Rude Boys: From Marley and Cliff, Shanty Town to Savile Row

When will the Rude Boy be valued in Jamaica? When I came across the article entitled ‘Rude Boys’ written by  published in the Guardian, it brought me back to the days when I served as a board member at the Institute of Jamaica’s (IOJ) Museums Division. We had the mandate for securing and exhibiting the national collections. To my surprise, a large portion of the materials in the national collection had never been exhibited, including a substantial African Collection bequeathed to the nation by a diplomat posted in Jamaica after a sojourn in West Africa.

I had the privilege of seeing the entire national collection, and many artefacts representing indigenous Jamaican material culture were absent. As a member of the Board, I was constantly appalled for example at how there was never an exhibition on Rastafari, Jamaican fashion or that there was even a significant music collection showcasing the indigenous music birthed in Jamaica. Yes of course, we have a Jamaican Music Museum but its collection is at a crucial embryonic stage and with no permanent home. And yes, we have only recently opened an exhibition on Rastafari because I was a key player in engaging the Smithsonian Institution (Museum of Natural History) regarding the possibility of their exhibition ‘Discovering Rastafari!’ travelling to Jamaica, as well as the UWI’s Rastafari Studies Initiative, a key partner in its Jamaican staging. I could go on and on about the national collection, or about how there is no national consciousness about the need for a significant national collection showcasing our indigenous material culture. But that is not my aim.

Now, here comes word of another exhibition to be opened in London which has not been conceptualised by or for Jamaicans. ‘Return of the Rude Boy’ begins at London’s Somerset House in June. Has there ever been such an exhibition in Jamaica? Perhaps the idea has entered the mind of some persons but never came to light. Regardless of the situation, I am clear that there are two challenges posed here. First, many Jamaicans don’t see their indigenous culture as important enough for archiving, research or preservation. Secondly, where there is a consciousness about its importance, priority afterall (some would say) should be placed on more pressing issues such as various forms of crime and violence, grave economic challenges, moral decay, and so on. There is little consciousness of the link between culture and identity formation (personal / national), preservation of culture and education, or even, national culture and creative industries.  These are two critical challenges facing us as a nation as we seek to chart a path toward sustainable development through creative industries. The link between heritage, tourism and sustainable development through creative industries ought not to be missed.

I leave you with some of the article, and hope that the Institute of Jamaica considers seriously the possibility of having this exhibition travel to Jamaica.

“The rude boy has come a long way from his origins in Jamaican subculture, as shown in a new photography exhibition celebrating the movement’s distinctive style.”

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The tailor Sam Lambert shows off his rude boy style.

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It was towards the end of 1963 that the Wailers released their first single, Simmer Down, on the legendary Studio One label in Jamaica. The song was written and sung by an 18-year-old Bob Marley, the lyrics intended to placate his mother, Cedella, who was worried about the company her son was keeping in the Trench Town ghetto of the Jamaican capital, Kingston, where they lived. Simmer Down was aimed directly at the often sharply dressed young men locally known as “rude boys”, who were making headlines in the then newly independent island with their violent and antisocial behaviour. “Simmer down, oh control your temper/Simmer down, for the battle will be hotter,” sang Marley over a frenetic rhythm by the studio’s stellar house band, the Skatalites. Produced by Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, Simmer Down was not the first song to address the rude boy phenomenon. The previous year Stranger Cole had released Ruff and Tough, produced by Coxsone’s rival, Duke Reid, a song now recognised as the first rude boy anthem. Simmer Down, though, had an urgency that caught the edgy, increasingly unruly atmosphere of Kingston’s mean streets. It was also an early example of what, as the fast-paced, jazz-inflected thrust of ska gave way first to the slower “bluebeat” and then to the even slower, but deeper, bass-heavy rhythm of reggae, would come to be known as “sufferer’s music” – a song voiced by, and for, the oppressed, who ordinarily had no voice in Jamaican society.

“The figure of the rude boy with his swagger and casual disrespect for the law harks back to older archetypes like the semi-mythical Stagger Lee character in black American folk blues, the bad man who seems invincible,” commentsPaul Gilroy, academic and author of several books on the politics of race, including There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack. “That kind of figure also appeared in various guises in the imported Hollywood western and gangster movies that young Jamaicans lapped up. But the emergence of the rude boy at this particular moment also marked out the acquisition of a new self-confidence and sense of self-reinvention among the young and disaffected that was related somehow to Jamaican independence in 1962. The rude boy was a recognisable, if culturally complex take, on an archetypal bad-boy figure.”

Since then, the rude boy has recurred throughout the history of popular music both in Jamaica and Britain. His sartorial influence – sharp suits, pork-pie hats, shiny shoes – was felt in both the early mod and, more problematically, skinhead movements of the early and late 60s, as imported ska and bluebeat singles from Jamaica ignited the hipper dance floors of London and beyond. It was revisited, too, for the 2 Tonemovement that emerged out of the Midlands and London in the wake of punk in the late 70s, when bands such as the Specials and Madness reinvigorated Jamaican ska.

Now an exhibition of photography called The Return of the Rudeboy is about to open at Somerset House in London. Curated by fashionphotographer Dean Chalkley and stylist and creative director Harris Elliott, it aims to “depict a collective of sharply dressed individuals, who exemplify an important yet undocumented subculture …” With live events, DJs, merchandising and even a rude boy barber shop, as well as screenings of fims such as The Harder They Come – perhaps the ultimate depiction of the lawless rude boy lifestyle – the exhibition will, say the curators, “document the life, style and attitude among a growing group of people that embody the essence of the term”

What, though, is the essence of rude boy in 2014? For many young people, the term is now synonymous with the 2011 single of the same name by Rihanna, the reigning rude girl of sexually suggestive R&B. “Come here, rude boy, can you get it up/Come here rude boy, is you big enough?” she sings, rendering the term reductively literal and blatantly stereotypical.

I put it to Harris that, in their interpretation of the term, the rude boy also seems to have travelled a long way from his edgy ghetto roots, shedding his anti-establishment tendencies to become simply an arbiter of a certain kind of post-modern urban style in which the past is rifled and recontextualised, and, in the process, stripped of real meaning.

Return of the Rudeboy is at Somerset House, London 13 June-25 August

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