About Eric Binder, Doctoral Candidate

Project Mosaic PhotoEric Bindler is a scholar, teacher, and musician based in Orlando. He has a B.A. in Music and Anthropology from Rollins College, and an M.A. in Ethnomusicology from Indiana University.

Binder is currently completing his doctoral dissertation on race relations and national-identity politics within the Costa Rican reggae scene, and has taught courses on ethnomusicology and anthropology as an adjunct professor at Rollins College.

He is also an accomplished reggae, rock, and jazz guitarist, as well as an aspiring steel pannist.

Investigating Legacy — A Different Flex: The Migratory, Racial, and Musical Legacies Facing West Indian Musicians in Orlando

As theorists of the African Diaspora have long recognized (cf. Gilroy 1993, Hanchard 2001), one of the defining characteristics of contemporary communities of African descent is their transnational mobility. Indeed, in addition to being indelibly shaped by the historical waves of forced migration that brought their ancestors to Western shores during the colonial era, present-day African diasporic populations are themselves highly itinerant, with scores of Afro-descendants circulating throughout the Western Hemisphere and beyond each year in search of better lives and livelihoods. West Indians—or individuals from the English-speaking Caribbean, such as the islands of Jamaica, Barbados, and Trinidad & Tobago—are certainly no exception to this general trend; as Lara Putnam (2013) has recently discussed in great detail, thousands upon thousands of West Indian laborers left their island homes to harvest bananas and sugar, mine precious metals, and build railroads and canals throughout the Caribbean and Central and South America between the mid-nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, while more recent generations of West Indian workers have looked primarily to the United Kingdom and the United States for employment opportunities not available at home. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2008-2012 American Community Survey, for example, there are nearly 2,650,000 people of West Indian origin living in the United States, with almost 790,000 such individuals residing in Florida, and over 14,000—or about 6% of the city’s total population—in Orlando alone.[1]

Like all transnational migrant populations, West Indians in Orlando must engage in complex processes of cross-cultural interaction, negotiation, and exchange as they attempt to both adapt to their new home and maintain connections with their old ones, and as is so often the case with migrant groups throughout the world, music plays a central role in these efforts. Indeed, the local West Indian community makes a vibrant contribution to Orlando’s multicultural musical mosaic, hosting regular events that feature everything from soca and dancehall artists to kwe kwe ensembles and steel bands. These performances, however, are not simply carbon copies of their island counterparts; West Indian musicians living in Orlando are as much a product of their U.S. influences and experiences as they are of their Caribbean heritage, and their artistry and identity are shaped by a wholly different set of historical and sociocultural legacies than those that govern the artistic output of their island peers. In this post, then, we shall examine the impact that these distinctive legacies have had on the lives and career trajectories of two Orlando-based West Indian musicians, both Afro-Jamaican singers who front local reggae bands.

Migratory Legacies

In many ways, the migratory experiences of our two reggae singers are quite similar to those of the scores of other West Indians who have made the journey to the United States since the most recent wave of West Indian immigration began in the mid-20th century; they and their families, in other words, have traveled along well-worn routes laid down by the generations of Jamaican and other West Indian migrants that came before them. I-Resolution singer Ali Rebel (pictured below), for instance, left Jamaica with his parents at the age of eight for Brooklyn, New York, one of the most popular destinations for U.S.-bound West Indian migrants. Indeed, as Ali himself observed, “it seem like every Jamaican that leave Jamaica moves to Brooklyn,”[2] and sociologist Sherri-Ann P. Butterfield confirms that the borough hosts “the largest concentration of West Indian immigrants in the city” (Butterfield 2004:83). Ali and his family also lived for a period in Queens—another New York neighborhood with a significant West Indian migrant population—before spending several years in the Middle East when his parents accepted positions working for the United Nations. Finally, after returning to the East Coast for high school, he relocated to Central Florida to attend Stetson University, and though he has also spent time living in South Florida and California in the years since, his travels have consistently brought him back to Orlando.

Ali Rebel. Photo from http://www.iresolutionvibez.com.

Ali Rebel. Photo from http://www.iresolutionvibez.com.

Similarly, Judea Hosang (pictured below)—who performs under the stage name Black Pantah with his reggae group, The Bond[3]—left Jamaica with his siblings to join his parents in Brooklyn at the age of nine and a half; he noted that “people were suffering” due to the political and economic turbulence plaguing Jamaican society throughout the 1970s, so like many of their peers, his parents had left their children with relatives on the island while they traveled to New York to establish “a better life” for their family. After spending his teenage years in Brooklyn, Pantah relocated to Florida—first Miami, then Orlando—in his early twenties to follow “other [i.e., nonmusical] career pursuits,” but it was here that he began to devote himself more fully to music as well, as will be discussed below. The many parallels between Ali’s and Pantah’s respective stories are significant, in that the migration decisions that they and their families both made—to travel to the heavily West Indian-populated communities of Brooklyn and Queens, then Central and South Florida, in search of peace and prosperity—were influenced at least in part by the migratory legacies left by the waves of Jamaican and other West Indian sojourners that had preceded them.

Black Pantah. Photo courtesy of Mandi and David Pandich.

Black Pantah. Photo courtesy of Mandi and David Pandich.

Racial Legacies

But if a certain set of entrenched patterns and proclivities has helped to determine the migratory routes taken by Black Pantah, Ali Rebel, and scores of their West Indian peers both to and through the United States, a separate set of historical legacies has played a key role in shaping the experiences they have had—and the identities they have formed—following their arrival. As a number of scholars have observed (cf. Butterfield 2004, Foner 1998), for instance, U.S. interpretations of ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ carry different meanings, and operate according to different conventions and precedents, than do their Caribbean counterparts; in particular, many West Indian migrants to the United States have been taken off guard by the severity and the explicitness of the ethnoracial prejudice and discrimination to which they have been subjected in U.S. society. Indeed, according to anthropologist Nancy Foner, “as West Indians travel abroad in search of economic opportunities and resources, all too often they find themselves living in societies in which blackness is more devalued than it was at home,” (Foner 1998:173), and they therefore “develop new images of themselves, as blacks and as West Indians, in response to the particular nature of [the] ethnic and race relations and hierarchies they encounter” (Foner 1998:174) in their new homes.

Ali and Pantah echoed these sentiments in their discussions of their personal experiences with race and racism in the United States. Pantah, for example, noted that:

“In America now, make you fi realize a different flex, it’s like, you’re black and you stay over there, and you’re white and, and it’s like what’s going on here? So that, that was a shock to me, that was culture shock to me when I came to America. I never knew that existed.”

The following interview clip, meanwhile, presents Ali’s insights into contemporary U.S. race relations:

As both Ali’s and Pantah’s accounts confirm, in other words, the distinctive events and phenomena that make up U.S. racial history—from slavery and Jim Crow segregation to the rigid ‘one drop’ system of racial classification left in their wake—have together contributed to a legacy of ethnoracial tension, stereotyping, and discrimination quite foreign to West Indian migrants, who must often shift their own understandings of race, ethnicity, and ‘blackness’ as a result.

Musical Legacies

Like scores of other transnational migrants, West Indian and non-West Indian alike, throughout the world, both Black Pantah and Ali Rebel found that music played a key role in their efforts to make sense of their newly transnational lives and identities following their relocation to the United States, long before they chose to pursue careers as professional musicians themselves. Ali, for instance, explained that listening to Jamaican reggae and dancehall music was “one of the biggest ways that [he] personally connect[ed] with [his] culture,” and he thus made it a priority to collect as much new music as possible whenever he went back to visit Jamaica as a youth. Pantah, meanwhile, had grown up singing and listening to gospel music with his devoutly Christian family, and his interest in reggae and dancehall grew only after he began to learn more about Rastafarianism from older West Indian migrants living in Brooklyn; he noted that he “always knew about Rastafari from Jamaica, but could not dare go there” himself until he was in his late teens, a period during which he says he “found [him]self,” began growing dreadlocks, and started singing and playing percussion in a local reggae band.

But even though both Pantah and Ali place reggae and dancehall music at the very core of their cultural identities, they also recognize the influence that the many other musical styles they have encountered in the United States have had on them; as both listeners and performers, in other words, they are as much products of the legacies of African American and other U.S.-based musical developments as they are of their Afro-Jamaican musical heritage. According to Ali, for example, it was “all about hip hop” when he was growing up in New York, so even though he listened primarily to reggae, he was cognizant of, and comfortable with, hip hop conventions and aesthetics.[4] It is therefore unsurprising that his first major foray into singing and songwriting involved “spitting reggae”—or delivering reggae- and dancehall-style vocals—over hip hop rhythms alongside his more hip hop-oriented roommate at Stetson University. Though the duo, called Night and Gale, disbanded after college, Ali embarked on a career of his own under the name Nightingale, and had significant success performing reggae/dancehall vocals to hip hop beats in Orlando, South Florida, and California. He is, however, equally well-versed in genres ranging from rock and alternative music to Europop and Zulu traditional music, and this versatility has enabled him to put together a more diverse repertoire of original rock-, funk-, and jazz-influenced reggae songs with his I-Resolution band mates, as the following rock/dancehall fusion track (called “Problems”) makes clear:

Pantah also acknowledged the wide array of musical influences to which he has been exposed in the United States, noting that he listens to everything from hip hop and jungle music to R&B and European classical music. Thus, while 360 Degrees, the band he joined at the age of sixteen in Brooklyn, was primarily a straight-ahead reggae group, his solo repertoire is significantly more diverse. Indeed, after leaving New York for Florida and acting in the Jamaican crime film Shottas, Pantah released his first full-length album, “Project: Reggaeologist,” which features several hip hop- and R&B-inspired songs in addition to more conventional reggae and dancehall numbers. The following track (called “Hey Blacks”), for instance, sets Pantah’s dancehall-style vocals to hip hop-flavored beats:

The following interview clip, meanwhile, presents Pantah’s perspective on the various intertwining musical legacies that have shaped his artistic output and identity as a Jamaican performer living in the United States:

The performance styles and career trajectories of U.S.-based West Indian performers like Ali and Pantah, however, are not only influenced by the vast array of U.S. musical traditions that these performers encounter on a regular basis; they are also impacted by dominant Euro-American perceptions and interpretations of West Indian musical genres themselves. Indeed, according to cultural studies scholar Mike Alleyne, “the mainstream Euro-American audience has continually demonstrated a propensity for adopting reggae-oriented material on the basis of its aesthetically pleasing surface qualities rather than for explicitly political or deeper musical content” (Alleyne 2000:15), a propensity which has been facilitated in large part by the artistic and advertising decisions of British and North American record producers and marketing executives. American studies scholar Michelle A. Stephens makes a similar point in her analysis of the transformation of reggae legend Bob Marley’s public image following his death in 1981; she contends that the mainstream music industry’s representation of Marley as a ‘natural mystic’ rather than a race-conscious revolutionary “dismantl[ed]… the specifically racialized politics central to Marley’s self-promotion,” and replaced them with “a pluralist vision of ‘one love’ that legitimated the national narrative of a multicultural America” (Stephens 1998:149). As both of these scholars suggest, in other words, many—though by no means all—Euro-American reggae fans conceive of the genre primarily in terms of its appealing ‘tropical’ rhythms (and the scantily-clad black bodies and copious marijuana usage that are often perceived to accompany them), and/or a generic, depoliticized notion of ‘racial harmony’ that completely elides the specific racial issues and histories to which Afro-Jamaican reggae artists frequently refer in their songs.

Ali addressed many of the same phenomena in his discussion of his experiences as a reggae musician in Orlando, noting in particular how little interaction he sees between Euro-American and Afro-Caribbean reggae artists and listeners. He observed, for instance, that “Orlando has two demographics, […] there’s Caribbean people, and then like the shows that [I-Resolution] do[es]”—which, he explained later, are typically attended primarily by “college white kids” and “surfers”—“[he] hardly ever see[s] any, like, Caribbean people there.” Similarly, Ali commented on how rarely he encountered Euro-American reggae fans at the more Afro-Caribbean- and African American-populated reggae/dancehall and hip-hop clubs he used to frequent while performing as Nightingale. He also discussed how often his Euro-American fans and fellow performers attempt to give him advice about playing reggae, noting that:

“To me it’s kind of like, this is something that you discovered when you started smoking weed when you were fourteen, you know, but this is, like, this is what Jamaicans are, you know what I mean, we are reggae music, […] that’s our major contribution to, like, history, really.”

As these anecdotes and analyses reveal, in other words, the twin legacies of the mainstream music industry’s efforts to make reggae music more palatable to Euro-American audiences on the one hand, and lingering interracial tensions and stereotypes on the other, have led to a troublesome situation in which reggae means very different things, and is performed in completely different places, for its self-segregated black and white audiences in Orlando and beyond.

Despite this palpable lack of interaction and communication between Orlando’s Afro-Caribbean and Euro-American reggae fans, however, both Black Pantah and Ali Rebel remain optimistic about the potential of the genre—and music more generally—to connect people from different walks of life and make their lives better. According to Pantah, for instance:

“So through music now, we can, I guess, speak the same language, if you will. And then we can understand, ‘okay, I don’t live where Pantah live or come from where Pantah come from, but based on the subject he’s talking about, I can relate, I can correlate,’ yeah.”

Similarly, Ali concluded our interview by emphasizing that his primary motivation for making music is to try to “propel humanity forward” by using his songs as vehicles to promote greater social awareness and social change. It is notable, furthermore, that both Pantah and Ali play in multiracial bands, and strive to bring their respective messages to as wide an array of communities—in geographic as well as sociocultural terms—as possible. Thus, while we cannot deny the indelible impact that past historical and sociocultural legacies have on the opportunities, experiences, and identities of transnational migrant musicians such as Ali and Pantah, we must also acknowledge their efforts to counteract some of these dominant trends, and leave their own legacies as inclusive, bridge-building culture bearers and cross-cultural ambassadors.

For more information on Ali Rebel and I-Resolution, visit http://www.iresolutionvibez.com/ or https://www.facebook.com/IResolution. For more information on Black Pantah and the Bond, visit https://www.facebook.com/Blackpantahandthebond.

 

Works Cited

Alleyne, Mike. 2000. “White Reggae: Cultural Dilution in the Record Industry.” Popular Music and Society 24(1):15-30.

Butterfield, Sherri-Ann P. 2004. “Challenging American Conceptions of Race and Ethnicity: Second Generation West Indian Immigrants.” International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 24(7/8):75-102.

Chang, Jeff. 2005. Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Foner, Nancy. 1998. “West Indian Identity in the Diaspora: Comparative and Historical Perspectives.” Latin American Perspectives 25(3):173-188.

Gilroy, Paul. 1993. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Hanchard, Michael. 2001. “Afro-Modernity: Temporality, Politics, and the African Diaspora.” In Alternative Modernities, ed. Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar, pp. 272-298. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Keyes, Cheryl L. 2004. Rap Music and Street Consciousness. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Putnam, Lara. 2013. Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Stephens, Michelle A. 1998. “Babylon’s ‘Natural Mystic’: The North American Music Industry, the Legend of Bob Marley, and the Incorporation of Transnationalism.” Cultural Studies 12(2):139-167.

United States Census Bureau. 2008-2012. “American Community Survey.” Electronic document, http://factfinder2.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml, accessed May 23, 2014.

 


[1] It must be noted that these figures include individuals of Haitian origin, a primarily French- and Creole-speaking group not always classified as ‘West Indian’ in the strictest sense of the word.

[2] As native Jamaicans, Ali and Pantah both often speak in Jamaican patois, a dialect with different grammatical rules and conventions than American English. For all direct quotes, I will leave the original wording as intact as possible.

[3] In the interest of full disclosure, it must be noted that I, the author of this post, am The Bond’s guitarist.

[4] It is also important to acknowledge that African American hip-hop and Jamaican reggae and dancehall are closely related in both aesthetic and genealogical terms; cf. Chang 2005, Keyes 2004.

© Copyright Project Mosaic: Legacies - Site by Tenium.