The Mona campus of the University of the West Indies brings down the curtain on International Women’s Month with a big bang. On Thursday, March 31, the ‘infallible’ Tanya Stephens will give a public lecture in the Assembly Hall on the topic, “Music, the Power to Shape Societies,” hosted by the Department of Literatures in English.
Ms Stephens is one of the songwriters whose lyrics are studied in the Department’s innovative course, “Reggae Poetry”. The other prescribed poets this year are Burning Spear, Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh, Bob Marley, Steel Pulse and Buju Banton.
And, yes, veteran journalist Ian Boyne, I still believe in the innocence of Buju. My heart is much too heavy for glib opinions on the catastrophic circumstances in which the Gargamel now finds himself. Many commentators, and even some musicians, are gloating. ‘Time longer than rope.’
If worst comes to worst and Buju is forced to spend a long, long time in prison, he will have to take comfort in the experience of other great men who learned to turn adversity into opportunity, as in the famous case of Marcus Garvey.
The African Studies Center at the University of California Los Angeles houses an important project with global reach focusing on the papers of Marcus Garvey and the UNIA. The project director is Professor Robert Hill, a Jamaican academic who has devoted much of his distinguished career to preserving Garvey’s intellectual legacy.
The Center’s website notes that “Garvey met the challenge of imprisonment by applying a significant part of his time to writing. ‘African Fundamentalism,’ perhaps his most famous essay, was published as a Negro World editorial in June 1925 and quickly made its way onto the walls of UNIA members as a manifesto of the philosophy of the Garvey movement.
“Garvey also turned his hand to writing verse, producing and publishing ‘The White Man’s Game – His Vanity Fair,’ a lengthy polemic that he later republished under the title the Tragedy of White Injustice.” It is, indeed, tragic that ‘white injustice’ enables unprincipled individuals to make a ‘good’ living in America as informers and entrappers.
‘Room to exercise our minds’
Tanya Stephens’ lecture will challenge stereotypes of dancehall as a “betrayal of reggae; the tragic case of the child doing violence to his mother”, to quote Ian Boyne in full melodramatic mode. Tanya is a dancehall DJ who knows that verbal creativity is not limited to reggae.
In “Way Back,” she reflects on her own best practice as a dancehall DJ, critiquing sub-standard composers who substitute un/dress for verbal skill:
I wanna take you way back
To when a girl on a mike’s worth
Wasn’t determined by the length of her skirt
I mean way back to creativity before MTV, before BET
Tanya celebrates lyrical prowess:
Let us journey past this melody
Give us room to exercise our minds
Take me to another place, another time,
Better hooks, better rhymes
Stronger lyrics every line,
You could even press rewind
Come with me,
Let us journey past this fallacy.
We have come to expect ‘phalluses’ not ‘fallacies’ in dancehall lyrics. But this is precisely the dominant fallacy: that dancehall culture is all body and no mind. “Language is the dress of thought” is a famous witticism of the Roman orator Quintillian that was translated into English by the poet Dr. Samuel Johnson. Some DJs are, indeed, completely naked, lyrically speaking. Tanya’s thoughts, by contrast, are very well dressed.
In the song “Who is Tanya?” the DJ describes herself as the “gyal weh come fi change di whole game wid a pen.” Elaborating the image of writing, she adds, “Well although di mike a mi favourite utensil,/ Still numba 1 wid a numba 2 pencil.” The humorous interplay of 1 and 2 and ‘utensil’ and ‘pencil’ is characteristic of Tanya’s witty style. The word ‘utensil’ also suggests the DJ’s escape from the trap of domesticity through the power of the pen and the mike.
Women in Reggae
Tanya Stephens’ lecture marks the revival of the brilliant public forums on ‘Women in Reggae’ that used to be hosted by the Reggae Studies Unit at UWI to mark International Women’s month. The first forum, held almost a decade ago in March 2002, was organised by Mr. Ibo Cooper who was then a research fellow in the Unit.
Judy Mowatt, Cherry Natural, Lady G, Lady Saw, Angie Angel, Queen Ifrica and attorney Sandra Alcott spoke with passion about their experiences in the reggae music industry. Tanya Batson, writing for the Gleaner, reported that “One of the major problems appears to be the ‘commodification’ of women in the industry. Ms. Alcott noted that many women were often pressured to engage in sexual relations with producers in order to make record deals.”
Ms Batson also reported that “[t]he other major problem faced is beauty standards. Ms. Alcott stated that many record producers will not sign female artistes who are above the age of 21 years. This is in keeping with the idea that the female artiste should be ‘sexy’, ‘good-looking’, and ‘young’.
“This is not true of male artistes, who can tie their looks to a part of their act, whether it be a ‘big belly’ or any other feature deemed ugly. Furthermore, she also noted that ideas of female beauty are not in favour of the black woman. ‘Our standards of beauty have for too long been based on Western ideals woven from fantasy,’ Ms. Alcott said.”
Pam Hall, Sabrina Williams, Jana Bent, Shirley McLean, Italee, Crissy D, Ce’Cile, Nadine Sutherland and attorney Diane Jobson have all been speakers at the UWI ‘Women in Reggae’ forums. Tanya Stephens’ lecture promises to be an eloquent celebration of the creativity of Jamaican women.