Tifa Is The “Handicap Gyal” Breaking Down Dancehall’s Taboos

The Jamaican artist discusses her explosive new mixtape, Stay Away, and how growing up with Blount’s Disease shaped her life and music.

Tifa first made her mark on dancehall back in 2008 with two ebullient singles full of insult-comic wisecracks (“Crawny Gal” and “Bottom of the Barrel”), both delivered over playful productions from the crazy underrated Ward 21. That same year, she also teamed with Natalie Storm and Timberlee, collectively billed as TNT, for 3 The Hard Way, an often hilarious and unjustly forgotten mixtape with New York DJs Federation Sound. Since then, the singjay—reggae parlance for a vocalist who sings as well as deejays, or raps—has been one of dancehall’s most consistent voices, male or female, reliably issuing bashment hits like “Spell It Out” and this year’s collaboration with Dexta Daps, “Jealous Ova.”

In Jamaica, Tifa’s popularity reaches beyond music. As a spokesperson for brands like cellphone network provider Digicel, her face is seen on billboards and posters across the island. For many girls and young women, she’s a role model—in no small part due to her confident embrace of her body in spite of her struggles with Blount’s Disease, a bone condition that caused disproportionate growth in her feet as a child. (Though corrective surgeries as a kid improved her mobility, they left her with permanent scars, and a distinctive gait.)

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Tifa’s physical singularity is out front on Stay Away, a mixtape with Jamaican radio jock ZJ Chrome released last month. Freestyling over Jidenna’s “Classic Man,” she proudly dubs herself a handicap gyal, and, in a bit of creative hubris inspired by her post-op leg flexibility, boasts of having a double-jointed vagina, reframing her disability as something of a superpower. Elsewhere, she vents at jealous rivals and talks masturbation and oral sex, topics that have long been taboo in dancehall—a genre which, for all of its upfront celebration of sexuality, also harbors a noted conservative streak. The mix also features the punchy single “Ratings,” for which she’s just dropped a suitably animated video (watch it below). Here, Tifa speaks on holding back and letting loose, growing up “different,” and what exactly she meant with that double-jointed vagina line.

Your Stay Away mixtape has gotten a lot of attention. It even made the cover of the Jamaica Star newspaper. What were you trying to accomplish with it?

TIFA: I’ve been sitting on an album for two years, but I said, Nah, let me do something fun, for Christmas. Everybody does albums. Let me do a mixtape first, then an EP, then the album. I went into the studio and started freestyling on tracks, and somebody pissed me the hell off. I had posted something on my Instagram, and they screen captured it, and sent it to one of the corporate companies that I have an endorsement with. I was just like, “Why?” It’s hard enough being in the business and proving yourself, because they see you [as someone] with a disability even though you think just walk cute. Why would you go to that length to try and sabotage me? Mind you, nothing came out of it. But I’m not going on any other artists’ or entertainment personalities’ pages and taking screen shots to send to people. That’s kind of low. I saw red that day. So many feelings came up from over the past four years. I think anybody that pissed me off, I just let it all out. Before, for either personal reasons or affiliations with certain corporate companies, I didn’t really speak on certain things. I think it was just time for everybody to hear my story.

I noticed last time I was in Jamaica that you have a lot of endorsements. Your face is everywhere in Kingston. You’ve created a lane where your image is wholesome enough for companies to want you as a spokesperson, yet your music has enough of an edge to appeal to the youth.

It is all about balance. I learned early on in this business that it’s not forever, and you have to try other avenues. My feet have been something of a blessing in disguise. I appeal to those people that feel “I can’t do what I want to do” or “I can’t dance because I walk funny,” or just look different. I think, early on, corporate companies recognized that pull that I had, in terms of my realness and people gravitating towards me, just by being myself. And they used that to sell products. In Jamaica now, it’s not like before, where you had the dons or di big man dem putting on the dances. Now, corporate sponsors are really the engines behind certain events or parties. If you look at a Dream Weekend or any soca party, you will see a Digicel or a Smirnoff, as opposed to before where [individual] people spent their money and held a party. In entertainment, here in Jamaica, if you are not affiliated with one of those things, or try to be affiliated with one of those things, money is sure to dry up on the road. It’s corporate people that put money in your pocket. I’ve always tried to strike that balance, where I can be a spokesperson but still appeal to the dancehall crowd.

Have you had to hold back from what you really want to say?

Definitely. There have been situations where there were a lot of rumors spreading [and] I was told not to answer, not to say certain things. Because it would have gotten nasty. Even though I speak on certain things on the mixtape, if you notice, I still toe the line. I didn’t give it all out, I gave just enough [to get people talking]. Even doing this mixtape is a risk but, oddly enough, none of them have slapped me on the wrist. I guess everybody sees it is coming from a real place. They have known the struggles behind the scenes. Everybody is just like, finally.

“You can be anything that you want to be irrespective of your so-called handicap, your race, your class, of where you come from.”—Tifa

On your “Classic Man” freestyle, you refer to yourself as a handicap gyal. Tell me about embracing that aspect of yourself. There are surely other artists who have had handicaps in life, but they’re not really drawing attention to themselves in this way.

I think that comes largely from my mom. My mom was someone who went, “Oh, you want to sing? I’m going to enroll you in the choir. Oh you like acting? Let me send you to this drama class.” Even though I got teased—mind you, I could fight when I was young, and I got into lot of fights—it never really bothered me. I remember as a grown-up [someone said]: “Oh my god you’re wearing a skirt, and and you have scars on your legs.” I don’t care because I am that spokesperson for that person that has low self-esteem. You can be anything that you want to be irrespective of your so-called handicap, your race, your class, of where you come from. As I said on the mixtape, Ray Charles was blind, Missy Elliott was fat. In an industry that tells you that you have to always be a size 2, they’ve made remarkable marks on the industry. So I am that person who will continue to wave the flag for that. As corny as it sounds, all it takes is the right time and opportunity, and the right person to see you.

What exactly is Blount’s Disease?

It’s a bone disease where your inner bones grow faster than your outer bones. They are shaped like diamonds. I had three surgeries. When my mom was six months pregnant, she got stung by a scorpion. She had lockjaw, and basically couldn’t eat for the rest of the pregnancy. I could always walk, it’s just that I walked funny, like a crab. My legs were at a 45 degree angle each. I was in a wheelchair for a while after I had corrective surgery to fix it. This is basically the end result. I can walk, I can run, I can dance, it’s just that I walk a little bit different, because of some of the nerves I hit. But it’s fine. It’s cute now. Guys fantasize about it now, because I “walk wine” and girls try to walk like me.

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What were the reactions you got early on in your career to being “different”?

At first, people wondered what I was doing. I had most factors against me. I lived uptown—mind you, I did come from the inner city but my parents worked hard and we moved to a nice area. That was the first thing, because they always think that dancehall comes from the trenches. You have seen that acceptance issue, with “uptown” artists like Sean Paul. Two was the fact that I had a degree. Everybody was like “What the hell? She went to college, why does she want to do dancehall?” At the time now, dancehall women, probably with the exception of Patra, looked in a particular way. They said “You’re too cute for the dancehall” and “You don’t dress for the dancehall, [half] naked in a cut up cut up.” And. of course, my legs. I’m the type of person where If I set my mind to something, I’m going to get it. And I took every school barbecue, I went on every road show, I did everything you can think of. I was just in everybody’s face, every minute, until they had no choice but to listen. Where I lived, what school I went to, what I looked like, how my legs were didn’t matter after that. I was everywhere.

The mixtape is mostly hip-hop beats. Are you looking for opportunities to grow outside of dancehall?

I’m open to everything. I don’t like to be in a box. I’m open to anything at all, if it’s a hip-hop or a techno track, as long as I am Jamaicanizing it. I feel like we’ve lost track of dancehall [as] an international music. Everybody is so caught up in who wants to be the top dog that we have basically stopped making good music, and when the good music comes out it is overshadowed by so many other things. We need to get back to that place where we’re a dominant genre again.

One thing that dancehall is good at is speaking on sex in new and interesting ways. What do you mean on the mixtape when you say you have “double joints” in your vagina?

Basically, I mean my legs are double jointed. And you can put them in different positions. I’m saying “My vagina is made different, and it will make you feel different, and it will make you feel like it’s not one, but actually two vaginas.”

You speak frankly on the mixtape about cunnilingus and masturbation. In dancehall, there’s always been a taboo against oral sex. I remember hearing a song like Lady Saw’s “Sycamore Tree” or Shabba Ranks’ “Dem Bow,” where you had these really raw, X-rated artists that celebrate sex making songs saying that were against oral sex. At the time, I found it confusing. It was like, “People think blow jobs are bad?”

Let me tell you, I don’t care. I wanted to put out not only a mixtape, but a “real tape.” I think that’s why it’s been successful, because it’s actually real. I touch on topics that people would normally not talk about, and I wish it weren’t so hypocritical. Cause we live in a very hypocritical society. Jamaica now is not like Jamaica before where [oral sex and masturbation] is a bad thing, and [people] don’t do it. Everybody’s doing it these days. Maybe I’m the first of many females to come that’s doing that. Kartel was the one that really sang out about it, from the male perspective. I’m just being real: This is what happens. Usually if you don’t have anything to do and you’re home on a Friday night, and you’re missing some good penis or some good head, and you want to call somebody...It happens. It’s life. I might have to just edit that double jointed vagina song. Everybody’s like yo, we need that song.

Are you still planning to release an album?

The album is actually finished, I just did not like the deal they were giving me for the album. The album will be similar to the mixtape because I like albums [that] actually tell a story, not just a bunch of songs you’ve heard already. I’m going to take it in stages. Depending on the success of a mixtape, we might just have to jump into an album. I have other unreleased material and material that I’m working on now. It just depends on the right deal. It has to be something that is going to benefit me as well as my fans.

November 18, 2015
Tifa Is The “Handicap Gyal” Breaking Down Dancehall’s Taboos