Gangs of Jamaica

Who: Thibault Ehrengardt is a Paris-based journalist, and former-editor of French reggae magazine, Natty Dread. A longtime fan of Jamaican reggae music, Ehrengardt began publishing Natty Dread in 2000 — the name inspired by the 1974 album from Bob Marley and the Wailers. The magazine ceased its print run in 2010, and Ehrengardt shifted over to a book publication business: Dread Editions. His Jamaica Insula series includes the 2010 French-language edition of Laurie Gunst‘s landmark 1995 memoir/history of the confluence of Jamaican crime and politics, Born Fi’ Dead. Her book recounts the often-deadly competition between the island’s two largest political parties: the Jamaica Labour Party, led from 1974-2005 by Edward Seaga; and the People’s National Party, led from 1969-1992 by Michael Manley. Moreover, Gunst interviewed Kingston gang members, who dwelt in housing projects conceived and constructed by the JLP and PNP as political garrisons to ensure loyalty — and armed with guns to do battle with rivals. The most notorious of these is JLP stronghold Tivoli Gardens, once lorded over by Christopher “Dudus” Coke. His leadership title of “don” reflected a crime culture whose power structures took influence from American mafia hierarchy — and whose gunslinging “posses”, or gangs, idolized the badman elements of American Western film lore. The bloodiest period of Coke’s tenure in Tivoli Gardens unfolded in late-May 2010, when Jamaican army and police launched a days-long assault aimed at executing an arrest warrant issued at the request of the United States, which was set to prosecute Jamaica’s most-powerful don for trafficking drugs, guns and ammunition. The ensuing gunfight claimed the lives of over 70 people, and plunged West Kingston into a state of emergency. While Coke survived and was captured, Prime Minister Bruce Golding received heavy criticism for his opposition to Coke’s extradition, and resigned his office in September 2011. Soon after, Ehrengardt returned to Jamaica as part of a television crew documenting Kingston gangs. He decided to gather his findings into a 2012 book, Gangs of Jamaica: The Babylonian Wars — publishing an English-language e-book version in 2013. In his introduction, Ehrangardt notes that his book serves to reveal “the dark face of Jamaica, a morbid reality shared by three million people who live under the yoke of organized crime, its armies of child soldiers, and a bunch of ruthless politicians”. Camera In The Sun spoke with Ehrengardt for a January 2014 interview about Gangs of Jamaica, reggae music and films, and Kingston gang life within the power vacuum left by Coke’s arrest.

Note: [Gangs of Jamaica is available at Amazon -- with more info at Jamaica Insula]

How did you develop a love for reggae music?

Reggae came through a regular love for music. I started to listen to rock music as a young guy, then shifted to reggae, and got very interested in everything that surrounded reggae music. I mean, I was at once very fascinated by the universe surrounding reggae music. Even the bible, dreadlocks, ganja — everything. So as I grew up, it became sort of an obsession. Step by step, I got involved more and more into reggae music. Buying records, reading everything I could find. As a matter of fact, I couldn’t find a lot of things about reggae at the time. It was quite odd. Because even in the ’80s, a lot of journalists had stopped talking about reggae. So after a while, I decided to find out for myself, and I started to ask questions to reggae singers who came to Paris. I loved writing too. I just combined the two passions, and started an underground publication that was photocopied about reggae records. And as soon as possible, I went to Jamaica. 1999 was my very first trip to Jamaica, and my obsession grew even stronger after that. So after a few years doing that, and pursuing my studies on the side, I decided that it was time to either stop it — because it took a lot of time — or to turn it into a way to earn a living. So I started Natty Dread magazine as a professional publication in 2000. It lasted for 10 years. Then I grew a little bit fed up. Not really with music, but with what was going on in Jamaica. The music had lost an impact. There was a lot of changes. Internet somehow killed reggae music. It was time for me to do something else. So I decided to quit publishing the magazine, and started the books on continuing journalism. I started to publish the first book while the magazine was still around. So it was published by Natty Dread, which is name of the company. But the series was called Jamaica Insula. We have two series now: Jamaica Insula and Le Moine Marin (or the Sea Monk) — which is something totally different. The first book [Histoire de la Jamaique] was the first history of Jamaica written in French for over 250 years. It was a history of Jamaica from 1494 to 1838, with a lot of engravings.

Born Fi’ Dead was a one-of-a-kind experience. I was already very aware of the political dimension of reggae music — the local dimension. I was quickly interested in every reference in reggae music. But I couldn’t understand at once, and I couldn’t dig it up. I got the book from my father, who bought it on the internet at the time. He bought it for me, and it has changed the way I perceive reggae music. It was enlightening. Because everything was explained. Plus, the book is very readable, because there’s a lot of personal input in it. I mean, the journey of Laurie Gunst herself is very interesting. So I knew about the politics when I came to Jamaica for the first time. As a matter of fact, I met a guy from the PNP who had come to meet us journalists, in order to give us some ideas on what was good, or what was bad. We had talks for hours and hours about politics, PNP, JLP. From there, I knew that it was only the beginning. I think that it was the best way to see reggae music. Because without the understanding of this particular problem — politics in Jamaica — I guess it’s very hard to understand reggae at all. So when [Jamaica Insula] appeared, it was natural for me to think about Laurie Gunst. I realized it had never been translated into French. So I simply contacted her, and we worked it out.

It came out just before [2010's Tivoli Gardens raid]. So the timing was quite good. But it was not planned. We are an independent, so we have our own distribution. And distribution of books in France is quite complicated. But it sold very well. People loved it.

When the Tivoli raid happened, a lot of magazines and TV channels contacted us to talk about the book. It was the only one available in French at the time about the gangs of Jamaica. So it was good timing indeed. And I think it did a lot for people. I keep on receiving messages from people who said that this book changed their way of looking at Jamaica, and of listening to reggae music. Because It’s very well-written, so I think it speaks to people. Because Laurie Gunst obviously had some personal problems to solve regarding Jamaica, Black people, and she told me so. And reggae music attracts a lot of people who have problems to solve. I mean personal problems — problems of identity, most of the time. Because reggae speaks a lot about identity too.

Did Edward Seaga’s previous legal action against Gunst impact the French edition?

No, not at all. Of course, Seaga knows it has been translated into French. But he is, I guess, intelligent enough not to give any publicity to a book like that. So he keeps a low profile, which I guess is the best thing to do. Laurie is directly pointing her finger at him, but she gives no concrete evidence. When you read Jamaican newspapers and Jamaican books, you find lots already written about him and about what he did. And when you read his own memoirs, which just came out, you even realize that he himself said a lot. In the early part of the last decade, he said publicly that Jamaican politicians from the ’70s should speak up and reveal everything, so that everything would be cleared up, and Jamaica could start anew. But several dons in Jamaica, who had become very powerful over the years, told him to shut up. One in particular said, “Mr. Seaga should keep his mouth shut,” and he did. So Seaga is kind of a weird guy. He’s one-of-a-kind too. He, of course, is an evil man to me. But this is quite complicated. Seaga, when he retired — so to speak — from politics a few years ago, received every honor that you can think of in his country. Everybody was praising Edward Seaga like a cultural icon. Dudley Thompson, when he died, was also honored as an icon. Everybody remembered how eloquent he was, because he was quite eloquent. Everybody said good things about this guy. I think it’s very hard nowadays to speak directly against them, and nobody really did. And if you listen to reggae music, they keep on saying, “Stop killing each other. Stop fighting one another.” But they never call out names. And I think that’s why they stopped. They never crossed the border. Bob Marley never crossed the border in the tune “Natty Dread”. He stopped at 7th Street, which is a border between the PNP and the JLP. And I think that when he tried to cross the border, he got shot, and he got scared. Everybody understood that you couldn’t joke with that, and that these people are dangerous. This is a small island. Anything can happen to you. So I think people are very cautious.

On such a small island, can gang members ever really leave criminality behind?

I think they cannot achieve respectability. They never become respectable, because they still have a lot of enemies. I mean, I’ve been among one of them in particular who told me, “I am the fruit of the community where I grew up. And I grew up in a gunman community.” So even he himself said he was a gunman, and now he was rich and famous. He had a very big label. He was working with the best artists in Jamaica. And when we were sitting in his garden, we were talking, and all of a sudden we heard something in the street. He froze, and said, “Shut up! Shut up!” He got up, looked over, called one guy on the phone, and took us on the backside of his home. Then he was uneasy for the rest of the day. So this is the reality in Jamaica. Once you have enemies, you have enemies forever.

But I always remember Jamaica is a Third World country. So it’s not very well-developed. Opportunities are few. Education is almost nonexistent in the ghetto parts. They know nothing. So all they know is a closed environment, and they learn the rules quite rapidly. That’s why I say in the book that they keep on talking and talking every day about badness. It is the oral tradition to keep you updated, to know who is who, to know what you can do, what you cannot do. Because when they talk to you, and they look cool, you think everything is quite smooth. But their brain keeps on thinking of other things that you cannot see, unless you are aware of it. And this is survival in the street. It’s not typical of Jamaicans. People living in the slums, and the ghetto, and in the criminal environments will learn the rules when they are kids, and they try to survive with what they know. So indeed, crime is the quickest way to succeed in life. What can you expect when you grow up in Trenchtown nowadays? There is nothing but despair in Trenchtown. You have nothing to rely upon. It is very difficult. Some people do it. They survive. But if you want to achieve something, then I can understand how a youth thinks of picking up a gun. I understand easily how it comes up. Even good youths. So I think it’s a problem really of money.

They know everything about reggae and badness. Everything. The parts of reggae music they know is mostly dancehall. Now, roots reggae music — if you talk to the youths about The Gladiators, they might not know it. But if you talk about Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, they know them by heart. They know the songs. They grew up listening to this music. So they know it very well. And they also know badness even better. Why? Because they live in this environment where you have to know what’s going on. And Claudie Massop is still honored every year. People in Tivoli give a dance to celebrate Claudie Massop, and his mother shows up every time. Unfortunately, I couldn’t witness it myself. But it is said that she is a very strange woman who speaks for hours in the middle of everyone about her son. So everyone pays respect to Claudie Massop. Everyone pays respect to Jim Brown. Everyone pays respect to Dudus. They know them, because they were the ones who ruled their lives.

It was not the MP of the constituency. It’s not even the Prime Minister who rules their lives. It’s the don who rules their lives. So of course they know who they are, and they know their enemies, and they know their friends. They are very well aware of what is going on. It’s just that they do not have the opportunity to be aware of what is going on at a higher level. Their horizon is very low. But this is because of poor education, and no money. They are not idiots. They really know what’s going on. Some of them just come and go, and don’t know anything about what’s going on. But most of them know, and that’s why they kill each other. They always have a reason, most of the time. There is a youth who explains in the book that, in fact, you never know who is gonna come for you, who is gonna kill you, and why he is going to kill you. The guy who kills you probably doesn’t know why he’s killing you, apart from the fact that you belong to a community that killed someone of his community. Meaning, you’re in the street and someone killed your friend. You don’t know who killed him. But you know that the guy must come from the other side of the street, because you are at war with them. So you will kill someone from across the street. Anyone. The first guy from across the street that you meet, you will shoot him to avenge your friend. That’s how they work. So danger, it’s permanent.

How did Dudus compare to other dons?

Dudus is quite difficult to talk about. Because Dudus refused to take pictures, refused to speak. A lot of people didn’t know his face. Jim Brown, his adopted father, used to show up in the streets wearing silky suits. He was more of a Jamaican-type of badman. He was showing off a lot. But not Dudus. And the cops in Jamaica were facing a challenge. They didn’t know who he was. And they couldn’t go to his place, because it would have started a real war. Remember, before the successful Tivoli raid, two raids failed. Because the police and the army were repelled by gunmen. That gives you an idea of the kinds of weapons that they used, and how good they can fight. So it was about Dudus, but everybody was surprised when they realized how many millions he had put aside. Because he was taking money from the poorest. And the poorest accepted to give the money, because Dudus is like a politician. You pay taxes. But when you have problems, he can help you out. He can pay for your kids to go to school. He can buy you a new pair of shoes. He can protect you if you run into trouble. He will cool things down. So he had this role that enabled him to collect the money. But they never realized that he was that rich. So people were kind of surprised. He played a key role in the way people see their own dons, because they always defend their dons. But this time, I think some people in Tivoli understood that they were robbed completely. But at the same time, Tivoli Gardens was supposed to be the headquarters of crime in Jamaica. And so it was. But the downfall of Dudus never stopped crime in Jamaica. Everybody thought that maybe this was a turning point. Maybe it was the end of gangs. The brand new Minister of Security, Peter Bunting seemed to have some ideas. So everybody thought that maybe this was the turning point in the history of crime in Jamaica. But a few years afterwards, well, obviously things are not getting done. Criminality has changed. Now it’s spreading all over the country. Even in Montego Bay, they are facing a series of crimes, and they don’t know what to do. So crime is really rooted into Jamaican society. And I think because of the way things work, politicians are to be blamed in the first place, really and truly. But I think it’s also a problem of “the cocaine road”, and the fact that these people don’t have access to a lot of opportunities, because of corruption.

Do you think legalizing marijuana would reduce crime in Jamaica?

I think that would be the worst thing that could happen to Jamaica. To become the new place to go to smoke weed, I think that would be terrible. Because they love tourism from America. But when you spend some time in Montego Bay, you realize the quality of tourism in Jamaica. These are mainly American tourists who come to fuck, to take cocaine, and to drink ’til they throw up.

This is tourism in Jamaica, and it brings nothing. They remain on their tourism paths, and they don’t care. They don’t care about Jamaica. They don’t care about history whatsoever. They come for the sand, and for the girls, and for the cocaine. Because if you have a little money in America, when you come to Jamaica you’re the king. So you behave like a bitch. But people have been doing that all over the world. I think it’s very important in Jamaica. Nobody says it. But it’s obviously what’s going on.

How does Jamaican law enforcement approach fighting cocaine, compared to fighting marijuana?

Jamaica is not a cocaine country. Ganja grows in Jamaica. Coke is not made there. But the real problem in Jamaica is cocaine, even though it is only in transit. It comes from South America, and goes to North America. And when you realize the amount of cocaine that goes through Jamaica — who is using so much cocaine in America? How can you get access to so much cocaine in America? But to come back to Jamaica, America has always been fighting marijuana. Always. From its start in the ’80s with Seaga, they’ve been fighting ganja, ganja, ganja. And in the meantime, cocaine more easily imposed itself. They do fight cocaine too. It’s just that they look for ganja fields, as there are some in Jamaica. I think they were not up to date. Right now, they keep on fighting ganja, because they know that ganja is a source of income for gangs. They exchange ganja for guns with the people of Haiti. There are Americans who come from the Bahamas, and settle in Haiti with guns, and exchange them for ganja. So ganja is a very important source of income for gangs. So [law enforcement] wants to fight it.

How has the U.S. border situation with Mexico influenced cocaine smuggling through Jamaica?

Cocaine takes the first road it used to take. The [Jamaican] Ministry of Security talks about the “balloon effect” of the closing up of the frontier with Mexico. The people who traffic in cocaine, they are very creative. There are personal individual submarines, and they cross the Caribbean with these. I mean, it requires quite a determination to do something like that. They are always ahead of the police, the DEA. You know, the DEA have drones flying over the Caribbean every day. But these people are using small submarines, and I think they also use a lot of containers. So this is something I cannot make up my mind on. Do we have politicians in the highest positions in several countries — including France, but let’s talk about America and Jamaica — who concretely traffic and deal with cocaine? I mean, procuring authorization for container-loads of cocaine to enter such or such country. Do we have a “good guy, bad guy” situation here, or do we have something more complex? Honestly, this is something I cannot tell. Did Seaga, for instance, import guns directly? Did he export cocaine directly? Or was he just aware of it, and letting his men do their thing? I don’t know. This is something I don’t know.

What is your take on former Prime Minister Bruce Golding’s resignation?

Golding is the creature of Seaga. Seaga raised Golding. But at one point, the creature rebelled against Seaga. He defied him, and somewhat won the fight, which was I guess a pain in the ass of Seaga. But Golding has always looked at Seaga as a model. So remember when Jim Brown was to be extradited to America. Claudie Massop was probably murdered by Jim Brown, and Jim Brown was murdered — probably on Seaga’s order. Let’s say “probably”. And then Dudus took Jim Brown’s place.

So when Jim Brown was accused by the Americans of trafficking in cocaine, and he was to be sent to America, he said “OK, if you send me to America, I will talk, and I will have a lot of things to say.” And a few days after, he was burned to death in his own cell in Jamaica. So everybody understood the message. “Don’t fuck with Seaga. Don’t play that kind of game with us.” So when Golding was confronted with the same situation, he tried to back his man as much as possible — and even did some illegal things to back him up. Which tells you a lot about the relationship between crime and politics in Jamaica. I mean, this is something that Golding should have been sent to prison for. I cannot believe that this guy just stepped down. Even nowadays, some people say, “He should come back.” I mean, I cannot believe it. This is incredible, how far this man went to support Dudus. This is a national hypocrisy. Everyone knows it. But no one says anything.

Jamaica to me is a big mess. There is no rule. Politicians are corrupted. Musicians are talking shit to get money. But they don’t mean it. White people come — and what for? To fuck and to have cocaine. Who are the people running after the “good opportunity”, the Jamaican dream? They understand that this world is a big mess. So all you have to do is to get out of it by any means necessary. And I think that’s the biggest problem of Jamaica. Some people are good people. The majority of Jamaicans try to fight with their own means. We are only talking about the criminal part of Jamaica. But it is quite important, unfortunately. So these people think like that. They have no rules, and they have no fear of death, and they have no hope for tomorrow. So they try everything.

Why do you suppose you were given so much access to Jamaican law enforcement?

I think it was thanks to Peter Bunting, Minister of Security, who is part of Portia Simpson-Miller‘s administration. I think it comes from him, and I haven’t heard about anything like that happening again since I did it. So I don’t know. This is Jamaica. Every now and then, Jamaica sees the light, and everybody falls down on their knees and starts to pray to the Lord for forgiveness. It’s redemption time. And six months later, everything has come back to the same old situation. They keep on doing that. That’s how Jamaica lives. Every now and then, they need hope. So they create this hope, then fall back. Then they fall into despair, and they create hope again. Because this is a Third World country, as I told you. So they always have to work, and work, and believe, and have hope in what might happen to them. But the last time I went there for the book, to tell you the truth, I couldn’t feel the new breath again. It seemed to me that Jamaica was out of breath. It couldn’t take it no more, and there was no hope anywhere. I only saw a desperate situation, and it seems that it’s still going on right now.

I was there last in 2012. That was after Golding stepped down. Golding ended the situation after Dudus’ extradition. He had ended the situation quite good. As a matter of fact, everybody was surprised when he decided to step down. Then the PNP came back to power. That’s why I got the authorization, I guess. Because Bunting wants to show a new police, a new face of fighting crime. And I think he’s damn right. Because people are very surprised, when they read the book, to see that the policemen I talk about seem to be human. Some of them seem willing to do their job. Some of them take incredible risks every day. They go to war. Some of them are corrupt. That’s no doubt. Every time I go to Jamaica, I meet at least one corrupt cop. That’s a fact. But they are not all corrupt. They are working under extreme conditions, and they are trying to do their job. People are very surprised. Because you know, in reggae music for instance, it’s always easy to blame the police. But it’s harder to blame the gunman, because he lives next door. And no matter what he says, he’s far more dangerous than the police. Because the police won’t shoot you for what you said. But a gunman will shoot you for that. So I think it’s a good idea for them to be open. Jamaica needs to open up. It’s an island society. People who live on an island, sometimes they are too focused on themselves — like every island. It’s not only Jamaica. But Jamaica needs some fresh air. It needs some help, and it needs the people to talk with honesty. I’ve been under hard criticism from many Jamaicans who’ve said, “You give Jamaica a bad name with your book. Let’s talk about the sun.”

Well, I must say that Jamaica hasn’t waited for me to give it a bad name. It’s high time for them to speak honestly of problems. And part of the solution might come a little bit from the outside. Because I’m not a PNP. I’m not a JLP. I don’t care. These are not my politicians. I’m not working for anyone. So my position as a journalist might shed light on a few points that maybe they can’t see right now. Not to say that the solution will come from me. But I think they should open up, and realize that it’s time to talk about things. And I think Bunting understood that.

Do you suppose Dudus supplied any useful info that had an effect on Jamaican crime?

Dudus talked in America to get a low sentence, but we don’t know what he told them. He never gave a lot of people away. I don’t think so. Obviously, I think he talked. Because as Laurie Gunst points out in her book, most Jamaican criminals (once arrested) cooperate with the police. They just say, “OK, let’s try to get a lesser sentence.”

But the police want to clean up the situation. Why did they kill so many dons in Jamaica at the time? We don’t know. Were some police on orders to cut short on what Dudus might have said? I don’t know. This is something pretty hard to determine. You know, Seaga used the police as a personal army. The PNP did the same, to be honest. So when you disobeyed some orders given by the politicians, then the police would come for you. And they ran into big problems when they realized that when the police came for the dons, the dons fought back and repelled the police. So then it became a big problem. That’s when you’ll recall the so-called independence of dons. They got more power in the balance, and the situation became more even. Politics is still behind crime, to me, in Jamaica.

How effective have special police operations been against gangs?

One of the crime units, “Kingfish”, was led by a “super cop” of Jamaica, and it was quite efficient. But it was stopped all of a sudden, and nobody knows why. Nobody knows who gave the order. Somebody knows, but nobody says. But they have a problem with this kind of a unit, because they fear death squads. But it was almost certainly politics. And when The Gleaner talked to this super cop, Adams, he said he would take away the cell phones of his men before they would come out on an operation. He took their cell phones, because he knew some of them would use it to tell about their coming. And I think some of them sometimes feel desperate. Because they feel like their life is at stake, and they don’t really know where the gunshots will come from — from foes or friends. So this is one of the problems of the situation. Which is why some of the police also sometimes are not perfect in their job. Because you work for a guy, and you don’t know if this guy is shitting on you.

How has evolving technology changed the way gangs do business?

I met a lot of different dons. One of them was very young. He had a powerful army, but it was still a small gang. A lot of them are small gangs nowadays, and they don’t have smartphones. They don’t have access to internet, so it’s the old type of cellphone — just quicker. He was talking to us one day, and all of a sudden his phone started to vibrate. So he took out the phone, looked at it, took a bag of weed he had in his pocket, and threw it away. We didn’t know what was going on. But a few seconds later, a police car drove behind our back. A sentry had told him that they were coming. So obviously, it’s becoming even harder for the police. [Gangs] also use the internet. Nowadays, we’ve seen appear the internet problem of the lotto scam. This new criminality where they use a list of names of people who are posting somewhere. When the information on your credit card is registered, they have access to these lists. They send a message, and they extort money from old people by tricking them. They made a lot of money, and then they started to get extorted by gunmen. Then they started to work together. They’d say, “I earn a lot of money, and I need protection. So I pay you, and you protect me.” And nowadays, the latest articles about lotto scamming show that now they have formed a new association — and that all the criminals, all the murderers that have been arrested lately, all have lotto scam records. So it’s a new way to enter criminality in Jamaica. And Montego Bay has become almost the worldwide capital of lotto scams. So that’s another bad name for Jamaica. But it’s very creative. Remember, they are a very creative people. In the good fields and the bad fields, Jamaicans are very creative.

How have Jamaica’s newspapers responded to your book?

The Gleaner wrote a very full-length article about the book, and they said it’s essential. They loved the book. The Observer didn’t even mention it. But I must say that I’ve always been very impressed at the quality of journalism in Jamaica, according to the general situation. I spent a few hours one day with a politician from the PNP, who brought me 5-6 newspapers, pointed out several articles and said, “Read this, this, this and this, and let’s talk about it.” Once I had read the articles, I said, “What? What do you mean?” Then he explained to me what was the link between every article, and what was the meaning of the articles put together. It was very deep journalism. But obviously, journalists are under pressure. So they have to learn to say things without saying them. Or just put one line here, that seems to have no meaning to you — but when you link it to four lines on the next page, or an article on the next page, it rings a bell. And I don’t mean the JLP bell. I was very shocked by this experience. So I’ve learned how to read Jamaican newspapers, and they have a very good quality journalism. Of course, it is made in certain conditions. But they say a lot of things. They say much more than Laurie Gunst can say in her book, and much more than what I can say. The difference is that they say it differently. But everything is said. I remember from my research for a portrait of Edward Seaga, that I’m translating into English right now, I went through the archives of The Gleaner. I read things about the fight between Dudley Thompson and Edward Seaga in the late ’60s. And the newspaper was saying everything. “Yesterday we saw a little gang from West Kingston, which is said to be related to Mr. Seaga. Mr. Dudley Thompson accused Mr. Seaga of firing a gunshot on his men.” So everything is said in Jamaica. Everything. They know it. Everyone knows it. It’s just when someone from the outside comes, they get scared.

How much of a role did your skin color play in getting access to gangs?

Jamaican people are not racist at all. They see you as a White guy, so they guess you have some money to earn. If you’re here for them, it’s because you’re gonna earn some money. They are not wrong. If they are White, it is the case most of the time. I was earning money with my magazine. Then you are a White man, so you are protected. I remember once… You know, Jamaicans love to speak just as if they were fighting with knives. And that’s how I speak — and I love it.

So one day I was there, and a guy came to me and said, “What are doing here, Whitey?” And I answered, “What do you care, Blackie?” He said, “Watch out! Don’t talk to me like that, man. You know, I have a very strong posse. You could have some problems.” I had insulted him, and he was serious. Because Jamaicans don’t like to be disrespected. So I said, “Don’t make me laugh with your little posse, man. I belong to the biggest posse in the world. So don’t mess with me.” So he looked at me and said, “What posse?” I said, “White man posse.” Everybody burst out laughing. But they loved it, because it is true. In Jamaica, as a white man, you are kind of protected. That’s why I could go in all these places, I guess. They want people to be interested in their story. They want people to tell their story. They want people to talk for them. And they guess, as a White man, you have more power than they will ever have. I’m talking about people in the ghetto. There’s a lot of people in Jamaica who have much more power than I will ever have. You have a lot of rich, rich, rich and powerful influential people in Jamaica. But I’m talking about the ghetto part. They welcome you, because you are kind of their voice. And remember, these people are living in the middle of a mess. So every opportunity is to be grabbed. So if you can pay for food for tonight, if you can pay for taxi fare, if you can pay for a beer, then you are welcome. Some of these people leave their house in the morning, they have nothing to eat, and they go “out the road” as they say. They go in the street, and they are looking for something. And if you’re a White man, hey, could be the opportunity of the day.

I personally never pay for interviews. I only did it two or three times in my life — and it was for artists that I really wanted to talk to. But some of the gunmen got some money to show some guns. Because remember, this was part of a television project. They wanted to make a documentary. So they called me — as a Jamaican specialist, so-to-speak — and they paid money, which I would have never done. Especially to the guys they paid. But they did it, because gunmen are in business. So if you make business, hey, they make business. Gangs respond to you in the same tone that you approach them. So if you come to them and talk money, they will talk money. If you approach them and talk violence, they will talk violence, no problem. But if you approach them talking love, they will talk about love for hours. And [a TV] guy went to [a gang] guy talking about business. So the [gang] guy said, “Hey, you want business, White guys? Making money with guns? No problem. How much you pay me?” The guys I personally interviewed, I never paid for that.

Where does reggae music cross over with criminality?

A lot of musicians, and some the biggest artists of Jamaica were criminals. They grew up in an environment where you had to defend yourself. Some were very good at it, even when they achieve a sort of redemption. Because they are in desperation, they might seek help towards crime. But they also look up to God. And in both cases, they are genuine. So when god responded to them, according to their way of seeing life, then they stuck to God, and it was a kind of redemption. So they started to spread love, and talk about love, and they redefined themselves with that. But they used to be criminals. I’m doing another portrait about Yabby You, who was a very great producer and singer from the ’70s, and he grew up in Waterhouse in the ’50s and ’60s. He was growing up in this environment, and he had to learn to defend himself. So he was very well-known for handling his knife, and could hit you with either side of the knife — the point or the handle, depending on his will. He was also very well-known, because he could draw his gun very fast. But he wrote some terrific tunes about god and “love thy neighbor”. So he was in between righteousness — but divine righteousness — like social emergencies. So reggae music comes from that background. From Trenchtown, West Kingston where the badmen and the reggae singers all grew up together in the same pot, the same cooking jar. Some of them turn badmen. Some of them turn musicians. Depends on who they were in the first place, and their personality. Some of them became both. If you’ve ever heard [The Slickers] song “Johnny Too Bad”, it’s on The Harder They Come soundtrack. It’s about a singer who could sing, and who could kill. He chose to kill, and he got killed. But the tune is telling [Trevor Wilson]‘s history, and he wrote part of it. It’s quite an interesting story. Bob Marley was also into badness. He knew Claudie Massop very well. He bought him a BMW. He knew all the dons from Jamaica. Gregory Isaacs was very well-known, because he used to be a very tough guy. And nobody would jump or rump with Gregory Isaacs. Believe me. Leroy Smart was very well-known. He was sent to prison because he cut the face of one of his producers with a knife several times, because he was robbing him. People in this environment have to know how to defend themselves.

Is The Harder They Come still a relevant film for Jamaicans?

Well, I wouldn’t say that much. Jimmy Cliff is an international star, so he is respected and loved. But Jamaicans are faithful to the people who remain in Jamaica. Once you’re outside of Jamaica, they kind of forget you a little bit. You’re not in the heart of the action. You’re not necessary to their lives, so they put you aside. There are too many things to deal with in their closed environment. So Jimmy Cliff is very well-known as an international star everywhere else in the world. But the people in the street don’t know about The Harder They Come.

I loved the movie. But then again, I’m from a different generation. I’m not 40 yet. So I came to reggae music far before watching the movie. I know to a lot of people, it was a revelation. It was a revelation as a movie, and as music with the original soundtrack — which did a lot for reggae music. But I came after the show. So somehow, I saw this movie at home, because everybody knew that in reggae music you had to see this movie. “It’s wicked!” So I went for it. But Laurie Gunst’s book, I read almost when it came out. So it was in the heart of the action. The Harder They Come was already an iconic movie, and everybody had to respect it. So I wouldn’t say it had such an impact on me. Except, the fact that I grew fascinated by the character that inspired Jimmy’s Cliff’s role in the movie. The real gangster: Vincent Martin was his real name. “Ryghin’” was his nickname. It means “always on top.” That’s how the people in the street used to call him. He lived in the late-’40s. He became the “Public Enemy #1″, and he threatened the Prime Minister of the time. So his story is very interesting, and he took some pictures while he was on the run. And he sent the pictures to The Gleaner, and The Gleaner published the pictures on the front page. This is same picture as with Jimmy Cliff, where he’s posing with his two guns right up. This guy really lived it, and he really got shot by the police. But he never recorded no music. But I grew very fascinated in him because of The Harder They Come.

What really changed my point of view on reggae music, and what was an aesthetic movie for me, was Rockers. To me, Rockers is the movie about Jamaica and reggae, because you get it to the fullest. This is reggae music. This is what I wanted to see. This is what I wanted to know. This is what took me to Jamaica. This is what I wanted to see again. Real roots reggae artists. I’m a roots man. As far a reggae music is concerned, I’m deeply in love with roots music from the ’70s. Everyone is there. It’s like a journey through reggae music. And more interesting, this is probably the most political movie ever made. I think it exposes all of Michael Manley‘s political points through Rasta. It is very interesting. I’ve never been able to talk to the director, as he was hiding himself for years in Greece. I know he gave an interview a few years ago. But I guess it was a joint venture between he and Island and Michael Manley to make a political movie. So to me, this is a political movie. But anyway, this is the dream of Jamaica to me. When I saw that, I said, “OK, my life cannot go on without being close to this kind of environment, to these people, to what’s going on here. I love it.” This is “the new frontier”, as Laurie Gunst would say. I was myself fascinated by Western movies and Western books as a kid. So that’s another point for Laurie Gunst.

I remember when I used to go to Jamaica, and I was focusing on reggae music, I was very surprised to find one day that the best-selling artist of the year there was Celine Dion. This is a global world. So indeed, the people who have the money, who have the cultural power, impose themselves. So of course they listen to a lot of rap music, and they go to Kentucky Fried Chicken, and they look up to the Western model, obviously. They import everything in Jamaica, because they don’t make anything. So everything that is nice, that shines, it comes from America. So at the end of the day, you end up thinking that America is the top of the top, obviously. But at the same time, Jamaican people are very, very proud of who they are. Though, they don’t always know who they are. But they are very proud of their flag, very proud of being Jamaican. They would be ready to die for Jamaica.

I often ask the question to Rasta people, “You talk about Africa. You say you were taken into slavery. So how come you love Jamaica so much? This is the place where you were taken by masters.” You always end up in a dead end. This is something you cannot talk about. Jamaica is a holy land. It is their land. It is who they are, and it is very deeply rooted into any Jamaican. It is very striking for a French guy. It is less striking, I guess, for an American — where people can show flags through their windows, just because they want to show that they are proud to be American. But this is something we do not do in France. It is striking to see how they love to paint the flag of Jamaica everywhere, and to put “One God. One Aim. One destiny” everywhere. They are very proud of being Jamaican. And I think they need this pride to go on.