NOT the return of the rude bwoy

I spent a not so pleasant evening at Somerset House, a planned visit to see the “Return of the Rude Boy”. The exhibit intro explains how the rude boy style emerged from the streets of Kingston Jamaica in the 1950s. There’s a personal account by Mark Professor placing the exhibition in the black British context describing the challenges faced by black youths growing up in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s. The school system which didn’t teach them about their identity, the job market which wouldn’t employ them and the police force which labelled them as criminals. They were forced to form their own creative expression which included sound systems from Jamaica.

So how did all that translate into a collection of photos of mostly well groomed men in nice outfits? There were sound systems in each of the rooms playing recorded music but not the kind of music usually associated with the Jamaican rude boy culture described by Mark Professor. A DJ arrived to play some revival 45s but his selection showed a woeful lack of knowledge of the music he was playing. But then as this really isn’t an authentic “rude boy” exhibition does it really matter? There’s a pop up “rude boy” barber shop offering a “rude boy trim” starting at £32 and you can see a “rude boy” film for £12. I would recommend heading to Bab Zee salon on West Green Road, Tottenham or any other local “rude bwoy” barbers for a more authentic “rude bwoy” trim, a more atmospheric “rude bwoy” setting without the not so “rude boy” £32 price tag. Oh and if you want to experience a truly authentic “rude bwoy” sound system head down to Rich Mix in Bethnal Green on 11 Sept 2014 to hear the legendary Jamaican born sound system operator and record producer Sir Lloyd Coxsone

Return of the Rude Boy is on at Somerset House until 25 August 2014.

I left the exhibition pondering my uneasy feeling, struggling to articulate my discomfort when I found this excellent review by Kunga Dred.

“Rude Boy is a rather disingenuous translation of the term ‘Rude Bwoy’ , which is a loose translation of the original ‘Bad man’ or petty gansta as depicted in the Harder they Come (1972), which starred Jimmy Cliff. The term also represents those young men who lived largely outside a community that marginalised them – their hair not the right style, their clothes not grey enough to be deemed normal. Whilst the well-turned out images donned at Somerset House invite you to look again and again, I felt, as I looked at the amount of ‘trendy’ looking Europeans who also were given the ‘rude boy’ tag, a moment of unease as their presence seemed to sanitise the combative element which the ‘true’ rude bwoy historically represented. These young black men were often just a whisker away from the hands of the authorities and if held, were beaten or even killed as their ability to eek out a cultural existence was in direct conflict to westernised hegemony of the time. On the streets of the UK young black men, worked collectively and built sound systems from pieces of MDF, speaker cones and magnets, wearing crocheted tams – or daddy’s ‘borrowed’ trilby – with Addias tracksuits and the classic Clarke boots, or Marathon TR trainers (as worn by Bob Marley). Rockers (JA), H arder They Come (JA), Babylon (U.K), Burning an Illusion (U.K), were films which depicted the ghetto politics and defiant roots-reggae stance of the original rude bwoy. Babylon and Burning an Illusion beautifully portrayed the original rude bwoy of the U.K who were doing the ‘bad man walk’ along British streets during one of the most racist periods of this country’s history. A time when, if a black man did not exude rude boy inner and outer strength, he would soon be devoured by those tasked with the role to ‘cleanse’ the streets of this mixing and blending of a politicised British society. If you view this exhibition as a show which gives a unique platform to a group of splendid sartorialists, then you will not be disappointed as all the images in some way carry the essence of those refusing to be placed in a myopic fashion box but if you if expect to hear the warrior cry of the combative rude boy who managed to look crafted and coiffed despite lack of funds and social inclusion you might see one or two holes appearing…”

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