I always knew Jamaicans had a thing for Michael Jackson. We sang along to Thriller and some of us (cough, cough) even owned the red leather jacket with the zippers. But this bleaching thing has moonwalked across the line.
'The King of Pop', may his soul rest in peace, is dead and gone. But it appears he has been reincarnated in the form of one of Jamaica's most talented (and one of my favourite) dancehall artistes - Vybz 'Michael Cake Soap Jackson' Kartel, aka Adidja Palmer, aka Addi the Teacher.
In recent times, the deejay's skin has undergone more changes than his name. He initially sought to clear up the issue by attributing his lightening complexion to cake soap and air conditioning. Jamaicans didn't buy it. Even without a black-and-white explanation, it's obvious that Vybz Kartel's rapidly disappearing melanin is likely a result of bleaching - the practice of chemically altering one's skin to attain a lighter complexion.
Origins of Bleaching
The bleaching phenomenon has existed for ages, typically confined to the shadowy fringes of society (after all, direct sunlight is quite damaging to bleached skin). Never before has such an influential Jamaican so proudly carried the mantle of Bleacher-in-Chief. But what could prompt a man - and an entire subsection of society - to completely undermine the harrowing struggles of blacks to gain freedom and equality? We were insulted, imprisoned, murdered and enslaved because of this skin colour, and now that we are (physically) liberated, they seek to destroy that very colour. Perhaps some answers can be found in 18th-century Jamaica.
By the late 1700s, slavery was firmly established across the Americas. The southern American colonies were robust societies. If a white landowner wanted to satisfy his sexual impulses, he had countless white, southern belles from which to choose; miscegenating with slaves, however, was socially reprehensible. It wasn't so in Jamaica, a primarily economic outpost where interbreeding between plantation owners and slaves was widespread - ultimately leading to the evolution of an entire class of mulattos.
These mulattos lived much more comfortably than blacks. They worked in the mansions and were legally granted preferential treatment - achieving early emancipation and often inheriting substantial wealth. Unlike cotton in the American South - a primarily agrarian endeavour - sugar production, the dominant economic activity in Jamaica, was largely industrial. Sucrose escapes from sugar cane within hours of being picked, necessitating refining near the plantation. Mulattos were trained in the many aspects of the refining process, becoming skilled tradesmen. As time progressed, mulattos, and later fair-skinned blacks, attained far greater socio-economic standing than darker blacks. These enduring disparities likely explain why a young woman in modern-day Jamaica would bleach the entire skin of her newborn baby and why an incredibly successful dancehall artiste feels compelled to alter the colour of his.
Many who bleach claim the practice has nothing to do with renouncing their blackness, arguing that it's an entirely aesthetic undertaking - brown skin simply looks better. Nonsense. Most bleachers look absolutely ridiculous. Others argue that the practice is no different from tanning; which, on its face, appears a credible argument. However, negative health effects of both practices notwithstanding, tanned skin is a naturally occurring variation of a light complexion whereas chemically bleached skin is not a natural variation of any complexion - except perhaps a duppy's.
Kartel has lyrically responded to his critics, singing, "Tek yuh eye offa me." But as the self-proclaimed 'Teacher' and one who commands the attention of many, particularly the youth, this attention can't be so easily dismissed. Whether he likes it or not, he is a role model, and his influence is as real as the young minds he is helping to corrupt.
So, Kartel, by all means, make your money. Invite people to party at The Building every night; tell them to drink Street Vybz rum; ask them to buy your cake soap (to do laundry). But, please, don't influence the youth to make fools (or ghouls) of themselves and ruin their beautiful, black skin. Remember the words of another great deejay: "Black is beauty, unnu colour is one in a million."
Din Duggan is an attorney who now works as a consultant with a global legal search firm. Email him at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at facebook.com/dinduggan and twitter.com/YoungDuggan.