Buyers Beware: Insurgency and Consumption in Caribbean Popular Culture , by Patricia Joan Saunders

In: New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids
Donna P. Hope University of the West Indies, Mona Campus Institute of Caribbean Studies Mona Jamaica

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Patricia Joan Saunders, Buyers Beware: Insurgency and Consumption in Caribbean Popular Culture. New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2022. vii + 219 pp. (Paper US$ 38.95)

Caribbean popular cultural forms continue to garner attention in popular and academic domains. The region’s music, fashion, and dance cultures often make the rounds of high profile catwalks, providing backdrops and cameos in films, and weaving their way through the sounds and lyrical forms of artists in cosmopolitan centers.

In Buyers Beware, Patricia Saunders grounds work within this rich body of Caribbean popular culture, fusing discussions of a range of forms, including visual art, poetry, fiction, academic writing, films, videos, television, music, lyrics, and fashion, to explore a variety of power-making structures and themes, from gender, politics, and history to economics, historiography, and culture. She connects debates spanning the late 1990s to the early 2020s to analyze the utilization of these Caribbean popular cultural forms as commodities and critical tools of agency in a politics of insurgency that reshapes both the region and its relationship to metropolitan capitalism. The power of consumption is articulated early as a critical frame of what citizenship means for Black Caribbean subjects, regionally and in the diaspora. It is upon this structure that Saunders weaves a vivid tapestry of textual representations across Jamaica, Haiti, and Trinidad that collides with literature, popular music culture (dancehall, calypso), poetry, and visual arts.

Buyers Beware moves through renewed gendered conversations around bedroom politics within Jamaican dancehall and into discussions about the fetishized Black male body, with its strong appeal to both Black and White women from the developed North. Connecting to long-standing debates concerning rent-a-dreads, gigolos, and related bodies in this ages-old sex-as-commodity issue, the book positions women from the North as voracious predators of Caribbean/Third World/Black male bodies, even as it elides the role of similar male counterparts in this predatory commodification of the marginalized Black Caribbean body, both male and female.

Yet Saunders’s conversations about the political economy of sex in the Caribbean simultaneously explicate the rescripting of traditional hierarchies of power by those who are preyed upon. Using Dany Laferrierre’s reflections on Haiti in Heading South (2009), this money-power-sex nexus is articulated: “Many of his friends have learned that, in the absence of material wealth, sex is not merely a commodity, it is a weapon that, when wielded carefully, gives them as much, if not more, power than enjoyed by some of the wealthiest people around them” (p. 89). This sex-as-power philosophy articulating a form of sexual and gendered agency is a critical strand that is woven throughout Buyers Beware. The politics of positionality and the articulation of who is “positioned at the top” in sexual, economic, and social encounters provide useful analytical turns as Saunders explores the politics of insurgency in its connection with Caribbean popular cultural forms.

Buyers Beware navigates the entangled strands of the commodification of the body, the engendering of identity, and the fashioning and refashioning of selves. Chapter 4 connects Black male aesthetic transgressions across the Jamaican dancehall, with its body modifications (tattoos, skin bleaching) pioneered by popular dancehall artiste Vybz Kartel, to Jamaican politics of respectability and the wider terrain of the politics of race in the United States. Black male fashion choices and the obvious signals to renewed gender norms are critical in assessing how self is fashioned and refashioned both within and away from traditional and nontraditional Black male values. Jamaican visual artist Ebony Patterson’s work provides a useful canvas upon which to extend this analysis of self-fashioning/refashioning of Black male bodies, and the performance of gender identity via “bling” in a visually consumptive turn discussed in Chapter 6.

As a Caribbean narrative, Buyers Beware is deeply grounded in Jamaican popular culture, especially the dancehall. Shifts in dancehall culture over the past two and a half decades signal immense transformation in the politics of representation of the Black male body and demands for visibility and equality by dancehall’s feminist voices. Analyses of the politics of the bedroom and dancehall’s historical narrative against the “browning” could benefit from a historical framing underscoring the turn to masculine receptivity and the complementary rise of an aggressive feminine quest for equality epitomized in the popular output of dancehall artistes like Ishawna and Spice.

Saunders provides rich cultural analysis of the commodification of Caribbean popular culture, positioning the region within contemporary global markets. Her keen analysis of the mechanisms by which consumptive practices also open spaces for agency is instructive in the revaluing of antihegemonic forms that challenge the framing of cultural consumers as mindless dupes by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer (The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, 1944). Buyers Beware challenges critical theory postulations, even as it opens spaces for discussions around culture, popular culture, gender and sexuality, race, class, and capitalism.

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