Japanese Reggae

November 30, 2016 (Wednesday) / 5:00 pm6:30 pm

Rainey Auditorium, Penn Museum, 3260 South Street

Japanese Reggae

Translation, Performance, and Ethnicity in a Global Subculture

Marvin D. Sterling

Associate Professor of Anthropology, Indiana University

Reggae music has been flourishing in Japan for over four decades. Many Japanese reggae artists have sought to translate the music’s presumed Afro-Jamaican blackness in an effort to make it more approachable for Japanese audiences. They have for example used reggae to celebrate the Japanese language or the physical beauty of the Japanese nation. But this celebration of Japaneseness can be unsettled by the ethnic backgrounds of the artists themselves, whose heritages may be Chinese, Korean, Okinawan, or otherwise marked as minority. Marvin Sterling, the leading authority on this complex musical subculture, will discuss how these artists translate the conventions of reggae to assert their own ethnic identities even while remaining acceptably “Japanese.”

Marvin Sterling's research centers on the popularity of a range of Jamaican cultural forms in Japan, mainly roots reggae, dancehall reggae, and Rastafari. His book Babylon East: Performing Dancehall, Roots Reggae and Rastafari in Japan was published by Duke University Press in 2010. He uses performance studies to ethnographically explore the issues of social power—particularly those surrounding life in recessionary Japan—that inform Japanese performative engagement with these cultural forms. Japanese practitioners of profoundly Afrocentric Rastafari can help us understand how ideas of race and particularly blackness have been constructed and re-imagined around the globe. 

More recently, Sterling has shifted geographical perspectives from Japan to explore the Japanese community in Jamaica, one primarily centered on an interest in learning Jamaican culture at its source. He is also concerned with the development of human rights discourse in Jamaica, particularly on the grassroots level.