Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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It's Jamaican, Out of Africa and a Step After Reggae

Kingston, Jamaica--Manley Buchanan is a 24-year-old Jamaican who grew up around West Kingston, where he is now known as Big Youth, or just Youth, pronounced with a silent "h." Since all young men in Kingston are called youths, this nickname has a mythic dimension. Manley Buchanan has been desperately poor and obscure in his life, and he may well become so again, but Big Youth is a self-created symbol, an idealization, a star. Over the past year and a half, he has made about 20 hit records. In early April, six of them were top 40, an unprecedented feat even on the volatile Jamaican charts. Some Jamaicans, especially those with American-style values, dismiss Big Youth as a fad, but others agree with Richard Thelwell, an environmental engineer who manages a music group called Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari: "Big Youth is the most important man in Jamaica."

Richard Thelwell takes a special interest in Big Youth because despite their disparity of background--Thelwell is middle-class and has earned degrees at universities in the U.S. and Europe, while Manley Buchanan grew up in a typically fluid Jamaican family and quit school when he was 13--the two men share a religion. Both are Rastafarians.

Rastafarianism is a religion without dogma or membership rolls that exists only in Jamaica. I have heard its adherents numbered below 100,000 and more than 1,000,000. Its central tenet--though it would appear that some new, educated Rastafarians hold to it only figuratively--is the divinity of Haile Selassie, the Ras Tafari. The Rastafarians are rooted in the desperation of slum life and the back to Africa ideas of a Jamaican national hero, Marcus Garvey. If they don't achieve repatriation to their chosen homeland--Ethiopia, or anyway Africa--they may produce a whole generation of Jamaican leaders. This is because the Rastafarian brethren, unlike most men of the Jamaican underclass, value their children, the seed of Zion. Like many lower-class Jamaicans, Rastafarians smoke a lot of ganja, or marijuana, which they consider a visionary aid.

In their enthusiasm for blackness and for Africa and their emphasis on economic self-help (also their avoidance of pork) the Rastafarians resemble the Black Muslims. Their anti-hierarchical bias and informal habits of worship--one Rastafarian told me that a religious service occurred whenever brethren smoked ganja and reasoned together--are reminiscent of the Quakers, as are their quietism and pacifism. Their family structure, in which the fathers educate the children while the women work, is like that of orthodox Jewish scholars. In many respects--their belief in universal love, their communal withdrawal from mainstream economics, their mystification of cannabis, the wild "dread locks" into which some of them plait their hair--they recall the early hippies. But whereas hippies were middle-class escapists, Rastafarians have developed a survival system for the economically depressed.

Sometime after Jamaica became independent in 1962, Kingston youths like Manley Buchanan (who included Rastafarians among his uncles and cousins) began to integrate Rastafarian usages--dread locks and sacred ganja, antiwhite and anti-materialistic rhetoric--into a half-formulated lower-class black-consciousness movement. This movement was vaguely defined; it overlapped with the groups of slum youths who called themselves rudie boys and were accused of various crimes by society at large. Unlike the black-power movement of Afro hair-styles and soul music, which was also beginning in Jamaica at the time, the Rasta cult was distinctly lower-class, although it did attract its share of educated seekers like Richard Thelwell. Even more important, it was indigenously Jamaican rather than American, and African rather than European.

Somewhere within the same constellation was Jamaican popular music, first known as ska, then rocksteady, then reggae, which at its most original musically seemed often to voice strong antipolice and antiboss sentiments. As with the Rasta craze itself, the medium of this music was the street--records that were effectively banned from Jamaica's two radio stations could be heard at record stores and dances. It was at the dances that Big Youth became the hero of its latest phase, called dub.

Dub is an extension of the reggae "version"--the instrumental track of a hit song, almost invariably sold as its B side and used for dancing. In dub, the rhythm track of a version is amped high enough to strain the bass capacity of ordinary speakers. The dub vocal style originated in the traveling sound systems where Big Youth, formerly a mechanic, began to work three or four years ago as a deejay, a kind of announcer emcee who jives the crowd over the music in the manner of a frenetic-poetic AM disc jockey here. On dub hits, the vocalist deejays over a rhythm track improvised by studio musicians.

Like every other new form of African-based popular music ever devised, dub is derogated by would-be tastemakers and by fans of the form that preceded it, and so is Big Youth. This is nonsense. Dub is the most interesting music in Jamaica right now, and Big Youth is an original. Repeating his words does not convey his spirit or his rhythmic sense. His achievement, like that of a jazzman, is in performance, and its chief virtue is freshness. Big Youth captures some evanescent part of the confidence of young manhood. He is innocent, enthusiastic, humorous, compassionate. Compared to the reggae of five or six years ago, Big Youth's music lacks a certain fatalistic analytic edge. Like his Rastafarian brethren, he appears to have rejected anger for hope. But he makes it sound real. No wonder the young people of Kingston love him.

Of course, there is a tragic difference between hope that sounds real and hope that is real. Since Big Youth's art is identical with his naivete, he doesn't make such distinctions. He still lives on a squalid courtyard in West Kingston, surrounded by impecunious friends and battery operated electronic equipment. Being famous is obviously much more important to him than being rich. When someone gently suggests that six hit records at once may be spreading his appeal a little thin, he responds that his fans want it that way.

Although through personal appearances Big Youth makes more money than the average Jamaican, his fees--$150 or $200 rather than that customary $40 or $60--are absurdly low for the hottest recording artist in Jamaican history. Only one of the many producers he has worked with has given him any royalties so far--$250. Big Youth seems confident that he'll get his money--he has even hired a lawyer--but he doesn't seem to care very much whether he does. He'd rather point out that on his latest record--a heartbreaking rendition of War's "The World Is a Ghetto," which Big Youth has rewritten into a song called "Streets of Africa"--he has started to sing. Very well, too.

I hope I'm wrong, but I expect Big Youth's ascendancy is temporary--like so many Jamaicans, Big Youth seems fated to sing for a season in the Africa of his dreams, before the real Jamaica, which is controlled by America and the West, closes in on him. He says he would like to sing in America, but if Americans understood him at all they would probably consume him whole. Big Youth's genius is real, but he has no apparent notion of how to control or husband it. If he did, it probably wouldn't be genius any more. I can only hope that the same isn't true of Rastafarians as a whole. Just because they face so unblinkingly toward Africa, they would appear to be the only real hope for a Jamaica that is Jamaican.

N'day, Apr. 29, 1973