i-est of the i
ok. y'all gotta gimme another day or so before i can get up a proper reflection on last weekend's whirlwind trip to kingston. just too much to do as we barrel toward the end of the semester. still, since i get precious little time to write these days, and since i wrote something relevant to the whole boston jerk project the other day, i thought i'd share it here to keep appetites whet.
i was asked by tina ramnarine, an ethnomusicologist based in london and engaged with the caribbean, to submit a reflection on my entry into the jamaican music scene, on my role in producing and circulating jamaican music, and on the politics of my riddimological interventions. tina is doing some really cutting-edge work--and it was she who encouraged me to write the extensive, reflective review of louise meintjes's book--so i was happy to collaborate with her once again. it was a fun piece to write and something that i've wanted to work on for some time. a longer version of this will likely appear as an appendix to my dissertation. this version--or some part of it--will appear in a forthcoming book on music and the caribbean diaspora by tina. look out for it.
I first traveled to Jamaica in the fall of 2001 as part of a team organized by Harvard Law School to observe a rehabilitation program in Kingston’s prisons. Asked to play the role of “musicological consultant,” I eagerly boarded a plane that took me to Norman Manley Airport, where we were picked up by a bus and driven straight into Tower Street, a.k.a., GP, or General Penitentiary--Kingston’s largest, most overcrowded, and most violent prison. It was a unique introduction to Jamaican society and culture, fi true. As I sat in the van and looked around, I saw men in mesh-marinas milling about, smoking ganja, and looking just as curiously at me. We were treated that morning to a concert put on by a group of inmates who had earned themselves distinction as men devoted to the rehabilitation process and as accomplished musicians. A band comprising a drummer, bassist, guitarist, and keyboardist accompanied various singers and groups who performed in the vast array of styles that fill Jamaica’s soundscape: roots reggae, dancehall, gospel, r&b, pop, rock, dub poetry, Rastafarian chants, syrupy ballads, and various hybrids. Introducing the rehabilitation program to a bunch of (presumably resource-rich) foreigners through music was clearly an explicit, and effective, strategy. I felt like yet another tourist being seduced by Jamaica’s music, and in spite of my critical proclivities I found myself admiring the expression and emotion of the performances, even when a voice went out of tune or a Paul Simon cover failed to impress.
It was not the music at Tower Street, however, that drew me into what would become a serious engagement with Jamaican culture and society. It was the hip-hop playing in cars, clubs, and just about everywhere I turned. As someone with his ears tuned to hip-hop’s global resonance, I was struck by the music’s ubiquity in the land where reggae is king. I was introduced to a young producer named Makonnen who, before I left, handed me a CD containing “underground” recordings by young Kingstonians who rapped in patois over the latest hip-hop beats--some of which had only been released in the U.S. the week before. The CD also featured a number of songs by an upcoming DJ named Wayne Marshall, which explained why the customs officials were laughing at my passport. My namesake had been making a name for himself by recording witty, localized versions of popular hip-hop tracks. I laughed at his translation of Ludacris’s “Area Codes,” which substituted Jamaican phone numbers for American ones, and my head spun at the rapidity of circulation and the possibilities for appropriation and identification presented by hip-hop’s reception in Jamaica.
Shortly thereafter, I abandoned “hip-hop in Germany” as a dissertation topic for “hip-hop in Jamaica” and set about getting up to speed with the world of Jamaican music. Fortunately, I had a lifetime of encounters with reggae to provide me with reference points as I began to wade through the dense reggae literature, so full of names and dates and “big chunes” that I had never heard of. I had heard of Bob Marley, of course, and the usual roots suspects: Toots and the Maytals, Jimmy Cliff (via The Harder They Come), Burning Spear, Black Uhuru, etc. I had heard or heard of many of these acts through their regular tour-stops in Boston. I had been turned-off, however, by a Jimmy Cliff concert where the audience of drunk, white yuppies went wild for a less-than-rousing cover of “Hakuna Matata” from The Lion King. Of course, I revered Bob Marley as much as any music-lover, though my acquaintance with his work did not extend much beyond the Legend compilation. My familiarity with reggae was much stronger when it came to dancehall. I remembered fondly our high school dances at Cambridge Rindge and Latin, where the student DJs inevitably segued from r&b and hip-hop to dancehall at a certain point in the evening. As Mad Cobra’s “Flex” or Chaka Demus’s and Pliers’s “Murder She Wrote” blasted across the cafeteria, my peers transformed into a mass of gyrating bodies, winin’ and grindin’ like they knew they were supposed to when reggae came on. As a devotee of hip-hop, I knew Shabba and Super Cat, having seen their videos during BET’s “Rap City” and “Yo! MTV Raps.” From the occasional coverage of contemporary dancehall in hip-hop magazines, I knew that Beenie Man and Bounty Killer were the big men of latter-day dancehall. And as I reached back further into memory, I became more and more aware of how much reggae had infused hip-hop over the years. I remembered the patois stylings of KRS-One, Special Ed, Shinehead, Das EFX, Fu-Schnickens, Smif’n’Wessun, and many more. The deeper I dug into Jamaican music, the more I realized that the links between hip-hop and reggae ran deep—deeper than Kool Herc’s translation of sound-system style for his Bronx peers, deeper than the early 90s crossover moment, and deeper than the latest Stateside successes of Shaggy and Sean Paul. I decided that Jamaica would make at least as interesting a place to study hip-hop outside the U.S. as Germany, and I made plans to spend some time there as soon as I could finish my coursework and take my exams.
The following summer, I returned to Kingston to spend a month conducting “preliminary research.” I arranged to live with Makonnen and his mother, sleeping on a couch in the small room he used as a home studio. We were visited daily by a number of DJs and singers who came over to vibe with Mak’s beats, to hear the latest hip-hop he had downloaded, and to record demo versions of their latest tunes. In this way I met several young Kingstonians who had devoted their lives to music and who had grown up as much with Tupac and Biggie as with Beenie and Bounty, never mind Bob. My entry into this scene was greatly facilitated by my ability to build reggae riddims and hip-hop beats, which I had been doing for the previous five years, and to rap, which I had been doing since about age 13. On many occasions I watched as my rapping worked a kind of social alchemy. It was clear that by rapping in what seemed to Jamaican observers to be an “authentic” and “original” manner that I was able to demonstrate a depth of engagement--not to mention cultural cachet, since many of these young men attempted, in vain, to sound like an American rapper--that immediately changed people’s perceptions of me. “The man sound real,” was a common response to one of my tirades of rhythmically-right-on syllables.
By rapping and producing riddims with Jamaican artists, I developed relationships that no mere observer could ever develop. Although I was often dismayed by my new collaborators’ affinity for lyrics that focused on violence, conspicuous consumption, and objectification of women, I attempted to meet them on their own terms, showing by example rather than passing judgment, and maintaining in my own lyrics the critical-comical, self-reflective stance that I learned from “Golden Age” hip-hop. In some ways, I had less to prove as a white American rapper than these youths did as black Jamaican rappers. To many, it seemed more incongruous, and perhaps inauthentic, for them to be rapping in a Brooklyn accent than for me to be rapping at all. (I had not yet picked up enough patois to bother the purists, perhaps.) As an ethnographer, I had been steadily recording my collaborators’ tastes and “influences,” which were utterly catholic: from Bob Marley, of course (always first, even if not really an audible presence in contemporary Kingston), to Nat King Cole, Nas, Celine Dion, Admiral Bailey, and just about any other pop, rap, or reggae artist you could name. For most Jamaicans, such an ecumenical approach to music comes rather easily--just flip the radio dial to behold a musical diversity unheard on the corporate-consolidated radio of the U.S. At times, however, people draw stark lines of community around sound and sentiment. I witnessed these tensions firsthand when, along with Makonnen and a musician named Kazam, I visited the house of Buju Banton and participated in the following exchange, which I recorded in my blog (thus the lower-case letters, which I employ to differentiate my blogs from other forms of writing):
whereas mak was deep into hip-hop, kazam played guitar and spoke glowingly of sam cooke, nat king cole, whitney houston, and shakira. at one point, i was standing on the porch while kazam played guitar. buju, his back toward us, ate dinner. kazam got his courage up, made his quiet strumming more audible, and began to sing a song he had written. (he told me later that he had walked past buju's place many times as a youth and vowed that one day he would go in and sing for the dj.) when kazam finished the song, buju, who had yet to turn around, addressed him:
buju: "who are your influences?"
wayne : "that's the same question i asked him."
buju: [turning] "that's the same question you asked him?" ... [to kazam] "you sound like a white punk-rocker. who you like? green day?"
kazam: "i like everything. bob marley first."
buju: "you sound like you're from southern california."
wayne : "if he sounds like a white punk-rocker from california and makonnen sounds like a puerto-rican rapper from the bronx, what do you make of that?"
buju: "i'd say they're both pretty strange."
kazam was pretty devastated by the exchange and i was pretty annoyed at buju's lack of kindness. kazam muttered to himself for a while, including such phrases as, "music has color. yeah." i did my best to convince him that he'd laugh about it someday.
What most struck me about this exchange was the way that music could so powerfully represent one’s community relationships. While Kazam sought to express a kind of universalism, no doubt inspired by Bob Marley, Buju sought to police the boundaries of Jamaican expression, invoking a racialized norm from which, at least in Buju’s mind, Kazam and Mak both departed. From my perspective, the rift seemed to run along generational lines, with Jamaica’s “hip-hop generation” embracing sounds and styles that, while foreign for older Jamaicans, constituted a familiar and compelling set of resources for the expression of a new kind of Jamaican-ness, one that did not abandon a stance of “modern blackness,” as Deborah Thomas puts it, but expanded it through trans-national articulations of sameness.
Having developed these relationships in the late summer of 2002, I returned in January of 2003 and spent a solid six months living on Hope Road (just a few blocks from the overly commodified Marley museum, which I could never bring myself to visit), where I turned my apartment into a recording studio and invited my friends over for recording sessions. Here we would negotiate the very sonic signifiers that seemed to connote such things as Jamaican-ness and American-ness, blackness and whiteness, reggae and hip-hop, a “local” sound and an “international” sound. I attempted to observe as I participated and, as a good producer, to do my best to realize my collaborators’ visions even as I attempted to bring my own creative and critical ideas to bear on our co-productions. I produced gal tunes and gun tunes, weed tunes and reality tunes, party songs and Rasta manifestos. And when it was time to collect all of these together, I presented the tunes alongside interview segments with the same artists, songs of my own that I composed upon returning to the U.S. and reflecting on my experiences, and collages composed from recordings of Jamaica’s varied soundscape, making riddim-centric compositions out of stray dogs, taxi transmissions, radio fragments, waterfalls, crickets, and cocks. I invested hours and hours into making my collaborators sound as good as I could, and I attempted to make the riddims signify on the songs: a badman tune with a Spaghetti-Western backdrop, an ode to conspicuous consumption over beats that bling-bling with shiny timbres. In my own songs, I attempted to make jokes and wry observations about Jamaican mores, from fundamentalist Christianity to homophobia to the national love of KFC. I called the album Boston Jerk to pun on a Jamaican phrase and acknowledge my position as a critical outsider. When I shared the final product with my collaborators, I was relieved that they and their friends not only approved of the project but were surprised and impressed by its scope. They were, of course, also hopeful that it would bring them some recognition, some opportunities to advance their careers, and some shot at the mobility so sought after by so many Jamaicans.
Outside of Jamaica, the response to Boston Jerk has been more varied. I have witnessed, on the one hand, how the sound of Jamaican voices and dancehall riddims carry an aura of authenticity outside of Jamaica that is practically unrivaled by any other “national” music. Hip-hop heads dig it. Jungle DJs flip for it. World music enthusiasts find the syncopations and exotic sounds they seek. In a kind of funhouse-mirror manner, considering how my performance of (African-)American-ness worked wonders in Jamaica, I have accrued a kind of cultural cachet back home based on my ability to perform Jamaican-ness. I have connected my collaborators to reggae selectors and record-label owners in the Boston area, who enjoyed the Boston-Kingston link-up and have helped to spread their names and their music. Having put the music, and a large amount of reflective text about it, on the Internet, I have been contacted by delighted listeners from England, Germany, Australia and other far-flung spots with a love for reggae and hip-hop. I have also, however, encountered occasional resistance from certain reggae lovers--almost always non-Jamaicans--who disdain what they hear as an irreverent or impure version of the music they elevate to righteous heights. For me, they represent yet another audience whose assumptions I seek to challenge. Still, I am often struck by the irony of such a position. Anyone who spends a little time in Jamaica today should realize that it has little regard for such conceptions of purity, despite the roots'n'culture emphasis on Ital living.
When it comes to music (and media of all sorts), Jamaica is one of the most omnivorous places in the world. This is not to say that boundaries are not important. My musical collaborations and academic investigations continue to explore the way music draws the lines of community in Jamaica. But I am as likely to return from Jamaica with mixtapes of the latest r&b and hip-hop hits as dancehall tunes. And young artists continue to record their patois-patter over the latest hip-hop beats in order to capture the imaginations of their peers in Jamaica and, they hope, their peers overseas. Kinda like Bob Marley singing like Curtis Mayfield over some James Brown-inspired roots riddims, innit? Or the Skatalites versioning Johnny Cash with their jazz-derived chops, see me a say? Or Welton Irie versioning the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” only months after it brought recorded rap to the world, you see me? Or Boogie Down Productions representing the Bronx to the fullest through thick patois and borrowed melodies from the day’s dancehall hits, you knomesayin’? Or Chinese-American rapper Jin resignifying Yellowman’s “Mr. Chin” while Haitian-American producer Wyclef tells us we’re gonna “Learn Chinese” or dem a go “shot the bloodclaat,” knamean? Or some Boston Jerk rapping in patois and “acting Jamaican” in order to raise the question of what that means and how music makes it mean, seen?