Hip-hop with the pot

In October of 1998 I took a two-day seminar at Simon Fraser University with Rinaldo Walcott ? transplanted Barbadian, author of “Black Like Who?” and professor of humanities at York University. Walcott knows his roots and cultural history. He is an engaging story-teller and teacher of personal memoir and family history, infusing his openness and charm into his work.
Walcott took time from his schedule to talk with me about the Caribbean, Rastafari, and hip-hop culture.

Tell me about the course that you teach.

It’s called “Black Cultural Studies, the Politics of Representation.” It’s a third year undergraduate course in which we look at the cultural politics of representation in black film, music and literature. We try to discuss these things in relation to the civil-rights movement, the black-power era, gay and lesbian liberation, second-wave feminism, anti-racism, queer culture and so forth.

Does marijuana make its way into the class discussion?

It’s hard to talk about Snoop Doggy Dog and not mention marijuana, but it’s equally hard not to talk about sexism and Snoop Dog as well.

The kind of “return” to representing marijuana in black culture is very interesting. I think when folks talk about marijuana as “blunting”, this is very different representation than what the Rastafarian has. The Rasta doesn’t see marijuana as blunting you, but as opening you so as you can reason better.

How do you think this was lost in the transition to American hip-hop culture?

I don’t think so much that it was lost, but in contemporary culture as we take things from the past, things can get distorted. You’re blunted, you’re tough, a man’s got to stand firm even when blunted, while Rastafari has the notion of standing firm too, but in your reason, your beliefs and convictions.

The classic film “The Harder They Come,” which in many ways is a gangster flick, is different from gangsta rap. “The Harder They Come” is not romantic about poverty, while in gangsta rap sometimes there’s this simplistic celebration of an imagined hard life. It tries to make a hard and dangerous life glamourous, but at the same time there’s a lot of politics and pointing at the contradictions in life.

My major problem with gangsta rap is its representation of masculinity, that real men are hard and tough. It’s about time we start to revise the notion of what a real man is.

Let’s talk about your early years on Barbados.

My first encounters with marijuana were actually from adults snickering about people, making comments like, “Oh he just smoked the funny bush.” This was in the early 70’s. The men they were talking about were all Rastafarians, and in the 70’s in Barbados the Rastas were not well liked.

Because of their marijuana use?

Because of their politics. In some ways they were arguing for radical political positions, seeing capitalism as a form of oppression or “downpression” as they would call it.

They were seen as a potential political threat. Asking disturbing questions like, “If black people are the majority why don’t black people hold the economic power?”

As the 70’s went on and Bob Marley became an international superstar, things began to change. Rasta became an image of Caribbean nationalism, an image that could be revered and celebrated, something that could be exported.

It sounds like initially the Rasta was more accepted on Jamaica than Barbados.

Even in Jamaica there was a time when the Rastafarian was persona non grata. Getting back to the film “The Harder They Come,” you see some of the undertones of Rastafarian struggle, in the sense that Rasta comes out of the poorest parts of Jamaica and they, if you will, represented an in-your-face rejection of Black and White middle class and bourgeois Jamaica.

To refer to God as a black man is an affront to colonial attitudes. But just like Jamaica, Barbados has changed in its perception of the Rasta.

What were your earliest exposures to music in Barbados?

Bob Marley’s “Got to Have Kaya Now,” and Eddy Grant had a song that used to go, “Jamaican child, Jamaican child.” If you were in the Caribbean in the 70’s, reggae was king. It was unavoidable to not have a sense of the importance and majesty of reggae as a music, a social movement and a force? and, if you will, an expression of black power in the Caribbean.

How about your transition to Canada, musically speaking?

One of the first things that struck me as a teenager when I came to Canada was that young people seemed to organize themselves into friendships based upon music. But we did not do that as young people in Barbados. I think people organize themselves according to music even more now. You know, straight up, hip-hop, and things like that.

When were you first introduced to hip-hop?

In the 80’s, I have vivid memories of playing “pac-man” and listening to Grandmaster Flash, the Furious Five, Rappers Delight? you know, what people call “old school,” which to me is really funny because I don’t think I’m old.

I came into hip-hop as a rural kid growing up in the Kootenays of British Columbia, with artists breaking into the mainstream: Ice-T, Public Enemy, LL Cool J. Not really in a cultured context.

There’s something to be said for the popularity of hip-hop even if people are coming to it through the mainstream, but you know this is a music that began with poor inner-city kids and it demands that kind of respect now. It is important to recognize that some poorer communities in New York, in the Bronx, made an impact.

Migration from Jamaica also has a place in that story. Hip-hop could not be if it wasn’t for that migration from the Caribbean to the USA. African-American and African-Caribbean people coming together in New York city and sharing their own kind of cultural perspectives. This is important because it keeps being cut out of the picture.

The classic books on rap music and hip-hop culture are David Toupe’s book “Rapattack”, where he looks at rap’s relationship to calypso, to jive, you name it. The other book is Trisha Rose’s book “Black Noise,” in which she explores the conditions that give rise to rap music and hip-hop culture.

What did you think of The Rascalz not accepting 1998’s Juno award for “Best Rap Recording?”

I think it was a brave move, an immensely wonderful move. It’s a political move, and I think it sends a really powerful message to the Canadian music establishment. I hope it ushers in a new attitude from them.