By Miguel Cullen
Jafaican as a way of talking perhaps truly began in the UK with the release of Smiley Culture’s 1985 ‘Cockney Translation’. Smiley Culture, whose demise was cortèged by countless marches claiming that he was murdered by Met Police officers, creates in this track his version of West Indian slang translated into Cockney. My first reliable source for translation (Smiley’s was intended as a crib: not cool) was the DVD case liner of Rockers, the reggae film starring Leroy ‘Horsemouth’ Wallace. This hard-won personal trophy contained a long list of new words – I remember learning that ‘teeth’ was bullets. Nowadays, you can parse all this from websites such as the crowdsourced Urban Dictionary, which along with all the Jafaican has masses of MLE (Multicultural London English), as well as some Yank verbiage, and some entries put there purely to taunt someone. I attempted my own, classifying my friend Nabil as a ‘grindsman’ – a typically out-of-the-way West Indian word – betraying my own magpie-outsiderdom. I don’t know why Nabil took offence; I later had to remove the entry.
‘Jafaican’ is a word, a nuance, spoken of in trembling octaves by white middle-class youths, perhaps out of fear of being called fake Jamaican, and yet as a language it has been spoken in growingly uninhibited twangs, brogues, lilts and gutturals among such youth since the 1980s and 90s. The date of the rise of MLE which merges with Jafaican is arguable, but it could be classed as growing in prominence in the summer of jungle music, that is to say, 1994/95.
Author emceeing in a MC Shabba ‘Highly Blessed’ T-shirt
Today in MLE, peers are addressed as ‘my slime’… ‘my drillar’… ‘my g’… or simply, ‘bruce’. I know this because these terms are taken from a staged monologue posted in a group made up of school-age kids (and me) on Facebook, ‘Roadman Talk EU/UK’. Among members, recipients of the term ‘private school donnies’ (an insult to the ‘not bona fide’ use of MLE and urban clothing) can be traced back to their scholastic dwellings at the Jewish Free School (JFS) in Mill Hill, north London, which is, contradictorily, a comp. That’s what they said in the group, anyway.
‘s the way it goes, in London. If you could see the slanging matches in the Roadman group! I once had a neighbour whose son went to JFS. The family would get sent pizza to pay for as a prank by school bullies (pre-Deliveroo). I would often be left in receipt of deliveries of trainer boxes for him when the family weren’t at home – he was a big fan of Roadman groups, like my one. My guess here was that my g was using the wrong slang in the schoolyard.
I come from an Argentinian background, born in 1982 when Thatcher went on England’s last crusade on the HMS Sheffield to reclaim the holy (for me, anyway; humour me) Falklands. This came with a stigma attached, and at home with a very authoritarian (yet loving) father, and the racist ‘cool kids’ who would call me ‘nigger’ at my posh school, made me pretty attuned to any alternative stigmas to feel safe in. I read my first title from X-Press (the Black British publishing house that derived a cult following around 1994/5) aged 13, and was recording DJ sets for an imaginary radio station ‘Corrupt FM’ at the same age, mixing jungle with Eazy-E and Kyle Minogue. I suppose people like me were seeking a danger to feel safe in, a rebellion, a sort of homage in which we could ‘act’ the raggedy clowns and jesters we were being pushed into being. It was here that we learnt to clown as caricatures of the West Indies; it just seemed such a rich culture, exotic, ‘rude boy’, intoxicatingly nurtured by the ‘genuine’ privations we had not undergone but had intuited or felt underneath the surface in the universal psychological drama of our childhoods.
The original Jafaican was perhaps the reggae and dancehall deejay, David Rodigan, who is white. During the August/September 1958 Notting Hill race riots, the Daily Mirror ran a splash editorial with a picture of half of a white face and half of a black face, a faultline in the middle. It was headlined ‘Black V White’, a clash rather than a fusion. This came to mind when seeing Rodigan and Ricky Trooper (Kilimanjaro Sound) clash in Jamaica in 1997 on YouTube. After some serious black-on-white racism from Ricky Trooper behind the controls (‘White Jesus? Black Jessuz … white boy, white boy!!’), Rodigan says in an intensely admonitory… yet Jafaican… tone, ‘I’m disappointed in you Ricky Trooper. You know – if you believe in the father of the book, you will know that I have no control over the colour he made me’. Knowing Rodigan, this sounds like the truest word he’s ever said. Why he sent his own son to Harrow School I will never understand.
All of which brings me to Stoke Newington, three years ago, to the gates of a certain man: Tuggawar, son of Irish and Cypriot immigrants, counting as his ally and sparring partner MC Shabba D, a Jewish jungle MC from Clapton. This man tells, with a whimsical, half-wondering smile in YouTube interviews, how he took a holiday to Jamaica and was busted attempting to smuggle weed back with him. His months spent kicking his heels desultorily in jail in Jamaica bestowed upon him a Jamaican flavour; in short, he became black. So certain is this man of his black pedigree that he simply mocks other white dancehall deejays for their attempts and churlishly, rakishly, swipes at their ersatz patois – his eyes set deep in their orbits, with the conviction of someone who (having smoked a lot of weed, assuredly) is the true karma chameleon of them all. Tuggawar, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.
Talapaton, one of the white dancehall deejays whom Tuggawar has seen fit to call ‘fish’ (gay), is not taking this lying down. Blind to the fact that this internecine grudge match is amusing in that they are singling each other out for pole position as top white in a black man’s game, Talapaton continues to retaliate: ‘you favour Donald Trump … Batty crease!’. Context in slang is everything, and this use of Jafaican is clearly drilling through the ersatz patois Tuggawar so bemoans. His final salvo is calling Tugga ‘some washed out ‘nineties junglist’, which is spot-on, given Tugga is associated with jungle MC Shabba D.
MC Shabba emceeing at Carnival, early 2000s
Shabba, known for improving upon the ‘gangster lean’ linguistic style of Jamaican dancehall artists, emcees in a pronounced, nasal, patois drone, and would get water ‘dashed’ on him (so he says), by black MCs in the 1990s for being white-on-the-mic. Punks appreciatively spitting on Aswad at 80s Rock Against Racism gigs, eat your heart out…
Next comes Dominick, a white toaster from Ladbroke Grove who went to live in Jamaica in the mid-1980s, and managed to live as a musical equal on the scene (well, slight curio-anomaly), toasting in front of mega-harsh crowds at Reggae Sunsplash in 1987. In the video he wears a gingham short-sleeved shirt and Ian Curtis shades, comes out with his chest puffed and head slanted diagonally, seemingly filled with a brooding, cubbish pique. ‘Cor, it’s brass monkeys out ‘ere!!’ he explodes in Cockney on the mic. He has arrived… His novelty value works the crowd right up, he then seizes the moment with a canny story about telling an apartheid-era South African promoter to ‘go suck yuh muddah!’
Then there is White Eek-A-Mouse (aka David Wood), captured, like an albino pigeon in a net, in a video from 1984 in Bristol – a blond young man wearing a mysterious white suit, copying the original Eek-A-Mouse’s style and fashion to much kisses-of-teeth and toothpick-manoeuvring-around-mouth from the home-turf toasters of Basai Sound.
The opening up of package holidays to Jamaica in the 1980s may provide a clue in the curious cases of White Eek-a-Mouse, Dominick and others. Dominick’s luck ran a bit longer off the back of his conquering the notoriously snobbish Jamaicans and he was accepted back in the UK as a toaster on the heavyweight sound system, Saxon. Snowman (what a name!) was a white Irish toaster on London’s JamDown Rockers sound system in the 1980s, who would dwell behind the selector waiting for the mic, a hippy-military look with green trench coat, pasty complexion, raspberry tea cosy over a mop of hair, and aviators with orange lenses – and would preface his rude-style chats with caveats about his melanin.
Snowman with Champion (both JamDown Rockers)
The edginess permeating personae-inhabitors like Tuggawar, Talapaton, Dominick, Shabba, White Eek-a-Mouse and Snowman is, I think, easy to understand. There is a ‘complicity of thieves’ among fellow Jafaicans, who teeter on the razor’s edge of a demasking bogusness; the skittishness and tell-tale trembling, shifty-eyed, of a tight-rope walker’s wobbles is part of the wry amusement for such high-tailers amidst the devil-may-care scrapes they get into, allowing the cracks in their masks to ward off identity theft in pursuit of performative homage, and fun.
Midnight to six man
For the first time from Jamaica
Dillinger and Leroy Smart
Delroy Wilson, your cool operator
Ken Boothe for UK pop reggae
With backing bands sound systems
If they’ve got anything to say
There’s many black ears here to listen…
I’m the white man in the palais
Just loo- lookin’ for fun
Only lookin’ for fun
Oh, please mister
Just leave me alone
Lookin’ for fun
Lookin’ for fun
F, U, N
‘(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais’, The Clash
Jamaicans moving to the UK might incite an Englishman’s curiosity or racist horror by enhancing or embroidering upon perceived traits; Michael Taussig, the anthropologist, talks of a ‘mirror-dance’ in which the concept of ‘otherness’ created a schism in the native cultures he was studying in Andean Peru. Folkloric artisans would copy the aesthetics of a white transcription of Andean culture to create patterned ponchos, icons and jewellery: the ‘mirror dance’ was a sort of seduction, a version of their culture adulterated by what they saw as the western vision of their way of life.
Aged 13 and devouring the gangsta-saturated Cop Killer novel (X-Press) from a writer going by the unlikely name of ‘Don Gorgon’, I lapped it up. Still do. Victor Headley (Yardie, Exce$$, Yush!, all published by X-Press) is a repeat individual on my reading list. As a youth looking for some angle into the big old world, this virility, this mirror-dance – looking at you looking at me – was a beautiful thing, a bumper crop born of hybrid vigour. Like much of British youth culture, I followed The Clash into becoming that white man in the dancehall of the Hammersmith Palais.
Modern global culture has gone beyond the self-conscious mimicry – the cherry-picking of rarefied slang by outsiders – the language which Shabba and Tuggawar would covet for use on the next available mic. Jamaican, or MLE or any language of colour forms part of a mother tongue borne aloft by our children, it’s their universal language.
Before, dancing with gusto and melancholy was just for Black culture. Now, everyone can dance! As Kayo Chingonyi, the soulful, subtle poet, writes in ‘Proud Blemish’:
‘2step is an airborne sickness, infecting
‘every discerning cassette deck,
‘after-hours wine bar, joy rider’s car.’
All photos courtesy of Miguel Cullen
Culturally, Miguel Cullen is a Kelper (Falklander) evacuee, nourished in London by cocoa butter liniment.