“Oooooh Reggae? That’s fun! My girlfriends and I went to Jamaica. We were naughty!”
“Ooheaa?” I muttered.
Her hands plunged deeper into my mouth, a streak of saliva slipping out the side.
“Oh yeah! They told us not to leave the resort but we did. We went to a real Jamaican restaurant, and we even went to a party with all Jamaicans. They were speaking their language so we didn’t really talk to anybody, but yeah, it was probably really dangerous and stupid. We were young.”
The South Bend, IN dental practice I am in looks dirty. Not the kind of detail you want to notice at such an establishment. It was recommended, though. I’m new in town and I haven’t seen a dentist in about three years.
“Yeah, but we had a great time. All the natives were so nice and just happy to do ANYTHING for you. I mean, I would love that, just sitting on the beach all day and helping tourists. They don’t need a lot of money. Seems like the good life. That’s why everyone down there is so happy, right?”
She removed the tools from my mouth. I was swallowing my words. It is a tough scenario to enter. Most of the time ignorance can be healed through a gentle delivery of factual perspective. You can subtly allude to why their comments should make you both cringe. The slight uncomfortability you feel is just a sign that they will review the conversation later.
“Actually,” I said. “Food is crazy expensive down there. Even for the locals. Sometimes more expensive than it is here”
“Really? That IS crazy. I had no idea.”
So there I was explaining to this nice dental assistant about how the British had granted Jamaican independence in 1962, but had already shopped and planned out how to own the island’s industries and resources in a period often referred to as “neo-colonialism”, and how that had left the fledgling nation in a spiral of debt that was only to be become more crippling in the 1980s due to structural adjustment programs initiated by the World Bank and IMF, and that this is why bananas at the supermarket in Jamaica often cost more than they do in the U.S.
So I guess I was gonna be that guy that day. The liberal lunatic in the dentist office talking global conspiracies, literally foaming at the mouth, while this poor woman from Indiana was just trying to make chit chat with me after I told her I was in a reggae band.
That’s always the weird thing about a chatty dental assistant. The art of the conversation is part of the gig. You have to casually ask yes/no questions while taking the patient on some sort of a journey. The patient can’t offer up too much explanation. She was doing her best.
“I went to Hawaii too. Oh my God, it’s gorgeous. Such beautiful mountains and beaches. I’ll tell you what, though, it didn’t have that crystal blue water that the Caribbean has. And also the Natives were NOT friendly. We were in Honolulu. People acted like they were from Chicago!”
“Well, they are Americans. It’s the United States,” I said.
“I know, but you would think that they would be grateful that we were visiting. It’s just like Jamaica with the beach and the sun, I mean, what else do they rely on besides tourism?”
Again, not a yes/no question. I waited for the utensils to be removed from my mouth.
“Do you know how Hawaii became a state?” I asked
And I don’t blame her. I want to blame her, but these pesky details about the creation of the American Empire we are living in are common ignorance to most. My hands aren’t clean of this either. I learned more about this history through loving reggae than I did in high school.
“You know Dole Bananas?”
“Well, the family Dole, with the help of the military, forced Queen Lili’uokaliani of the Hawaiian Kingdom to sign the land over at gunpoint so that the Dole company could sell more pineapples”.
A simplified and squashed version of the account.
“Well no wonder they hate us!”
No words. She didn’t say much else. The very fact that she had a separation in her head that Hawaiian “natives” are not “us”, when in reality they are fellow U.S. citizens is alarming, typical, and telling. She did remark about how it was barely America, because it took so long for her to fly there.
Barely America. Yes, I can see where that could make sense if you are not thinking about America the way that America is, a sophisticated resource addict with an appetite for global market domination.
It is in this fruit and sugar business that we see some of the first ugly heads thrust forth in the name of U.S. imperialism. Follow the taste of anything naturally sweet back through history and you will find bloodshed and misery at the hands of those entrepreneurs who sought to industrialize and monopolize the trade of such goods.
I can’t imagine life without pineapple. It has always been there. I remember as a kid, staring at the poster of the Hawaiian sundae in the ice cream shop. It featured a swirl of gooey yellowish sauce, whipped cream, and a slice of the most fructose-drenched pineapple you’d ever seen.
I’ve never been to Hawaii. It has been a dream of mine ever since I locked eyes on that sundae poster. Beyond sunsets and waves, I never really thought too much about the place.
The Green flew Seth out to Hawaii to be their manager. Seth was our manager, and we were impressed that another band thought highly enough of him to make such a gesture. When he returned, he told us that he would now be managing The Green, one of the most up-and-coming Hawaiian reggae bands, and we would hopefully be going on tour together soon.
Hawaiian Reggae had never come our way to the Northeast. We had heard the murmurs out West that reggae music goes over well in Hawaii. It was always in context of, “Hey you Pandas should go to Hawaii, roots reggae music is huge there!” I suppose in my mind, I was picturing big name reggae acts igniting this new scene for an unsuspecting audience of Polynesians. As if the sand, the waves, the tropical fruit, and the reggae were just being paired together for Hawaiians in 2010.
Not only did Hawaiian Reggae not come our way, I couldn’t think of too many Hawaiians from back home either. My neighbor’s dad was from Hawaii, but he was Chinese. President Obama was from Hawaii, but his people came from Kenya. What was a Hawaiian?
The Green are not a band you would want to fight. They carry themselves confidently. They flew thousands of miles away from the sunshine to play a show in Falls Church, VA. Not everybody in the group is of indigenous Hawaiian blood, but they have all spent their lives on the islands and have a passion to reveal the truth of the Hawaiian story, as well as to defend the land from further perversion. There we were, in the daylight of a desolate parking lot, meeting up to open for Rebelution at The State Theatre.
When bands meet, they are strangers. There is the inevitable size up of each other. We’re all creative people who play instruments, but we are also a crew, a gang. We roll together. We’ve got each others backs unconditionally on the road. We are family.
So the size up thing is always hilarious, because, we really are all just a bunch of guys who have sacrificed everything to be creative troubadours playing instruments and trying to instill hope in a room full of strangers. We are nice. They are nice. The types of personalities you find in a band are generally goofy, smart, relatable, and most importantly kind hearted. The hardest most Satan-worshiping metal band you will ever meet are usually just a bunch of goofy creative music geeks.
Seasoned bands know this. So naturally, The Green and the Panda took one look at each other and went for the full embrace. Hugs and smiles all around. Truly warm, original, and family-oriented guys.
Despite being from so far away, we had a lot in common, being reggae bands and all. Soon the room was foggy, and we were trying to figure out how we could hang with these guys all the time!
The effect of The Green’s music is instantaneous. They opened with “Drum and Bassline” by Aswad, one of the most crucial reggae flags you can fly, before diving into a seamless set of originals.
Four-part harmonies. Four dudes who could kick your ass, singing angelic, intentional harmonies, of beautiful originality and variety, in what could be called super reggae.
One drops. Rockers. Dancehall. They effortlessly transitioned through all of the tools reggae has to offer, turning out a set list that had the proficiency of a DJ with the added strength of full-band tactics.
We came to learn that The Green is sort of a super group. All of them had been in bands, and/or had family that had thrived in the Hawaiian music world. So it became important to understand who The Green were by understanding where they were coming from.
Defend HI! That was what was printed on the T-shirts of several members of the band. The I of HI (Hawaii) was printed as a machine gun. It is a powerful statement. Defend Hawaii from what?
Last week marked the 122nd anniversary of the Hawaiian land being annexed illegally by the United States. It is an occupied territory technically, though, I hadn’t thought of it that way until I saw the shirts.
The Hawaiian Islands are roughly 2,500 miles away from Los Angeles, CA. Though the colonial takeover had begun a few centuries earlier, Hawaii was the last state to enter the union in 1959.
“In the late 19th century the dominant White minority overthrew the Hawaiian Kingdom and founded a brief Republic that was finally annexed by the United States.”
This is public knowledge. It was a conspiracy. Business and government interests once again worked together from U.S. soil to militarize and exercise control on a foreign population. It is a common story of the Southern Hemisphere during the past few hundred years. Western strategies have only grown in their sophistication. Less cost. More gain.
The unique part of the Hawaiian story is that the country was entirely swallowed whole by the colonial power. It gained corporeal identity, losing its status as the Hawaiian kingdom, only to be made part of the body known as the United States of America. In fact, many white “Americans” on the mainland, were angered by their new state. They despised the brownness and foreignness of the people. It’s even rumored that Blue Hawaii, the Elvis flick, was released in 1961 as sort of an advertisement to help mainland Americans feel better about Hawaii. Tropical landscapes and sexy girls dominate the trailer.
In the film, Elvis falls in love with a quarter-Hawaiian girl. Her grandfather is French, and her grandmother Hawaiian. In one quick swoop of character development, we see the film’s creator slyly blame the French for colonialism, while justifying to the American public why it’s O.K. to visit Hawaii and fuck a brown native girl (actress is white, but in the story she’s brown). We were all to be that fresh-faced American boy, coming to charm these locals right to the top of the bottom line, in song and dance nonetheless.
The South Pacific is home to thousands of islands connected by people and culture. The Maori in New Zealand are brethren with Hawaiians, as well as Guam and islands in-between. Like indigenous peoples everywhere in the world, their cultures and homelands have been absorbed by countries thousands of miles away. Like Jamaica, like Puerto Rico, like Ghana. Like America.
Reggae is the music of these islands now. It has been since reggae began. The Hawaiian people have blended it with their own roots music in a style known as Jawaiian. The history of Hawaii and its connection to reggae music is deep, and there is a fantastic website, HawaiianReggae.org, full of beautiful writings and knowledge about Hawaiian history and reggae. I strongly urge all to visit and educate yourself on important history as well as crucial Hawaiian reggae music. I pulled this quote from it:
“Reggae melodies are played, danced, and sung to in a profusion of languages, acting as one of the few common threads between Jamaican ghettos, London streets, Japanese festivals, African villages, American suburbs and stereo systems throughout the Pacific.” – RUDEBOY www.hawaiianreggae.org
Words of truth. What a powerful force it is. A music that echoes worldwide as a unified song against oppression. Who feels it knows it. I learned that Bob Marley was greeted as a foreign dignitary upon arrival in Aotearoa, NZ, and given an honorary greeting by the Maori. It seems that reggae was singing a familiar song to all cultures under attack.
The Green do not play Jawaiian music. They play reggae. While they are influenced by the popular local styles of Hawaii, they have purposefully positioned themselves to be seen and heard on the global stage as a modern reggae band. They sing lyrics amplifying the Hawaiian history of colonialism and oppression on top of fresh reggae riddims. They also sing love songs. They sing about family.
The message is direct and from the heart. It brings with it an education, a critical guideline in reggae music, to those sympathetic souls unfamiliar with the details of Hawaiian history. That is what it provided for me. An education into something that I am ashamed to know so little about. Our shared history of the occupation of Hawaiian land and people.
The music wasn’t created for my education though. It was more of a rallying cry. Throughout the tour, it became clear why this music resonated with young Hawaiians. The Green were providing a real time voice for Hawaiian youth. They are current. They are relevant. They are of the people, venting fresh felt frustrations to a new generation who is not willing to let go of past atrocities.
Every stop that we made with The Green, the crowd was full of young Hawaiians. It was clear that venues were not really sure what to make of it, this non-white ethnic group gathering on a night they had not expected it. Maybe they felt they didn’t hire enough security.
The sense of nervousness was at an all-time high when we played the little Colorado mountain town of Paonia, population 1434. In a town that is half miners, half hippies, racial discomforts are often absent. It is a white town for the most part. The concerts take place in the town movie theater as all-ages events. You can expect to see seven-year-olds and seventy-year-olds in the crowd.
People were certainly trying to talk around the fact, that on this day, the theater was full of “out of towners”. In fact, a couple hundred Hawaiian youth had shown up from Grand Junction, not too far away. Most were students at the university, and they were coming to see their favorite band, The Green, from back home. The night went off without a hitch of course. The two crowds realized they were one; all coming to enjoy the reggae music that was in town for the night.
It seemed unexpected though. It is no secret that a crowd of brown youth makes a white town uncomfortable. This happened on that tour. A slight case of the “we didn’t know so many brown people were going to show up tonight, should we be concerned?” Nobody thought twice about the band coming from Hawaii.
That is the ignorance out there surrounding Hawaiian culture. It is not all sand, surf, and pineapple. There is a violent history of oppression. There is a lineage of people who won’t forget. For anyone that needs to know, The Green is coming.
Reggae is the smoke revealing the hidden web of laser beams that is hyper neocolonialism. It keeps popping up, highlighting where the empire of oligarchy has done damage. Jamaicans and Hawaiians have very different cultures. Their histories begin uniquely, but have a converging thread of commonality when it comes to colonialism. In both cultures, reggae music is working as a method to get the message out about the past, present, and a hopeful future.
I’m in Eugene, OR sitting outside while The Green finishes up their set. A drunk Hawaiian kid gets kicked out of the show. He is angry. He is yelling about white people in the street. He is begging passers-by for a fight.
Meth has hit the West Coast hard. Unloading earlier in the night had been a nightmare, as the zombie-faced homeless hung around the venue’s back parking lot all day. One old woman was still around. I had seen her several times already but I mistook her for a man. She looked like your grandfather from a century ago. She was chatty. She began to confront the young drunk Hawaiian.
“You can’t say that about these good people! These people are here to have a good time! You better just go along and have a good time,” she yelled.
“Shut up, you dirty old bitch. Go back to your hole or wherever you live.”
She walked closer. A circle had formed around the two. It was an odd match. The young man had been looking to fight, but he had not planned on this foe.
“You need to relax!” she screamed. “This is a reggae music concert! I remember when Bob Marley’s son came here. He let me hit his joint RIGHT THERE MAN.”
She pointed to where I was sitting. “HA HA HA HA! It’s all about let’s get together and feel alright man!”
“Get out of here, old lady. Go take a fuckin’ shower.”
This wasn’t your average drunk jock. He was tall, he had his backwards flat brim on, playing the typical fool of a guy who had just been kicked out of a concert, but his anger was rooted in something deeper. In Eugene, amongst the homeless and the hippies, he did look a bit out of place.
A few vagabond looking kids were sitting next to me watching the events unfold. As the fighting couple drew closer, I could feel their tension escalate.
“Hey! He’s fuckin’ with Lou! Let’s kick that Mexican’s ass!”
If only he could have heard their comment. Goodness gracious his anger was relevant! Here he was in Eugene, generations of anger over the Hawaiian occupation foaming out of his mouth in one vague drunken roar, and Lou the homeless meth-head, was the only one who cared enough to tell him to shut up. It was sad. The fact that he was about to get his ass kicked as a Mexican made me feel all the more for him, despite how unsympathetic his situation may have seemed.
“Go on! Hit me!” begged Lou. “Give me all you got!”
“Get out my face you old hag! Before I do hit you.”
It was clear that he wouldn’t hit her, though. He couldn’t even look at her. He didn’t know what to do.
Lou seemed like she could handle her own. She let the demon out. Her tone changed. It became low, loud, and hoarse.
“Go on and fuckin’ hit me BOY! You will NOT walk away from this! I have been living on these streets for 30 years and I will take you to fucking school! I will fuck you up! Just fucking try it!”
The tension drew to the breaking point. A moment of clarity perhaps?
“You know what I really want?” the kid asked. “I want to give you a hug.”
I think we were all a bit surprised.
“A hug? Are you sure? No funny stuff?” said Lou.
“No funny stuff. I just want to give you a big hug.”
And to my and the vagabonds’ surprise, Lou opened up her arms as the young drunk Hawaiian kid picked her up and squeezed her tight. She was laughing joyfully as he buried his face into her dirty, grey hair, spinning her round and round, kissing the side of her head over and over again. The embrace clocked in at well over a minute. Lou was laughing. It was wild.
These were the kinds of interactions I was seeing while on tour with The Green.
While walking away from the situation, I remembered that both of them really understood, in a way, what reggae had to offer. Something made them realize that the fight was not between them that night. Maybe it was Lou’s reminder of what reggae music was all about, or maybe it was the music of The Green blasting through the doors and out onto the street. Maybe it was booze. Either way, love prevailed. It felt rare, and truly beautiful.
Reggae allows us to see through what is separating us, without losing sight of the history that ails us. In Eugene, if you didn’t go to that concert, you probably didn’t know that there was a minority Hawaiian community living among you. Indigenous Hawaiians know that you don’t know, and the alienation breeds frustration. They know of your historical ignorance. They know you might think they are Mexican.
Who knows, there probably is a healthy population of Hawaiian people in South Bend, IN. My dental assistant may have her hands down the throat of one after my cleaning. They might mistake each other for Mexican, as I couldn’t help notice her brown skin as she spoke to me through her mask about “natives.”
On the flipside, we know Lou’s story, or at least we think we do. We avoid it. The poor and drug addicted are often seen as victims of their own failure. As a nation we often turn a blind eye to our willingness to let it happen. We rarely see it as the failure of our community to support those around us who are in need. This is the decay of a body losing its soul. The rotting from within.
I had never had a cavity in my life, until that day, and then I had three. I had taken better care of my teeth in the previous three years than I had in my whole life. It was frustrating. Too much cane sugar? Not enough insurance? The next dental assistant is telling me about how before this job, she had been laid off three times. Her husband had also been laid off. They had been trying to raise three kids on $700 a month, wondering when to ask their parents for diaper money, and when to go down to the WIC station. She was sweet. I just kept drooling, looking down at the dirt on the floor, happy to lend a sympathetic ear, in my midwestern dental office.