Thirty-five years ago, Chris Blackwell (head of Island Records) transformed the entire West Indian music industry by marketing Bob Marley as a rock star instead of another "exotic" Jamaican export. Where reggae had always been a niche genre, blown off by the mass public as boring, Blackwell turned it into the music of choice for white frat boys who puffed a little herb on the weekends. Lester Bangs, the late, great music journalist, described the '70s reggae audience as "white middle-class American kids who think it's romantic to be black and dirt-poor and hungry and illiterate and sick with things you can't name because you've never been to a doctor." Later, he admits, "I know because I am one of those kids." I'll step up to the pulpit and admit that I, also, am just another white kid in love with Jamaica, lurking in the aisles of East Pike Street's Zions Gate Records.
These days, amid the shadow of hiphop, white kids in love with black culture are a dime a dozen, yet reggae fans get that extra criticism of orientalism (i.e., an infatuation with the foreign). But like most American reggae fans, my infatuation began with the manufactured antiexoticism of Marley, and only later did I find my true love—that wonderful, hyperactive dancehall beat.
A handful of dancehall artists have followed Marley in the Jamaica-America leap (Shabba Ranks, Shaggy, Bounty Killer with his cameo on No Doubt's "Hey Baby"), but Sean Paul is the first dancehall deejay to find himself in a land of American pop stars. Where the Stones were the big money act to follow in Marley's heyday, Sean Paul's world is the international mega-diva industry of Beyoncé (whom he's recorded with) and Mariah Carey (whom he's toured with). He's winning Grammys, going platinum in 11 countries, appearing as the first reggae artist on the cover of Vibe magazine, showing up on Punk'd and Making the Video, and it's all part of his crossover plan. "[I'm] hoping to cross white kids who never heard my first songs before," he says. "They know 'Gimme the Light' now because of MTV."
In Jamaica, Sean Paul is what's known as an "uptown dread," which means that he isn't from the shantytowns of Kingston (the birthplace of reggae) but from a nice, uptown neighborhood and a middle-class family. Maybe this is the reason he doesn't seem to disdain Babylonian America (like other DJs) and feels free to earnestly chew the fat about his favorite Sopranos episode or his love of LL Cool J or his time in college studying hotel management—uh, since when do dancehall stars go to college? Appropriately, Sean Paul's songs aren't about the urban, gangsta life described by dancehall contemporaries like Mavado, whose amazing debut spouts his "Gangsta for Life" ethics in every song—they're about straight-up partying. It's why hardcore dancehall fans accuse him of not being "the real thing," but it's also why he's been infinitely more successful as a crossover artist.
These days, I can't really say that I'm alone in my dancehall love, and Sean Paul is partly responsible for that. With his voice all over radio singles by Clipse, 50 Cent, Jay-Z, DMX, and De La Soul, he's turned fans of hiphop and pop back to the Jamaican culture.
Since Sean Paul's The Trinity in 2005, the Jamaican-American gap has shrunk even more, with ragga queen Rihanna turning Sean Paul's pop-tinged dancehall into dancehall-tinged pop. Just turn on the radio, wait five minutes for her "Umbrella" (featuring Jay-Z) to play for the thousandth time today, and see if you can hear where Jamaica stops and American pop begins.
But as much as we want Sean Paul to be one of our American pop stars, he remains a culture away, throwing down lyrics that still bewilder any apple-fed white kid: "Sometime mi haffi wonder if dem headset dem wreck it/Jah know dem ago bun well if dem don't waan correct it." Even after translating this, there's still a vast vocabulary of Jamaican slang words to contend with, such as labba labba (annoying talking) or rass claat (used tampon). A Fader story on reggae-soul crooner Gyptian comes right out and says it: "The problem with trying to interview rastas is that they have their own language." These boundaries make it difficult to be a half-assed dancehall fan (even when it's Sean Paul). It's the same reason why hardcore white hiphop fans usually walk and talk the part—to enjoy the sound, you have to absorb a culture, a dialect, and like it or not, a race.