A few encounters with people and with books have given me pause for thought lately. In one conversation, two friends were talking about their love for reggae, going back to their childhoods. I was therefore surprised to hear the turn in their conversation. Apparently, both of them had lost their taste for reggae and felt disillusioned when they listened to it. As far as they were concerned, it was the same old lament being voiced in the present that had been voiced twenty or more years previously. Why, they wondered, couldn't reggae tunes incorporate more uplifting messages? Why hadn't the lyrics evolved to reflect major developments in Africa and her diaspora? They felt that listening to reggae actually disempowered them and, as a result, had decided to turn to “more inspiring” musical forms. I found myself ruminating on their words, but I was not ready to agree with them.
Reggae does often express the disenchantment of an economically and racially marginalized group with “the establishment”. That is precisely why so many youth have been attracted to it through the decades. During our teenage years, we all have rebellion coursing through our veins. Soon enough, we emerge into a cruel world and realize just how little we are and how ineffective our punches are against the world's brick walls. I think roots reggae is the embodiment of the little man or woman’s cries of frustration at the injustices of “the system”. As long as poverty and oppression remain, and as long as the global economy is slanted to favor a few and to milk the rest dry we cannot expect the laments to end or to change significantly.
I reflected further on the young men’s words, and realized that the direction of their conversation reflected significant changes in their own lives. They were no longer voiceless youth, financially dependent on others and with little control over their circumstances. Instead, they had been pushed through a middle class education and were now well-established successful businessmen, heavyweights in the corporate world. They were now “the establishment”, so how could they possibly identify with the message encoded in reggae? For them, rebellion had been a necessary part of their teenage years, but it was now time to leave that experience behind them and turn to a form of music that reflected their new realities and reinforced their faith in their lifestyles.
Shortly after listening to that discussion, I found myself reading Farid Boudjellal's "Petit Polio- tome 1". On one of the later pages of this bande dessinée, Mahmoud, the young hero, born to Algerian parents in France, is rudely awakened to the ugliness of racism in France and the urgency of the Algerian war of Independence. He seeks solace in his favorite comic strip, set in the Wild West, and dreams of running to his cowboy heroes for help, and then setting off with them to help his fellow Algerians in their battle against France.
I did a double take when I first saw this sequence of images in the bande dessinée. Was it actually possible that, in young Mahmoud’s mind, these cowboys, colonial settlers and expansionists of an earlier era, had morphed into champions of Algerian anti-colonialism?The irony was inescapable.
However, it has to be said that Mahmoud was not alone in dreaming up this strange alliance. In fact, seeing the images of the traumatized little boy's dream reminded me of how, in the mid-20th century, young children in parts of Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere, living under the yoke of colonialism, were sometimes able to get hold of American comic strips that depicted the “Wild West”. Quite a number of them would treasure these comic strips and would sympathize with the “cowboys”, somehow seeming to forget that if it was their own story being told, they would be the “barbaric primitives”, and their colonizers would be the “good-guys”, the “cowboys”.
The mindless killing portrayed in those comic books was not far from the violence experienced by these children and their families. How was it possible for them to elide over this fact as they read through the comic strips? Were the children in denial? Were they able to avoid making this comparison by convincing themselves that these tragic events were so far removed in history that they had no bearing on their lives? Were they trying to salvage their dignity by identifying with power or with the gun-toting bully?
I don't know the answers to these questions, but I do know that the violence depicted in those comic strips is not a thing of the past. It lives on, right at this moment, in the words of popular songs, in the games that children play, in the romanticized myths of the American nation’s origin, and particularly in the marginal existence that Native American nations eke out in reservations. Most of us do not notice this violence because it doesn't touch us directly, but our hearts would be heavy and our souls weary if it was our reality.
First published in TakingITGlobal's Panorama Zine
on 22nd February, 2007.