 10-second sexual sprint rather than a marathon. Heartbreaking. No need to fret, though, merely back up to track 3, Boom Wuk, Tanya’s ode to length, girth, and performance for a pick-me-up.

“Damn and Boom Wuk turn the tables on Jamaican machismo with Tanya-style wit but Tek Him Back flips the script entirely. Imagine a mistress’s pleas, discordantly set against a lively reggae rhythm interwoven with peppy harmonica riffs, to wifey to take her oaf-of-a-husband back. It’s really and truly a lovely ditty about owning ones mistakes and doing what one must to rectify them. In her own words:

In the song Tek Him Back, I get a little mischievous. I play the concept of taking a girl’s man but this time I flip it the other way around. Here, I’m laughing at the whole ridiculous argument and saying, you know, not all men are worth the taking! Some of them you take you wind up wishing you could return them to the original woman. Basically, I’m saying the grass always looks greener on the other side.

Tanya also proffers up conscious music and elevates her listeners above the foibles and follies of sex and love to call attention to the gnawing pain of the poor, the under-represented, and the unheard. She laments for the lives of rude boys in their struggles for survival in Sound Of My Tears. The Other Cheek is sheer protest music. What A Day with its subdued acoustic guitar accompanying her vision of change and peace is filled with soul.

I find it difficult to single out a favorite on this CD because each track is rich in its own right. But her a cappella, yardie gyal translation of Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman roars out to me:

Well, I don’t wanna be no guy

Jus wanna be appreciated by da I

Don’t believe da package influence da contents…

Well, I don’t wanna be no guy

Jus wanna be respected by da I

Don’t let da style overshadow da credential

Me dress cool, don’t diminish da potential…

“Gangsta Blues is a multifaceted gem, not only in the sphere of Dancehall music but for Caribbean music and beyond. Tanya paints a musical landscape from a pallet culled from the pain of intimate relationships, being betrayed and being the betrayer, and the suffering caused by poverty and social inequities. While holding this pain, she brushes bright flashes of color and light in the forms of humor, wit, hope, and personal strength onto her canvas.

Tanya Stephens certainly has broken the mold held firm by typical female Dancehall artists. Not only does she beautifully display her range as a songwriter and lyricist but she has also begun the drive to lead female Dancehall artists, and women in general, far beyond the roles of sex pots, playthings, and fodder for ridicule by male artists.

Brava, Ms. Stephens. No one can ever diminish your potential.