Light & Lovely

As I’m listening to – and participating in – yet another debate about skin bleaching in Jamaica, I have to confess that I’m growing quite impatient with it.

The latest of these emerged around Vybz Kartel, a popular DJ in dancehall music,  whose facial complexion has been undergoing visible transformation.

He has been getting lighter,

Vybz Kartel with Lisa Hype - 2007

and lighter,

and lighter,

Vybez Kartel

and lighter…

To review….

VK before cake soap; VK after cake soap

Of course, he has been asked if he bleaches his skin.  But he keeps denying this.  Instead, he came up with the most ridiculous explanation ever: he is claiming that he uses cake soap (laundry detergent in a bar) to wash his face and that because he was always in air-conditioned spaces, his skin [naturally!] looked “cool” (Jamaican-speak for matte, smooth, flawless complexion).  He has even produced a song called “, where he reasserts the cake soap argument, but only after he rebuffs the rumours that he is gay, his bleached – oops – well-washed skin being a symbol of such.

Predictably, he has become a bit of a laughingstock.   Indeed, this is quite a change from the controversial figure that he has been with the Gully vs. Gaza rivalry leading to a meeting with PM Bruce Golding, and reaching a climax (pun intended) with his 2008 ode to pussy and non-vanilla, straight sex, aka Rampin’ Shop.   No longer distracted by poppin’ cocks, tight pussies, and spinnin’ sattelite dishes,  the public – really, anyone who’s cared to look twice – has drawn the obvious conclusion about his visage: he’s lying, and he’s bleaching, respectively.   In true Jamaican style, there is no end to the cake soap jokes that have emerged since around November 2010.

they just keep getting better…

Vybez and the Cake Soap

Annie Paul, a blogger and cultural critic, received an autographed bar of cake soap as a Christmas gift.   Even the stodgy daily newspaper, Jamaica Observer, has gotten it’s own jab in via Clovis:

Clovis on Vybz Kartel’s bleached face

Absolutely hilarious, really!

But it turns out that Vybz Kartel’s gender performance is also a distinctly queer one.  Indeed, urban gay subculture in Jamaica features young gay men dressed in tight, pencil jeans rolled above the ankle and fitting low on the hips, often with underwear visible, accompanied by figure-hugging tank tops and a colorful kerchief.  Bleached facial features are also part of the look.

The style has certainly been iconized in the character of Shebada, a sexually ambiguous young man who is the central character in perhaps the most popular roots play ever, .

But it was also the focus of Ebony Patterson’s mixed media series “Gangstaz for Life”

Disciplez by Ebony Patterson

Ebony Patterson – Gangstaz for Life

Through her work, Ebony opened up a new conversation about skin bleaching.  Previously, most discussions had positioned women as the subjects of and the only ones subjected to the societal pressures/prejudices against dark skin.  The choice to lighten their skin to approximate the shades of ‘brown’ that are highly revered is often read as vanity, stupidity, nihilism and self-hatred, all rolled into one dysfunctional feminine body.

Ebony’s work focused on young men who bleached their skin and asked viewers to consider what this says about the malleability of the gendered body, in this case, masculinity in Jamaican popular culture.  The images were intended to interrupt many people’s notions of who the hardcore dancehall man is, by offering what seemed to be shocking, unexpected images of men embracing  ‘girlish’ things in a rather barefaced way – tight clothes, adorned bodies, bleached faces.  Gender benders, Jamaican style.

I wasn’t so taken by that analysis – that there are multiple and competing masculine identities in urban Jamaica: that’s everywhere and pretty obvious to me, but that’s also what I am trained to recognize.  So, I can see how people thinking in binary terms about gender and sexuality might find it surprising that these gangstas are ‘allowed’ to occupy the same spaces as the more hardened and hypermasculine subjects who’ve been the focus of endless news reporting and armchair theorizing about violence in/and dancehall.  I found the work most striking and provocative in terms of technique and how she treated the subjects.   The careful, even reverent way that she rendered the flaws and the

The truth is, Vybz Kartel jus’ very falla fasha’n.

In terms of success in passing and changing his racial/color status, he was blown out of the ballpark by none other than Sammy Sosa, the baseball player from the Dominican Republic:

Sammy before bleach; Sammy after bleach

For me, there’s an incredible irony here.  Many Jamaicans refuse to recognise and accept that the adulation of ‘brown’ skin is also a rejection of blackness. Latin American and Caribbean folks love to pick on DR as the most racist and anti-black country in the region.  There’s a joke – tongue in cheek commentary, really – that Dominican hairdressers specialize in straightening the ‘black’ out of women’s hair.

Black working-class men are now stepping out of the shadows and into the light – lighter skin, that is.   And even if it is chemically produced, they claim it as theirs, and as a means to something different and better.  What? I’m not sure.


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