Authentic Gentlemanby Kimon de Greef / Images by Deborah Roussouw / 19.02.2014
Bangles, beaded necklaces, Mandela prints, soccer shirts, wooden masks, leather belts, shakers, ornamental djembe drums, pirated goods… we’re in Greenmarket Square on a Saturday morning and the tourist hustle is on.
A blind busker hugs his guitar and bellows into the cavity. Tiny girls in slip-slops dance with homemade shakers, guarded by a worn-out matriarch sweating on a public bench. Muscled men with dreadlocks patrol the edges, greeting one another and smiling at the women in tiny shorts who have descended from Long Street to purchase mementos.
Gentleman, international dancehall superstar, is sitting on an upturned crate in a trader’s stall, watched by a jury of carved wooden faces.
“Dis one don’t like me at all,” he says, pointing at a mask with wide eyes and hardened jowls. “Dis lot up here … they just don’t know, man.”
The masks come from Ghana, Cameroon, Mali and Senegal. The salesman, an immigrant from Dakar, has allowed us to conduct our interview in his store for a small fee. The photographer is excited by the aesthetic possibilities on offer; your correspondent is relieved to have escaped the confines of a hotel buffet with air-conditioned waitresses and jittery PR women in stockings.
The noon gun thuds on Signal Hill as Gentleman begins to talk about his strange journey from being a middle-class German kid to a global pop-reggae icon and champion of the oppressed in half a lifetime.
“I never planned to be a reggae singer, y’know. It’s been 20 years and I’m still amazed by how far it’s gone.”
His first exposure to reggae, he explains, was through his brother’s record collection – “Roots artists like Burning Spear and Dennis Brown,” he says.
“I fell in love with the music. The first record store had just opened in Cologne and the first reggae soundsystems were being set up. I wanted to know where it all came from.”
And so, aged 18, he went on a pilgrimage to Jamaica, birthplace of ska, rocksteady, reggae and dancehall and arguably the most influential nation in 20th century music history, despite its tiny size.
“I realized there was something spiritual, something magical about the sounds. There’s a message of Rasta that is universal: being in tune with yourself, being in tune with nature, and being critical, being political – treating music as a political movement, and as more than entertainment.”
He cut his first recordings shortly afterwards. Predictably, people were confused.
“In the beginning I got fire from both sides, man. In Germany they were like, ‘Why don’t you sing in German? Are you trying to be Jamaican? What kind of foolishness is this?’ And in Jamaica they were just like, ‘Hm. Who is this dude?’”
“When I was 18 I looked 14. I was a middle-class teenager. People didn’t know what to think.”
He persevered, though, refusing to be written off because of his background and following what he perceived to be a genuine calling to speak truth through music, as his Rasta idols had done.
“You want to know about authenticity? If you check my lyrics then they aren’t always 100% autobiographical, but they always reflect my personal thoughts, my personal feelings. And I believe music is a universal language: the motherland is Jamaica, and there is a strong Rasta influence. Yes, it’s a black people’s movement, but at the same time Bob Marley already proved reggae can and should be a global ting.”
He speaks with a German accent refracted through Jamaican patois, punctuating every other sentence with “Y’know,” and enunciating important syllables – “Ras-ta-fa-ri,” “con-scious-ness” – with care. He sits with strong posture, feet grounded on the cobblestones, and watches a group of backpackers pass by.
“I see myself as a vessel and as a time witness,” he continues. “I travel a lot and I hear many stories. My role is to be a storyteller, like a messenger from one perspective to another. It’s not that there is always a solution – I think there’s a lot of sadness, a lot of wickedness, a lot of ignorance in this world – but that’s what I’m singing about, sharing a certain feeling and a certain vibe. I’m letting people know that we’re not alone … and I think that is the power of music.”
To some, the fact that Gentleman sings about poverty, injustice and social disharmony is deeply ironic, considering his privileged background. But to millions his voice represents a beacon of hope, and his biggest audience in Cape Town (like in other parts of the world) can be found in the ghettos, among the working class poor.
“I visited Marcus Garvey last night,” he says, referring to the Rastafarian community in Phillipi, a large township on the southern edge of the Cape Flats. “I had just landed and somebody said, ‘You need to go there. People love your music,’ so we went and I ended up performing at the dancehall. It was beautiful: people were singing along to all the lyrics, even more than in Germany, where I play a lot. It’s mind-blowing coming to a place you’ve never been before, on the other side of the planet, and seeing that happen.”
I point out that, within 24 hours, he’s made an unusual journey, crossing from a fringe location that hardly anybody with power or money visits to the nexus of the inner-city Cape Town tourist economy, where locals and immigrants flog cleansed depictions of Africa – gemstones, painted ostrich eggs, Springbok pelts – to visitors from the first world.
“It’s strange,” he says, shaking his head. “If you want to know the real story, or how tings really happen, then you need to go behind that stuff and dig deeper. It’s the same in Jamaica: a lot of people visit and are like, ‘Been there, done that,’ without having seen anything meaningful or realistic.”
He twists to look at the masks behind him.
“If you want to experience another culture then you really need to dive into it, y’know? Not just go to that place and buy the T-shirt.”
He stands, our allocated time having ended. The photographer guides him into the crowded alley between the stands to shoot a final series of pictures. The Senegalese mask salesman is watching disinterestedly.
“Do you listen to reggae music?” I ask him.
“Of course,” he answers.
“You know Gentleman?”
He looks at me like I’ve asked a stupid question.
“That man,” I say, pointing, “that was just sitting here? That’s him. Gentleman.”
The trader stares, puts down his cellphone and breaks into a smile.
All images © Deborah Roussouw