Black Island Dubby Andy Davis / Images by Luke Daniel / 13.09.2012
Once upon a time, in a different, yet disquietingly familiar country. Long before Mahala, Usain Bolt and press trips to the Puma Yard and the London Olympics, back in the late 80s a Johannesburg school kid, in Standard 5, got his hands on two Bob Marley cassette tapes: Uprising and Confrontation. Mint condition. I didn’t know back then, that these bits of plastic and magnetic tape were Bob’s last two albums, ever. By that stage the man had been dead for about 7 years. I had never tried dagga, had no idea that it was associated with a religion called Rastafarianism that originated on a small island in the Caribbean called Jamaica and that I was now the proud owner of these cassettes due largely to the influence on global culture of a relatively small Jamaican ex-pat community, brought to the UK to plug holes in the post WW2 job market. All this was unkown to me. The 80s were a minefield for a 12 year old, we’d just come through that Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet phase. Madonna was huge for the first time. Michael Jackson was black. Synth pop was blowing up and if you weren’t careful you could hop on the wrong bus, put gel in your hair, wear a bright, pastel coloured suit jacket pushed up at the sleeves, like Don Johnson, and end up looking like that knob with the keytar in Modern Talking. It was touch and go in the 80s. Thankfully a kid called Jean-Louis Du Plessis put me on the right path.
Dup was an early adopter, before the term even. A year younger than me, his folks were divorced, he was tall, had a bush full of pubes and some early acne. (Chorbes bespoke the great unknown of puberty, sex and manhood that lay beyond). Dup was wise beyond his years. He’d sussed it all out and discovered punk. He wore 18-hole Doc Martens with red laces, drew the anarchy A on his satchel, rocked the Sex Pistols, Iggy Pop and The Clash on his double-tapedeck boombox (with detachable speakers) and had stories about slutty girls, we never knew. His mom was also lank hot. One day, sitting around in Dup’s bedroom he suggested I get into reggae and gave me the Marley tapes, for an education. A baptism of sorts. Just like that, I was the reggae guy. It was that easy. He also took me down to Moolla’s in Smal Street, downtown Jozi (on the Number 14 bus from Orange Grove) to buy my first pair of 8 hole Docs and suggested I lace one of the boots with the green, red and yellow reggae-style laces. Which I did, for a while. It didn’t take long to figure out where punk and reggae crossed over; in the music of The Specials, Madness and Toots and the Maytals. But even though Boobs Disco in Hillbrow looked both scary and appealing, I never felt punk like those deep, rolling basslines of Jamaican reggae and all that fire in the lyrics, especially in the dark, political tinderbox of the 80s. The foundation was laid. What followed was puberty and pop, bad musical choices and finally Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Then university, weed and Marley all over again. It got better and deeper. Burning Spear, King Tubby, the Mad Professor, Johnny Clarke, the Aba Shanti Sound System, Buju Banton and a prized vinyl collection of roots. Then a whole new raft of South African reggaenistas, kicked off by Tidal Waves, 340ml, The Rudimentals, Zoro, Teba and Fletcher on the wheels, spinning fire with the same steadfast and fervent enthusiasm as hippy chicks do poi at Earthdance.
25 long/short years since Dup handed me those cassettes, I find myself being sent to London, on the back of Puma and their sponsorship of the Jamaican Athletics Team at the 2012 London Olympics, to jol, drink and imbibe the vibe, but really to investigate the role of Jamaican culture in the UK and how, thanks to the power of empire (and her majesty’s need for cheap labour), this little community of islanders transplanted in the big smoke, pretty much invented electronic music and hipped the whole world. If Jamaica was the message, London was the megaphone.
Let’s backtrack to the late 40s, post war Britain’s recovery is seriously hampered by significant labour shortages (a chilling indicator of how many people were killed in the war). To rectify this, the old colonial madam, hikes up her skirt, opens the borders and says to the commonwealth, ‘get in there’. In 1948, 500 Jamaicans hop on a boat called The Windrush and set sail for Britain. Over the next 15 years 200 000 Jamaicans immigrate. Today, the British Jamaican population is estimated to be well over 800 000 strong.
And now we’re in London, a few months before the end of the world, a vast living breathing mass of pleasant consumer culture typified by an efficient transportation system. Brixton, home of one of London’s largest and most vibrant Jamaican communities. It’s a warm, sunny day and we’re rocking down the original Electric Avenue from the Eddy Grant song. The butcher, fishmonger and green grocers are all doing a brisk mid-morning trade. We stop a friendly rasta called Linton, (when he says it, it’s ‘Lin-taan’), doing his morning shop, wearing shorts, a string vest and a beanie-hairnet thing stuffed with dreads, and ask for a little interview. He turns and shouts to his lady over his shoulder:
“These guys want to do an interview about the Olympics and how well Jamaica’s doing, so you can’t shy from that! Y’can’t shy from that…” And then he turns and gives me his attention.
“When someone says ‘Jamaica’ what do you feel right now?” I ask.
“Feel good! Yeah, because where we’re coming from, slavery and all those ting, it’s very hard. And the ting what I don’t like, right now, is they’re saying that Usain Bolt is showing off. But you see we Jamaica now, you go to school, you have to pay for school books, school uniforms and school dinners. And if you as a parent don’t have that money to send your children to school, they won’t go to school. So when you see Usain Bolt carrying on as he’s carrying on, he’s a very happy man! He’s not showing off. He’s a very happy man. The struggle is hard, as a Jamaican.”
“What’s the difference between living in London as opposed to on the island?”
“Over here it’s cold!” He says. “We have some sun today, we might not have sun tomorrow. I’m a person who loves the sun. I like dressing like this, with no clothes. You need the sun man, it’s vitamin D. If you don’t have that like man you’re suffering. Other than the UK’s alright but I just love Jamaica because Jamaica is real. Natural fruits. I’m a rasta man, so me can get the ganja anytime. Over here it’s a problem. But as they say, ‘Jamaica no problem’. So we keep on promoting that. So it’s not just about da reggae music. No we’re getting the athletics in there. Now all we have to do is just educate our people them and we keep elevating.”
“So what’s keeping you here?” I ask.
“Money, blood! I don’t have my house in Jamaica. So I got to stay here until I get it. So that’s what’s keeping me here. Even though most of the time it’s freezing, I just have to hold it, hold my tension, until that time.”
And with that, some thanks and a lefthanded fistbump, he saunters across the road to continue his grocery shopping.
Stay tuned for the next installments featuring Norman Jay and David ‘Ram Jam’ Rodigan.
Read our 3 part Olympic series here.
*All images © Luke Daniel.