This story is taken from the autumn 2023 issue of Dazed. Pre-order a copy here.
There are several defining moments at any given Spice show; the telltale signs are as inevitable as her ostentatious display of brightly coloured wigs. One: If she decides to walk out in a pair of over-the-knee stiletto-heeled boots, trust that they are merely there for show and will be kicked off faster than she can command the DJ to “run di riddim!”. Two: The Olympic-ready assortment of acrobatic abilities she’ll display are challenged only by Team Spice, her women-only dance crew consisting of round-the-way girls with untameable energy. Their scene-stealing antics showcase a comprehensive mix of tumbles, somersaults, speaker-box mounting, stage-truss climbing, splits, shakes, bumflicks and loose hips, which throw the crowd into a frenzy of ascending decibels. She’ll hand-pick girls from the audience to share the stage with her and offer up a good seeing to by the Queen of Dancehall herself for one lucky man. Last but by no means least are the stage props, including a live donkey, a shovel, a set of Wakanda guardians with not one but two Black Panthers for good measure, and a carry-on suitcase that she’ll wheel out to the tune of Stylo G’s “Touch Down” as if she’s tip-toeing towards the arrival gate. It’s a high-energy, unashamedly risque and comedic performance that leaves no questions as to how she bagged the title Queen of Stage before she was ever bestowed the title Queen of Dancehall.
“[My performance] is just so engaging and entertaining,” says Spice over the phone. “I always try to do things that people have never seen before and I think that sets me apart from all the other artists coming out of Jamaica.” Spice is calling from Atlanta, where she’s been living since moving from Jamaica in 2020. However, it’s Grace, the woman and mother of two behind Spice – a nickname inspired by her sometimes feisty and witty persona – who takes centre stage here. No hype, no antics and most surprisingly, no wig. “It’s nice to meet you,” she says, chuckling as she adds, “I wish I could put my video on but I just took my wig off.” Though I can’t see her, I imagine she is a vision in blue. It’s her trademark colour, after all, and one she vowed to wear every day for the entirety of this year as a thank you to fans who supported her after a damaged hernia caused her body to go into sepsis in late 2022. Born Grace Latoya Hamilton, the Grammy-nominated dancehall dynamo appears somewhat demure today for a woman whose signature dance move involves her hoisting one leg up in the air to a vertical split as her fans, or ‘besties’ as they are affectionately known, scream “Skin out mi pum pum!” Hamilton wears her Dancehall Queen persona like the well-plucked lace fronts she collects (seriously: she’s got hundreds), donning and removing it as she deems fit. At this moment, she’s simply off-duty. “When I take the dancehall aspect away from the brand Spice and you see me with my black hair, people know it’s Grace Hamilton, not Spice. I enjoy the transition [between] being a mother and being Spice and my fans know that as well. If I’m in the street they know how to address me based on my dress code.”
There is a humility to Hamilton that can be traced back to her humble beginnings. Born in St Catherine, Jamaica, in 1982, she says that her mother made the most of what little they had. Her father was a Rasta, who filled the family home with the sounds of Peter Tosh and Bob Marley. Sundays were for church and Sunday school, and she recalls singing in the choir from the age of four. To this day, gospel is her favourite genre and “still what I wake up to and sing in the morning; it’s still what puts me to bed; it’s still what brings that peace to my heart”. She would sleep top-and-tail with her four siblings in one bed, but despite the lack of space she remembers that there was always “a lot of love” at home. When a fire burned down their house, they lost everything and were left sofa-surfing between friends and family. Then, when Hamilton was just nine, her father died. “For those nine years, all I can remember is him pushing me into music,” Spice tells me. “I started making promises to myself that I was going to make it. I’m going to take my mum out of poverty. I’m going to buy her a house and all of that.”
Hamilton has a motto she mentions as she opens up about her past: “From homelessness to greatness”, a reminder of exactly how far she has come. Once upon a time, she was just a schoolgirl who became popular by beating the desks and spinning lyrics out of her teachers’ lessons. In her last year of school, a friend introduced her to Junior ‘Heavy D’ Fraser, the famed music manager and promoter of Sting, Jamaica’s longest-running reggae and dancehall stage show. “He said to me, ‘I hear that you mash up St Catherine High School, but can you mash up Sting?’” says Hamilton. As one of the country’s best-known dancehall shows, Sting is also feared for playing host to some of the toughest crowds known to man, a far cry from any playground antics. This was in an era when glass Heineken bottles were hurled as nonchalantly as a chorus of boos if an act couldn’t satisfy its patrons (plastic bottles were eventually mandated for public and talent safety).
One of those early Sting performances is on YouTube, much to Hamilton’s amusement. She laughs every time she thinks about the four-minute clip, in which the young performer’s precocious talent can be clearly heard through the grainy recording. Back then, she’d walked out with just a microphone and backing band, nervous as hell in the wee hours of the morning thinking, “‘Oh my God, this is either gonna make me or break me.’” In a skintight fur-trimmed collared blouse, a cloche hat cocked to one side and a bumped platinum-blonde wig, she received rapturous applause within the first minute. “I did my freestyle like I normally do and, to my surprise, that’s where Spice was born,” she recalls. “I buss the crowd; the place was in a frenzy! Each time I came off the stage, they would call me back on and I’d perform. I got called back four or five times.”
Though it took ten years to materialise due to difficulties with her former label, VP Records, her aptly titled debut, 10, was nominated for a Grammy in 2022. She became the first hardcore female dancehall artist to be nominated in the best reggae album of the year category. When she departed VP that same year, she released a follow-up, Emancipated, the title of which she braided into a blue ponytail for her New York Fashion Week appearance last September, its tip trailing on the floor behind her as she walked. In the accompanying Instagram posts she quipped: “When you’re willing to sprain yuh neck to promote your album.” Then there was Barack Obama’s inclusion of “Go Down Deh”, the lead single from the album, in his annual list of favourite songs. Spice’s response: “Just when I thought my year couldn’t end any better Mr President @barackobama announced that he has been listening to my song.” All of this from schoolgirl lyrics and sneaking out of the house to clash [dancehall legend] Bounty Killer before she’d even graduated. “A lot of people don’t know that I was clashing Bounty Killer in my very first performance and I always tell people he was the first artist to offer me a microphone in dancehall. He was so surprised at my age and how lyrically genius I was and he said, ‘You are going to be the next Queen of Dancehall.’” It’s a prophecy that stood the test of time.
“My music is very empowering to a lot of women even though people would look at it as being explicit. It forces any woman, no matter their size, their body, their race, wherever they’re from, to just walk out and dance and be happy and freely express themselves anywhere” – Spice
On “Go Down Deh”, Spice ponders, “Wine ’pon yuh good mek sweat ah drip off a mi body yeh / How yuh full ah chat and yuh cyan keep up wid mi energy?” Her songs are full of her teasing sexual exploits like this, but also affirmations like on “Inches”, where she reminds us all that “My hair long to mi back / real or fake my money buy that”, or “Yaaas Goodie”, an anthem for the ladies who she describes as “well proper, yuh healthy, yuh strong, yuh look good, yuh have all ah di suttin deh bout yuh”. A personal favourite is “Under Fire”, where she reasons, “Under me feel so aquatic caah you make me feel so erotic / Till me wish me coulda tek you cocky put inna me pocket.” She can also be reflective of the ills in dancehall culture, like the pervasive trend for skin-bleaching. When she posted a selfie sans melanin to her four million-plus Instagram followers in 2018, it caused a furore. A week later, she announced that it was a stunt aligned with a new single release, “Black Hypocrisy”, on which she attests: “Mi love the way mi look / Mi love mi pretty Black skin / Respect due to mi strong melanin / Proud of my colour, love the skin that I’m in.” Her music breeds a particular kind of energy: confidence, self-belief and pride. “My music is very empowering to a lot of women even though people would look at it as being explicit,” she explains. “It forces any woman, no matter their size, their body, their race, wherever they’re from, to just walk out and dance and be happy and freely express themselves anywhere.”
This comes with the nature of being the Queen of Dancehall. It’s not just a title one throws around: it comes with a legacy, expectations and a particular set of requirements. Many men are intimidated by the brightly coloured hair, the confidence, the assertiveness and skin-baring fashions, the explicit lyrics and sexual know-how, the autonomy of self that Spice embodies. This is intended. But those whose interest is piqued by the Queen’s embrace of ‘slackness’ – Jamaicans’ name for the lewd lyrics that have long been a staple of dancehall – are in for a wild ride. Women, on the other hand, are empowered. This, too, is intended. While the boys of dancehall are busy being boys, the women infantilise them, calling out just how easy a conquest they can be and exactly where they’re falling short (use your imagination). The women of dancehall insist on their independence, their beauty inside and out, and their sexual desires. Spice’s lyrical content is often fixated around boastful claims, but behind every exaggeration is some degree of truth, be it about Spice as an individual or the legion of women who will, want or can relate to it. And they do, in truckloads. Just as Spice throws on her Dancehall Queen persona, her fans can throw on her music and, in those three or so minutes, gain a newfound confidence they can take with them into their days.
Take for example Cardi B, whose dancehall-themed 29th birthday in LA boasted brassieres as clubwear, batty riders and an onslaught of red, gold and green, with guests ranging from Megan Thee Stallion to Lizzo in mesh marinas. Spice was a musical guest and you don’t have to search far for clips of the bashment that ensued. “I remember Cardi B telling me she’d discovered my music when I had just started,” says Hamilton. “She said, ‘I used to see you in Ed Hardy all the time and I used to always tell my father I wanted to wear Ed Hardy like Spice!’” And Madonna, who was filmed dancing to “So Mi Like It” at her 62nd birthday bash in Jamaica, was spotted partying with Spice last year alongside Diplo at a LaQuan Smith afterparty at New York Fashion Week.
It’s not just celebrity fans, either: Hamilton was moved to tears after one performance in Jerusalem where she started lightly, cautious of how they may react in such a foreign place, but to her surprise found the crowd singing along word for word even though many could not speak or understand a word of English, let alone Patois. They were “dancing like they were Jamaicans, they were on their head top, they were dancing upside down on their heads. They were jumping, doing the things I used to do on the speaker box, like... everything, and I cried. I was just in shock; I couldn’t believe it.” When I mention the legion of queer fans who also participate and feel the same confidence regardless of gender or sexuality, she brings up her headline performance at Toronto Pride 2022: “My fans from the LGBTQ community can relate because it’s music that’s telling you we don’t care who you are, just walk out and dance and be happy and be proud of yourself. I embrace them, I show them love because I don’t discriminate. Music is a universal language. I got a little backlash from some people in Jamaica because of it but I didn’t care. I was willing to go up against anyone in defence of my fans.”
When she was booked for the Bomboclat festival in 2019, a “music festival that brings Caribbean spirit and sounds to the beaches of Zeebrugge, Belgium”, she couldn’t quite believe the goings-on. Thousands of people had come out, mimicking Jamaican culture with jerk pans in tow. They were hanging out like it was a regular dancehall street party and so Hamilton took out her phone to video record “because I wanted to show it to my prime minister in Jamaica, to show him how other people outside of Jamaica embrace our culture”. Ironically, ‘bomboclat’ is on a list of words recently purged from the airwaves in Jamaica. Back in 2009, Hamilton felt the sting of such political attacks on her music when “Romping Shop”, her wildly raunchy remix of Ne-Yo’s “Miss Independent” with Vybz Kartel, was banned by the Broadcasting Commission of Jamaica (BCJ) due to its explicit content. Where Ne-Yo croons about the way a lady moves, Spice leaves little to the imagination in how she likes to be dealt with in the bedroom (“Cah me haffi wine pon di cocky like dis, Kartel spin me like a satellite dish”), while Vybz Kartel retorts in equally explicit detail. (“Deal with yuh breast like me crushing Irish, Spice I never love a pussy like this.”)
True to form, there was never a sample clearance as this was for the streets, not the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop charts the track would end up spending 15 weeks on, becoming a hit in its own right. In the Caribbean diaspora, there is an in-joke that when a DJ plays the first few seconds of the “Miss Independent” beat, you never quite know if it will be Ne-Yo or Vybz and Spice but ultimately, we’re all waiting for the latter, announced by Vybz Kartels’ instantly recognisable tag Addi Teacher. Hamilton laughs as I tell her this. “‘Romping Shop’ is the quickest song that has ever blown up for me in the history of my career – it literally took 24 hours for it to become the most popular song I’d ever done,” she says. “There’s no show I can go to without singing that song. And I don’t even have to sing it; the riddim comes on and they sing it from top to bottom. It’s one of tracks that propelled [me] to international stardom. And that’s why even to this day I give so much loyalty to Vybz Kartel, even though he’s incarcerated, because I feel like that song helped to propel me. And I’m happy to know that I have one of the biggest collaborations to ever come out of dancehall.”
This story is taken from the autumn issue of Dazed, which is on sale internationally from 14 September 2023. Pre-order a copy here.
Photography CIESAY, styling MARION B KELLY II, hair colour and styling EMPRESSLYGLAM, make-up SKYE using JUVIA’S PLACE, photographic assistants BAILEY NOLFE, NICK NOLFE, videography ARTIMIO BLACKBURN, styling assistant JOHN ALLEN, production WEST OF IVY, production assistant BEN FENISON