Woman on Top: 20 Years on Lady Saw Is Still Riding High

The queen of dancehall on masturbation, Macka Diamond and long-awaited new album Alter Ego.

On the phone from Jamaica, Lady Saw is singing, 'cause that's what she does. It's a new, yet-to-be released song, and her voice calls out clear down the line, warm and true even without a riddim to back her: I don’t need a man to validate me / I love myself so much, I appreciate me, she sings. I’m an independent woman / Don't need compliment from no man to make me feel complete / 'Cause I complete me. It could be a mission statement for her character and career, and that's just the chorus.

"It goes on," she says. "I say, I’m Oprah, I’m Maya Angelou, I’m Cicely Tyson, and Michelle Obama and Rosa Parks, 'cause I’m all these women all in one. I can be called the Prime Minister of Jamaica, I could be Michelle Obama, I’m a strong woman—I’m all of those together."

The first woman she was ever equated to, though, was the queen of pop: "Jamaican Madonna," they used to call her. When Lady Saw hit big in '91 as a Kingston bashment queen, she immediately established herself as an innovator in the realm of female empowerment. From the beginning, she dropped raw singles that flexed her agency as a sexual being, songs whose straightforward, playful nastiness had been unseen from a woman in dancehall, starting with the iconic '94 track "Stab Up De Meat," which began with the refrain, Mi hear you can grind good and you can fuck sweet/Stab out mi meat, stab out mi meat. While Lady Saw was the only woman leveling such sexual assertion for years, the confidence with which she did so changed the genre forever, becoming the norm over all. (Witness Spice's latest hit "So Mi Like It," in which she sings the "Stab Up"-esque lyric skin out di pum pum, and whose video depicts the assertive deejay in a field with other powerful women independently wining on jeeps, not a man to be found.) To say Lady Saw is the queen is an understatement. "I’m very confident with my body and everything," she says. "I don’t work out, but I remember when my stomach was so flat! I But I have this gene where I feel like I grow old gracefully and I still look like I’m 22 years old, you know? And I have no problem to spread my legs because it’s clean, you know?" she laughs.

"I can be called the Prime Minister of Jamaica, I could be Michelle Obama, I’m a strong woman—I’m all of those together."

It's been four years since My Way, Lady Saw's last album, and the interim has been somewhat tumultuous. For three years, she's been chatting up the follow-up, Alter Ego, but in 2012, she announced that she would be leaving dancehall and singing gospel exclusively, making good on the declaration with the spiritual ballad "Heaven." The temporary shift in focus came, in part, from grief: she had just discovered that her partner of 18 years, Lloyd "John John" James, had been cheating on her and had gotten another woman pregnant. But she says she also had some revelations from above. "I got my personal life turned all upside down and the females in the business started trying to dirty up my name and lie on me. So I just took it to God, I got on my knees and I prayed and I prayed and prayed," she says. "I ended up having some experiences where I went to a church in Florida and the Holy Ghost took me over and I was on the floor. I was in a different place. I also had that same experience in my jacuzzi, all naked and ready to soap my body up, and I was singing, and something took me over. But God gave me a test, and I failed it miserably." Other women were talking smack, she says, and she let it get to her; at Sting 2013, she clashed with Macka Diamond and administered a verbal smackdown. (Spice, another Macka Diamond rival, called it thusly: "I don’t see that as a clash, because I don’t know why Macka went on the stage… It’s not Lady Saw kill her, it's she killed herself.") 

Saw later felt bad about the clash, but for her fans, it served a purpose—pulled her out of the gospel mindspace and back into dancehall zone. Alter Ego is finally finished, and will drop sometime this year, with features from Estelle, Flo-Rida, and possibly Mavado. It includes a song called "STD," which is a blues ballad. "Artists don’t normally talk about certain things. That song is like, this man wanna take me out and he wanna give me some gifts, but I’m like the last thing you gave to me was rather embarrassing, you know?" she laughs. "People gonna look and think it’s a dancehall song but it’s like, you already brought me drama, you already brought me pain… you already brought me… STD. You tryna flip that shit on me."

Saw's ability to speak about taboo topics so plaintively is, perhaps, her strongest quality as an artist. A woman putting forth her own truth, telling her own story, is one of the most powerful ways she can support other women in a landscape in which we are still so often told to be ashamed of our existences or, at the very least, to simply hush. Her relatability has kept her fans loyal throughout her decades-long career, and recent performances of a new song, "Pretty Fingers," illustrates how such power can be kinetic. 

"When I perform it, I rub myself," she says, "and I have females in the audience touching themselves. It’s the safest way to have sex, you don’t have to go to the doctor or anything. It's me asking this man, can you be with me and no one else? / Tell me now cause I can touch myself / My pretty fingers they know me well, they can love me… I can love myself! I wrote it when I was single. Everybody wanna get with me, and if you can’t be with me and no one else, it makes no sense. You know, cause I got my finger and everything, and I keep them clean and everything, they make me tremble—those are some of the lyrics," she laughs. 

That's a lot more up-close and personal than Madonna's masturbation scene during the "Blonde Ambition" tour, and it emphasizes how Lady Saw's extraordinary regularness is crucial to her subversion of dancehall's often hyper-masculine mi cocky narrative—she carves a path for women to revel in their independence, to appreciate themselves for who they are, and to express their sexuality in a way that caters to their needs, rather than to their partners' exclusively. She's a cornerstone of dancehall, a Grammy-winning star, but she projects her power as an attainable, everyday necessity, not blown up in pop tropes or glossed over with a professional team. "I'm not a fussy girl," she says. "I just wanna laugh every day, and I find myself laughing more and more lately, and that’s a change. I’m not stressed over anybody or anything. I’m at a happy place, and that’s what life is about." 

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Woman on Top: 20 Years on Lady Saw Is Still Riding High