Bleached Skin, White Masks…

One of the articles I was proud to publish recently was this one in Caravan, out of Delhi, a superb magazine if ever there was one. Between Caravan and Chimurenga I think I can truthfully say I’ve published in some of the best magazines in the world. One of these days I’ll post my Chimurenga Chronic piece on Peter Abrahams, in the meantime enjoy the one in Caravan. The article was in Caravan’s January 1, 2012 edition:

DJ Vybz Kartel (left), whose decision to lighten his skin in order to better display his tattoos set off a flurry of protest and criticism.

A former British colony of slave plantations, roughly 85 percent of Jamaica’s three million strong population is of African origin. So when Vybz Kartel, born Adidjah Palmer, the most popular DJ in Jamaica, released a song called ‘Cake Soap’ in which he appeared to be promoting a blue soap bar used to bleach white clothes as a skin-lightening agent it didn’t go without notice. Just a few weeks later it was followed by a second song, ‘Coloring Book (Tattoo Time Come)’, in which the DJ bragged about women’s responses to the numerous tattoos decorating his newly bleached skin. 

Gal a seh mi pretty like a coloring book

She seh mi skin pretty like a coloring book

Kartel was unabashed about displaying—even flaunting—his own considerably altered face, with an epidermis several shades lighter than his naturally dark skin. A tattoo fanatic, the DJ explained that his bleaching was motivated by a desire to exhibit the designs on his skin, making it “a living, breathing canvas” rather than a sign of low self-esteem or a desire to pass as white. He was a proud black man, he asserted, just as he had always been, and his decision to lighten his skin should be viewed in the same vein as a white person tanning theirs.

In March 2011 Kartel made his way to the University of the West Indies. His lyrics had been a popular choice of students when they were asked to select songs to analyse in a course on Reggae Poetry, and so he was invited to present a guest lecture. The university, however, found itself underprepared for the massive throng that descended onto the campus to catch the popular DJ’s words of wisdom. Taxi drivers, itinerant vendors, hair dressers, touts and walkabouts from all over the city descended upon the appointed spot, straining the university’s facilities to breaking point.

During the lecture, titled ‘Pretty as a Colouring Book: My Life and My Art’, Kartel, armed with a PowerPoint presentation, elaborated his position on the subject of skin bleaching:

For more go here.

“I decided to make my skin a living, breathing canvas”: Vybz Kartel at UWI

An account with photographs of Jamaican DJ Vybz Kartel’s March 10, 2011 lecture at the University of the West Indies.

So the great Vybz Kartel had his day at the University of the West Indies yesterday. Invited by Professor Carolyn Cooper to give a lecture titled ‘Pretty as a Colouring Book: My Life and My Art’,  Kartel didn’t disappoint. A huge throng turned up hours ahead and milled about waiting for Addi the Teacha (and Bleacha) to arrive.  Kartel came prepared to discuss and defend the bleaching of his skin, complete with a powerpoint presentation that detailed his love of tattoos–which don’t show up easily on dark skin.

My skin marks (no pun intended) many milestones in my life and represents another form of expression for me. Example: The teardrops on my face are in memory of my close friends who have died. My sons’ names on my arms represents their birth and celebrates their life. You have the Gaza thug on my knuckles which represents the community I am from, the nickname of the community, and on my chest I have Love is Pain.

This paradoxical phrase is symbolic in that it represents the relationships that I have been in where at times I have loved and lost and also it signifies that the things that you love are the only things that can hurt you. Example: The death of a loved one as opposed to the death of a total stranger…so, love is pain. For me, although tattoos are on the exterior they really tell a different story and they tell a lot about my interior and not just for show but they can serve as a history book of my life.

‘Until the color of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the colour of his eye’  Kartel said, flipping the script by recalling Haile Selassie’s famous words to the United Nations in 1963, quoted by Bob Marley in his song War. Kartel’s evocation of Selassie’s eloquent anti-racist statement to defend the lightening of his own skin may seem provocative but is also an interesting plea for a post-race framework that does not automatically align bleaching with low self-esteem or racial self-hatred. His presentation was punctuated by the mocking anh ha! anh ha! fake laugh that is his current trademark.

…I further maintain that bleaching today doesn’t mean the same as bleaching twenty-five years ago…we are a much prouder race who know that we can do what we want as far as style is concerned, we dictate styles and regard them as just that–styles. So as controversial as bleaching might be right now, I bask in my controversy with cake soap as my suntan.

Actually Kartel is on the cutting edge of research and thinking about this phenomenon when he argues for the changing role skin bleaching plays in this society today. Unfortunately many of his critics argue from a position that is uninformed by new thinking or ideas; many are stuck in their own identity crises and are slave to an idée fixe that is no longer pertinent. We think nothing of purging the kink out of our hair or the Jamaican accent from our speech–both are socially accepted; but  if Black women are free to chemically terrorize their hair into limp straightness why can’t Vybz Kartel lighten his skin if he chooses to?? And why are we only mounting a hue and cry about skin bleaching downtown while deliberately averting our gaze from the many skin lightening creams such as Ambi and Nadinola used in uptown homes? The selective moral outrage is telling–this seems to be yet another case of moralizing the so-called lower classes.


Vybz Kartel by Storm Saulter, image used on one of Kartel's albums


As you can see from Storm’s photo of Kartel that was used on his 2006 album jmt, Kartel had no objection to the visual reference to the African continent in the portrait. There’s no reason to believe that Kartel has suddenly suffered an identity crisis, as per his reference to being from a proud race. If people are bleaching in Jamaica it’s because as Christopher A. D. Charles pointed out in ‘Skin Bleachers’ Representations of Skin Color in Jamaica’:

The popularity of the practice of skin bleaching suggests that it is socially acceptable. This means that light skin is socially desirable in Jamaica because there is a social demand for light skin in the country. Because light skin is a socially shared object that is socially desirable in Jamaica, this means that light skin has high social status.

Until Jamaican society chooses to alter the cultural conditions that place a premium on light skin, some Jamaicans will continue altering their bodies to meet the social demand for light skin and others will do so just coz ‘Black nah wear again’ or because like Kartel they want their tattoos to contrast with their skin instead of blending in with it.

In the meantime enjoy some photos from the landmark Kartel lecture at UWI. anh ha! anh ha!

Photos below  by Varun Baker
Waiting for Kartel...

Kartel came prepared with a powerpoint and everything
  • “I decided to make my skin a living, breathing canvas.”
  • How do you go about selling your soul to the devil? asks Kartel.

    Student asking Kartel a question

    Another question...
    Another questioner

    Donna Hope presenting Kartel a copy of Cooper's Soundclash
    Hope now gifting Kartel her own book, Man Vibes


    Cake Soap and Creole: The Bleaching of the Nation…

    The problem of skin bleaching in Jamaica is discussed and linked to the problem of language, and the privileging of English over Creole.

    Khani LTD Edition # 1_21inx21in_ mixed mediaonpaper_2008 by Ebony G. Patterson

    All of a sudden the problem of skin bleaching is in the spotlight and we have top DJ Vybz Kartel to thank for it. As I mentioned in an earlier post my favourite Christmas present was a pack of his infamous ‘cake soap’ I received, complete with personal autograph. VK as we’ll call him for short, has recently attracted attention with his complexion suddenly appearing several shades lighter than it used to be, the better he says, to show off his numerous tattoos. The melanin reduction is attributed to the said cake soap which is normally used to whiten clothes in the wash.

    It just goes to show you how influential popular music is; young Ebony Patterson has been highlighting the skin bleaching problem here for years with her series of innovative artworks but hardly anyone outside the artworld paid much attention. Then along comes VK, the Darth Vader of Jamaican music (except that he doesn’t want to be dark any longer), with his cake soap and no one can talk of anything else.

    Jamaica’s voluble moral majority has rushed to condemn VK claiming that he is encouraging impressionable youngsters to imitate him. What has upset many is that the DJ is unrepentant and even playful about lightening his skin colour, refusing to take the matter seriously and countering that it’s no different from white people wanting to tan themselves. Numerous musicians have rushed forth with anti-bleaching, love-my black-skin-songs but in a way all these knee-jerk responses are just as superficial as the act of bleaching itself, which only changes what is visible without attacking the underlying structural problems that make people bleach in the first place. Historian Elsa Goveia put her finger on it several decades ago when she said the structuring principle of Caribbean societies is “the belief that the blacker you are the more inferior you are and the whiter you are the more superior you are.”

    Until this reality changes people are going to think that the best way to advance in such societies is to lighten your skin colour. People can fulminate all they want and express litres of outrage, it will make no difference.

    To me bleaching your skin is fundamentally no different from deciding that Creole /Patwa , if that is your mother tongue, is so lowly and contemptible linguistically that it is not worthy of being spoken or allowed in schools.  Edouard Glissant described how in Martinique it was common to see “In beautiful rounded white letters on a clean blackboard at the reopening of school: it is forbidden to speak Creole in class or on the playground.” And Jamaica is no different.

    The logic is the same: English/French/Spanish is the language of universal currency so our children must only learn English and must actively be discouraged from speaking Jamaican or Patwa, the versatile, volatile language of the streets here that for many is their native tongue. Similarly skin bleachers reason that since white/light skin is almost universally valued higher than darker skin tones, they must use any means necessary to acquire it.

    I find this kind of logic depressing. It’s as if to say that if your mother happens to be a poor, barely literate ghetto-dweller you must abandon her and cleave to the English missionary with her glowing white skin and impeccable English. Surely it’s not an either/ or game. Most people would agree that this was outrageous yet many of the same people would find nothing wrong with denigrating Patwa and banning it from official spaces as if it’s impossible to know and love Jamaican and also become fluent in English! The worst part is that for many children for whom Patwa is the only language available literacy becomes inaccessible because you have to know English to study any subject at school.  In fact the way some people react to the idea that Patwa ought to be recognized as a language and used as a medium of instruction in schools you’d think that to promote or accept Creole is to diss English!

    And if you think that’s bad read Carolyn Cooper’s blogpost where she describes the absurd system of ‘justice’ in Jamaica which is dispensed in impeccable English to Patwa-speakers regardless of whether they understand the language or not!

    One morning, as I waited for my case to be heard, I listened in amazement as the judge explained in quite sophisticated English how she was proposing to handle a dispute about unpaid rent.

    The defendant was told that the case was going to be sent to a mediator who would discuss exactly how much rent the defendant would have to pay.  The distressed defendant kept on insisting in Jamaican that she didn’t owe as much rent as the landlord claimed.  The judge continued speaking in English, simply repeating her proposal.  This back-and-forth went on for a good few minutes.

    At the risk of being deemed in contempt of court, I jumped up and asked the judge if she would allow me to translate her comments for the defendant.  She agreed.  As soon as the woman understood the proposal, she accepted it.  What angered me was the smug question the judge then asked: “Is that what I should have said?”  To which I disdainfully replied, “Yes, Your Honour.”

    To come back to skin bleaching I had to laugh when I heard someone curling their lip in disdain at Kartel because this person happens to be someone with straightened hair and a very white affect, who never speaks Patwa or genuflects to the African origins proclaimed by her skin colour. What else is that but bleaching? And not just bleaching the superficial skin you were born with but the very culture that is also part of your heritage.

    It’s pointless to get our knickers in a knot over Kartel’s latest antics. As a tweeter I know said “People are going to have to be mature enough to think for themselves. If the likes of Kartel can lead them astray then they already lost.”

    I think Vybz Kartel is the very embodiment of the contradictions that bedevil Jamaican society and we should be grateful to him for foregrounding this disfiguring practice. But we need to go beyond that and deal with the fundamental problem that causes people to bleach their skins to begin with: the social value placed on lighter skin colour. Until that is addressed the bleaching agent industry will continue to flourish here and everywhere else that puts a premium on ‘fair’ skin (In the country of my birth pale skin is so prized that someone of my complexion could never play a starring role in Bollywood) .

    It’s not a moment too soon for The International Conference on Language Rights and Policy in the Creole-Speaking Caribbean taking place in Kingston tomorrow and day after. Below is a disturbing video on a family of skin bleachers in downtown Kingston.

    Christmas in the Caribbean…

    Christmas as it manifests in the Caribbean…photo-based largely…with youtube video of an Indo-Trini parang song.

    Christmas card received from painter, Amy Laskin

    Above: Favourite Christmas card, courtesy Amy Laskin’s parrot…

    Below: Favourite gift, ‘cake soap’ inscribed from Addi to me–yes, the Kartel himself–it was my present from Anthony Miller, host of Entertainment Report (ER).  See video below for the cake soap song, it’s all about bleaching…

    Infamous cake soap celebrated by Vybz Kartel in song and video
    and it's an autographed cake soap! From Addi to moi--

    Below: The enchanting Christmas Treat protest which took place across from the US Embassy in Liguanea, Kingston on Wednesday. Children and adults waved placards and danced and sang demanding their annual Christmas treat, always held at that location by a Dr. Cole. We want Christmas treat! We want Christmas treat!

    This year the Police High Command denied permission for the treat to be held on the grounds that it posed a security threat to the Embassy facing it. US Embassy officials on the other hand stoutly denied that they had requested any such thing. We may have to await further Wikileaks cable dumps to ascertain if this is true but in the meantime it was announced on the news this evening that the Police had relented and reconsidered their decision after meeting with relevant Embassy officials.

    Christmas treat protest
    Christmas treat protest 2

    Finally do enjoy the video below of a Trinidadian Indian Parang song. Parang is a form of Trini xmas music which is heavily influenced by its Hispanic heritage. Now add the Indian heritage to that and you get the following deadly musical cocktail. Right below that is Vybz Kartel’s Cake Soap. Merry Christmas everyone!

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