The Road to En-lightened Men

Dancehall artist Vybz Kartel is one of Jamaica’s growing cadre of en-lightened Men. With a combination of creams he lights the way, becoming a beacon of despair showing how far we have fallen from actual enlightenment. So, though they don’t actually need one, the cake soap toting Vybz Kartel has become the poster boy for bleachers.Vybz Kartel Light

Yet as much as we would like to (and it is very easy) point at, laugh at, or mock Vybz and his cartel, we must remember that they are the symptom not the disease. Bleaching, especially at the levels it currently occurs in the society, is merely the latest outbreak, one of the largest sores, of Jamaica’s socio-political ills.

It highlights that over 200 years after the abolition of the Transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans, and over 170 years after the abolition of slavery, in 2011, the Year that the United Nations has declared the Year of People of African Descent, despite the historical presence of Marcus Garvey, Una Marson, and the entire Rastafari Movement, our mental shackles remain firmly in place.

Nadinola Bleaching Cream Ad - Ebony Magazine 1960

A Nadinola Bleaching Cream Advert from 1960 in Ebony Magazine blatantly highlights light is right

While the Ministry of Health plans to bring out the big guns against the rising tide of bleachers, it would be good to note that while bleaching clearly has medical implications, it is a cultural phenomenon. This current outbreak of unabashed bleaching does nothing other than underscore that at the heart of Jamaican society are connections between money, power, beauty and shade. Bleaching is nothing more than a more ingrained tool for creating a white mask for black skin.

We’ve long known the definition of beauty in this country, brown and long hair, and Page 2 of the Observer, as disturbing as some of us may find it, doesn’t lie. Brown and white are markers of beauty, economic status and power in this country. We all remember that “Nadinola beauty cream does a lot for you!”

So, bleaching is itself no new phenomenon, and while many are currently aghast at how unabashed bleachers are, there was once a time when it was expected, when bleaching creams boldly stated their goal of providing “lighter” skin.

There are however two significant changes. First, it is no longer a badge of shame. Second, in a bid to balance the gender equation the number of men who bleach is strikingly higher than in the past.

The phenomenon of bleaching men, probably seems so strange because bleaching rests on the point of beauty and until recently beauty was the purview of women, and as such as the song says, “bad man no dress like girl, we no bleach face and…” Hmmm, I think once again, it is time for Dancehall to redefine what masculinity means.

Yet it might not be at all strange that “gangsta’s have begun to associate themselves with an attribute normally associated with the “fairer sex”. Indeed, we probably should have realized that something had gone askew when Scare Dem Crew started to declare themselves to be dainty, the very opposite of the the image of the “bad man”.

gangstas for life

Ebony Patterson's interrogation of gangstas and the bleaching phenomenon from the Curator's Eye III at the National Gallery of Jamaica

The phenomenon of the Gangsta-Bleacha is strikingly explored by Ebony Patterson whose installations in Curator’s Eye III, Young Talent V and Jamaica Biennale 2010 (at the National Gallery of Jamaica) have looked at the intersection between gangstas, bling, and bleaching, highlighting the highly feminized aesthetic that underscores Jamaican contemporary urban masculinity.

As Patterson’s art highlights, despite the uber-heterosexuality of the Jamaican masculinity, most proficiently and vehemently espoused in Dancehall culture, Jamaican masculinity is also heavily feminized and has been for decades, or at least since the 1980s. Its femininity rests in the love of sequins, flash, colour and general drama.

Kartel’s journey to en-lightenment shows that as far as status symbols go, money and fame are not enough. No longer do you just have to secure the “browning” who will ensure that your children are brown. Now, men must also , become the browning.