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By Johnny Angel

Honky If You Love Reggae:
Dreadlocked whities without a clue don't know nuthin' about the stuff they're copying

If I live to be 100 years old, I'll probably never fathom how reggae evolved into the beach party music of choice among beer-swilling frat boys and soro-grrrls. Considering that outside of Boston, New York and D.C., there are very few Jamaicans living in the USA and that only a handful of the most deracinated, electro-pop renditions of reggae beathood have been chart hits, how did this come to pass?

It's been going on for a helluva long time, too. I recall waiting outside of my Boston apartment building for a ride when my neighbor strutted out onto the doorstep, clad only in cutoffs and carrying a cooler in one hand, a beach ball in the other.

"Where ya going?" I asked.

"Reggae Sunsplash, dude," he said, popping open a tall-boy.

"Really?" I asked. "Who's playing?"

"I dunno," was the answer. "It's Reggae Sunsplash, man."

"You don't know who's playing? Is it Toots or Marcia Griffiths or Aswad or Uhuru or Jimmy Cliff? I mean, you're paying for the tickets, right? Don't you know what bands are playing?"

"No, man, It's Reggae Sunsplash," he spouted, exasperatedly, as if explaining to an idiot. "It's reggae, dude."

Doink that I am, I always wanna have a pretty good idea for whom I am shelling out major bucks on ducats. This geezer didn't, satisfied that it was party-on time, a chance to smoke weed, drink beer and dance that arrhythmic dance dopey suburban white boys tend to do whilst bombed. In this situation, I was dissing his party.

The misappropriation of this music and the culture from whence it sprang bugs the piss outta me all the same. Seeing dreadlocked haoles shuffling through the Haight or along Pacific Avenue makes my blood boil. In the Rastafarian sect, dreads are part of a sacred ritual that used to invite a swift beating from Jamaican authorities, not some empty sartorial gesture more in thrall to Perry Farrell than Haile Selassie. (In fact, for a laugh or two, walk up to one of these Caucasian twist-o-conks and ask who Selassie was. It's "highly unlikely" you'll get anything resembling the right answer.)

And don't even get me started on the misappropriation of ganja inhalation.

Nope, this is another variation on the collegiate- whitey- gets- a- handle- too- late- on- black- culture thing that brought every college town one trillion bad honky Chicago blues bands in the late '60s and early '70s. While it was useful that Muddy and John Lee and Wolf finally cashed in a little, it was sad that the folks who originally loved this stuff tended to get elbowed out of the venues where it played.

Tell me, how many African Americans do you see at the beach/ski resort/chalet/booze cruise outings where reggae or blues is the music of choice? Not many, if any. And conversely, how many Caucasians do you see at most hip-hop or dance hall shows? Same, baby. Because the living, breathing descendants of reggae and blues scare the pants off most over-21s who wanna party all night long. It's too prescient and too real for most. Better to exhume the past for that neato foray into ethnic jollies.

I love and treasure a lot of reggae discs, from the old shit like The Harder They Come soundtrack and Two Sevens Clash to new stuff like Nicodemus and Shaggy and the fantastic Tiger, truly the toaster with the moster. But the idea that this is mo' Caribbean cuteness, like calypso and Harry Belafonte was to my grandparents, is too hard to handle. No respect at all, man.

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From the March 28-April 3, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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