Adijah “Vybz Kartel” Palmer, one of Jamaica’s most popular dancehall artistes announced last year that he plans to launch a line of cake soap for the skin, apparently called Vybz Kartel Cake Soap. For those unfamiliar, cake soap is a solid, cheap, blue, almost brick looking detergent that is used by the majority of households in Jamaica, if not the Caribbean, to wash clothes by hand. So it is a little hilarious. Cake soap for the face? (A suitable North American parallel might be frothing your skin with All or Tide.) It seems like a gag product, the dancehall equivalent of fuzzy stuffed snakes springing out of the peanut brittle can. You almost feel as though Kartel is at home sniggering to himself as the collective blood pressure of Jamaicans rises.
It is also a little sad. Why? Because on the surface at least it seems as if the French got it right: “plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose” (the more things change, the more they stay the same). Not only has Kartel launched his own cake soap, he has also admitted (sort of) to bleaching. Bleaching is the act of deliberately lightening skin. This seems to have come as a shock to many across the world, and his comparing his skin lightening to a white person darkening their skin by tanning has many aghast (see youtube video below - approx. minute 3). This admission of intentionally striving for a fairer complexion brought again to the forefront the whole issue of identity, race, and class in Jamaica, issues that have the power to get us hot under the collar. It may be difficult to comprehend the depth of feeling around the issues being ventilated so here is my attempt at breaking it down.