from roots to dancehall: beth lesser’s love letter to jamaica
We discuss the changing face of Jamaica's music scene with the photographer who was there capturing it in the 70s.
Growing up, Beth Lesser wanted to be a writer but fate had another plan. Beth ended up marrying the man of her dreams and spending her life photographing the changing face of Jamaica. Born and bred in New York, Beth discovered the vibrant sounds and soft melodies of island music when she was just a child. However, it wasn't until the late 70s that she truly became hooked. Captivated by the sound, aesthetic, and culture surrounding the genre, Beth journeyed to Jamaica to soak up everything she could. Over the next decade, she and her husband traveled the island, shooting sound systems and record studios, and the crowd of colorful characters they'd attract, for her zine, The Reggae Quarterly — and her husband would play their music on his small radio show. Ahead of her upcoming exhibition, From Roots to Dancehall, on show at the KK Outlet gallery in London, in association with Riposte Magazine, we catch up with the artist about her life's work.
When were you first introduced to reggae and what did it mean to you?
It was during my childhood, when my parents made the mandatory trip to Jamaica for a vacation and brought me back an album by folk group The Fratt's Quintett, an album that fascinated me. I loved everything about the sound — the language, the melodies, the themes, the voices. I came to reggae through the punk bands and two-tone movement, but by the end of the 70s, I found that rock music had nothing left to say to me. The life just drained right out of it. Bands were getting pretentious, too full of themselves. But reggae was full of life. So my husband Dave and I just started to listen to more and more reggae. The more we heard, the more we were moved by it, the more satisfying it became.
What was your first impression of Jamaica?
Jamaica turned out to be a surprise. From abroad, in those days, you got the impression that the music scene was all serious dreads preaching and "licking the chalice." But when we got there, we found the record stores were selling "dance cassettes," live recordings of the latest sound system sessions, where the DJs "toasted" over the popular rhythms of the day — what rappers in the US began to do — and the lyrics they were "talking" where anything but pure and clean. The music was lively and upbeat, and the DJs' spontaneous lyrics were lighthearted and humorous. Far from awaiting Armageddon, Jamaicans were having fun! We were captivated by the energy and kept coming back.
What was it about the characters you met, their sense of style and the stories they told, that inspired you the most?
Their strong individuality. Each person had their own style that they were very proud of. They posed readily, without instruction, or even prompting. In fact, they were posing and asking for picture before I even took out the camera. Despite the heat and the other equally oppressive conditions, they had energy to spare. I wanted to capture that confidence, that openness, that energy.
Could you explain a bit about the zines you used to make?
After the first Rasta inspired "zine" about Augustus Pablo and his crew, we decided to create a glossy magazine about the whole music scene in Jamaica; reggae, dancehall, oldies — all of it. That became Reggae Quarterly, which only had eight issues in six years because that's all we could afford.
How did people react to your images at the time?
At first, no one was interested. The artists looked very uncool by North American standards, the punk look was still popular and kids wanted their pop music as nihilistic as possible. Inside Jamaica, even the folks at Tuff Gong, Bob Marley's label, thought we were wasting our time taking photos of little ghetto artists who would never make anything of themselves. Quite a lot of time had to pass before anyone took a fresh look.
What would you say to accusations of a kind of orientalism, this idea of presenting Jamaica as other or exotic?
The process of taking the picture became a medium of communication. Every person I shot, I brought copies of the images the next time we were in Jamaica. Being able to give something back to the artists in the moment was gratifying. On the other hand, people who have seen these photos in galleries have raised the question of cultural appropriation. Here we were, white people presenting images of black musicians and writing about black music. While I understand where this is coming from, I consider my body of work, including my photos from Kingston in the 80s, to be an archive. If there had been a lot of Jamaican photographers taking pictures, it would be different. This may be controversial, but sometimes it takes someone from the outside to see the value and take the initiative.
What are you working on at the moment?
I'm exploring the idea of putting all my work onto an interactive platform on the internet. That would include all my images — the ones where the subject blinked, the ones that have suffered age related damage, the ones that are under exposed etc. The platform would also include all my books, all eight issues of Reggae Quarterly, some episodes of my husband's radio show during those years, a freshly written account of what it was like trying to work in the environment of Kingston in the 80s, and anything else I can think of.
Text Tish Weinstock
Photography Beth Lesser