Archive for the ‘Dancehall’ Category

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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Buju in California

So everyone is talking – ranting, more like it – about the latest episode in an 18-year battle between Buju and an ever-changing group of lgbt activists.  This time, it was face to face.  Although the pictures being circulated are intended to communicate some kind of rapprochement – fist bump between Michael Petrelis (clearly the ringleader in the San Francisco contingent) and Buju, and a rather awkward shot of Buju seated and surrounded by members of the SF contingent –  I am not at all persuaded that words and actions related to the controversy over “Boom Bye Bye” are going to be any more civil, respectful, or informed than they have been to date.  Indeed, intransigence is the order of the day.  But, I am going to continue to suspend disbelief and wait for all the unintended consequences that will unfold.

Let me back up a bit.   If you are just catching this drama mid-show, then you should know that you have missed a whole helluva lot:

blog and email-driven campaigns against “murder music” in several countries; protests at Jamaican consulates in several countries;  compilation of a DJ “hit list” which led to bans on some DJs performing in some cities/countries and denial of visas; protests at and cancellation of many, many concerts; negative press galore for Jamaica/dancehall/these particular DJs; the creation of documents like Reggae Compassionate Act; town hall meetings organized by radio stations and music industry folks to decry the violation of the DJs “freedom of speech.”  Those are just some of the major events that are specific responses to the vilification of gays and lesbians in dancehall music.

Then there are the other supporting as well as inciting moments – I won’t separate them, you guess which – that are interwoven with the international furor over the role of music in fueling anti-gay sentiments and inciting harm against gays and lesbians:

the never-ending letters of support for DJs and statements of rejection of gays and lesbians printed in the newspapers; call-in radio shows filled with people lined up to condemn “the homosexual lobby” and “those gays” who are accused of trying to tell Jamaicans how to live, speak, relate, think; the behind-the-scenes meetings with U.S. legislators and policymakers to update them on the situation of lgbt persons in Jamaica; the Prime Minister of Jamaica, Bruce Golding, getting his own little dig in with his “not in my cabinet” speech on BBC; the blogs focused on promoting Jamaican dancehall music are humming with anti-gay antipathies accompanied by the imperative to “lef Jamaica alone!”; politicians getting into the mix by holding up or rejecting legislation, accusing lgbt persons of lying and making up stories about being persecuted, and calling the existence and activities of the human rights group JFLAG into question; physical and verbal attacks against gay men (machetes, guns and crowds the methods of choice) and lesbians (penises and guns the methods of choice); Red Stripe withdrawing its support from reggae events where artists use “violent and anti-social lyrics”; Reggae musicians pressing for an end to the glorification of violence in dancehall music; Human Rights Watch report claiming that homophobia is the cause of the spread of HIV, especially among gay men, and calling for the decriminalization of sex between men; Amnesty International’s OUTFront report decrying the overt calls for violence against Jamaican gays and lesbians in dancehall music; Time magazine posing the question of whether Jamaica was “the most homophobic place on earth?”; the Dutch government’s move to link human rights with foreign policy by stating that it won’t give funding to countries that discriminate against lgbt persons; Prison riots erupt when wardens refuse to hand out condoms after being asked to by the Comissioner of Corrections; New York Times article about the gay police officer seeking asylum; the call for a boycott of Jamaican products, including Red Stripe by a group of lgbt activists in San Francisco; the one-man petition to the European Union to withhold funding to Jamaica unless it changes its sodomy laws.  And, the latest: the Economist (October 2009) offers a concise summary of the situation of lgbt people in Jamaica – they use the language of “homophobia” – and close with a rhetorical question: do Jamaicans not see that their attitudes towards glbt persons will affect their ability to attract foreign investments?

I think I hit some of the major moments here.  None of it in date order of course, but it gives a sense [almost overwhelming!] of the tense atm0sphere that exists in Jamaica and Jamaican immigrant communities around this vexed issue of same-sex sexual orientation.

Basically, the most clearly articulated sides of this international war of words to date, are as follows:

1. “The farriners” – “Jamaican dancehall is a reflection of Jamaica’s homophobia; DJ’s who sing homophobic songs are spreading their evil message and they should be stopped”: that position is championed by those who have been christened as “the homosexual lobby”, “the gay activists”, etc.  “They” are located elsewhere – North America and Western Europe – and, are often presumed to be – and represented in the local media and chatter as – white gay men (clearly, the antithesis of  what Jamaicans imagine in terms of righteous sexuality).

Most definitely, the loudest ringleaders are white men of a certain age (mid-40’s) with particular axes to grind: think of them as what’s left over from ACT UP in-your-face style politics of the 1980s.  But, the cast of characters in the protests does shift quite a bit depending on which city the campaigns are being developed in.  But, for most Jamaicans [the evils of] homosexuality  are embodied in one form: white, male body.

The “farriners” argue that the “Jamaicans” are narrow-minded, doctrinaire and are hurting themselves by not respecting the rights of glbt persons to love who they wish.   The diagnosis: homophobia; the weapon: economic sanctions

2.  “The Jamaicans” – “Jamaica is not homophobic, Jamaicans just don’t agree with homosexuality because the bible says it’s wrong, and the law says it’s illegal.”

On this side, you have the usual suspects:  cultural nationalists who believe that Jamaican “culture” is sovereign and should stand guard against any incursions from the almighty white global north; religious fundamentalists who believe that “christian morality” is sovereign, and that no laws or attitudes should be changed to accommodate the moral decay that is signified by “tolerance” or “acceptance” of homosexuality.  It is not always possible to distinguish between these two groups, since many Jamaicans inhabit both simultaneously.

Buju Banton is a good example of one person who straddles both positions. He claims that as a Rastafarian, he could not possible “endorse” homosexuality as a lifestyle because it is “against Jah”, and furthermore, that if most Jamaicans share this belief, that means that the idea is embedded in the culture, cannot be changed, and should not be changed.

The “Jamaicans” counter that the “farriners” are using their access to political and economic power to try to force them to “accept” homosexuality which are seen as “farrin values.”  Furthermore, it is not true that “homophobia” is a problem for glbt persons; any negative effects are either self-induced or deserving. They “call it on themselves” by “how they act.”  In this narrative, everybody “knows” of one, or two, of course.  There is also the requisite claim of “high society” men (never women) who “everybody” knows about, who prey on young working-class men, and who are ostentsibly immune to whatever social stigma is coming from working-class Jamaicans, the latter, of course, being the natural antagonists to same-sex sexual orientation. Non-heterosexual sexuality is understood as neither “natural” nor native, and to the extent that “we have any of them”, they either learned it from being molested, or acquired it through their interactions with farriners.

But no debate is ever that simplistic.  And, the more each of these “sides” talks as if there is only one other “side” – the enemy – the more these positions harden and become impossible to shift.   It also makes it incredibly difficult for other perspectives to get air time.

For example,  the “farriners” talk as if there is no critique about anti-gay hostilities IN Jamaica, and as if glbt people are merely sitting there, petrified and curled up waiting to die at the hands of some dreadful mob-monster, licking its chops at the mere thought of shedding the blood of queers.

The “Jamaicans” talk as if glbt persons are free to be out and about everywhere, and suffer absolutely no recrimination based on their perceived sexual orientation.

For the farriners, Jamaica is a cultural backwater that hasn’t yet earned its way into modernity, even if it does have lovely beaches and hotels.  For the Jamaicans, culture and sexuality is everything, and both need to be protected from the incursions and sexual imaginings of farriners.

In truth, every new episode offers yet another opportunity to revise one’s memory of what happened before, and to predict how the present will unfold.  But really, this decades-long drama seems to be coming to an end.  Not in terms of the hostilities and suspicions on both sides, but because the word is out.

Broadcast policies are being changed to exclude and filter out “nasty lyrics.”  Entertainers themselves are starting to reflect on their potential complicity in feeding Jamaicans’ appetite for violence, and even calling for the younger DJ’s to come up with positive, uplifting lyrics.  Fans and foes alike are saying, well, maybe it’s time to retire all a dis violence, and sing something else.  Surely if they are talented, they can come up with other themes to fill their albums?  Dancehall entertainers have been put on notice by local and overseas sponsors to clean up their acts, so to speak.  So, whether or not it was intended, the anti-dancehall movement abroad has eventually dovetailed quite nicely with older and consistent critiques about the glorification of violence in urban-based popular music in Jamaica.  The issue was always bigger than Buju and bigger than “the gays”.  In a way, it’s a good thing that we are back to the “big picture” – give the dots and dashes a chance to sort themselves  out and figure out where they are going.