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An issue not to be taken lightly

Then and now: Vybz Kartel’s a few years ago (left) and how he looks today (right)

RECENT months have seen him become one of the biggest artists in the dancehall scene, specifically thanks to his 2010 smash hit, Clarks. But more recently, popular Jamaican deejay Vybz Kartel has found himself hitting the headlines, not thanks to his music, but as result of his skin complexion, which appears to have gradually become lighter over time.

The speculation surrounding Kartel’s appearance became even greater following the release of his singles Cake Soap and Straight Jeans and Fitted, in which he sings the lyrics, “cool like mi wash mi face with di cake soap.”

Though cake soap – also known as blue soap – is popularly used as a laundry detergent in Jamaica, Kartel claiming that he washed his face with the product, led many to speculate that the deejay was using it to lighten his skin.

In a recent interview, Kartel denied bleaching his skin, instead offering this unusual explanation for the dramatic change in his skin tone: “Me nah bleach, me just wash mi face with di cake soap,” Kartel told the reporter. “And true me inna di AC (air conditioning) in mi vehicle, AC inna mi house and AC on the plane when mi travel, mi skin just smooth out and the girl dem love it, what mi fi do?”

In summary (and in case you didn’t understand his sentiments), Kartel claimed that the use of cake soap, combined with air conditioning had evened out his skin tone.

As if that didn’t sound questionable enough, the chairman of Blue Power Group, which manufactures cake soap, rubbished claims that the product lightens the skin – thereby leading people to speculate that Kartel is perhaps lightening his skin by some other means.

But of course, the issue of skin lightening didn’t begin with the release of the aforementioned single Cake Soap. Issues of skin complexion and the desire to lighten one’s skin tone have long been taboo within the black community. Through-out the years, a host of celebrities including rap star Lil Kim, US baseball player Sammy Sosa and most famously, Michael Jackson have been accused of bleaching their skin.

Many put it down to the nasty legacy of slavery, which saw white slave masters showing preferential treatment to the lighter-skinned black slaves. Such acts are said to have per-petuated the ideology that having lighter skin is ‘better’ than having a darker complexion – thus leading some black folks to opt to lighten their skin.

But of course, there are many who use skin lightening products in an attempt to eradicate scars and blemishes, as cosmetic doctor Georges Roman explains.

“I have encountered many black and Asian patients who come to me to lighten their skin,” he says. “The main reason is to even out the skin tone. Where there is hyperpigmentation, skin can look uneven and even patchy for a number of reasons, and patients feel they want to even out the dark areas to improve their appearance.

“Young black women tend to consider medical treatment as they have an upcoming occasion, such as a wedding, and as I am known internationally as a specialist, I regularly treat patients as far away as Africa or Dubai.”

However, Dr Roman reveals that there are many in the black community who are causing themselves damage as a result of using skin-lightening products incorrectly.

“There have been a number of black patients that have come to me for treatment due to excessive skin damage from skin bleaching,” he says. “Particularly, some of the more extreme cases have come from the US where patients have been leaving a cosmetic cream containing hydroquinone [an ingredient used in some skin lightening products] on the skin, resulting in excessive damage. These patients can develop eczema or acne and these post-inflammatory conditions can become hard to treat if not dealt with immediately.”

Dr Ophelia E. Dadzie, consultant dermatologist at Whittington Hospital in London has also treated a number of people who wish to lighten their skin. However, she says that some patients requesting this treatment aren’t always honest about their motives.

“As a practicing dermatologist I have encountered several patients who have engaged in skin bleaching,” she says. “I have observed this practice typically in adults with darker skin types. Although some individuals will ask directly for agents to lighten their normal skin colour, this is not frequent. I often find that people do not confess to this practice and it only becomes apparent when they present me with a problem associated with the abuse of depigmenting agents.

“I have treated black patients who have presented with acne of the face, and often, after investigation, I find that the acne started after abuse of skin lightening agents containing corticosteroids.”

However, David Furst, managing director of Skinlight Cosmetics Ltd – which supplies a range of skincare products, including skin lightening cream – says that, used properly, skin lightening products can have benefits.

“Our products are of a very high quality and are therefore very effective but also very safe,” he says. “There are many different reasons why our customers purchase skin lightening products, but the majority of our customers do appear to use these products to fade dark marks, age spots and blemishes, to achieve a clear and even skin tone.

“There are also some customers that just want to achieve an overall lighter skin tone gradually and safely by using our products. The skin lightening treatments that we sell are used by a diverse mix of ethnic groups, including white, Asian and black.”

Though some skin lightening products may well be safe, clinical psychologist Linda Papadopoulos says that incorrect use of off-the-counter products can have psychological effects on the user.

“One’s skin tone is very much associated with one’s race and one’s identity, and sadly, we live in a culture where there’s a very rigid view of beauty that is aspired to,” she says. “In some cultures, it still is very much valued to have lighter skin. In the Western world, so much money is spent on tanning products, but in the East, even more is spent on skin lightening products, as light skin is seen as the epitome of beauty.

“But some of those types of products are very dangerous. And any dramatic change to your appearance – which can happen if those types of products aren’t used properly – can have long-term psychological effects on the individual.”

Certainly, in Vybz Kartel's case, there does appear to be a dramatic change in his appearance when you compare pictures of old with more recent shots. Some have commented that the once dark-skinned deejay now looks zombie-like due to the unusual and unnatural-looking colour of his skin.

Though the star has denied bleaching his skin, his remark about finding favour with the ladies now that his skin has “smoothed out”, may suggest that Kartel has bought into the notion that being lighter is more desirable – not only with women, but also in the entertainment industry.

If this is his thinking, some would say he’s not far wrong. Many of the black stars that are heralded as beauties in the mainstream media – for example, Beyoncé, Rihanna and Halle Berry – have fair skin. In fact, back in 2008, beauty brand L’Oreal came under fire when reports emerged that they had photoshopped an image of Beyoncé to make her already light skin appear even lighter for one of their advertising campaigns. L’Oreal denied the claim, but it didn’t stop the speculation.

Meanwhile, with mainstream fashion and beauty magazines often accused of featuring far more fairer-skinned models than their darker-skinned counterparts, it’s not hard to see why one might draw the conclusion that the mainstream media favours those with light skin.

Could this be why Kartel is all too happy to endorse his new light image? Reggae journalist Michael Mattus suspects so.

“If Kartel is bleaching, that decision may be bewildering to men of African heritage from a certain generation, but it's probably not surprising within the context of the dancehall milieu,” Mattus says. “Most dancehall acts are extremely jealous of the mainstream penetration that artists such as John Holt, Desmond Dekker and Jimmy Cliff enjoyed during the 1970s and often demonstrate a desperation to emulate their achievements. For an act such as Vybz Kartel who, despite his underground reputation and local notoriety, has never achieved a mainstream pop song, placing a re-definition of his image might, to him, seem a logical progression.

“He would have been aware of the controversy that his actions might have caused and he would, perhaps, welcome the controversy because he might believe it would attract greater attention to him as a personality.”
One person who offers similar sentiments is BBC 1Xtra’s dancehall DJ Robbo Ranx. Having interviewed Kartel on numerous occasions, Robbo considers whether the star is succumbing to the pressures of his relatively new found fame.

“Five years ago, Kartel was not the number one deejay in Jamaica,” Robbo says. “But over the past 18 moths or so, he’s become the biggest hitmaker in Jamaican dancehall music. Now he’s found himself in that position and sometimes, success can affect the way a person behaves. Other than that, I can only assume this is just a very strange publicity stunt from him.”

Whatever the reasons for Kartel’s lightened image, the saga has not only earned him plenty of attention, but also reignited the skin bleaching debate, particularly shining the light on Jamaican culture, where – for some – bleaching is the norm. In fact, after venturing to Jamaica to document the culture through paintings, British artist Gerard Hanson, who we featured in here! last year, created one portrait titled Skin Bleach.

A frequent visitor to Jamaica, Robbo is all too familiar with this practice on the Caribbean island.

“The issue of skin bleaching has long been a horrible trend in Jamaica,” he confirms. “I was out there just recently and it really saddened me to see so many young women that had clearly bleached out their skin. This problem is much bigger than Vybz Kartel. It’s endemic and it’s very sad.”

Nonetheless, skin lightening products are still in demand in afro hair and beauty stores.

“We sell a cocoa butter product that has mushroom oil in it, which is a natural ingredient that slows down the build-up of melanin in the skin,” says Peter Mudahy, general manager of afro hair and beauty retailer Paks Cosmetics. “I changed the packaging and called it a beautifying product and nobody bought it. But the moment it was advertised as a skin lightening product, it just flew off the shelf.”

However, Mudahy, who is also a certified cosmetologist, believes the reasons for the use of such products aren’t as simple as people wanting to have lighter skin.

“There is a huge difference between skin lightening and skin bleaching. But the minute you mention anything about skin lightening within the black community, you get these people jumping on the bandwagon, saying, ‘You must accept your Nubian beauty’ and all those types of sentiments. It is a controversial subject but I just think there’s a lot of ignorance about some of these products.

“The law on this matter is very strict. In Europe, it’s illegal to sell products that contain the ingredient hydroquinone. So people can’t just go out and buy those types of products over the counter. However, a doctor or a dermatologist can prescribe hydroquinone, and there are a number of reasons why someone may require the use of such products.

“There is a big difference between people who use these products to try and even out their skin tone – perhaps because they have marks or scars – and those who use them to bleach their skin. This argument is complex and has so many dimensions, but the problem in our society is that it’s become stigmatic to talk about it.”

Sherry Dixon, beauty guru and former editor at Pride magazine, also agrees that skin lightening products aren’t only used by those with a desire to lighten their skin. However, she believes that many people use such products without being aware of the damage they can cause.

“For people who have eczema or had chicken pox and are left with scars, you can understand why they would want to get rid of those marks,” Dixon says. “But there are a few within our community who use skin lightening products solely for the sake of lightening their skin.

“It’s not just a black issue, because some people in the Asian community use such products too. But what is really sad is that despite hydroquinone being a banned substance, people can still buy other skin-lightening products over the counter, without getting any guidelines on how these products should be used. And if they’re used incorrectly or excessively, they can damage the skin surface and cause you to burn more easily. There are also internal issues with using these products, like the ingredients getting into the blood stream, which can cause further damage.

“In addition, excessive use of these products can leave the skin looking lifeless. You can tell when a person has bleached their face because their skin tends to look almost grey and lacking in luster.

Dixon continues: “To me, the whole thing is stupid because even if a woman bleaches her skin, when she has children, the children will take on the mother’s natural genes. You are what you are and in that sense, it’s a nonsensical practice.”

No doubt the debate will rage on for years to come. There will always be those who fiercely oppose the act of skin lightening and there will surely be those who, for whatever reason, choose to lighten their skin.

As Kartel put it when he was asked for his own thoughts on people who bleach their skin: “Nuh fi dem prerogative that? Vybz Kartel is a tolerant person so if a man wannna bleach, a man [gonna] bleach.”

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