Andrea Shaw on the Vybz Kartel Controversy: “Coloring with Cake Soap”

In her new blog, Ordinary Annointments, professor and writer Andrea Shaw turns her attention to the brouhaha surrounding Vybz Kartel’s skin bleaching. Writing that “The eye of the Vybz Kartel storm seems to have passed, but late as it is, I have to weigh in,” Shaw gives a brief summary of Kartel’s career and the buzz surrounding the dramatic changes of his complexion, “through a combo of tattooing and skin bleaching, the latter of which he claims he accomplished through the use of cake soap (a soap usually used in Jamaica as laundry detergent).”

Shaw reviews the differing opinions and analyses of the Jamaican singer’s decision to bleach and the many disparaging comments that suggest that “his appetite for bleaching reflects an underlying desire to erase his blackness.” Including quotes from Annie Paul’s Active Voice, where she comments on Kartel’s lecture at the University of the West Indies-Mona (invited by professor Carolyn Cooper), Shaw wonders whether “the uptown moral outrage may be rooted in anxieties about the ways in which poor people create unconventional avenues to gain class mobility and ‘skip the line’ so to speak to what they envision as an improved socio-economic status, with which lighter skin is most certainly associated.” Bleaching, she says, helps its followers gain access to the benefits of a middle-class profile without the “necessary academic or professional efforts or the privilege of inheritance through a kind of deception.” These efforts “to inhabit an alternate race/class space” are observed with much anxiety [and, I would add, hostility]. As Shaw points out in her post, “Coloring with Cake Soap,” this process of upwardly mobile border-crossing is perceived as transgression.

Shaw suggests that the bleaching performed among Jamaicans of all classes, renders race and class boundaries unstable and “is informed by the desire to infiltrate more speedy and easily accessible routes to the presumed benefits of lighter skin such as greater sexual mobility, improved job opportunities, and higher class status.” Stressing that the fact that there is such controversy around and so many explanations for bleaching—ranging from a simple matter of “style” to accusations of self-hatred—may point to something more distressing, “less visible and less immediately knowable,” Shaw concludes with two important questions: “Would we feel this kind of outrage if Vybz were white and chose to spend his weekends in a tanning salon? Or can we leave Vybz to color in his coloring book any way he pleases?”

For Andrea Shaw’s full article, see

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