This article first appeared here on i-D
Pop culture thrives in the struggle between artifice and authenticity. For every Johnny Rotten, howling his heart out that he ‘means it man’, there’s a Sid Vicious right alongside him, bass unplugged, pogoing the stage, useless at everything except looking good in Vivienne Westwood’s Destroy swastika shirt.
The dynamic between winking lies and earnest passion will always lie at the heart of pop, and this year, keen eyed observers can see the distance between the opposing poles illustrated in the strangest, starkest manner. Two 11-year-old stars, originating from opposing sides of the globe (both literally and metaphorically), are representing the concepts of artifice and authenticity so perfectly that, had a script writer come up with this story, they’d be accused of delivering too clunking a metaphor to be believed. Outside of this article it’s likely that the pair will never be mentioned in the same breath again, but behold the bizarre, illuminating disparity between Wayne J and Sophia Grace
Wayne J, an 11-year-old Jamaican boy, is taking the dancehall world by storm. Solemn faced, wiry, and unfailingly polite, Wayne emerged last year in a storm of hype. His break out single was Slacky Mouth, a fiery invective raining righteous anger on the dancehall community. Wayne’s targets were clear; the reigning Jamaican MCs he accuses (with some justification) of violent, hyper sexualised lyrics that glamorise money and sex over all.
The track sees the Kingston born Wayne turn in a remarkable performance, gunning everything from the imprisoned Vybz Kartel’s notorious predilection for skin bleaching, to current bashment favourite Alkaline’s ‘slack’ – i.e. aggressively horny – lyrical content. The video hammers the point home by introducing a prancing, bandana wearing pastiche of Alkaline (himself only around 20-years-old), who is unceremoniously seen off by Wayne and his gang of chanting schoolmates. It’s like watching the kids of Sesame Street re-enact Lord of the Flies.
Whilst Jamaica has often shown love to novelty acts, (recent years have seen hits from a lusty, toothless tramp known as Gully Bop and a workman with a bumpkin accent talking about crossing a river), Wayne J’s success can be better understood in the context of the island’s long tradition of credible child stars. Millie Small, who would release the first global ska hit My Boy Lollipop in 1964, started her career at the age of 12. Kelvin Grant, the youngest member of British reggae act Musical Youth, was 11-years-old when they topped charts around the world with Pass the Dutchie (Dennis Seaton, the oldest member, was a long-in-the-tooth 15…). Reggae megastar Dennis Brown started strong and didn’t stop – his first hit, No Man is an Island was released when Brown was just twelve; he carried on knocking them out until his untimely death 30 years later. And whilst Beenie Man is second only to Sean Paul in terms of international dancehall recognition, few remember his first album; The Invincible Beany Man the Ten Year Old D.J. Wonder. This collection saw a pre-teen Beenie dropping everything from heart warming numbers about granny’s cooking to WTF? How old did you say you were? tracks like Bony Punanny.
The point is this; it’s likely that Wayne J is no novelty act. He’s a talented kid with a gift on the mic and a sharp social conscience. His father was involved in a moderately successful conscious reggae outfit, and admits to helping Wayne write the songs, but junior is the one delivering them with style and panache. You want authentic? Wayne is as authentic as you can get. He wears ordinary kid’s clothes, talks about how he likes maths at school, releases songs warning people of the dangers of the Chikungunya virus currently sweeping the Carribbean, calls people older than him ‘sir’, and is pretty much the living, breathing and entire opposite of Sophia Grace.
Because like Wayne J, Sophia Grace is 11-years-old and is also the newest child star on the tiny island of her birth. Unlike Wayne J, Sophia Grace is also the newest child star in America. Despite being born and raised in Harlow, Essex, everything about Sophia’s rise to mega fame was conceived and created across the pond. She first came to prominence aged 8 with a cute, breathless Youtube cover of Nicki Minaj’s Superbass. Sophia, with younger cousin Rosie as a kind of tiny cuter-still hype girl, delivered the track with a genuine, precocious enthusiasm. It later transpired that Sophia’s dad was a former rave MC, which would explain why she was pretty handy with the mic, especially for someone who’d been alive for fewer years than she had fingers.
As the video went viral, US chat show giant Ellen DeGeneres took an interest, wowed by Sophia’s ‘cute British accent’ (note to Yanks: thinking an Essex accent is cute is like thinking a New Jersey accent is cute). Sophia and Rosie found themselves flown over to the States to perform Superbass in a primetime slot. Sophia and Rosie’s act, outside of performing the song, consisted of Sophia scream/shouting at anything in sight. This proved popular. Sophia’s skill was to have internalised the semiotics of modern TV, delivering the constant hyper response that has to be maintained to stop flighty viewers switching attention from screen to that ever present phone, and she had done so guilelessly. This was the weird over-amplified excitement of the reality TV contestant packaged as juvenile joie de vivre.
DeGeneres called Sophia and Rosie back time and again, and the brand snowballed. They became gift assistants, helping befuddled parents decide what toys to splash out on at Christmas. They ‘wrote’ two best-selling children’s books, sold truckloads of their straight-to-DVD film, and released a set of dolls, exclusive to Walmart, that sang Superbass at the push of a button.
Now, three years on, Sophia has reached the ripe old age of 11, and she’s ready for the next step; music stardom. The result is new single Best Friends, an inarguably brilliant pop song that takes its sonic cues from Chris Brown’s Loyal, and the bratty 80s rap pop of Neneh Cherry. The video to Best Friends is a thing of a wonder, packed with so much shameless, cynical product placement that it teeters on the edge of satire. The gist is that Sophia Grace is your best friend, and you’re going to go shopping together, splashing out in K-Mart on piles of pink stuff. With the Stalinist efficiency of the pop machine, poor little hype girl Rosie has been surgically removed from the picture – presumably if she was there, Sophia Grace would have the best friend role covered, and it’d be harder to suggest to the hordes of watching little girls that they could be Sophia’s best friend. Grace’s Essex accent has also been stripped away, and instead we have her giving a kind of peculiar performance of black America, all sassy chat and uh-uh honey hand gestures, in between piling shopping carts full of toys and tat. The whole package could be designed to rabidly install disposable consumerism and dubious, snot nosed attitudes into our kids, but shame on me, I still love it. Tune’s a tune.
But when I look back to the Wayne J video, I can’t help feeling a little sad. Here are two talented kids, one is being left to grow at his own rate – what success he’s had has come organically, without a massive marketing budget, and he’s laying the foundation for what could well be a long, illustrious career. The other has been jumped on by the slick marketing executives of major corporations, processed into a walking ad campaign, and squeezed for every last ounce of cute juice. And we know this doesn’t end well – just ask Britney. Sophia Grace has around three to five years of spotlight tops and then she’s for the scrap heap – as disposable as the towers of plastic junk the cynic who directed Best Friends has her stacking.
We don’t come out of the comparison between these two child performers too well. No doubt pop has been a dirty business for a long time now and its not what we expect of our child stars, but even with the undeniable skill of Sophia Grace’s pop smash Wayne J is proving that we should be aiming higher, that the kids can be cute and radical, political, utopian and dreaming of better world’s.