At a time where political unrest in Jamaica was at its height and indeed the globe was in a period of unrest, New York born journalist and photographer Beth Lesser was able to immerse herself in Jamaican culture and evidently the reggae/dancehall scene circa 1980.
Through a series of poignant images from that pivotal period in Jamaican history where political machinations, volatility, violence and musical creativity formed an uneasy co-existence, Lesser’s images are a window into this musically rich period.
Despite a gulf in many respects in terms of her own life and that of the subjects, it’s clear in her near forty-year old images that she was able to forge a relationship of trust with her subjects allowing for moments of intimacy with greats like Sugar Minott.
(JAMMY’S STUDIO, IDLERS)
Talk a bit about the music you loved which led to an interest in Jamaican dancehall/reggae.
I was born in NYC but moved to Toronto in 1977 where I met my future husband, David Kingston. We were both big music fans, both comfortable exploring away from the popular stream (I had spent the early 79’s listening to Cajun, bluegrass and Old Timey music) and when we started going out together, we went out looking for music – in clubs, in record stores- anywhere it could be found.
Here in Toronto, it wasn’t hard to run into reggae in the late 70’s. Friends tried to introduce me to Bob Marley’s music, but somehow, it just didn’t interest me but when I started to hear the deejays, the sweet singers, the heavy King Tubby dubs – that made an impression.
Of course how does a New Yorker end up in deepest Jamaica, Kingston photographing some of the most important names in the reggae dancehall scene in the late 70’s mid 80’s?
It kind of worked backwards because I was interested in journalism, not photography. I wanted to write- to interview people and write about their lives. When I went to Jamaica I went with my husband but I didn’t even take a camera. I had taken the mandatory basic two courses in photography in school but didn’t consider myself a photographer and never planned to do it professionally. So, for the first issue of Reggae Quarterly, I had to beg photos from people. Luckily, Pablo’s friend Lloyd Goldberg gave us a few-we got by but for our second trip, I bought a proper camera- a Nikon F2– but I still had only the one lens it came with, the 50 mm. The fact that the images are remembered now is just a coincidence-I never imagined or planned it that way.
Sound systems explain their importance and indeed why they were more than just a time to play music?
Sound systems are community centres-the dances bring people together with their neighbours and with people from nearby neighbourhoods and let them forget the monotony of daily life for a few hours. People of all ages came and just hung out- ate some food, had a beer or a spliff. Kids came but where sent home early. I don’t know if it’s still like that today but then it used to be mellow, at least in the early hours. Later, it got more intense but I mean intense musically – the momentum built and the deejays let loose their best lyrics over the hottest rhythms and people would chant ‘forward!” and “Pull it up!” but people still just danced slowly in the shadows. Everything remained dark under the stars the change in the intensity could only be felt not seen.
(PAPA SCREW, BLACK SCORPION)
And what about the significance of the record labels and the radio stations at the time?
Radio Stations were non-participants in the growth of dancehall music. Still obsessed with the former colonial power, Great Britain, Jamaicans defined music for the ghettos of Jamaica to be inappropriate, at least the upper classes did and they controlled the radio stations. That policy began to loosen up in the 80s, but slowly. It was hard to hear a reggae song played on the radio. Of course, there was a great deal of ‘payola’ at the time, so the larger studios, distributors and producers- those with deals abroad to import or press foreign records- controlled the content.
The socio-political impacts of music at this time were huge can you explain that a bit more.
Well politically, music had traditionally been manipulated by the parties competing for office. To appeal to voters, the two major parties used to incorporate popular songs into their campaigns (not always with the approval or consent of the artists or producers) and lure the top artists onto their sides. Michael Manley had a “bandwagon” of top performers touring the country campaigning for him in the 1972 election-music was seen as the most effective way to reach people. Socially, people who hoped for a conversation were disappointed. The communication only went one way. Although artists continued to pour out their tales of suffering and hardship in their songs, they got little response. Complaints in music went from the general (hunger) to the very specific (the need for a $50 bill) but it didn’t provide much relief.
If reggae/dancehall did not necessarily instigate change how did it help the dis-advantaged and marginalised in Jamaica?
The music let people feel they were not alone in their fears and frustrations. Many dancehall songs helped people form self-identities- like Half Pint’s Greetings (1985) which allowed all those less advantaged to see themselves a part of a great community of “ragamuffins” – something to be proud of. People identified strongly with the songs and found expression in the music for their dreams as well as their fears.
Jamaica’s political unrest at the time of some of the images was significant-how did this period of time shape the music, the movement of music in Jamaica with figures like Sugar Minott.
The political unrest affected the ability of people to hold and attend dance hall sessions. When local conflicts flared up, gun shots would be fired and random people harmed. Sound systems in those days mainly tried to be neutral but that was impossible to maintain because of the pressure (backed by arms) by either party to take sides. Sound system personnel could be kidnapped and forced to perform for certain functions or the owner could be threatened and told to play at a certain place.
Despite trying to maintain neutrality, did the artists end up affiliating to any side?
Although most artists tried to stay away from politics and were usually allowed to do so, back then by the political gangs, the majority of the artists in downtown Kingston identified as socialist. It was more a result of the area you were born in than beliefs, so it was impossible to escape or change at will. Most of the leading artists, like Sugar, tried to unify the people of the ghetto and he worked with people from all areas and walks of life, including artists from other countries like Japan.
How were you perceived by the dancehall community, wider political groups and government if it reached those levels?
It never reached those levels! The middle and upper class Jamaicans we encountered (rarely) treated us as crazy gringos. Imagine coming all the way from Canada to talk to a bunch of ragamuffin good-for-nothings! They thought we were pursuing a purposeless path to nowhere. We were even occasionally treated with disrespect. In any case, no one who lived out of the ghetto ever took us seriously for a second.
How did you go about getting these intimate images-explain the process, the difficulties of getting these images and of course the restoration process of these images some of which are nearly forty years old I presume?
Getting the images was no problem-how to get photos in Jamaica – walk into someone’s yard with a camera. Everyone instantly jumps in front of it. There were a few people who didn’t want their photos taken and I respected that. The problem with the images now is that the film was not always processed in the best of conditions – commercial labs- so the images have suffered some chemical deterioration- colour casts, changes in the colours around the edges. Some are not easy to restore and many will never look like they once did.
Lastly, let’s talk more about Sugar Minott (who you knew well)-his significance to the culture, what he did and of course his legacy if you can reduce it to a few key points?
Sugar was brilliant at combining ballads style vocals and hard hitting protest lyrics into one song creating masterpieces like Mr Babylon Man (1979), Rough ol’ Life circa (1980), Hard Time Pressure (1979) and Can’t Cross the Border (1984) to name just a few. This way, he connected with both men and women, local and foreign- his appeal was far reaching. Unlike other producers, Sugar put all his earning back into his youth co-operative, working to train, record and promote young talent from the ghetto. Sometimes the effort he put into developing other artists meant he let his own career slip and sometimes the artists he helped eventually went where they perceived the grass was greener. Sugar never left the ghetto, instead of building a big house in the hills. His dream was to build a recording studio right there in the ghetto where he lived. What I want to emphasise is that he left a legacy of building strength in the ghetto through unity. He was an amazing person and I am going to start to cry now.