Coloring with Cake Soap
The eye of the Vybz Kartel storm seems to have passed, but late as it is, I have to weigh in. For anyone who has not been following the feverish debates, Vybz is a popular Jamaican dancehall artist who is no stranger to controversy and known for some of his more salacious songs like “Rampin’ Shop,” performed with Spice. However, he has recently been in the news because of the ways in which he’s chosen to modify his body over the last few years through a combo of tattooing and skin bleaching, the latter of which he claims he accomplished through the use of cake soap (a soap usually used in Jamaica as laundry detergent). These images posted on the website Mad News show the dramatic changes in Vybz’s complexion and pretty much tell the tale of what brought the whole brouhaha to a head.
Some commentators, like my friend Annie Paul, have offered what I find a very balanced and thoughtful approach to Vybz. On her blog Active Voice Annie comments on Vybz’s lecture:
We think nothing of purging the kink out of our hair or the Jamaican accent from our speech–both are socially accepted; but if Black women are free to chemically terrorize their hair into limp straightness why can’t Vybz Kartel lighten his skin if he chooses to?? And why are we only mounting a hue and cry about skin bleaching downtown while deliberately averting our gaze from the many skin lightening creams such as Ambi and Nadinola used in uptown homes? The selective moral outrage is telling–this seems to be yet another case of moralizing the so-called lower classes.
I agree, and to further expand on Annie’s thoughts, I wonder if some of the uptown moral outrage may be rooted in anxieties about the ways in which poor people create unconventional avenues to gain class mobility and “skip the line” so to speak to what they envision as an improved socio-economic status, with which lighter skin is most certainly associated.
Here’s what I mean: For most of us, a combination of academic effort as well as professional excellence have earned us something in the vicinity of a middle-class profile. We also gain this profile through the inheritance of both skin color and wealth. Achieving or maintaining this profile has taken time and labor, or in the case of inheritance, was our birthright—something to which we had a right. Bleaching, in essence, aims to garner its followers some of the benefits of that middle-class profile without the necessary academic or professional efforts or the privilege of inheritance through a kind of deception, the same deception to which Annie refers when she mentions attempts to erase accents or straighten hair.
This anxiety about efforts to inhabit an alternate race/class space is nothing new, and similar forms of cultural censorship have been documented throughout the Caribbean. I’ll take the liberty to quote from my own work, The Embodiment of Disobedience: Fat Black Women’s Unruly Political Bodies, in which I contemplate middle-class disdain for ghetto-fabulousness: The fancy hairstyles, the colorful clothing, and, of course, bling.
In E.A. Hastings’ travel narrative, A Glimpse of the Tropics, published in Britain in 1900, he describes his visit to the town of Mandeville in Jamaica and his encounter with black, Jamaican women dressed for church on Sunday morning. Interestingly, his account from over one hundred years ago parallels today’s resistance to ghetto-fabulousness:
Big hulking negresses were attired in gorgeous silks and satins, and truly wonderful hats with broad brims and feathers, and ribbons of the most elaborate and stylish description. The wooly heads under all this fashionable headgear were pathetically ludicrous. Some had contrived, after years of labour, to gather up a little bunch [of hair] at the back, which gave them an honourable position in negro society. (242)
Hastings’ indignation at this superimposing of white dress codes and hair fashion on black bodies and his perception of this act of racial cross-dressing as “ludicrous” reveals his recognition as well as his fear that racial boundaries are unstable.
Hastings is upset and nervously laughing “anh ha, anh ha” because he is quite undone by the thought that people so clearly anchored to a particular status by their blackness would even attempt to transgress those borders and approximate whiteness through fashion.
I’d like to suggest that bleaching among poor (and wealthy) Jamaicans also aims to render race and class boundaries unstable and is informed by the desire to infiltrate more speedy and easily accessible routes to the presumed benefits of lighter skin such as greater sexual mobility, improved job opportunities, and higher class status. Even if Vybz claims bleaching has become primarily a stylistic choice, as a cultural critic I can’t help but argue that those choices find their root in something less visible, less immediately knowable. And while self-hatred may not be the source of Vybz’s penchant for bleaching, bleachers most certainly anticipate the benefits of brown privilege from this costly, unhealthy, and in some instances quite painful endeavor.
While I find the old Vybz far more attractive, undoubtedly he’s not trying to please me or anyone else and said so as much during his visit to UWI. Annie quotes Vybz from his lecture:
…I further maintain that bleaching today doesn’t mean the same as bleaching twenty-five years ago…we are a much prouder race who know that we can do what we want as far as style is concerned, we dictate styles and regard them as just that–styles. So as controversial as bleaching might be right now, I bask in my controversy with cake soap as my suntan.
I wonder, would we feel this kind of outrage if Vybz were white and chose to spend his weekends in a tanning salon? Or can we leave Vybz to color in his coloring book any way he pleases?
Watch Vybz’s video “Coloring Book”: Kvbz Kartel Singing \”Coloring Book\”
Annie Paul’s article on her blog Active Voice:
Carolyn Cooper’s Gleaner article in which she shares Vybz’s message to her: