White reggae hits Jamaica

For a small place, Jamaica exerts a big influence. It covers an area of less than 11 000km2, with fewer than three million inhabitants. But ask anyone with even a passing interest in music to name its principal export and you’ll get the same answer: reggae. Once it leaves Kingston, however, this Jamaican product takes on new tinges.

Now there is a new crop of white reggae performers, eschewing the melanin-deficient basslines and embarrassing attempts at patois that have caught out their predecessors. These artists even market themselves not to the crossover market but to hardcore reggae fans—including those in Jamaica. Maybe, finally, there is white reggae that is more than a pale imitation of the real thing.

Collie Buddz is the best known. Born Colin Harper in New Orleans 27 years ago, he moved with his parents to Bermuda at the age of five. It was here that his love of reggae began. “In Bermuda everyone grows up with reggae,” he says. “It’s a small island that imports a lot of its culture from elsewhere. As a teenager, I spent all my time listening to tapes from Jamaica, clashes between sound systems such as Killamanjaro and Stone Love, the latest songs by artists such as Buju Banton. Bermudian people like to party, too, so any excuse is good enough for someone to string up a set of speakers and for people to start dancing. That’s how I started out, playing songs and chatting over them with my friends.”

Now collaborating with stars including Paul Wall, Akon and Sizzla, Buddz has penetrated the international market in a way that few Jamaican artists manage—he released an album on Sony last year, containing a hugely popular hit single, Come Around. But any problems he might face as a white man singing reggae are largely circumvented by his upbringing. Of course, it also helps that his naturally lilting island accent lends itself perfectly to reggae’s cadences, allowing him to sing convincingly in both roots and dancehall styles.

“Race hasn’t been an issue for me,” he agrees. “The culture is very mixed in Bermuda and we’re closely linked to Jamaica in many ways. Reggae crowds can be very demanding, but if they like you, they will show you love like no one else. It’s that reaction that drives me, so with every record and every performance, I try to do something special. Reggae has always been in my life, so I don’t want people to say that I’m good for a white guy. I want them to think the music I make is good, period.”

The precedent for white European artists working in Jamaica was actually set back in the 1980s, thanks to a young Londoner called Dominic. One track, Cockney & Yardie, pretty much sums up his entire career. Yet, while Dominic was an anomalous novelty within wider reggae culture, performers such as Gentleman occupy a less conflicted space. Despite hailing from Cologne, the 32-year-old singer, born Tilmann Otto, has spent at least six months a year in Jamaica for the past decade, collaborating with acclaimed producers and vocalists including Robert “Bobby Digital” Dixon, Donovan “Don Corleon” Bennett, Jah Cure, Cocoa Tea and Anthony B. Unlike Buddz, Gentleman generally steers clear of the rougher stylings and subject matter of dancehall.

He has racked up several high-quality albums, notably the current Another Intensity, and a flurry of domestic hits in Jamaica by concentrating on a 21st-century variety of roots music known as “one drop”. It’s a timely choice, given this strand of reggae’s recent rise to prominence and a pragmatic strategy that allows a white artist comfortably to navigate tricky questions of authenticity and appropriation.

“My relationship with reggae began with me listening to my older brother’s record collection—artists like Dennis Brown, Garnett Silk and Beres Hammond,” he says.

“What I liked was how universal the music was: themes of love, justice and truth that anyone could understand. That’s where my inspiration comes from. I can’t pretend to be anything I’m not, so I don’t sing in patois, I sing in Jamaican English, because that’s where I learned the language; and I don’t talk about growing up in the ghetto, because I didn’t. I want to make positive music for all people, and that includes a Jamaican audience.”

He says the way music is consumed in Jamaica makes life easier on white artists than might be expected. In contrast to the music video culture of Europe and North America, songs are first heard on the island at dances or on the radio. That allows music to be judged on its own merit before a face can be put to it.

“Sometimes people are still surprised to find out that I am not Jamaican,” he says. “This happens especially in the countryside, because people in rural places still get most of their music from the radio. People will sometimes laugh when they see me, but not in a bad way. It means that they already liked my music for its own sake.”

It has not always been an easy journey, but for a man clearly smitten with the island and deeply immersed in its culture, even the toughest experience can be seen as a backhanded affirmation.

“I’ve had some great shows,” he says. “But the one that made me realise I was part of Jamaican music was playing the Sting festival in Kingston a while ago. When I got on stage, the crowd was hyped up and wanted to hear rough dancehall. When I started singing songs about love and unity, they threw bottles at me. It was ugly, but I was being treated the same way anyone else would have been in that situation. They weren’t being nice to me because I was different. I was just another artist that they were mad at!”

Alborosie, meanwhile, is one of reggae’s fastest-rising stars, regardless of ethnicity. Leaving a successful European recording career behind, the producer and singer, otherwise known as Alberto D’Ascola, moved to Kingston from his native Sicily in 2001 to pursue the dream of establishing himself as a legitimate artist on the music’s home turf. Now working on a debut solo album entitled Soul Pirate, he looks and sounds the part, with his luxuriant dreadlocks and his description of himself (in thick Italian-tinged patois) as a “revolutionary Christian who believes in Jah”.

“Being in Jamaica has given me a lot of focus. Getting a good reaction on stage or walking down the street and hearing someone playing my songs makes me feel blessed and it shows how accepting Jamaican audiences are if you approach the music with love and respect.”

This, of course, makes perfect sense. Reggae is now a global phenomenon and a vital part of popular music’s international fabric. As such, answers to questions of ownership cannot be set in stone. What makes these particular artists distinctive is the awareness and integrity with which they approach their work.

As Alborosie says: “I’m not trying to be anything other than true to myself and my music. I am a reggae artist and this music chose me as much as I chose it. It has become my whole life. Jamaica may not be where I’m from originally, but it’s where my heart is now. It’s where I work, where I live and where I hope to die.”—

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