Academic journal article The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online)

From Browning to Cake Soap: Popular Debates on Skin Bleaching in the Jamaican Dancehall1

Academic journal article The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online)

From Browning to Cake Soap: Popular Debates on Skin Bleaching in the Jamaican Dancehall1

Article excerpt


This paper explores the cultural debates on skin lightening or 'bleaching' in Jamaica through the lens of popular music, in particular dancehall music culture. Social debates on skin lightening in Jamaican often identify this practice as a form of mental slippage, and as a solely epidermal manifestation of low self-esteem generated by white supremacist ideals that negate the black, African self. Yet, progressive dancehall debates and popular slang suggest that a progressive move towards contemporary manifestations of skin bleaching are associated with contemporary modes of fashion and ungendered rites of beauty. As such, the paper draws on the lyrics and slang of dancehall artistes and delineates a path from Buju Banton's Browning to Vybz Kartel's Cake Soap as it attempts to flesh out the overlapping cultural debates that surround skin bleaching.

Keywords: dancehall, Jamaica, cake soap, skin bleaching, Browning


This paper builds on earlier work (Hope 2009) to explore the cultural debates on the pervasive issue of skin 'bleaching' as a component of the quarrels with lighter skin colour vs. darker skin colour in Jamaica. In this instance, the discussion focuses particularly on popular dancehall music culture which has explicitly engaged this debate since the turn of the 1990s. As such, this paper draws on the lyrics and slang of select dancehall artistes to flesh out the overlapping cultural themes that colour this debate from the 1990s to the present.

Various studies have examined and discussed the underlying rationale for the Jamaican imperative towards lighter skin colour (Kerr 1952, Henriques 1953, Miller 2001, Charles 2003, 2007 and 2009, Hope 2009, Niaah 2009) which for many fuels skin bleaching in Jamaica. In overturning the continued parlaying of the singular application of the black self-hate thesis as the rationale for skin bleaching, Charles concluded that "the bleaching group certainly does not suffer from self-hate. However, they have been miseducated into believing that the only standard of beauty is the one defined by European ideals" (Charles 2003:726). Charles (2007:4) also highlighted a variety of reasons why skin bleachers engage in the practice, including: - to remove facial blemishes, to look beautiful, to attract a partner, to make their faces "cool" 2 and to feel good. Here, Charles (2007) concluded that "the interaction of societal institutions has created the light skin hegemonic representation that says light skin is superior to dark skin" (2007:15)... and this "light skin hegemonic representation guides the behavior of the study participants who altered their Black physicality" (2007:15). Accordingly, the persistent blanketing of manifestations of skin lightening/bleaching, as reflective of low self-esteem or whitewashing of the mind of mainly poor urban women demands additional interrogation and analysis beyond the social and psychological (Barnes 2006:114). The representations of light-skinned (or brown) Jamaicans who also bleach their skin create a paradox when these discussions are grounded solely on the notion that darker-skinned individuals engage in this practice in order to become lighter and thus fit into the ideals of lightness that pervade the society.

Evidence presented from various studies including Miller's work in the 1960s and 1970s (see Miller 2001; Charles 2003; 2007; 2009; and Hope 2009; 2010) suggest that multiple factors provide the social and cultural impetus towards skin bleaching in Jamaica and these factors should be taken into account if meaningful strategies are to be created and employed to counteract the trend towards skin bleaching. This is particularly so as state-driven public education programs such as the Ministry of Health's anti-bleaching clampdown in 19993 and their "Don't Kill the Skin" campaign" in 2007, ostensibly target the biological and medical aspects of skin bleaching and target and profile Jamaican 'bleachers' as persons at the lower reaches of the social and economic strata. …

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