Intertextual styleee

Intertextuality is a word used to describe the experience of finding one text within another; it is the rejection of closure and the championing of an open, iterative process of dialogue and meaning. I’ve long convinced myself that intertextuality did not come from Julia Kristeva nor Mikhail Bakhtin, but rather King Tubby. I’d argue that the inventor of dub reggae is the real father of deconstruction, the original palimpsest rocker. A radio repair technician by trade, King Tubby begin experimenting with the B-side instrumental tracks of Jamaican 45s, distorting the sounds beyond recognizability and thus, essentially, creating a ‘new’ sound. I think literary theory could learn a thing or two from dub and that cultural studies should give a big up to the pliability and constant evolution of Jamaican music.

King Tubby

Photo of King Tubby from the National Library of Jamaica.

My supreme love and massive respect for Jamaican music was part of the reason I decided to take an impromptu trip to the island this past January. A second reason was a long-standing, school girl crush on Michael Manley and his commitment to democratic socialism. But, there are others: Trevor Munroe (The Politics of Constitutional Decolonization), Eric Williams (Capitalism and Slavery), Walter Rodney (okay, technically not Jamaican), Obika Gray, Louise Bennett…I could go on. My point however is that the Jamaica I wanted to visit had nothing to do with beaches or Club Med and everything to with the urban political, language, and the aural.

The funny thing is, I never made it to Kingston. See, I arrived at a very special place and, even after ten days had passed, I still found it impossible to leave Great Bay in St Elizabeth Parish. The Jamaica that captured my heart had a lot to do with the (clearly un-urban) landscape, even more to do with the wonderful people I was able to meet, and the vernacular-ness I was able to experience.

A quick detour…

Many of us are exposed to Jamaica via online advertisements for holiday destinations. Book a flight to anywhere in North America in the middle of winter and, inevitably, an ad for a Caribbean vacation will appear in your side bar. Mind you, it’s generally not a flight but an inclusive package. The idea, no, fact of Jamaica as a unique, small-island nation quickly evaporates under more general concepts of ‘cheap’ ‘luxurious’ and ‘getaway.’

Screen shot 2013-01-29 at 11.43.08 PM

In 1989 The National Black Business Report covered Prime Minister Manley’s press conference addressing the state of Jamaican tourism. Tourism was the subject of a much larger conversation around the need for foreign direct investment, which was at an all time low. Manley’s Democratic Socialism, his belief that “A country like Jamaica cannot become a just society if you don’t redistribute some of the wealth and some of the benefits, and we’ve begun some of that redistribution,” and the actions he would take to go about achieving this (e.g. education for all, nationalizing utilities, redistribution of land to small farmers) did not sit well with the US, nor did his relationship with Castro. Between 1972 and 1976 Manley raised taxes on family incomes above $12,500 to 44 percent. The middle class was keen to leave and the US was all to happy to invite them to places like Miami and New York. Until the mid-1970s, the US received most its bauxite from the Caribbean, more specifically Jamaica. When Manley decided to raise taxes he didn’t just tax the middle class, he taxed bauxite in such a way that it became the most expensive exporter of bauxite in the world. In addition to driving out the middle class, he also drove away foreign investment. Furthermore, by the early 80s, the US significantly reduced their annual amount of USAID, from roughly 13 million to just under four.  This is why, going back to this press conference, Manley is making the connection between foreign direct investment and tourism.

Anyway, I don’t wish to linger too much in the fascinating climate of 1970s and early 80s Caribbean politics but I will just say that, by the mid 80s, a number of factors, including the rising popularity of mass tourism led many small island states to believe that international tourism was the best way to go about achieving international investment. What distinguished Jamaica from some of the other islands was its image as an incredibly violent place, something that would, and continues, to influence visitors to the country.

In that 1989 conference Manley explains to the audience that Jamaica “Has a duty to their guests to make them safe and to help them feel safe…In fact Jamaica is a safe destination but no one could really say there isn’t the sort of incident you might find in New York, or all over the place…we are concerned about some problems we inherent, like harrassment…but the fact remains, and forgive me for having to say this, but I think Jamaica might be just about the most fantastic vacation product in the world.”

There are some (including myself) who believe that much of violence in Jamaica can be traced back to the US, who, in attempt to thwart the country’s relationship with Cuba and the Soviet Union by dismantling the Manley regime, facilitated the entry of arms into the country in order to not only encourage violence and political opposition, but also create an image of violence that would discourage Americans from taking holiday vacations in the country.

The perception of Jamaica as a violent and dangerous place continues to persist today. My point is neither to support or deny violence but rather focus on the how that perception influences tourism within the country. People buy all-inclusive packages because it is easy, but do they also do it because it is perceived as ‘safe’? Either way, I would argue that the experience of Jamaica becomes somehow reduced to the image of the beach, Bob Marley, the Jamaican flag, and a bottle of Red Stripe.

I’m quite sure American travelers to Jamaica have been briefed on the violence within the country, but do they make the connection between politics, tourism, and ideologies of power?

Jamaican music of this time period sure did. And not just in terms of lyrical content, but even more so in terms of structural form. Let me quote en masse from the master theorist of subculture himself, Dick Hebdige:

“Reggae draws on a quite specific experience…It is cast in a unique style, in a language of its own–Jamaican patois, that shadow form, ‘stolen’ from the Master and mysteriously inflected, ‘decomposed’ and reassembled in the passage from Africa to the West Indies. It moves to more ponderous and moody rhythms. It ‘rocks stead’ around a bass-line which is more prominent and more austere. Its rhetoric is more densely constructed, and less diverse in origin; emanating in large part from two related sources–a distinctively Jamaican oral culture and an equally distinctive appropriation of the Bible. There are strong elements of Jamaican pentecostal, of ‘possession by the Word’, and the call and response pattern which binds the preacher to his congregation, is reproduced in reggae,” (Hebdige, 31).

Now, since I mentioned my love for King Tubby, let me quote again:

“Reggae began to slow down to an almost African metabolism. The lyrics became more self-consciously Jamaican, more dimly enunciated and overgrown until they disappeared altogether the in the ‘dub’, to be replaced by the ‘talk over’. The ‘dread’, the ganja, the Messianic feel of this ‘heavy’ reggae, its blood and fire rhetoric, its troubled rhythms can all be attributed to the Rasta influence….It was during this period of growing disaffection and joblessness, at a time when conflict between black youths and the police was being openly acknowledged in the press…With dub and reggae, this rebellion was given a much wider currency: it was generalize and theorized,”(Ibid, 36-7).

In his article “The Popular Culture of Illegality: Crime and the Politics of Aesthetics in Urban Jamaica (2012), Rivke Jaffe makes an insightful connection between the dons (informal political leaders…somewhat akin to Italian mafia or Japanese Yakuza) of Kingston and soundsystem culture. Jaffee attributes the ‘almost supernatural’ or iconic status of dons to a unique urban aesthetic of performative music culture. What I would like to focus on is the unique structure of having both a DJ and a selector.

Growing up in Detroit, I had my own unique experience with DJ culture, particularly through Detroit techno. This form of dance music is also, in my opinion, about intertextuality where no one DJ is Author. Rather, each DJ acts as an author of an experience–a single moment in time and space. A track may be reproduced, but it is never repeated. History then, becomes layered, textual, but never linear.

The early reggae records contained one side with lyrics and the other was the instrumental version. This was so that the track could be played live, with the DJ adding his or her own lyrics according to the context, the atmosphere of the moment. Jaffee points out that DJs will often, in the middle of a track, give a big up to a celebrated don of the neighborhood. Sometimes, the lyrics become a story or a narrative of how that don came to power.

What I found interesting about my encounter with the Jamaican soundsystem was just how much I liked the talkativeness and performative within DJ culture. Here in the US, I’ve never liked MCs (Beastie Boys excluded, obviously). I find it jarring, disruptive and often in bad taste. I think, as I reflect on this, it’s because the MCs I hear have nothing substantive to say. Not that their Jamaican counterparts always have something substantive to say–but whatever they do say always sounds good. You can literally slurp down the riddims cause they are that smooth. I think it’s because they remain situated within the context, by context I mean the situation, the audience, the moment. So although many Jamaicans are critical of the direction reggae music has taken in the past decade (e.g. dancehall is all bling with no substance)–coming from my perspective I found Jamaica’s music scene ripe with substantial lyrical style. Music is, I feel, about communication. Watching the unspoken communication between the DJ and the selector, between the selector, the DJ and the audience, was really an amazing experience. A friend of mine explained that the job of the selector is to size up the audience and make sure everyone in the room gets at least one song. You feel it. There is the collective that is constantly dancing, but sometimes, depending on the call outs and the track, there are some who come into the foreground and then recede again into the background so that what you feel is both fleeting and steady.



2 Responses to “Intertextual styleee”
  1. Many years ago, my wife Sue and I went on one of those all-inclusive deals. This was during my suit days and we were corporate guests of the Palace Entertainment Group, which apparently did local marketing for Sandals. It was totally Disney’s Neo-Colonial Fantasyland. Not sure why I ever thought is was a good idea. Whatever. I distinctly remember listing to the local radio as the mostly white patrons were wasting enormous amounts of food and hearing a news announcement that Jamaican school children were going to receive fresh milk rather than powdered for the very first time. The respite: A porter risked his part-time job to take us out of the compound late one night to go to a dance club in Ocho Rios. There was one amazing mash-up of dub and Madonna. I looked stateside for years for something like it and never found it. Anyway, this post is an awesome piece of writing. In fact, it should be published somewhere. I’m thinking PopMatters You won’t get paid but it’s a cool place for you to have something like this get wider recognition and they would be happy to have it I’m sure. The features editor, whom I know, is Karen Zarker Feel free to use my name as a reference. VC

  2. JAwanohara says:

    Another amazing post. I can’t wait to see what you write next 😉 !!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: