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Reviewer: SteveJ
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Serious Things A Go Happen:
Three Decades of Jamaican Dancehall Signs
240 pages
December 27, 2016
ISBN 10:
ISBN 13:

An unofficial history of Jamaican dance hall music told through its graphic design.

As a fan of reggae and dancehall, typography and graphic design, this book is a dream come true. Author Maxine Walters, a native of Jamaica, has collected over 100 handmade signs for this unique collection of street art.

Stick figures, rasta lions, red, gold and green, and occasional line art dot the signs, but it is mostly the colorful type and the all-important hierarchy of information that guide your eye, and it's fun to pick them apart once you've broken the "code."

Marlon James, author of the acclaimed novel A History of Seven Killings, provides an essential guide that is critical to understanding the unique but stringent structure of these signs in his introduction to the book. “If hip hop’s visual language is graffiti, then dancehall’s visual language is the sign, the event poster.” He notes that function triumphs over form in these pieces, and that “there is a subversive code.” However, as we learn through some of the conversations in the book, form and function are intrisically tied together to make a poster successful.

Sign painter Denva Harris explains that these signs are handpainted on 4' x 8' sheets of Solitex, a flexible board that can be cut and broken without using a saw. Most of the signs are 2' x 2', meaning you can get eight signs to a sheet; Jamaicans are nothing in not resourceful! Most of them are then painted black to seal it, and an undercoat of white beneath the colors to make them "pop," much like screen printers do here on the ubiquitous black concert t-shirt. Finally, when painting, "the most imprtant area highlighted is the admission, the cost to get in the party, and the date, and then the promoter." Interestingly, Harris says the promoter is "the most interesting part of this thing, the ingredient that makes it art. Because if it is the right selecta, a song will be hot in no time." Harris and Walters then reminisce that you can date the posters by the featured DJ and song, as to when they were most popular. Pretty cool. 

West Indian author and scholar Carolyn Cooper (mostly) concurs: “Every dancehall sign must give information on who is putting on the dance…(it) has to name all of the big acts on the show (and) advertise the entry fee. It’s the graphics that catch the attention …and determine whether or not the show will sell out.”  Producer Mikey Bennett, Wayne Chem and author Vivien Goldman provide additonal context, and there's a fascinating interview with Rory Stone Love, the Selector of the Stone Love Movement Sound System. 

But this is not a book solely for designers; as James points out, “If you’re going to bring the word ‘aesthetic’ into it, you’ve already missed the point.” Rather, it’s a celebration of Jamaican spirit, innovation and the pure love of music and the dance, and a unique book that feeds the eyes, the brain, and the soul. Much respect...


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