When I arrived in Toronto on an icy, wet January afternoon a few weeks ago to begin my research for this story, I had no idea that I would be front row to a rare dancehall culture that is so unique and vibrant, its, unlike anything you’ve ever witnessed. Where I grew up, in the hills of Trelawny, dancehall was foreign. It was out of reach. It was farfetched and completely not aligned with the values drilled in me as a little girl who grew up in the heart of Bible country. That all changed when I started frequenting Kingston with friends who would drag me along with them and their dates for night-outs at House of Leo to listen to Stone Love. I would see people who looked larger than life, in outrageous outfits and Grace Jones type hairdos and jewelry frolicking the night away under marijuana smoke, gyrating in unison to the loud sounds vibrating from big black speakers that jolted the ground and moved your feet. It was surreal in an exhilarating kind of way and I loved it. Since then, I have developed an affinity for the culture of Dancehall around the globe, but from my experiences in the run-down halls of Jamaica, London, and New York to the cushiony event spaces in Dubai, Japan and Germany, none compares to the culture of Dancehall in Canada’s most metropolitan and multi-cultural city of Toronto, Mississauga. Is it possible that Toronto has overtaken Jamaican as the Dancehall party capital? Well, that depends on who you ask. Whilst in some areas in Jamaica, revelers party up to seven days a week, the way it’s done is seen to be remarkably different from how it is or would be done in Toronto if they had that opportunity.
Caribbean nationals presence in Toronto dates back to 1796 when nearly half of a group of 556 Jamaicans who arrived in Canada, after an unsuccessful British attempt to enslave them in Jamaica, made their home in Ontario. According to historical data, Caribbean immigration to Canada really picked up in the 1960s, and by 1973, accounted for almost 13 percent of all immigration to Canada. That was then. Today, Jamaicans make up more than half of the Caribbean Immigrant population in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and this explains why the dancehall culture may be the most vibrant and alluring yet. One such immigrant is the unlikely and ubiquitous queen of Toronto Dancehall, Hillary* who goes by the moniker ‘Lady Hilly’, now dubbed Toronto’s Curviest Diva. It’s not just her name that seems almost presumptuous as if she is a royal in waiting, it’s the woman behind the moniker that gives off a certain rare intrigue and a larger than life persona, that makes you take notice of her command of the dance floor and the spotlight. She is not your average twenty-something-year-old dancehall fanatic, in fact, she frequently dubs herself a ‘Senior Citizen’ who often boasts about her grandchildren and who loves God, making the phrase…’God a God’ her own mantra. While Lady Hilly’s age is still to be determined, there is nothing ‘senior citizen’ about this so-called grandma. To some, the term Glam-ma’ was created for her. Lady Hilly is to date, the region’s most booked Dancehall Host and Influencer. From week to week, she travels the city fulfilling her host duties from east to west.
A tough cookie who grew up defending herself from the community trouble-maker boys, older and taller than her; she is used to being self-sufficient and independent, so she ‘pars’ alone as they say in dancehall, and sometimes as a team with her longtime partner and prolific dancehall emcee, ‘Jeff the Master’ of the popular Nitro Sound System. Born and raised in Rockfort, Kingston, she is down to earth and speaks with a distinctive East Kingston drawl, mixing her dialect with standard English and a subtle Canadian hint. Lady Hilly is as genuine and endearing as they come. Although there is a seriousness about her when she is handling her business, she exudes a radiating warmth that captivates you when she greets and hugs you. She flitters around a room commanding the presence of her friendly audience and is often accosted by young fans and admirers as she makes her rounds. Not one to shy away from the usual drama that surrounds a public figure, she is used to outing fires on social media that were started by naysayers and critics who can be mean and blistering. She chalks that up to Jealousy. It’s easy to draw the same conclusion if you observe Lady Hilly closely. The world is hers according to her own standards and she struts to the beat of her own drum, sometimes causing a stir as she kicks up dust with her unbridled no-nonsense straight talk and daring persona. She’s bold and unapologetic, often times pulling out an oversized oriental fan in the middle of her stint to fan her face like they do in a classic Spanish movie. She is quick to acknowledge that she benefits from cosmetics surgery and flaunts her enhancements in revealing outfits and curvy clothing. The camera is never far behind and the live videos are constant as she documents her parties on Snapchat and Instagram. Her Facebook-Live videos are watched by hundreds, the chatters about her frequently make the gossip blogs and the so-called Instagram lurkers’ are countless. Lady Hilly knows she’s made it and she is taking it in stride. She knows her position is unique and coveted and her meteoric rise at the forefront of Canada’s Dancehall only means more eyes will be on her and more tongues will be against her. She doesn’t mind. She doesn’t care about the enormous pressure it may present to always be her best when she shows up. She rarely wears the same outfit twice, so we assume her lifestyle is expensive and the upkeep is daunting when you are used to purchasing bespoke pieces that can run you hundreds of dollars . “I love what I do in dancehall–as mi say, mi dweet fi love, mi nuh dweet fi di like”, she said rhythmically, bopping her head and singing the popular song by Chronixx. She continued to say that she is guided by a higher force who keeps her above the fray and is happy for her place in a fraternity she knows and loves for most of her life.
When we met up with Lady Hilly for this interview, she was just getting over the flu and her eyes were telling of that, but with a fully booked weekend stretching 25 miles across the city, she was getting her clothes tailored at her dependable seamstress Rose and rushing to Scarborough in the east to get her hair done. You could tell she is struggling with a cold as her sniffling and sneezing went on and off for a while as we drove from one end of the city to the other, but her energy was palpable. We kept getting interrupted by frequent phone calls from promoters and business owners, ticket seekers and everybody in between which made for quite an interesting 20 minutes ride. Lady Hilly is robust in her responses and she handles her business interest with precision. That of an entrepreneur. She takes her gigs very seriously. She knows her value and she makes no apologies in her negotiations.
I asked Lady Hilly what she wants to be remembered for in Dancehall. She looked sternly ahead and said in a calm yet calculating manner, “I just always want people to enjoy themselves, I love making people happy and have fun. I am the life of the party and I love what I do. Simple”. I asked her about an anonymous blog post I had come across when doing research for this article and she chuckled in such a nonchalant way, it made me realize that she is as strong as they come, but her response reminds me that she is a mere human. “Only one yuh see”? she asked and laughed out loud, continuing to say that…” I figured out from long time (as she calls my name), that people nuh like see other people happy. I am not sure what they get from trying to bring me down or anyone else for that matter. Mi nuh business wid dem. I know I get a lot of heat from women in the dancehall, some of them I use to talk with. Some of them I don’t even know. Young and old. But a mi say God a God. A me say we, they them and us’. Every man in his own lane. Mi good in mine, the winning lane. Mi well alright. I don’t let the critics bother me anymore. Maybe one time, long time ago, not now. I am used to it now and I am preparing myself for more. Dem might as well start write dem obituary, because Hilly going to kill dem with success. This is going to be a good year for me., trust me”. She took a sip from her soothing ginger and lemon tea as she laughed wholeheartedly about the conversation. Then before she took another sip, she said; “Trust me (calling my name), I wish every man women and child nothing but success because that’s what mi focused on right now. Mi want everybody to be happy. Just do your thing. Lady Hilly say that”.
Lady Hilly is cunningly preparing herself for stardom as I broke the news to her of a top-rated production company looking to recruit her as a star of an upcoming Dancehall Reality Show, where she gets to share with the world her unique rise as the undisputed first lady of Toronto Dancehall. By the end of the summer, she will also check off business mogul form her bucket list with an impending Body Shaper line she has been quietly working on for the past few months. Lady Hilly was careful about divulging too much about her line and would only allow us to see a few samples that came in from the manufacturer earlier that week. She is fronting the project with the guidance of the manufacturer and some business consultants, so the work to develop the line is personal and arduous. Her excitement about the upcoming launch was noticeable. I asked Lady Hilly is she was always this intriguing unbridled character she said…” honestly, I like who I am becoming. I used to be more hardcore. Quick to fight you if I feel you’ve violated me. I could always handle myself and I always did. I am no saint, don’t think that I am. I am still Sheryl (her alias) from the block in some ways, but Lady Hilly is the result of my hard work and determination to better myself. I will still step up and handle my business if I have to”, she concluded with a slight grin as she looked me in the eyes as if to reassure me that she is no push-over. Age is merely a number in Lady Hilly’s world. A number that perhaps cut the checks and increase her base, week after week.
I had made it known that I would be tagging along with her to her parties that weekend and asked about time to meet up. As an early sleeper, when I heard 1:15 am, I was stunned but not shocked. This is dancehall after all. It’s the norm to show up at wee hours of the morning and party until sunrise. This night was brutally cold and an impending snowfall was on the horizon, but none of that mattered to Lady Hilly and the many other patrons in this popular banquet hall on this blistering Friday night. Adorned in a skin-tight jumpsuit, Lady Hilly met us at the door and whisked us over to her section in what seems like the front of the stage with the pulsating sound system as our backdrop and chilled buckets of hard liquor and champagne lined our table tops. I looked around the room and there were buckets of liquor everywhere, some of the women were exquisitely dressed and some were skimpily dressed making me in my bight colored blazer and black pants and blouse look seemingly dull and unassuming. As I scanned the room, I noticed the range of ages across gender and the comradery among a group of cliques scattered across the room. Lady Hilly was making her rounds across the floor with her phone in hand, stopping to air kiss a few young women who had tapped her as she was passing by them. I noticed the respect given to her particularly by the men and the younger women and wondered if any of her naysayers or rumored nemesis were in the party. It was not evident as all eyes seem to be focused on the host of the night. Lady Hilly took the mic to greet the party goers, thanking them for supporting her and reminding them of her mantra…’God a God’. She seems well received and immediately after went back to the floor, this time securing the middle of the dance floor as if it’s her personal playground, taking photos and capturing her movements on video. Her snaps were live and her Instagram feed was in real time. She danced all night in between checking on me and my crew and showed no signs of slowing down by the time we exited the hall at 5:00 am. People were starting to disperse, but Lady Hilly was still making her rounds and by the time we left was with a group of young men toasting with Hennessey as if the night had just begun. That was night one of three. It was a long weekend for us but work as usual for Lady Hilly.
The next morning her first post on Instagram was a little after 11:00 am. I was gasping from lack of sleep from the night before, yet she was revved up and ready for another full day. An avid social media user, she has not only managed to build a business around it as an influencer but often uses it voice her opinion on all manner of things and issues. She holds no punches when it comes to speaking her mind with her frequent ‘Talk Truth’ monologues. She rages against injustice, speaks about her surgeries, her critics promotes her parties and paid gigs and everything in between. Her social media alone deserves its own movie. I asked Lady Hilly how she finds and keeps the stamina in her everyday life and again she attributes her daily life to her belief in God adding that…”I try to take care of myself as much as you see me going out to parties and doing me. I take my vitamins, go to the doctor regularly, I eat well and I pray. I don’t exercise, but mi good” , she said with a loud chuckle.
Lady Hilly speaks openly about her body. She shows off her curves in a flauntingly lighthearted way and makes no apologies about her decision for getting nipped and tucked in the necessary areas. I asked her about her surgeries and she was candid and honest almost in a tutorial sort of way about the process and the recovery. She drew reference to the age-old adage of being comfortable in your own skin but when I asked her why then was it important to go under-the-knife for vanity, she said…”after I had my kids, I felt that I needed to focus on me and although I always had a good body as they call it (smiling broadly), I wanted to do a little enhancement, I didn’t do much compared to some people who go overboard. Surgery is there for anybody and everybody. If you feel like you want it and you can afford it, mi will tell you the name of my doctor. Just like that. Just make sure you can handle it. I know people who get botched jobs and it’s embarrassing. Dem go in better than how dem come out. Make sure your doctor is good and your body is ready for it. From what I see, the doctors in Dominica Republic are more popular some in Columbia. Well from what I see and hear”. Using her hands in a silhouette wave across her body, she stood up and in true Lady Hilly Fashion started gyrating teasingly while chanting…”Good Body Hilly”.
Make no mistake, Toronto has a few other self-proclaimed dancehall celebrities who are quite well known in their own way. There are a couple others who came to mind who didn’t make it in this story, however, they hold their own audience and a unique stake in the local fraternity. Lady Hilly is often put up against them in some kind in an erroneous fashion as reported on malicious blogs and in social media posts, however, as I was told; all were friendly at one time or another and now it’s simply each woman for herself. The playground has become a fierce battlefield for the spotlight, who wears the hottest fashion, who gets the most gigs and who is dubbed the best host or gets booked the most. The contempt is blinding and the air is hostile when they all meet up at venues, sometimes at multiple gigs in one weekend– but in true Toronto style, they contain themselves and mind their time with their selective crew and handlers. If there were indeed some type of legitimate competition, you don’t have to think twice about who is winning most rounds, well at least by the standards of the promoters we asked during our assignment. One promoter who we contacted said that he books Lady Hilly because she is far more influential with the range of partygoers and she simply gets the people in the venue. For him, age or body doesn’t matter. It’s all about the bang for the buck. Two other promoters and a popular dancehall photographer shared similar sentiments. In a dancehall culture where the host is a big part of the draw, we see no limit for Lady Hilly.
It is difficult to ignore the cultish feel of the culture as was evident throughout our patronage at several parties during our time there. Every night we saw the same people in the same spot it seems with the same crew. It’s as if the names of their crews were etched in the floor marking their section. The men are as well dressed as the women and the passage of right and status is what is on your tabletop. The harder and more expensive the liquor, the better. The tolerance is surprising, as we notice everyone was patient with each other in a very unique way, that is only Toronto. Although the politics is forefront; the music, the vibe, the people and the environment make up every bit of what is the unparalleled experience that is the Toronto Dancehall Culture.