Dancehall Music and Skin Bleaching: Destructive Fashion or Internal Foe?
by Alonzo Smythe
Last month Jamaican Dancehall superstar Vybz Kartel (also known as the World Boss, The Teacher and Kartel, among other nicknames) released two songs one of which was "Children Are Our Future" -- a remake of Whitney Houston's classic song "The Greatest Love of All" -- with Gaza Slim. Some lyrics in this song include, "I believe that children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way. Show them all of the beauty that they possess inside. Give them a sense of pride... " The second song is titled "Mr. Bleach Chin." In this second song, Kartel proclaims that girls call him "Mr. Bleach Chin", promoting the "bleaching" of skin. Skin bleaching also known as skin lightening or skin whitening is the practice of using various chemicals (usually dermatological topical products such as Maxi White and Neoprosone, pills such as Glutathione and even sometimes over the counter products such as toothpaste) with the intent to lighten skin tone, reducing melanin concentration. The messages promoted in the two songs are antithetical and the message in the second song (i.e. implying that bleaching skin is positive) is dangerous to health and well-being, for a myriad of reasons.
This is not the first song Kartel has released where he openly acknowledges that he bleaches his skin and/or the promotion of doing so. In Kartel's song "Cake Soap" (2010), he says in Jamaican creole (also known as Jamaican patois), "Cool, like mi wash mi face wit di cake soap" (meaning that he washes his face with cake soap, a Jamaican term for a detergent soap that contains bleach and that some people reportedly use to lighten their skin). In the 2011 song "Look Pon We" (featuring Russian), Kartel boldy states "Di gyal dem love off mi bleach out face!! The girls love my bleached face!!" He has other songs with similar destructive messages. Despite being currently incarcerated (for about 17 months), Kartel remains a leading presence in the Jamaican dancehall music scene -- having reportedly recorded many songs in a given day (prior to his incarceration). Therefore, many of his songs (yet to be released) will likely have similar themes of his past music, including discussions of skin bleaching, skin color and beauty.
Other dancehall artists, such as Lisa Hyper, also have lauded and promoted skin bleaching. Hyper released some such songs a few years ago including, "Proud A Mi Bleaching" and "Bleaching Fit Me" (both released in 2009). The first song in addition to referring to herself as a "bleachin' pro" and actually providing instructions for skin bleaching, she states, "Mi proud ah mi bleaching... Mi nah hide, rub on my Doctor Clear (a skin bleaching product)... Look how mi face it pretty I am proud of my bleaching... I will not hide, rub on my Doctor Clear. Look at how pretty my face is." ... Another line in the song is: "Ah bleaching make Kim get Mr. Right. Cause when night come she use Fair and White (another skin bleaching product)." Bleaching is the reason why Kim got Mr. Right. Because she uses Fair and White at night. Various other Jamaican dancehall artists also either promote or practice skin bleaching. There was, for instance, chatter that Gaza Slim (another popular dancehall artist) bleaches her skin after the release of her video for her 2012 song "Independent Ladies", where she appears noticeable lighter than her pervious music videos. "Oh mi luk suh fine, Turn up di music" Oh I look so good, Turn up the music is a verse from her song. Interesting message.
I should note that skin bleaching is not ubiquitously accepted in the dancehall music or broader reggae music community. Some artists, including Queen Ifrica (in the 2007 song "Mi Nah Rub") and more recently Movado (in the 2008 song "Nuh Bleach Wid Cream") have promoted messages that dark skin is beautiful and that bleaching one's skin is unnecessary and ridiculous.
It also should be noted though that, unfortunately, the practice of skin bleaching is not limited to Jamaica, but is global in scope, including being documented in Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.
While there is an open acknowledgement of skin bleaching by some Jamaican artists and non-artists alike, in the U.S., several U.S. Hollywood stars and prominent sports figures (among others) have been accused of using skin lightening products. A much more taboo subject in the U.S., individuals are less likely to acknowledge use of skin lightening products or favorable attitudes towards skin bleaching.
Reasons for engaging in skin bleaching are likely varied. People may bleach their skin for the celebrity association and its (perceived) fashionableness. It is well-known that celebrities lead social norms, are powerful and have tons of money. Some people (whether true or not) may bleach their skin due perceived improved social status and upward social mobility (e.g., increased job success). Race and class often travel together in many societies. Attraction of partners is yet another reason why some might partake in skin bleaching (due to the perceived attractiveness of lighter skin). There are other reasons, including perhaps, self-hate.
As a social epidemiologist and second-generation Caribbean (my father and mother were born and raised in Jamaica and Guyana, respectively), I am deeply concerned about the message promoting use of chemicals to lighten ones skin on population health and well-being, especially among children and adolescents. Some population subgroups, such as individuals with limited education, might not fully understand the wide range of deleterious outcomes that can result from bleaching one's skin and therefore might be more likely to engage in the unhealthful practice.
Perhaps Jamaican artists are not aware of skin bleaching cancers; many skin bleaching products, in particular those containing hydroquinone have been theorized to cause various internal cancers due to absorption of this carcinogen. In addition through the process of depigmentation (when melanin concentrations reduce), individuals are increasing their likelihood of developing skin cancers. Melanin is a substance produced by skin cells that gives color to the skin, and the process of bleaching removes that protective pigment from the skin.
As a result, people with bleached skin are at increased risk of skin cancer development. Skin cancers are the most common type of cancer diagnosed each year in the United States. The U.S. National Cancer Institute notes that there were more than two million new skin cancers cases in 2012 in the U.S., and while (according to the Skin Cancer Foundation) skin cancer is less common in African Americans, as compared to whites (due to increased levels of melanin in the skin), it is often more fatal for African Americans, perhaps because minorities are more likely to present advanced disease at the time of diagnosis. For these multiple reasons, the skin cancer prevalence among individuals of African descent can increase quite rapidly after using skin bleaching products. After discussing this commentary with one of my college friends and colleagues, Adewole S. Adamson, MD, MPP, a Dermatology Resident at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, he stated:
"In addition to the increased skin cancer risk, depending on the agent used for skin bleaching, people are putting themselves at risk for other dermatological problems such as skin atrophy, exogenous ochronosis (paradoxical hyperpigmentation) and acne. Some lightening creams contain mercury as an active ingredient, which if absorbed systemically can result in kidney and neurologic problems. Patients that use large amounts of steroid creams to lighten their skin are at risk of hypertension and diabetes. The potential medical consequences of chemically lightening one's skin can be more than skin deep. This activity should be strongly discouraged."
A symptom of what I believe to be internalized racism, I am also deeply concerned about the implicit (or sometimes explicit) message that black/dark skin complexion is appalling on the psychological and broader mental health of black populations, especially youth -- who are very impressionable.
The 'fashion' or trend of skin bleaching is concerning. Theoretical and empirical research demonstrates that social norms can influence health and behavior, population-wide. For instance, social cognitive and learning theories posit that individuals learn behaviors and norms that are passively observed in the environment. Some empirical work, as an example, has shown that increased obesity prevalence rates over the years has been associated with fewer overweight individuals perceiving themselves as overweight, increased body weight norms and increased desired and ideal weights. It is possible, therefore, that if a large percentage of the population lightens their skin or believes that lightening their skin is acceptable, people who previously would not have considered using skin lightening products will think it is acceptable -- due to it being normative.
I am a dancehall music fan (and enjoy several of the songs that the artists I mentioned above have released). However, I am also a fan of messages that promote positive physical and mental health. Is skin bleaching (often promoted in dancehall music) destructive fashion or internal foe? It may be one, both or neither, but regardless of the reason it is a unhealthy practice. My hope is that (at the very least) this public discussion will bring further attention to skin bleaching, and awareness of its harmful health effects. Music, I believe, can be a source of positive messages. I encourage superstars, including Jamaican dancehall artists, to promote positive messages. Children and adolescents are listening to their music and so am I.