Interview between Beth Lesser and Simon Penard-Philippe
“During the 1980s, my husband and I traveled frequently to Kingston, Jamaica and Brooklyn, NY from our home in Toronto, Canada to follow the changing reggae scene. In that period reggae was changing fast, moving from the heavy roots sound of suffering and redemption to the lighter, faster, digitized sound of modern dancehall.
We were in Waterhouse when King Jammy unleashed his Sleng Teng rhythm to an analog world and, one by one, producers dropped their previously recorded rhythms and started building again from scratch using programmable keyboards and drum machines. We were in Jammy’s yard while he cut the dubplates for the Clash of the Century, the event that brought dancehall culture to the larger Jamaican audience.”
You were invested in a place where music was everywhere. I imagine this has left its mark on your photographs. Spaces of creation and musical diffusion such as Channel One, King Jammy Sound System, Youth Promotion Int, contrast with the prevailing precariousness. Smiles and colours collide with obvious social problems. How would you describe the atmosphere at the time?
More optimistic than it had been in the 70s. The change of government in 1980 promised to release Jamaica from the world’s opprobrium and allow the “free market” to bring jobs to the poor. The heavy handed treatment of Jamaica by the World Bank and IMF under Michael Manley’s socialist government had guaranteed the economy would stagnate. But Edward Seaga promised to release the economy from the ‘shackles’ of socialism. So, at least at first, the future seemed bright. As the 80s went on, the smiling faces became more serious. Cocaine, a drug moved and promoted by the US Central Intelligence Agency, and it’s crack form, created a new vibe of violence, fast paced action, and lots of get-rich-quick money. Jamaica became even more closely connected to US urban centres like New York and Miami through the cocaine trade. This link between the US and Jamaica, the newly commercialized US world of the 90’s, clashed with traditional Rastafarian- roots reggae values. Dancehall won and became the new face of Jamaican pop music.
I’ve read some interviews and people oftenly asked you if it was difficult to take this kind of photographs. You explain that, usually, Jamaican youths were almost “asking” to be photographed. Do you know the reason why people were so enthusiastic? Was it the way you were presenting your project? Or else the will to feel as if they were a part of a group or a kind of movement?
Boredom. There isn’t much to do in the ghetto, especially when you are poor – no bus fare to go downtown, no spending cash to take your girl out to a movie… The seasons never change. It’s always hot, dusty, stifling.
When a couple, especially a couple of white people, walk into a studio giving out magazines and taking pictures, everything changes. Attention is like a magnet – remember, these were mainly young men aged 13 – 30 with energy and drive and nowhere to direct it. Posing for photos was exciting and fun, a chance to upstage one another with outrageous poses in front of other people’s cars and motorcycles. A brief fantasy of ownership. An opportunity to show off (for fun). I always had double prints made when I got each roll of film developed and each visit I would hand out little packets with the photos of each person. So people knew I was good on my promise to give them prints. It was all just a friendly diversion – a chance to be silly and laugh together.
That’s interesting when you mention the contempt that some narrow-minded American people had regarding your work. This is ironical because the same work is now exhibited in some very prestigious museums. How do you feel about this? I’m going to be intentionally radical: do you think occidental people needs at least twenty or thirty years to be aware of what has been going on for other cultures? Did you have a particular feeling at the time about the future of your work?
More troubling was the contempt the upper echelons of Jamaican society had for our work. As I explain in the book Rubadub Style, by the time the 80s came around and the dance hall scene began to flourish, Bob Marley (who had died and therefore ceased to be a cultural or social threat) was being raised to the position of icon – a cultural representation of Jamaica ( and of a culture that these same people had fought against for generations) His Rastafarianism was stripped of all its revolutionary context and posited as a philosophy of love, equality and world peace. Bob was now seen as the one who united classes and racial groups and dance hall was the new enemy.
Our interest in dance hall (which was still seen as ‘lower class’ and ‘common’) was seen as threatening to Jamaica’s image abroad, as if we were going to promote Jamaica as a land of slackness and violence (that is about how well dance hall was understood at that time – about the same way the Rastafarians had been (mis)understood in the 60s and 70s – remember the image of the “Blackheart Man?).
That upper class, prudish, neo-colonial attitude still reigned throughout the 80s.
When reggae was born, and after, during the 70’s, it has been associated to an idea of emancipation, a freedom of speech and mind. It was, at the time, linked to a particular political oppression, and to colonialism as a legacy. Do you think Dancehall, with more fast, danceable and angry rhythms, corresponds to a wish of total emancipation? As if the body emancipation could follow on from what reggae has begin before.
The mood in the 80s, when dancehall was born, was a lot less angry than it came to be in the 90s under the influence of US urban musical culture. The original dancehall songs were fun, often humorous, light and rhythm-driven. During the 1990s the urban angst of America’s inner cities infiltrated the music through videos producing a much more confrontational vibe.
Reggae in the early days was more meditative – a Rastafarian, spiritual plea for redemption. Bob Marley made it more anti- authoritarian, revolutionary. But, at heart, the Rastafarian roots of reggae kept it from becoming too political. Rastafarianism was, principally, a religion and one that favored female subjugation and opposed differences in gender and sexual identity as well as abortion.
You show a lot of emotion when you talk about Sugar Minott. If I understand well, he was the cornerstone of your investigation into the dancehall area. I imagine his work in musical promotion has resonated with your own photographical work. Is it right to think that both of you, in his way, take a part in the longevity of the cultural and musical heritage of Jamaica?
Sugar was great because he shared everything he had with others – even his chance at fame. There were so many times when he stepped back out of the limelight to allow a youth to shine. He gave so many hours, so much energy to training and showcasing talented beginners when he could have been promoting himself. He truly believed that he could use his own talent and good fortune to help young people who were growing up in poverty, in the ghetto, just as he had. Sugar never left the ghetto but continued to build his organization right where the need was greatest, among his people in Kingston Jamaica.
In Youth Promotion, every person had an important role to play that kept the organization functioning. Whether it was sweeping the yard and selling weed, loading the (speaker) boxes onto the truck or driving the 45s around to the record shops, every person’s input mattered. Youth Promotion wasn’t one person. It wasn’t an organization built around one central celebrity. It was about everyone pitching in, working hard and sharing with each other.
In working with so many youth, and with his genius for creating music in every style – from dancehall, to roots to lovers rock- Sugar left such an indelible Impression on reggae the that he will forever be part of wherever the music may go from here.
More to come…
Straight to the top!