We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
With sleepy eyes, Danny Fowler, manager of the reggae DJ collective Upsetters International, watches the feud unfold. Standing in the back of Kaffa House’s kitchen on a November Friday night, he barely looks at the two guys arguing over the so-called Petworth killings (which actually took place in the nearby Park View neighborhood). One wants to talk about the latest murder victims, the other wants to “let the dead deal with the dead.” The two yammer, brandish index fingers like knives, and stick out their barrel chests. They are ready to drop their beer bottles and put up their fists. Still, Fowler is content to let the two have it out, scream for scream. “This is how Jamaicans quarrel,” he reasons.
Reaching a stalemate, the two are soon jockeying for Fowler’s attention. They grab at his blue sweater like kids pawing their father. Fowler simply moves toward the two without caution, barely looking up at them. Raising his arms, he separates the battle-ready drunks and says simply, “Cool it, mon.”
Although not a big man, Fowler, 41, plays the elder statesman of the reggae scene. Fowler and his Upsetters feel responsible for the crowd. He’s concerned not just with how well his DJs break down beats but how the collective can keep the local Jamaican population unified for at least one night. The Upsetters, a collective of managers, promoters, and spinners (or “selectors”), operate not just as musicians but as elders, broadcasters of the latest in Jamaican politics, and sometimes peacekeepers. Fowler, the Upsetters’ original DJ when the group started in 1990, likens himself to a parent. While he may hate clearing up an argument, he relishes the role. “[I get] all different kinds of problemsrelationships, anything,” he explains. “It feels good to me. It gives me a certain amount of respect. They are willing to take my advice most of the time.”
The Petworth guy takes Fowler’s advice and exits in a hurry, as Fowler and the other combatant are joined by Upsetter promoter Patricia Leslie and a friend. The tension needs to be broken, and all four realize it. They move into separate corners, patiently roll joints with fresh tobacco-leaf wrappers, and light up. The four pass around the small stubs and offer me a drag. Leslie insists the tobacco leaf makes the joint. I inhale deeply. Leslie takes note and inaugurates me into the family with a friendly laugh. “You’re a Jewmaican!” she screams.
On this night, the U Street club becomes a reunion hall for D.C.’s Jamaican community. And the kitchen is sacred ground. Instead of home movies and hot dogs, there’s a sinkful of Guinness bottles, Marlboro puffs, and news from the homeland. At least for tonight, D.C. politics is taboo; Jamaican culture takes precedence. Patrons dress in fatigues, drink Jamaican root drinks that go down like bitter fruit punch, score dope, and gossip about friends back home. It has the vibe of old folk hootenannies and late-night jazz jams, but all the words are in Jamaican patois.
The Upsetters are tied to each other not merely as musicians but as family. The collective represents three generations of immigrantsup from Montego Bay and St. Andrews to Chicago, the Maryland ‘burbs, and now the District. Leslie came over in ’71, Fowler in ’82, and DJ brothers Jeremane “Jerry” Dunkley and Bevon “Stoka” Cross in ’90. The 21-year-old Stoka, who joined the Upsetters in ’94, defines the group as his roots; he calls Fowler “Father,” Leslie “Ms. Pat,” and promoter Tony Java “Uncle Java.”
The Upsetters by nature are far from hip. Though the ska and dub elements of Jamaica’s turntable art have become college and club DJ staples, the Upsetters spin neither. Lee “Scratch” Perry’s mug may have graced the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal magazine a couple of years ago (in what will surely turn out to be one of the most influential covers of the decade), but Stoka claims never to have heard of him, nor of Perry’s own Upsetters. Stoka’s musicology is more lived in than listened to. Now the Upsetters’ main DJ, he learned to spin by watching his brother and practicing with Fowler’s prized record collection. If anything, Stoka stumbled onto a style that dates back to the Jamaican sound-system wars of the ’50s and ’60s, when King Tubby and U-Roy started toasting over American R&B and their own instrumental plates. Although Stoka isn’t setting up in a Montego Bay lot, the connection can still be traced to two turntables and a microphone.
When Stoka repeatedly breaks down a record to holler, yodel, emphasize a singer’s phrasing until it becomes an exclamation point, or work up a call-and-response to a chorus, he could be a young version of U-Roy boasting and floating over the Paragons’ “The Tide Is High.” Only he doesn’t know it. When Stoka toasts over Beenie Man, Buju Banton, and R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly,” his jumpy scat is no imitation but his own fresh take on U-Roy’s Version Galore.
Jamaican artists always used the sound system as a soap box to spread political news, and Fowler sees the same idea working with the Upsetters. The message isn’t being sent from field to field but from field to D.C.’s clubsto those who have left the island. “The lyrics keep you in touch with what more or less is happening in Jamaica,” Fowler explains. “It’s on a cultural tip, on a political tip, sociallyeverything. It’s all in the music.”
Now more than ever, the message is important. While Kaffa House’s kitchen is used for gossip, the turntables are the club’s own CNN. The crowd may be just as drunk as the one at the next dance club, but everybody listens intently.
On this November night, the speakers are stacked up to the ceiling like Legos. The crowd shuffles in hot waves of ratty Rastas, herb men, and twentysomething ruff necks flicking jumbo flames from their lighters. The crowd is far removed from the typical U-Street hoppers: It’s all headdresses, not hair extensions, work gear, not Tommy gear. Jamaicans take this shit seriously. At the Kaffa House, if the men approve of Stoka’s selections, they bash the walls. (thus the Friday parties are called “bashments”.) After the first few bashments, the walls were beat up enough that they had to be replaced and reinforced with sheetrock, particle board, and half-inch plywood. If a guy doesn’t like a song, he’ll get in Stoka’s face.
Stoka says he doesn’t feel any pressure. He admits that he tries to play to everyonedancehall and ruff neck for the gangsters, weed songs for the herb men, “God-bless songs” for the spiritually inclined, and love songs for the ladies. He says he has to memorize the order of the records in the cratesif there’s a lull, he’s dead meat. “It’s like a dictionaryit’s got to be like a dictionary,” he says. Stoka knows his collection to the point where when he spins, he can make the crowd do anythingwhether it’s getting people “Up! Up! Up!” on their feet or coaxing the ladies to grind for a free bottle of champagne.
The tension and joy are as fevered as on any dance floor. Reggae may be perceived by the mainstream as stoner music, but here it’s used not only to honor roots but to mark territory. Sandwiched in among African-Americans, whites, Latinos, and Ethiopians, Jamaicans work some small turf. They blend into the enclaves of Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant, and U Street. According to the most recent census, 18,561 Jamaicans live in the metro area. Desmond Malcolm, president of the Jamaican Nationals Association, believes that between 5,000 and 7,000 Jamaicans have arrived since the 1990 count. But there are only about 20 serious reggae DJs circulating, and reggae houses like the Roxy are now defunct. It’s no surprise that the Upsetter shows at Kaffa House are treated as holy rituals.
“It’s better than a soccer match,” one fan explains. “Coming here is very special. It’s like Christmas. I don’t know who is going to be here.” Tonight, the Upsetters run into old friends, friends who share similar acquaintances and memories of home.
These gatherings are filled with tales of the past, but there are also plans for the future. A week later, at 2:45 a.m., Stoka puts on Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” to set an optimistic, romantic mood. Stoka has some plans for his girlfriend, who’s expecting their first child. He tells me he’s taking her to IHOP and proposing marriage. “I feel cool about it,” he says, all wide-eyed and nervous. “It’ll be my first kid and my first love.”
The next Tuesday night, Stoka drops the news of his engagement to the members of the Upsetter crew, as they get ready to set up at the Songhai. They all crowd around to slap and hug Stoka. “I’m so proud of you,” Leslie tells him. “The Upsetters will be at the wedding….Things can only get better.”
For Leslie, this is an especially poignant moment. As the collective’s oldest membera grandmother who keeps her age a secretshe has seen her share of struggles and raised three daughters. She knows that Stoka will be better off than she was. Fitting into American life has never been easy. Street violence, bland chicken dishes, McDonald’s (“no good”), and, of course, cold weather are all things that require constant adjustments. Leslie admits she used to skip school starting in October because of the weather.
High school itself was difficult. Leslie says she constantly got in fights with the black girls over her patois-laced speech. She remembers one comic incident. “A whole bunch of black American girls jumped me,” Leslie says. “They tried to beat me, and I grabbed one in the headit was Afro timeand I held that bush and I helped myself. I didn’t let go.”
High school in the ’90s wasn’t too different for Dunkley. He says girls would date him because of his accent. “They just wanted us to talk to them,” he says. The perennial request: “Say something in Jamaican.”
The problem the Upsetters continue to face is maintaining their identity in a place that shuns their values. No matter how hard they try, spinning records will never replace actually living in their homeland. They all wish they could go back, but none can afford to. “Every day I pray for that,” Fowler admits. “Sometimes the pressure gets to you and the stress, and you want to go home. I’m not really sad about thatit’s just a fact.”
What Leslie sees in Stoka is not only the center of the group but the band’s future. With his upcoming marriage and baby, the group can only become more deeply rooted in America. Leslie knows from her own experiences with motherhood that Stoka will never be able to go back. “My life is here; my life is here,” she says. “My family, my kids.”
On Jan. 5, Stoka’s fiancée has a baby boy. A week later, the boy, named Stefhon, is finally brought over to the Lewisdale apartment Stoka shares with a friend and the friend’s mother. With Stefhon sleeping on his bed with his mother, Stoka sits up, one hand on the television remote. He can’t stop moving, singing, or clicking channels. He finally come to rest on an episode of Family Matters and tells me his son was named after Urkel’s “cool” incarnation.
Despite Stefhon’s name and American birthplace, Stoka insists he will treat the boy as Jamaican-born. Whether the ties are loosening or not, Stefhon will grow up at least culturally a Jamaican. Stoka refuses to think of his son as anything else. He has already started singing Stefhon songs from the latest Buju Banton album. Maybe Stefhon will be a reggae singer and carry on the traditions, Stoka says. So far, the newborn has just dozed through Banton.
“I’m going to try and do it differently,” Stoka says. “I’ll do anything for him. That’s my blood. I’m just going to make him like a regular Jamaican.”CP