Babylon East: Performing Dancehall, Roots Reggae, and Rastafari in Japan
J. Gabriel Boylan
Performing Dancehall, Roots Reggae, and Rastafari in Japan
by Marvin D. Sterling
Duke University Press
$23.95 List Price
"I want to be black man. I want to be black man. Everytime." This is the solemn admission of Brother Taffy, a Japanese dub musician. What happens when Jamaican Rasta and the musical and cultural styles affiliated with it, from roots reggae to dancehall, are taken out of the white-black binary and the Euro-Caribbean matrix? This is the question taken up by Marvin D. Sterling in Babylon East. Sterling spent more than ten years investigating Japanese involvement with Jamaican musical traditions, and his book testifies to the limitations of cross-cultural appropriation even in a globalized cultural scene.
"The tendency to view as 'superficial' Japanese engagement with foreign culture," he writes, "emerges from Japan's reputation as a society of voracious consumers." Sterling argues against the idea that many Japanese see the consumption and appropriation of styles as the simple assertion of cosmopolitan identity, while somewhat reluctantly admitting that this is a form of "structural racism," or the deployment of Japanese racial assumptions. Yet unlike deracinated subcultures such as rockabilly, goth, metal, and even, today, hip-hop, Jamaican music holds a strict racial and sociopolitical worldview that is far less malleable. Moreover, the Japanese have historically had little contact with black people and have fashioned a cultural understanding of blackness that is necessarily shallow; as Sterling puts it, their "blackness . . . is simulation." Japanese fans and practitioners of this music may be well intentioned, but their enthusiasm yields such awkward expressions as skin