Friday, April 23, 2010

Major Lazer: Cyborgs, Dancehall, Racism, & Colonization in Music

Cross posted from my Media Justice column

This post is 5 months in the making! Last year I heard the song Pon De Floor somehow, I really can’t remember since it’s been years since I listened to the radio. Then while watching So You Think You Can Dance, the remaining dancers did a group number to the song. That’s when I knew the song was at a new popular high. It’s rare when a Dancehall song becomes so popular we see it on primetime television. So my interest in the song, the performers, and the origins was piqued.

After doing some searching I found the video for Major Lazer’s Pon De Floor. I was immediately excited because the dancing in the video was very much the kind of Dancehall I find fascinating, yet also complex as it is overly sexually graphic. Basically performers are reenacting some sexual activities on the dance floor, yet are doing so in a way that challenges our ideas of athleticism in dancing in this way. Another aspect of the video that I was excited about was that the women dancing were large bodied women. Some may even call them “fat dancers” yet for me their bodies were so much like my own it was as though I was watching myself dance.

When I realized I needed to learn more about the group I did some online searching and put in a request for a Gchat conversation with my homeboy, musical genre guru extraordinaire: Hugo who writes about DJ music and its connections to identity and society and provides his own mixes for free at his online home American Pupusa. I like to call Hugo my “musical mentor.” My online searching led me to the shocking knowledge that Major Lazer is a fictional Black cyborg created by two White men, Diplo from Philidelphia (of M.I.A. fame), and Switch from the UK who specializes in “House” music. When I realized that two White men created this image of Major Lazer, created the music, and then used Black and brown bodies in the videos I knew I had to talk to Hugo as soon as possible! There was just too much to unpack on my own.

Hugo and I had a dope conversation about the group and the imagery, motivation, and process of Major Lazer. I asked Hugo to “school me” and he graciously accepted the task! I told him how I loved Pon De Floor and that it seriously rocked my world not only because the dancing was fierce and I love Dancehall, but because the diversity in body types, the over/exaggerated sexual representations, all the stuff I love. Yet, I did a Google search and now am so confused re: origins, focus, and how race connects, to name a few.

Breaking down the social locations of the two White men who created Major Lazer, Hugo shares that Switch has his brand of House [music] called “fidget house” or “crack house”, which is pretty much House music that “uses chopped up samples on top of the beat. It throw things off, swinging and syncopated it’s high energy and uses very bright sounds.” I asked Hugo about the origins of the term “crack house” because the term for me when I hear it is very racialized especially with Black people living in the US in the 80s and 90s with the Cocaine vs. Crack situation, especially with incarceration and sentencing. That term invoked a very graphic image of a White boy in a crack house which reminded me of the ending of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled. Hugo shares that the “crack house” name was “coined by this Jungle/Drum and Bass producer turned house guy named DJ Zinc who is British and White, so I’m not too certain on his reason, but in message boards these two terms are usually interchanged.” Wow. Just wow. Hugo also shared this article where DJ Zinc talks about the origins of the term “crack house.”

He then shared with me the background of Diplo and said he started out doing Hip Hop, produced an album called Florida that is in the vein of DJ Shadow, Rjd2, etc, but moved towards more dance music styles. He is famous for producing M.I.A.'s "Piracy Funds Terrorism" mixtape. Diplo also did a Dancehall track with Vybez Kartel on his first album called ‘Diplo Riddim.’ When I asked him more about Diplo Hugo says “he is that White dude that makes Baile Funk cool, Baltimore Club cool and things like that.” That made me laugh. Diplo also has a podcast that Hugo suggested I check out where he “promotes ‘world global music’ thing showcasing dance music from around the world with a focus on Baltimore Club.” Hugo also shared an interview with Diplo about working with several Dancehall and Jamaican artists for the Major Lazer album.

To understand exactly what Diplo and Switch did in creating Major Lazer, I decided to purchase the album. One hundred percent of the album is dancehall music featuring several well-known Jamaican and Caribbean artists mentioned in the video above. I asked Hugo: “(no making fun of my analogies) but they did a No Doubt with recording in Jamaica (JA) with Jamaican producers/engineers? which Hugo confirmed. I shared with him that “the representations in the videos I loved. It's 1 thing to have people of Color do the videos I love, and it's another when White boys do it. Know what I mean? Not that I love it any less (but I kinda do), but now it’s a different perspective with over-sexualized components.” This comment led Hugo to think about “race records” by “major labels when Blues became popular. Later we saw Chess Records (R&B and early Rock) who were started by two White guys and Blue Note for Jazz. All labels that produced so much of early Rock and Jazz music.”

In response to this question Hugo brings up a community and identity that I’m not familiar with: “hipster/s/dom.” He shared an article with me and states “Diplo is the quintessential hipster drawing from ‘other’ and bringing it to reinforce his own Whiteness rather than immersing himself in it, like a ‘yo boy.’ That’s the big critique against the hipsters and post-modernism: They make cultural products meaningless.” Hugo started dropping big words and I had to ask him to clarify, specifically what he meant by applying a “post-modern” critique. Hugo shared a link to help contextualize his connection. He said that in the example of Major Lazer, he’s “talking about the removal of Dancehall culture and identity because two White boys are copying and pasting this whole culture into a concept album.” I understood Diplo as not centering himself but centering his music. Hugo affirmed this and said that Diplo “brings the music to the masses and presents them as ‘danceable badbwoy music.’ The genres he presents are very popular in the ‘native’ locations in which they are sourced but he provides access to people who wouldn’t know how to access them themselves and Major Lazer is a reinterpretation.”

This was my “ah-ha” moment. I said, “ok, gotcha, but that kinda reeks of colonization. Colonization as in modernization ideologies and the exploration and conquest means better ideas. Not saying it is like that, just saying my mind takes me there.” Hugo agrees and asks “in the end who benefits the most? And the music is so layered with money, sound satisfaction, stardom, etc. So you have different beneficiaries.” I told you he was a music guru didn’t I! I admit that this complication is what draws me and what makes it all so intense and interesting musically. One of the more overt representations I see of racism and colonization in the Major Lazer videos and music is the use of a particular Black man who has been included in all the videos and promotional/marketing events for Major Lazer. Hugo told me this man is Skerrit Bwoy whose style of dancing is called “Daggering.”

Throughout our conversation Hugo and I shared several videos. He was honest with me in sharing that he had not seen all the videos I was mentioning nor had he heard the Major Lazer album. When I shared with Hugo the videos he agreed there were “SOOO many layers on this music and the images: hipster, dancehall, rave, color, body, etc.” We first started the deconstruct the video Pon De Floor and Hugo believes that it is “directly affecting a Dancehall genre that has very very strict codes and rules, so it’s a disruption and the uber-exaggeration of the ‘dances’ because in our culture [i.e. amongs many Latinidades] we have the aesthetic of the ‘doble-sentido’, that line of alluding but not going over, which some would argue is more sexually arousing than an open flat-out skank dance or reference.” We both agreed that the video is taking the doble-sentido to a more openly sexual side: bright colors, sounds, exaggerated dances, design, and general overload of imagery.

As we begin to talk about Major Lazer as a fictional Black male cyborg, “an 'enhancement' by technology, grounded in traditional rude-boy skanked out riddims and templates” as Hugo said, we noticed we were coming at Major Lazer from two different perspectives. I shared that when I realized Major Lazer is a Black cyborg I loved it because it connects to my women’s studies Donna Haraway feminist cyborg “stuff.” I shared with Hugo how historically in Haraway’s cyborgs (which are basically color and gender-free) that they have racialized the cyborg, which is something White feminists who use that don’t do, they say race will/can be omitted, so these two White boys don’t do that, or play by those rules. So what these two White boys do is kind of revolutionary. Yet I realize outside that “feminist” paradigm, the fellas are basically using racism to their advantage. Hugo sees the racism as “it took these two White boys to create a Black character who is infused with technology to make him the baddest dude on the planet. But I keep getting drawn back to the rules of Dancehall. It’s a tough genre to crack, and tougher one to innovate.” Hugo also talks about how this “follows another tradition where White singers who ‘sound Black’ are not revealed quickly (Madonna, Elvis, etc…) to gain commercial appeal. Ironic no?”

I asked Hugo to talk more about the strictness of Dancehall because I love the genre and find it very inclusive. I wanted to hear more about the strictness he was thinking. He starts by talking about one of our favorite musicians in general across genres: Yellowman. Hugo says that King Yellow, as he’s known to many fans, is “a big social and cultural exaggeration and so he was able to drop new ideas that way. Dancehall is technology music and the move from instruments to drum machines and electronic sounds came at the same time with King Jammy.” Hugo finds the strictness is in the development of the music versus the movement and representations of bodies and gender. He elaborates on this and says that the “strictness comes in that four main topics in Dancehall are weed [marijuana], homophobic lyrics called Badman lyrics, social consciousness lyrics, and sexual prowess slack lyrics. Dancehall is strict in the competitiveness of Toasters [Toasters/Deejays are the Reggae/Dancehall equivalent to what we call in Hip Hop an “MC”], credibility, crews, and musical politics amongst the emcees.”

From this conversation Hugo shared a video that he found similarities to by Flying Lotus called Parisian Goldfish. He saw similarities in color scheme, body and musically it’s another “perversion” of the genre. He talks about how the “larger musical context is becoming brighter generally speaking and we are now using musical samples from the 80s, Sega Genesis, Nintendo’s, neon.” I asked if Hugo thought that this goes back to the use of 80/90s imagery and music is connected to creating music in what is considered “Third World” countries, such as the fellas recording Major Lazer in Jamaica. Hugo encouraged me to explore that more. I discussed when some people want to produce/record in “Third World” countries, why is that? Does it make the music more organic? Is it an attempt for the musicians to convince themselves of creating music for the people because the people they want to use/sample cannot fly in/outside of their homeland because of issues of wealth, access, ability to leave country (i.e. passports, work visas, etc.).

Hugo made some connections between this approach having been done before, especially by rock artists and Black artists in the UK such as Tricky who went to Jamaica for Pre-Millenium Tension. He shared that “reggae producers and production has just as much a rich history as the performers, Studio 1, Channel 1, Waterhouse, Tuff Gong. These are famous studios owned by big producers. I think ‘First Worlders’ think it gives them street cred to access production techniques they can’t replicate.” I share that I see this a lot with musicians from Cuba. The techniques are the OG (original) ones that we had before people started to modernize music.

I saw this as a form of romanticizing the lack of modernity. Hugo challenge me and said “think of this: when ‘international artists’ come here they don’t’ change much: Sean Paul, Beenieman, Elephantman, but when Whites come down there the totally f-up the genres in different ways.” I saw a sense of entitlement was also at play even/especially when crossing boarders/boundaries. Hugo admitted that he was never really into hearing the album by Major Lazer in full and that all the hype it got may have influenced his decision to stay away from the album. I wondered if knowing how the fellas created their music, can we be surprised in the way it is being consumed?

At the end of the day I kind of feel duped, hoodwinked, bamboozled. I fell for imagery that was crafted by outsiders to represent something meaningful that I valued as an important part of my Caribbean identity. There are revolutionary aspects, yet there are so few in comparison to how many troubling aspects of the music, imagery and representations of Major Lazer. The entire time I transcribed and wrote this piece I couldn’t get Prince’s ideologies around choosing an unpronounceable Love Symbol to represent him to get out of his contract with Warner Bros. He was reported as stating in the book Where Were You... When the Music Played? 120 Unforgettable Moments in Music History

The first step I have taken towards the ultimate goal of emancipation from the chains that bind me to Warner Bros. was to change my name from Prince to the Love Symbol. Prince is the name that my mother gave me at birth. Warner Bros. took the name, trademarked it, and used it as the main marketing tool to promote all of the music that I wrote. The company owns the name Prince and all related music marketed under Prince. I became merely a pawn used to produce more money for Warner Bros... I was born Prince and did not want to adopt another conventional name. The only acceptable replacement for my name, and my identity, was the Love Symbol, a symbol with no pronunciation, that is a representation of me and what my music is about. This symbol is present in my work over the years; it is a concept that has evolved from my frustration; it is who I am. It is my name.

I now understand that Major Lazer is a symbol, yet I’m unclear what it represents because I realize it does not represent me or the community I find myself a part of. I’d love to hear what those of you who either identify with any of the artists we mentioned her or who enjoy Major Lazer think. This is definitely me as an “outsider” to some extent but an “insider” in others. An interesting space to occupy.

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