REMEMBERING JACKSON TURNER, MC HERETIC

I walked into El Nido around 4 p.m., 2 hours after Jack­son Turner’s memori­al star­ted. The front yard of the bar was unusu­ally quiet and empty. A few people were hov­er­ing around the win­dow that opens toward the stage. They were gaz­ing at MC Webber, who was cur­rently giv­ing a memori­al speech on the stage in a low, slow voice.

People were cram­ming togeth­er inside toward the stage. I have nev­er seen the gath­er­ing of this many exuber­ant musi­cians and party-goers in Beijing being motion­lessly silent in black, each mourn­fully reserved, and giv­ing off a rare sense of sol­emn gloom­i­ness. The energy was heavy. Although I do not know Jack­son very well, I felt the thick, chock-full sor­row in the room that drew me in toward him, and toward the con­tem­pla­tion of death.

Jack­son Turn­er was “a hip-hop artist, an aca­dem­ic, a music tech­no­logy entre­pren­eur, a pro­du­cer, [and] always a seeker of truth” (“Jack­son R. Turn­er” 2020). Each of these titles encom­passes two sides of the world. One is New York, where he was born, raised, and soaked in hip-hop cul­ture. The oth­er is China, where he has spent two thirds of his adult life since 2003. He came as a stu­dent, and ended up a teach­er and a reput­able rap­per. His pres­ence in China was not only an influ­ence to the loc­al Chinese people music­ally and cul­tur­ally, but also a unit­ing force for expat musi­cians from all across the world.

I first met him on Feb­ru­ary 4th, 2017, at Beijing Bob Mar­ley Day Cel­eb­ra­tion. It was a reg­gae con­cert with a 20-year tra­di­tion. Jackson’s label and stu­dio No Play Concept was the main organ­izer for 2017. The night was a com­bin­a­tion of Rag­gamuffin, Hip-Hop and Reg­gae. The beat-driv­en, flow-centered, head-bob­bing genre of rag­gamuffin is a sub­genre of Reg­gae Dance­hall born in ‘80s King­ston ghetto. The sing­er would be more or less “rap­ping” in Jamaic­an patois on top of a rid­dim, just like a rap­per to a beat. Dur­ing the 4‑act show­case in the cel­eb­ra­tion, three groups brought a Ragga-Hip-Hop fla­vor to the stage, deliv­er­ing fusion­al Reg­gae aes­thet­ics to Beijing audi­ences, a group accus­tomed to the city’s long favor­ite, Hip-Hop.

This very fea­ture of fusion­al­ity I heard in the con­cert is a micro­cosm that reflects Jackson’s own music and beliefs. Music­ally, he enjoys fusion. He has a diverse music taste, which inspires him to invent­ively syn­cret­ize mul­tiple genres into some­thing he knows and loves the most.  In an inter­view with Apex Zero, Jack­son notes,

“My music has been influ­enced by a whole range of people from Nas to Eminem, to Bob Mar­ley and Sizzla, to Aretha Frank­lin, Ray Charles and Otis Red­ding. Even musi­cians far away from hip-hop, like Col­trane, Min­gus, John Lee Hook­er and Bob Dylan; they’ve all influ­enced me in vari­ous ways. I listen to all kinds of music and am con­stantly try­ing to learn and incor­por­ate new ideas from oth­er genres into Hip-Hop. This is how Hip-Hop began and, to me, it’s the spir­it of Hip-Hop.”

One aspect of the spir­it of Hip-Hop is fusion. It points to an open-minded inclus­iv­ity and an abil­ity to catch the groove spot with­in all genres. This magic­al spot exists with­in every­one; it con­nects people. As Jack­son envi­sions, catch­ing the groove and fus­ing dif­fer­ent music genres are ways to seek com­mon­al­ity of dif­fer­ent people. It is a vis­ion to con­nect dif­fer­ent races into “dis­tant rel­at­ives.”

In 2014, he took this concept to French reg­gae musi­cian Gen­er­al Huge and Cameroon­i­an Reg­gae sing­er King Lion Miguel, hop­ing to start a series of fusion music events in Beijing. The series were named “Dis­tant Rel­at­ives,” an idea found in Nas and Dami­an Marley’s eponym­ous album. Reg­gae artists, rap­pers and DJs would play togeth­er in the con­cert, bring­ing a mix­ture of Roots Reg­gae, Hip-Hop, Rag­gamuffin and Dance­hall through­out the night. Rap­pers may free­style on top of a rid­dim, backed up by Reg­gae musi­cians singing the chor­us. Clashes between genres such as this brought sur­prises and inspir­a­tion to the per­formers. The stage was an inter­sec­tion, a con­fer­ence, a lab.

The first event was held in Hot Cat Club on Decem­ber 19th. At that time, the tiny live­house was still pop­ping. The own­er Li Lei, always dressed like a mod­ern Taoist mas­ter, was a lov­er of Reg­gae. Dur­ing that night, sev­er­al things had happened. For one, it united Reg­gae listen­ers and Hip-Hop heads in Beijing for exchange and col­lab­or­a­tion for the years to come. For anoth­er, Jack­son intro­duced Rad­dam Ras AKA MC Webber, an O.G. fig­ure in Beijing Hip-Hop, to Gen­er­al Huge. The meet­ing of the two had star­ted a new wave of Hip-Hop-Reg­gae syn­ergy.

The second event moved to a lar­ger ven­ue, Yu Gong Yi Shan, ori­gin­ally a dis­carded headquarter for the 19th-cen­tury Chinese war­lord Duan Qirui. Both ven­ues were opened by Chinese own­ers, and attrac­ted large Chinese audi­ences as opposed to expats. This is some­thing Jack­son hoped for. As he states in the inter­view,

“Hip-Hop cul­ture in Beijing is strange because it is extremely divided between Chinese and for­eign Hip-Hop. The Chinese Hip-Hop heads are either cre­at­ing their own under­ground music and per­form­ing it at live shows or they are doing the club thing. The for­eign Hip-Hop heads are mostly involved in deejing and hype-man shit in the big night clubs. There are some people in Beijing who are try­ing to break down these bar­ri­ers and make music and do events that involve both sides. I have always viewed this as one of my goals of doing music in China, though I have not always suc­ceeded” (2016).

The main pur­pose of “Dis­tant Rel­at­ives” was unity. Not only was it music­al unity between Chinese and expats, but also one solely for expats who came from dif­fer­ent back­grounds with unique cul­tur­al bag­gage and dis­tinct styles. The DJs’ jobs were care­fully planned out, accord­ing to Gen­er­al Huge, in which Chinese DJs play before mid­night to a pre­dom­in­ately Chinese audi­ences who prefer Roots Reg­gae, Dub and Jungle. In the lat­ter half of the night, DJs with a Car­ri­bean or Afric­an back­ground cater to a primar­ily for­eign­ers’ dance­floor that favors the hot, body-shak­ing dance­hall beat. Although slightly divided by time, the event pushes for the coex­ist­ence between dif­fer­ent groups of listen­ers, and spreads aware­ness to a fusion­al aes­thet­ics and exist­ence.

An example: “Grow­ing Up in This World,” Long Time Com­ing, 2017

Jack­son was 34 when he released the album. He had been mak­ing music for more than 10 years, and this release was a corner­stone. The genres are diverse. The pro­duc­tion team is mul­tiracial and mul­ti­cul­tur­al. Jackson’s pro­ject was a reas­on for them to get togeth­er and cre­ate. China, to them, trans­formed from a place to a space of gath­er­ing and cre­ation.

“Grow­ing Up in This World” is Jackson’s com­ment­ary on the troubles and struggles he sees in his home, Amer­ica. It is a Reg­gae-Hip-Hop fusion in D har­mon­ic minor, a scale that deliv­ers a sense of mel­an­choly, anxi­ety and solem­nity. Through­out the verses, the drum plays an adagi­etto boom-bap beat in a raw and coarse timbre that resembles hit­ting on gas­ol­ine cans. Broken, fuzzy gui­tar chords spread in between the Reg­gae har­mony on the up beat. The dis­tor­ted elec­tric gui­tar sounds cre­ate a sense of greasy crudity, recall­ing the image of the dark dirty streets of New York.

Jackson’s clear and non­chal­ant voice details the “Amer­ic­an night­mare” (17) by provid­ing scene after scene of toil and tribu­la­tion. “Ghetto teens on the block with crack rocks and stash spots / Try­ing to eat and increase their back pock­et / Ain’t no laptops, pools or back­yards / Just con­crete, steal bars and gat wars” (18–21). “At your loc­al Block Buster / You knocked up a fast little cock-lov­ing chick with no con­dom on / Now you gotta deal with child sup­port / And the cycle con­tin­ues, trapped like a dying dog” (26–9). Jackson’s legato and nar­rat­ory flow pro­duces a con­cerned yet detached tone. It is a state con­sist­ent with his life track at the time, a New York­er in Beijing, search­ing for clar­ity and answers from the East to solve his con­fu­sion and con­sterna­tion about his home­land.

But he seems pain­fully dis­cour­aged. The chor­us fol­lows a down­ward melod­ic motion, as if a bal­loon is slowly deflat­ing, express­ing a sense of fall­ing. “Grow­ing up in this world of enorm­ous extremes / Sep­ar­ated by nation but togeth­er we bleed / Every struggle with­in reaches a point of release / Rather die on my feet than have to live on my knees” (1–4; 30–4; 59–62). He sounds like the ulti­mate tra­gic hero, the wail­er, the joker, the me-against-the-world loner singing the songs of redemp­tion. After the second chor­us, the key­board riffs for a few bars in a fast yet sor­row­ful approach, cre­at­ing a del­ic­ately flow­ing sens­ib­il­ity in a man­ner mim­ick­ing the sound of bleed­ing.

A fusion of genres sym­bol­izes a fusion of two men­tal­it­ies. Reg­gae men­tal­ity strives toward high hopes, and inspires the ori­gin­al Iya­man in the soul of us all. On the con­trary, Hip-Hop aims to reveal the dark side, to purge the anger and pain in order to puri­fy. The com­bin­a­tion of the two expresses our com­mon human pre­dic­a­ment, a situ­ation where one is stuck in between heav­enly pur­suits and earthly struggles.

This is also Jackson’s struggle. The rap­per-turned-schol­ar was get­ting into a lot of troubles in the U.S. before 20, which was a major reas­on for him to move abroad (Apex Zero 2016). These early troubled times also shaped his views toward the world and toward polit­ics. “I per­son­ally was arres­ted and expelled from high school over a rhyme I had writ­ten and this gave me a strong sense that the power­ful will per­se­cute people who they can­not con­trol” (2016). This anti-estab­lish­ment per­spect­ive is a core thread in Hip-Hop in par­tic­u­lar. For the same reas­ons, Hip-Hop is com­monly asso­ci­ated with viol­ence, dis­sid­ence and irra­tion­al­ity, largely untol­er­ated by the ortho­dox.

On the flip side, Jack­son was also a phil­an­throp­ist, a lov­er, and a seeker of wis­dom. Pos­it­ive threads found in Reg­gae ideo­logy can also be found in many of his works. A recent release in Madar­in, “One Love,” expresses this aspect. “No mat­ter rich or poor / Put down your pain / Peace upon all / For my broth­ers One Love” (2018). Sim­il­ar releases include “Music Soul­jahs” (2017) with Apex Zero and MC Webber, as well as a col­lab­or­a­tion with Gen­er­al Huge, “The Found­a­tion” (2015), described by Huge as the best song on love.

How­ever, the spir­itu­al-polit­ic­al move­ment behind Reg­gae, Rasta­fari, does not receive much apprais­al by the con­ven­tion­al major­ity in Jamaic­an or the rest of the world. Ras­tas believe much of the world we are liv­ing in is the degen­er­ated, cor­rup­ted and oppress­ive “Babylon.” Listen­ing to or mak­ing reg­gae music along with the prac­tice of a nat­ur­al and self-suf­fi­cient life­style are seen as pos­it­ive cul­tiv­a­tions that heal and pro­tect them from Babylon. In the eyes of the “Baby­lo­ni­ans,” how­ever, many Rasta prac­tices were heretic­al. For example, locs, the Ras­tas’ sym­bol of res­ist­ance against the mainstream’s norm of the smooth and arti­fi­cial hair, is often incor­rectly con­sidered as dirty and bedrugged. Those who wear locs are still often treated as lower than those who wear straightened or combed hair­styles. Com­pared to the typ­ic­al or ste­reo­typ­ic­al office work­er, Ras­tas are the out­casts, the ban­dits, the heretics.

Heretic. That’s it. Jack­son chose this word as his MC name. He also had a tat­too of it on his back in large, Arab­ic-styled font, described Bal­ang, Jackson’s close friend since 2005 as well as a loc­al Hip-Hop head and bas­ket­ball play­er. The two met on the cam­pus of Cap­it­al Nor­mal Uni­ver­sity. At that time, Jack­son was a lan­guage stu­dent, fresh off the boat. Bal­ang was the son of a music pro­fess­or and lived in the area since he was a kid. Jack­son lived in the inter­na­tion­al stu­dent hall, always wear­ing a pair of Tim­ber­land boots, gray sweat­pants with an XXXXL Give Me Face vest. He caught Balang’s eyes a few times, and the bas­ket­ball play­er finally decided to talk to the rap­per in 2005 on the stairs of the inter­na­tion­al stu­dent hall.

That con­ver­sa­tion las­ted for about two hours. Bal­ang was amazed at Jackson’s lan­guage skills, because not only could he speak Chinese, but he was also a mas­ter of the tone, the style and slang. They talked about Hip-Hop. Jack­son was a fan of the New York group Dead Prez for their polit­ic­ally con­scious lyr­ics, and he even recited one of their songs for Bal­ang. They talked about movies. From then on, Bal­and would go to Jackson’s dorm and watch movies with him. Charlie Kauf­man. Syn­ec­doche, New York. Dav­id Lynch. The Lost High­way. Blax­ploit­a­tion com­ed­ies. It’s Who’s the Man. To Bal­ang, Jack­son was a treas­ure box, always hav­ing some­thing cool to show him. He paved a way for Bal­ang to under­stand Hip-Hop more in-depth and diverse, and also showed him — and his friends — a Hip-Hop mode of being by embody­ing the cul­ture.

Before he came to China, Jack­son looked up to Shifu Liu, a Chinese revolu­tion­ary and advoc­ate for the Chinese Anarch­ist move­ment in the 1910s. Com­pared to most social­ist thinkers at the time, Shifu star­ted off as an extrem­ist, sup­port­ing revolu­tion­ary ter­ror­ism and assas­sin­a­tion of crim­in­al elites. Later, these heretic­al ideas developed into more accept­able approaches, such as form­ing “an alli­ance between intel­lec­tu­als and work­ers” (Dir­lik 1993: 117), and assert­ing rights for oppressed groups in China.

As a young thinker fas­cin­ated with East­ern teach­ings and altern­at­ive gov­ern­ments, Jack­son felt the con­nec­tion with Shifu. Both thinkers res­isted Baby­lo­ni­an soci­ety and polit­ics, and sought out dif­fer­ent ways to bring about change. Jack­son told Bal­ang how he felt the pain when he read that Shifu’s arm was blown off in a con­front­a­tion with oppress­ive powers, and how he wanted to wipe out those who bombed Shifu. He knew such thought is rendered heretic­al — he knew as early as in high school when he was expelled for his lyr­ics that expressed sim­il­ar ideas.

Jack­son trav­elled to Shifu’s tomb in Hang­zhou twice between 2005–2008. He could not find the hid­den and aban­doned tomb the first time, and the second time took him many twists and turns in the woods. “Jack­son is very emo­tion­ally-rich,” com­men­ted Bal­ang. “He can hear the over­tone of sounds. He is just like how Su Dongpo described, ‘the pas­sion­ate one is always hurt by the ruth­less.’ ”

Jack­son Turn­er, the heretic­al one, had left his mark in China. Even­tu­ally, he left the world like a rock star — in a swim­ming pool on vaca­tion in the back garden of Amer­ica, Mex­ico. But per­haps he nev­er left us, as Gen­er­al Huge com­ments. He just tran­scen­ded to a happy place and decided to stay there.

Writ­ten By Meng Ren

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