A missed opportunity?

There’s been some discussion around the place about the Late Night Blues article by Penny Reel. It’s a Black Echoes article from 1997 which, broadly speaking, laments the fact that nothing much changes as regards the white majority’s understanding and appreciation of reggae. I believe John Eden linked to this recently.

And… it’s alright. Well, it would be, it’s by Penny Reel. Lots of interesting observations from a lifetime spent in reggae. But I can’t help feeling it’s pretty hazy about its targets, and pretty lazy in developing its argument. I find it hard to understand just what Penny Reel’s point is.

The bugbear for Reel seems to be that white people don’t “get it” as quickly as black people. Much of the article is a rehearsal of various observations of how white and black audiences have different tastes in and appetites for reggae. He seems to laugh at how whites have different levels of knowledge about reggae and very different cultural experiences and attitudes — well, what would you expect? I mean, to address an example Reel cites, of course there aren’t many white people at a Luciano show. For one thing, looking at the matter pragmatially, it’s hard for white people to know there’s one going on. That’s not blaming the reggae scene for not marketing Luciano well enough to white people — it’s simply a statement of fact.

There’s an issue of market evolution and message dispersion: put crudely, black people are early adopters of reggae, and white people are late adopters of reggae. If you have black and white audiences consuming an artist at the same time, what do you get? Answer: Shaggy. Of course our analysis should go deeper than mere empiricism — but what analysis is being made here? I find it hard to detect any.

Penny Reel doesn’t even try to land the assertion that the white music industry has ripped off black reggae musicians — even though, and this is irritating, I’ve no doubt it happened. Yet there’s a defensive undertone to the piece which would imply that this is common. And the answer to that vague assertion are only to easy to provide. How much greater is the exploitation of black reggae musicians by black entrepreneurs in Jamaica, for example; the economics of the copyright-owning producer ensure that. And say what you like about while record label owners like Mick Hucknall, but his label Blood and Fire has gone to great lengths to ensure that PEOPLE GET PAID. Would that all JA re-release labels did the same. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that Blood and Fire have been something of a life-saver for some people. And again, Soul Jazz — about whom Reel could conceivably be making snide comments (“Music lovers [can]add … to a compact disc collection [of] boogie woogie piano … classic blues … gospel … Sixties soul and Seventies funk”) — cannot be criticised for ripping off JA artists. Again, they make sure people get paid.

And this is merely an updating of an old story. “Bass Culture” details repeatedly how many reggae artists of the 70s could only survive on the income made from selling records “a foreign” — frequently through Trojan re-issues.

Throughout the piece, Reel reiterates that white audiences are never up to date with the latest reggae innovations, and don’t participate in the rituals and venues of black reggae audiences. This is true. Unlike dance music, reggae has continued to maintain its distribution channels and performance venues. Yet one wonders how, given the tone of the article, he would feel if lots of white people did turn up. As at, say, Shaka gigs. Or Iration Steppas shows. Or, these days, Elephant Man shows. Or, certainly, Sean Paul shows (who is still popular with black reaggae fans).

In the final sentence — and not before — Reel suddenly introduces the concept of cultural colonisation, as if that is the logical corrollary of all that went before. It isn’t. Describing differences in cultural consumption does not equate to demonstrating cultural colonisation. Cultural colonisation would arise when the dominant culture’s consumption of reggae would result in the demolition of the communities and conditions that gave rise to that cultural artefact in the first place. A good example of this is dance music. The mass-consumption of the culture resulted in the erasure of raves and underground clubs and, rather than feeding the production and distribution networks that supported the original culture, from 1995 onwards they competed them out of existence. Dance culture has been obviously in decline ever since. In contrast, few of the waves of popularisation of reggae have resulted in that, with the possible exception of the roots / hippy wave (and I would probably argue with that anyway).

It would have been so much more satisfying if Reel had really got to grips with the issues. In particular, he could have done a lot better by really getting into the proposition that “White people don’t consume reggae until a decade or more after it’s made — so the threat goes away, and the original artists don’t get paid for their work when they need it.” There’s at least something in this. But he doesn’t develop his argument; he simply tells a few stories that don’t add up to much.

I have enormous respect for Penny Reel. But I have to ask, again — is there really a point to this story? What is he attacking? For it looks to me like there’s too much carping from the sidelines, and not enough meat. And yet it could have been so good. So it looks, to me, like a missed opportunity — albeit one that’s seven years old.

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