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Reviewed by:
  • Babylon East: Performing Dancehall, Roots Reggae, and Rastafari in Japan
  • David E. Novak (bio)
Babylon East: Performing Dancehall, Roots Reggae, and Rastafari in Japan. By Marvin D. Sterling. Duke University Press, Durham, 2010. xiv, 299 pages. $84.95, cloth; $24.95, paper.

From the very beginning, reggae was a global form. It emerged in the cross-cultural and diasporic traffic between Jamaica, England, and the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, and in the following decades roots reggae and [End Page 442] the rougher, more contemporary genre of dancehall had a significant life—if not rebirth—in Japan. But despite its transnational history, reggae’s global circulation can elicit ironic forms of identification among non-Jamaicans, who are physically and culturally remote from its subaltern, racialized, and localized production. White reggae fans are regularly critiqued as clueless “wannabees” who “chant down Babylon” from college dorm rooms adorned with posters of Bob Marley, even as his complex politics and Rastafarian religious beliefs disappear in a fog of marijuana smoke. Japanese attention to foreign popular culture, of course, is already subject to unsympathetic scrutiny from the West for its imitative and obsessive modes of fandom. Bringing Afro Jamaican subculture into a Japanese mix could bring these displacements to a new level: ready to reckon with a Japanese “dread”? But what is at stake for Japanese fans in their identifications with Jamaican blackness? What can scholars learn from taking more seriously these distanced encounters with global culture, rather than simply dismissing them as merely inauthentic and irrelevant?

Babylon East: Performing Dancehall, Roots Reggae, and Rastafari in Japan is theoretically complex in its treatment of transnational scenes, multisited imaginaries of race, sexuality, and class, and the “soft power” of popular culture in global capitalism. At the same time, Marvin Sterling gives detailed and often moving portraits of Japanese musicians, dancers, and fans, who discover themselves in Jamaican popular music, dance, culture, and religion. Sterling is especially concerned with the performance of social identities in contemporary Japan and the ways selfhood is mediated through consumptions of foreign popular culture. He shows how individuals use Afrocentric materials of Rasta, roots reggae, and dancehall to separate themselves from nationalistic essentialisms of Japanese culture but also to reconstruct Japaneseness in a globalized network of subcultural difference. In highlighting this process, Sterling does not “assume any de facto primacy of Japan,” arguing that “it misses too much of what Japanese dancehall, roots reggae, and Rastafari are to privilege these phenomena as Japanese things onto themselves” (p. 30). This is a book, then, about how Japanese identities are performed through relationships with Jamaican culture, but also about how global blackness is constructed outside the African diaspora.

Popular music is an especially rich context for ethnographic studies of contemporary Japanese identity. Babylon East follows other works on black popular music in Japan that show how Japanese fans of jazz and hip hop negotiate problems of authenticity and use foreign cultural materials to reflect back on constructions of national identity.1 Sterling is most interested [End Page 443] in practitioners who perform reggae and dancehall as musicians and dancers or identify with Rastafarian religion. While recognizing that some identifications with Jamaican culture are superficial and dependent on stereotype, Sterling hones in on the potential for productive relationships with Jamaican culture and, most radically, with blackness. He argues that Japanese performances of reggae, dancehall, and Rastafari can create a subjectivity of “thirdness” triangulated between Jamaican marginality and Western hegemony. By toggling between adopted perspectives of Westernized authority and subcultural disenfranchisement, Japanese practitioners resituate their lives in a new space of global difference, both within and beyond Japan. “To name that someplace ‘black,’ or ‘trying to be black,’ or even ‘racial,’” Sterling insists, “misses the point: it is the ambiguity that tantalizes, that matters” (p. 53).

The book begins by introducing the historical and scholarly frameworks that underpin Sterling’s ambitious project. The first two chapters include discussions of Japanese and Jamaican relationships in colonial, postcolonial, and postwar modernities; musical styles and performance practices; historical constructions of racial difference; and the consumption of global blackness in contemporary Japan. Because of this extensive range of theoretical backgrounds, Sterling’s initial summaries are...