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.
M.B.: What are the kind of social and historical factors and everything that have made Japanese people such avid consumers of other cultures, whether it’s salsa, or tango or whatever? This was a culture that was deeply isolationist once upon a time…
M.S.: Yeah, I think you’ve provided a good answer to your question. I think, to a significant extent, it has to do with the resonance that things that are foreign have in a place that for so long historically has been secluded from the outside world. Anything that is not Japanese is potentially of interest for Japanese people. I’m always struck by no matter what the foreign subculture is, it seems like there are some Japanese kids who are doing it.
M.B.: That’s the stereotype about Japan, at least – There’s going to be someone in Japan who is into your obscure release or your obscure subculture.
M.S.: Absolutely. I think another part of the story here is that, as a relatively wealthy country, Japanese is in a position to consume the foreign in the way that a poor country, or relatively poor country like Jamaica, cannot.
M.B.: I know it’s not necessarily your specialty, but can you give us a little bit background on what happened – you bring up the Meiji Restoration a couple of times in your book. Let’s go back for a moment…
M.S.: Obviously, dance hall in Japan is a fairly recent phenomenon, but if you wanted to think about the significance of its presence in Japan today, you could go all the way back to 1853. This is the year that Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Japan as part of the U.S. Navy with this demand that Japan open up its doors to trade with the outside world. Up until this period, Japan had been sequestered from the outside world for hundreds of years, so this is a pretty major moment in Japanese history.
So, the period that followed, the Meiji Restoration, is significant in Japanese history because it represents this wave of western influence into Japanese society. You had, as kind of a matter of national strategy in terms of dealing with the threat of western power, this effort to adopt western ways of thinking, being, knowing and doing. This includes things like music.
So, jazz, during the early 1900s, was hugely popular. You had department stores, silent films, cafes, the whole kind of western culture of jazz and so on during this period being transplanted into the Japanese context.
M.B.: We’ve talked a lot about these ideas in the abstract; I’d like to talk about some specific people. To start with, who is Mighty Crown?
M.S.: If you pinpoint the growth of reggae music in Japan over the last decade or so, I think you need to look at Mighty Crown, who won the World Clash soundsystem competition in 1999. Most people point to them as the epicenter of Japanese reggae.
Now, in terms of why Mighty Crown has had the success they’ve had, I think a big part of the story here is that they speak English and they grew up speaking English. They went to an international school in which English was the main language. It’s easier transition to go from English to Patois than it is to go from Japanese to Patois.
These guys were part of the dance hall scene in Jamaica and in New York from a long time ago, from the early 1990s. So, they were there. They did a lot in terms of laying the groundwork. They’re not the only ones, certainly, but I think a big part of their success is that they’ve been around for such a long time. They were one of the first Japanese dance hall performers to spend an extended amount of time in New York and in Jamaica and it translates in terms of their handle of Jamaican Patios. It translates in terms of their knowledge of the music and it translates in terms of their ability to bring that Jamaican vibe to Japanese reggae events.
M.B.: How did they win this competition? Was it the novelty of a foreign soundsystem? I’d think that it would be hard for a group from another country to hype a crowd the same way a Jamaican might be able to.
M.S.: I would not say that they were just a novelty, but I think a lot of people were surprised by the fact that these Japanese guys were speaking in Patois. It was really an astonishing thing back then and still is now to a certain extent.
They’re fearless when it comes to using Patois. Not only do they know the language in the depth that they need to, they kind of use it in that way that you need to succeed in these competitions.
I think part of the success they had in that particular event had to do with all of these things but, certainly, their playful reference to their Asianness, their surprising Asianness in this context. For instance, they played a little bit of the soundtrack to that Bruce Lee film Enter the Dragon. Jamaican guys of a certain generation, myself included, we know all those movies, so that’s one point of connection between Jamaica and East Asia – it’s those martial arts films.
M.B.: You might call it the Wu Tang element.
M.S.: Yeah, so they know what they’re doing, and this is what you have to do to win these competitions, especially as Japanese artists because you’re going up there on a stage in which all the other competitors are Afro-Jamaican and all the audience members are Afro-Jamaican. So, you have to think, “What is it that I can do to make that connection with Afro-Jamaicans?”
M.B.: The competition was very important to the guy I spoke to from the King Jam soundsystem. He was very gleeful at the idea of a Japanese system being able to beat a Jamaican system. It’s not just a musical culture; there’s also something kind of game-like about it also.
M.S.: I always feel like I need to speak carefully about this because you don’t want to be discourteous to people who don’t deserve lack of courtesy. But I would be remiss in not saying there are Jamaicans soundsystems who are not happy with Mighty Crown’s presence.
Some people love it. They love the fact that Japanese… “Wow, Japanese are into our music. That’s awesome.” But some Jamaican sound system guys say they feel that part of the reason why Mighty Crown was able to as well as they did was because they have money, and they’re able to afford these dub plates.
Dub plates are like these re-recorded versions of previously recorded songs in which the person who recorded the song will change for pay the verbal portion of the song to say good things about the soundsystem that’s paying them.
Now, you have some Jamaican soundsystems that are unhappy about the fact that they can’t afford to pay a Jamaican DJ the kind of money that Mighty Crown can to do those dub plates. This is one point of tension. they’re feeling, basically, that the Japanese artists are jacking up the price of dub plates.
M.B.: And then there’s the cases also where Japanese are actually charged more than Jamaicans.
M.S.: Right, exactly, and that’s the other side.
M.B.: So, there are these tensions, but from your experience in Jamaica and Japan, to what degree have you been seeing Jamaican performers and Japanese performers kind of come together in mutual love of this culture?
M.S.: As a researcher, I feel the need to kind of look at this complexity and intellectualize it. There’s value in that, but none of this to overlook the fact that most of these young Japanese people who give up their lives in Japan to come to Jamaica to live there for months or years, or maybe even they decide to spend the rest of their lives there. They’re doing this out of love for the music. That’s not a small thing.
I was in Jamaica for a couple of months this summer, and I saw about two or three events in which Japanese performers went up on stage and performed in front of Jamaican audiences. I have to say I was really struck by how supportive the audience members were of the performers up on stage. I think, part of what’s going on there is this feeling that “Wow, of all people, Japanese are really into our music and we really appreciate that” and “Hey, we’re both into this stuff for the music and everything else is secondary.”
A lot of the guys I talk to, they describe getting held up and going through all kinds of difficulties. I asked them, “Has it ever occurred to you that you should leave back to Japan where it’s safer?” I mean, I phrase it a little nicer than that. [laughs] But the question was really the same question that you’re getting at, which is: Why is it that you stick it out?
And the answer is they love the music and they love the culture, and that’s it. And not that they’re into inflicting pain on themselves or anything, but they sometimes talk about how the hardships are memorable and important in their own right. When they look back at that stuff, there’s a certain degree of recognition that, “This is part of it, this is part of what we often have to go through to really get at this stuff that we love, this music that we love. This is what we need to do to hear the beat.” It’s always impressive to me that so many Japanese kids are willing to make that sacrifice.
M.B.: For our show this week, we’re interested in the role African Diaspora has interplayed with East Asia, without these large first-hand exchanges of population or ideas. Obviously, this is a big part of your research. What would you say about the relationship between Africa and East Asia?
M.S.: I think one of the things I’ve really needed to think about in doing this research is that this idea of the Afro-Asian is not a homogenous thing. That encounter hasn’t unfolded in a straightforward way. It’s unfolded in pretty complex ways, and it’s not new. One of the ways that it’s unfolded has been in terms of this contact African direct Diasporic people and Asian Diasporic people have had with each other as a result of their mutual marginalization relative to the western world.
But with this research, I’m feeling that there’s another dimension that’s not necessarily, or not always, ideological. These two groups of people, in this case Jamaicans and Japanese, coming together as a result of Japanese people being exposed to Jamaican popular culture.
It’s possible to talk about that encounter as Afro-Asian in the ideological sense because if you’re looking at, for instance, Japanese interest in Rastafarai or the Rastafarian aspect of roots reggae music, that often involves a kind of wrestling with western power.
But it’s also just about play sometimes, and having a good time. To me, it’s really interesting that Japanese and Jamaicans these days can have these so-called Afro-Asian encounters without thinking about western power or any of these things. It’s just kids who like reggae music coming together.
M.B.: I’ve often thought of how much of pop music history was forged here in the Americas – whether it’s reggae or salsa or hip-hop or jazz – out of these colonial encounters. That music has gone to Asia in so many ways. My last question is: Have you thought of any predictions of the future, as far as what the Afro-Asian might mean in this increasingly globalized world?
M.S.: I feel really humbled in doing this research because I realize that this represents just one of many possible points of contact between the African and Asian diasporas. There are so many other possibilities because we live in a world in which people are able to be connected with one another in ways that just were not possible even 15-20 years ago. My only prediction is that those kinds of encounters, Afro-Asian encounters as we’re describing them, will continue and maybe even intensify.
I’m thinking in particular about things like this increased Chinese investment in places like Africa, in places like the Afro-Caribbean. That, I think, is creating a new way, potentially, of thinking about the Afro-Asian, not necessarily in colonial or post-colonial terms, but in terms of these new circuits of economic and cultural connection being forged between the two groups of societies.