woensdag 16 februari 2011

To know is to belong?

Not very recently, but I just found out that in 2008 reggae artist Eek-A-Mouse had an outburst of sorts at a press conference at the (2008) Carifest C.A.R.E.S. festival held in New York. It was even described as a “racist” rant, and it is for all to see on YouTube. I missed it at the time itself.

As is to see, Eek-A-Mouse’s rage seems to increase each second. The audio quality is not very good, and linguistic issues (Eek-A-Mouse seems to respond partly in Jamaican Patois) further make difficult to grasp fully what he says. Yet, it becomes clear what he means. “White boys coming into reggae and making money, signed by big labels. Blacks don’t get signed” ”Whites take over reggae” etcetera.
He mentions some white artists who as outsiders got signed by big labels as reggae artists: Matisyahu, UB40, Ace of Base. He even mentions “lighter” skinned Jamaicans thus favoured, even Bob Marley, Sean Paul, and Shaggy, over blacks (Peter Tosh, Dennis Brown etcetera).
His outrage was such that he even left in an enraged state from the table.

I found this interesting, not just because of the sensationalistic, apparently unstable behaviour that seemed inappropriate, but because of what was actually said. The source surprised me somewhat – Eek-A-Mouse is not really known for his very ”socially conscious” lyrics. That aside, I think he is partly right, roughly speaking, and I take up the topic in this post.

I guess the basic question is:

Can white people make “real” reggae?

In 2010 2 works appeared/were published on reggae and related themes, such as Rastafari, and discussed in some ways what can be termed the relevant theme of “cultural authenticity”. This was especially the case with the book ‘Babylon East : performing dancehall, roots reggae and Rastafari in Japan’ (2010), written by Marvin D. Sterling. Another recent work, ‘Time and memory in reggae music : the politics of hope’ (2010), written by Sarah Daynes – a very interesting work by the way – had another main theme, namely Rastafari in reggae music. It did touch also here and there on the topic of (cultural) authenticity, as well as, like the other book, reggae’s international spread.

Reggae and Rastafari’s popularity in Japan is discussed in Sterling’s book. He treats how “blackness” is performed and seen in Japan, the differences between Rastas in Japan and in Jamaica – related to authenticity issues. Interesting is also the chapter on Jamaican perspectives on Jamaican culture in Japan. These perspectives and opinions can differ from accusations of “cultural theft” to appreciative or opportunistic attitudes.

(Jamaican) critiques on Japanese reggae fans or Rastas especially appear related to knowledge, as the book makes clear. Argumentation that I can understand.
I am of the opinion that if one wants to be a true Rasta – and not just one who wears dreadlocks - he or she should know about black history, Haile Selassie, and Marcus Garvey. At least above average.

This brings me to an interesting phrase in the other book, by Daynes: to know is to belong. She used this also in relation to reggae music, reggae history and artists (i.e. belonging to the reggae scene), but the same applies for Rastafari: to know is to belong. There is a link somehow there with cultural authenticity. “Who feels it knows it”: if reggae is originally music from the ghetto, then only those who lived and know ghetto life, or poor people’s lives more broadly, can make true reggae.
On some level I believe that. On another level, however, I consider it too rigid. I know that many reggae fans have a sincere interest in Jamaica, Rastafari, black people, and the way poor people live. Some might become musicians or artists. Sincere interest leads to knowing and thus, to a degree, “belonging”.

This leads to a second, related question:

Is knowing in this case really enough to belong?

On this topic there are as said varied Jamaican critiques, that are sometimes quite comical. After a Japanese sound system, Mighty Crown, has beaten in a competition Jamaican sound systems, artist Bounty Killer commented something along the lines of “is it not more appropriate for Japanese to specialize in karate”. Partly out of spite, for sure, and not without clich├ęs, but it makes clear a sensitive issue. This, like Eek-A-Mouse’s “rant” showed: Jamaicans at times feel sidelined in their own culture.

Similarly, Buju Banton found that the relatively “quick” fame (in the US and elsewhere) of German reggae artist Gentleman, related to the fact that he is white. There are of course several other examples of this.

If a white person makes reggae songs and knows very much about reggae - instrumental/technical musical knowledge -, but at least equally important: the historical background and social and cultural context of reggae, is that enough to qualify him/her as “real”?
What is real or unreal is of course a judgment call. I guess it comes down to sincerity: of the artists themselves, and the “big labels” behind them. Anyhow, if in broad strokes the most famous reggae - i.e. reaching the greatest number of people - is by white, non-Jamaican or light skinned artists, then reggae is all in all misrepresented on a broad scale. It’s black and originally Jamaican music and should be known as such. Anything else is misleading.
This is injustice on a broad level, but it can trigger more personal injustices: white reggae artists can get rich with their music much easier than black reggae artists.

If a white enthusiast likes to add a reggae song or “feel” to his repertoire I think that even Jamaicans do not consider that bad in itself: it depends on the intention. Some reggae “riddims” use Indian or Spanish guitar motives, which can also be seen as “borrowing”. Crossing borders occurs often with music, and creativity is and should be free.

What I conclude out of the books I mentioned, the complaints of Eek-A-Mouse and many others (also more “cultural” artists), and other sources is that intention is very important. As long as there is no misrepresentation or cultural arrogance. Just as important: an equal playing field.

The lack of the latter seems to be the most difficult obstacle. Big labels sign up, maybe for racist reasons, maybe for commercial reasons, artists the inhabitants of their countries (US, Europe) might “recognize” more, i.e. white racially. Making thus this reggae more popular than real reggae. That’s where the misrepresentation and insincerity starts.
If that was the basic message of Eek-A-Mouse (not my favourite reggae artist, by the way) on that press conference, I agree with him.
(Ironically, one of the “whitest” audiences - relatively speaking - on a reggae concert in Amsterdam, and I have been to a lot, was at a Eek-A-Mouse concert.)

Of course, the quality of the songs and music should come first, not some racial identification which in essence is artificial (though widespread). That is a problem in this world: people like to be proud of something without doing anything for it: belonging to a nation, race, or people. But I rebut by repeating: true belonging begins with knowledge. This knowledge is sometimes “lived” and “ experienced” – in the Jamaican ghettos for instance - but also can be acquired, to a degree, by reading or traveling. Or by talking with people. The latter is not unsympathetic, reason for which I do not want to be too rigid for people, like white Westerners or Japanese, who truly have learned about reggae, being their long-time hobby. It is, after all, a form of respect and a compliment for reggae and/or Rastafari.

Another issue: Bob Marley and Sean Paul were both Jamaicans of mixed race, but Bob grew up poor, in the ghetto, while Sean Paul had a middle class (uptown) background. That doesn’t mean that Sean Paul should be forbidden to make reggae or dancehall, or that he can’t make nice tunes (he in fact has) which are appreciated by some. It is just maybe, from some perspective, less authentic, but can be somehow interesting as well. Not all artists take themselves too seriously, while they admit that they are influenced by reggae, like to play it and know about it.
From earlier days the bands The Police in Britain, or Doe Maar in the Netherlands are examples. Manu Chao from France (of Spanish descent) is also partly influenced by reggae. There is of course nothing wrong with that. I’ve heard about Jamaicans who liked songs of Manu Chao and also Gentleman. Even when they like a song, however, I heard Jamaicans criticize or joke about Gentleman’s use of Jamaican Patois (for being, well, inauthentic?).

Some whites or Japanese are accepted more or less as part of the reggae scene: they even work in Jamaica. Producer Frenchie (from, you guessed it, France) and Alborosie (from Sicily) are examples. Frenchie is behind the riddim ‘Jah Powers’ (known as riddim of the nice song Stronger, part 2 by Fantan Mojah - see underneath). The riddim is nice, though some may find it simple because there are few key changes or “bridges”, but it is effective and appreciated. That’s what counts. It also is used for songs of Jamaican artists. Jamaicans are otherwise said actively involved and not sidelined. That is of crucial importance.

Another question remains:

Can you make Jamaican music without Jamaicans?

I think essentially not. Not just by pretending to be Jamaican, anyway. In the said book of Sterling on Japan some Jamaicans were especially critical of Japanese reggae artists who never even met a Jamaican. They had more respect for Japanese men and women who go on vacation, or even extended stays, in Jamaica, including the ghettos and dancehall parties there. Another way to learn beyond mere book knowledge. On the way to belonging?

Maybe another word is also appropriate here: credibility. I guess there is some kind of scale of degrees I can come up with: there is reggae that’s authentic (black Jamaican, ghetto, but no criminal or ginal), and there’s reggae that’s credible (by artists who love it and don’t just use it, irrespective of race). The rest is fake or bandwagonism.
Unfortunately, at present what is most known as reggae among the largest number of people around the world tends to belong to the latter categories of fake or bandwagonism. Luckily there are enough “true” reggae fans around the world also.

A broader philosophical conclusion thus applies here:

Knowledge as well as sincerity are needed to be credible.

2 opmerkingen:

  1. By race definition...Nico's Big Mouth is a Caucasian male. As a Reggae/Dancehall enthusiast I've purchased my fair share of EEK-A-MOUSE records. So in theory I have helped put bread on EEK'S table. I also completely understand his frustration with the way the music industry works (against him). His racist diatribe is not aimed at me as the white fan with a handful of green dollars. EEK'S words would be aimed at this American honky (who's never even set foot on JAMAICAN soil) if I was to pick up the microphone and compete with his sales. My "pretending" to be a genuine Reggae artist would be the bulls eye of his contempt. EEK'S anger is not him being an elitist but is more of an attitude of survival. Yeah...a sad reality that the fakes always out sell the originals.

  2. Don't get me wrong...EEK handled his opinion badly...I wish this NEGATIVE VIBE never had too happen. Seriously...Brave post on such a touchy subject! As technology gets more sophisticated the world gets smaller. We are all shearing the same space. I hope "ONE LOVE" is more than just an expected and hollow slogan.