Interview September 22, 2011
Marvin Sterling Delves into the Japanese Dancehall Reggae Scene
In Japan, dancehall reggae is serious sub-culture. The country boasts more than 300 soundsystems – more than the number is Jamaica itself – and the scene’s members are hyper-comitted to performing dancehall they way it’s done in Jamaica, down to the slightest detail. As a result, a sort of cultural superhighway has been built between the two island nations half way across the world from each other, transmitting artists, fans, mp3s, dubplates, streetwear, and ideas back and forth. In the course of producing our 2011 Hip Deep show “Africa in East Asia: From Shanghai Jazz to Tokyo Rastafari,” we spoke with Marvin Sterling on the topic. Marvin, who is Jamaican himself, is a Profesor of Anthropology at Indiana Univeresity. He’s also the author of the book “Babylon East: Performing Dancehall, Roots Reggae, and Rastafari in Japan.” Marlon Bishop: To start - I'm actually curious for your story. How did you become interested Japanese reggae culture and decide that you were going to dedicate your time and research to it? Marvin Sterling: Well, before I started grad school, I lived a year in Los Angeles. One day I was walking through Little Tokyo to get to my work place and passed by a gift shop where I saw, of all things, a mammy doll. So, this is a gift shop that caters to Japanese tourists, Japanese visitors, and I saw this mammy doll and was really intrigued, really interested. So, one thing led to another and once I did start grad school, I decided to pursue that interest in understanding why it is that this thing really existed. I was interested in understanding the ideas that many Japanese people had about blackness. M.B.: So, what is it about Japan? Does Japan as a place interest you? Is there something about you that it appeals to you? M.S.: Well, yeah. It's a fascinating country in so many ways. It's a society that you think of as being very modern, very post-modern, on the one hand. But on the other hand, it's also a country that's very deeply invested in its traditions. Both of those extremes, I think, were really interesting to me. How is a society like Japan able to hold these two seemingly contradictory ideas? Also the fact that it just seems like there's a deep and avid interest in not just what is considered Japanese or traditionally Japanese but also not Japanese – the foreign. That whole engagement with the foreign and all of this cultural diversity is really fascinating to me. Reggae music is just one aspect of that. M.B.: It’s definitely something we're going to get into deeper as we talk. I'd like to do a little history How did reggae come to Japan? M.S.: It came largely in the form of mass media and, more specifically – and this is something that my interviewees said quite consistently – many of them said that their first exposure to the music was through this film back in 1973, The Harder they Come with Jimmy Cliff. So, they saw this film and were really intrigued by the Rastafarian characters in the film and really liked the soundtrack and explored the music a little bit deeper. But I think the reason why those who were, in fact, interested in the subculture did become interested is because it resonated in so many ways with what was there before. A lot of the early fans and practitioners of reggae music were hippies. In the 1960s, there was a counter-culture movement in Japan, as was the United States. They recognized this connection between reggae music and Rastafarian culture and the counter-culture scene in terms of for instance, this concern with nature, this protest against political oppression in its many forms. A major milestone, I think, in the development of reggae in Japan was a visit by Bob Marley, in 1979. There was a bit of mass media reporting on his visit. People were trying to understand his look. What's this all about? Who is this guy? What's this movement that he belongs to? Then by the mid '80s to the mid 1990s, you have what I think you can fairly describe as a major boom in Jamaican popular culture and reggae music, in Japan - roots reggae music in particular. You had Jamaican artists visiting Japan to sold-out audiences. You have people opening up reggae bars, reggae shops, craft shops all over. Then, it cooled off a little bit around the mid to late 1990s. But then in terms of reggae as a popular thing, it really picked up again in 1999 when a Japanese soundsystem by the name of Mighty Crown won a major soundsystem competition in Brooklyn among all the other who were Jamaican. When Japanese kids who were really into dancehall heard this, this was a big deal. This is, in a certain sense, an indication that, "We as Japanese people can do reggae music legitimately." So, all throughout the past decade, we've seen a real growth of interest in dancehall reggae music. (Japanese reggae artist Chiho Suzuki chanting down Babylon) M.B.: Give us a sense of how big dancehall or reggae in Japan right now. Is this mainstream pop culture at this point? M.S.: I don't want to overstate how big reggae is as a commercial force, let's say, compared with J-Pop or with even hip hop. Reggae is a product of a third world country, not a major commercial force like the United States. Certainly as a subcultural scene, it's very, very vital. One measure of that is the number of soundsystems in Japan compared with the number of soundsystems in Jamaica. Now, granted, Jamaica is a much smaller country than Japan, but even so, if you compare: the number of soundsystems in Japan at one point was about 300, and that's more than the number of soundsystems in Jamaica. There's a One Love Jamaica Festival every year in Tokyo that attracts over two days, maybe about 20,000 or 30,000 visitors to Yoyogi Park. And in terms of music, in terms of reggae songs and how they do on the Japanese music charts, they're not always No. 1 hits, but there have been a few that have made it all the way to the top. A really well-known one was about 10 years ago or so by a guy by the name of Miki Dozen who recorded the song "Lifetime Respect." It was a No. 1 song. M.B.: What would you see at a Japanese sound clash or a Japanese reggae club? M.S.: It's not really unlike what you get in Jamaica. This is part of what you expect in terms of how Japan has gone about adopting other cultural expressions found in other parts of the world. In terms of the crowd, it's primarily a young scene, so you're talking about kids in their teens to their 20s to early 30s. They're dressed in the look you would associate with hip hop or with dancehall culture in Jamaica – athletic sneakers, baggy pants, athletic jerseys, baseball caps, and this kind of thing. Pretty much the same thing with soundsystem crew members up on stage. M.B.: I want to talk about the whole idea of the authenticity because that's what kind of strikes me as almost most amazing about Japanese reggae culture. I’ve been interviewing some soundsystems here in New York, and these guys are texting me in Patois. They have the look down. Their flyers are perfect; it's what you'd see at any Jamaican party. What is the attention to authenticity all about and how far do they take it? M.S.: Yeah, that's a really great question. Part of the question that I'm hearing is: How do you get at the authentic? For some – maybe many or most – Japanese sound systems or people who are into reggae music in general, you do what the Jamaicans do. And again - it's something that you see in other expressions of Japanese interest in foreign culture. It's the feeling that to do it authentically or legitimately, you do it exactly the way it's done outside of Japan. But then there's also that dimension of authenticity that's about recognizing you can be authentic by this intense, profound imitation but on the other hand, you feel like to be authentic is to make your reggae Japanese somehow. So, what I'm seeing right now with the scene is an understanding of authentic reggae music that's not just about imitating the Jamaican but, for instance, performing in Japanese. Using the Japanese language as opposed to using Patios. M.B.: How do the artists that you've spoken to cultivate that deep knowledge of the culture? Can you tell me a little bit about these trips that artists take to places like London and New York and Jamaica? What drives them to go? M.S.: That’s one of the really interesting things I discovered in my research. For you to be considered a really serious dancehall artist, the expectation is that you spend a certain amount of time in places like you mentioned, like New York, like London, like Jamaica, because this is where Jamaican people are. This is the heart of dance hall culture. You can't really learn real dance hall in Japan; you have to learn it in Jamaica. So, a lot of guys travel from Japan to New York first. They hang out with Jamaicans, they learn Patois. Then, often, they'll take a trip for a month or so to Jamaica. The way they talk about it, it really does feel like a pilgrimage. Their experiences are varied, but there are some really interesting consistencies. They talk, for instance, about how they're really taken aback by the fact that most people in Jamaica are black. Then another thing that they talked about very consistently was this kind of sense of surprise about the degree of poverty and struggle in Jamaican society. In some cases, I think it's kind of rhetorical but in some cases quite sincere where they say that they really learned from that experience. They say that for the first time, they understand what reggae music is all about. It's not just something that a corporation, a music company, gives to you and plays over the radio; it's really the product of a lot of hardship and a lot of struggle. And, as Japanese people who are from a relatively well-off country, they routinely say this is a great lesson that they learn from their experience there, above and beyond what they learn by hanging in the studios, talking to artists, getting dub plates and so on from Jamaican performers. M.B.: So, speaking on this topic, how is “blackness” perceived in Japanese dancehall culture? Let's get into those kinds of questions. M.S.: In Japan, there’s the possibility of viewing blackness as a kind of metaphor for decadence, for violence, for machismo, for all of these things that are really profoundly stereotypical of who black people are. There's this idea of blackness, for instance, that is about having a certain passion, or drive or whatever. These stereotypes of blackness as being very passionate and fiery. But there's also this view of blackness that exists in Japan that is about resistance, not just violent, anti-social force, but also a force of positive, social change. Both possibilities – and others – for how blackness can be understood get played out. Then, on the other hand, you have the anti-colonial view of blackness, in which it's not just the ability to party hard, it's also the possibility of recognizing that there is suffering, oppression and so on in the world. The adoption of this Afro-centric musical culture becomes a way of speaking against that situation. And, of course, in the Japanese context, it's not necessarily racial. It's not necessarily about racial oppression, but the blackness that inheres in these genres of music becomes co-opted to speak to other issues, other social problems, in Japanese society. For instance, I met a guy who is burakumin. He belongs to this outcast group in Japanese society. His claim to reggae music, even though he, obviously, is not of African descent, is that like black people, he’s suffered. He's suffered at the hands of a mainstream Japanese society that looks down on him as someone who is from this outcast group, and that becomes his claim to reggae music.