At the heyday of colonial conquest, Charles Baudelaire, the French poet and lover of the Haitian-born artist Jeanne Duval, wrote that “dandyism is a setting sun; like the declining star, it is magnificent, without heat and full of melancholy.” Diasporic Africans, whose bodies were reduced to mere commodities for centuries, have long used “stylin’ out” to subvert racial order, perform their identities far from a lost homeland, and “redefine blackness and cosmopolitanism,” as the historian Monica Miller noted in “Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity.”
The recent publication of “Return of the Rudeboy,” by the photographer and filmmaker Dean Chalkley and the creative director Harris Elliott, bears testimony to this history of struggle and survival while taking their stunning exhibition, curated at Somerset House in London last year and at Laforet Museum Harajuku in Tokyo this spring, to a larger audience.
The term “rude boys” originally referred to the youth gangs that emerged in Kingston shortly after Jamaica’s emancipation from British rule in 1962. Against a backdrop of increasing poverty and post-independence disenchantment, rudies’ rebellious bravura, paced by reggae and ska rhythms of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, became a rallying cry among poor and disenfranchised teenagers.
The mass migration of Jamaicans to the United Kingdom not only further developed this culture of dissent by exporting sound systems, turntables and toasting, but also changed British culture by shaping cultural, social and political alliances with the equally riotous white youths of the Mod and, later, punk scenes. The rude boy culture came to define an ethos of self-worth, determination and creativity for a generation of migrants ready to strike back at a conservative and racist society.
In 2012, Jamaica was celebrating its 50th anniversary of independence and its superstar sprinter Usain Bolt was crowned as the fastest man on the planet at the Summer Olympics, held in the former capital of the British Empire. Also in London, Mr. Chalkley and Mr. Elliott, collaborators and friends for more than a decade, sensed a change in attitude among black youths in the U.K. Some were drifting away from the sportswear consecrated by the prophets of early rap and the later hip-hop moguls.
“Independently, we both observed a change in attitude and sartorial dress codes, tailored and cropped trousers and killer hats disrupting the sight lines,” Mr. Chalkley said in a Skype interview. “There was a mood and an atmosphere. There was obviously a connection, but no one has done it. We decided to do something about it for ourselves to illustrate this shift.”
They started making portraits of people who embodied the rebirth of the rude boy style. The project, Mr. Elliott said, was meant to “show excitement and positivity,” not produce a formal historical account of rude boys.
“The political climate is really different from what it was in the 1950s and 1960s,” he said. “We wanted to celebrate the rude boys’ legacy, but also what is happening now: how young people are adopting a sense of self-worth in which they can express themselves in the way they dress and in the way they have done so for decades.”
Shot in just a couple of months, the images evoke the shared complicity of friends more than the cold intimacies that often characterize the short-lived encounters of street photographers. “As we were talking with people, other people came forward,” Mr. Chalkley said. “We were crystallizing these aspirations. The people we were photographing introduced us to other people.”
Nor was the project grounded in the fashion photography aesthetic that enshrines clothing items like sacred objects of consumption rituals. “Nobody was styled,” Mr. Elliott said. “They all presented themselves in their own unique and sharp way.”
The attitude they wanted to shoot, he said, “was about making the best of what you can with what you got, even if you’re living in poverty. It was about expression, freedom and emancipation, as seen in hip-hop from the early days. And, in that respect, it set up a new balance and marker.”
The images in their self-published book tell individual and collective stories that cross gender, generational and racial divides. Faithful to the rude boy-Mod alliance, the book displays a portrait of the vintage clothes dealer Dexter de Leadus wearing a two-gun broach he made for the shoot. “He expresses the original rude boy attitude,” Mr. Elliott said. “He is a purist. He is rarely photographed because of his ‘don’t mess with me’ stance.”
The fashion buyer Alani Adenle, who, according to Mr. Chalkley, “could be a guy on a corner of a street in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1965,” perfectly personifies “the swagger style: an air, a grace and a strength.” The stylist Cynthia Lawrence-John is photographed with a razor-blade umbrella looking at the camera with a fierce intensity. The guitarist Seye Adelekan, who performed with the rock musician Damon Albarn and the kora player Toumani Diabaté, wears a striking electric blue jacket — and a killer smile.
The richness of cultures that are still forged along the seashores of the Black Atlantic will certainly inspire new nostalgia in the centuries to come. Their depth will serve also as a reminder that, as the St. Lucian poet and playwright Derek Walcott would say, “Either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.”
Jean-Philippe Dedieu is a Cirhus fellow and visiting scholar at the department of social and cultural analysis at New York University. He was recently awarded a Weatherhead Initiative on Global History fellowship at Harvard University. Specializing in African diasporas, he published “La Parole Immigrée: Les Migrants Africains dans l’Espace Public en France, 1960-1995” (Les Belles Lettres, 2012).