Tag Archives: Bob Marley

‘Man To Man Is So Unjust’

I recently heard an alarming interpretation of the first line of Bob Marley’s song Who the Cap Fit.

The proverbial statement, ‘man to man is so unjust’, is now being decoded as a condemnation of male homosexuals. Or, to use the politically correct term, men who have sex with men (MSM). Incidentally, the ‘homo’ in ‘homosexual’ does not mean ‘man’. It’s not Latin; it’s Greek. And it means ‘same’.

So, technically, ‘homosexual’ refers to both men and women; and, more recently, to all other genders who have sex with each other. These days, sexuality is not a straight-forward business at all. Queer sex is not always a simple case of ‘same’ sex. Some sexual combinations cross multiple lines. And new sexual positions require sophisticated acrobatic skills – both literally and psychologically.

Bob Marley knew his words could be distorted. In an interview published in Everybody’s Magazine in 1981, this is what he said about the Kaya album: “You have to play it and get your own inspiration. For every song have a different meaning to a man. Sometimes I sing a song, and when people explain it to me, I am astonished by their interpretation.”

deceptionSome inspired interpretations make absolutely no sense. There’s no evidence in Who the Cap Fit to support the ‘same-sex’ interpretation of that opening line. The song is not about sexuality. It focuses on trust, hypocrisy and deception. Admittedly, these issues do come up in sexual relationships across the board. But the song is not about condemning men who have sex with men.

IRRATIONAL HOMOPHOBIA

Jamaica is back in the news for our irrational homophobia, as evidenced in that astonishing misinterpretation of Marley’s song. UK Channel 4 has done an exposé on outcast youths who are living underground. Here’s an excerpt from the promo for the documentary which aired last Friday:

“Jamaica has a reputation for intolerance of homosexuality. Male gay sex is punishable by 10 years’ hard labour and violent hostility is entrenched in the island’s culture. Unreported World meets one group of gay and transgender people who are now living in a gully, which is usually designed to carry flood water and rubbish from the city.

“It’s hot, crowded, infested and filthy. But it’s the only place these 25 people are able to call home. There are no facilities: cooking and washing-up are done in the gutter. Water comes from a broken pipe under a road bridge. And it’s not in a poor part of town, but in the middle of New Kingston, the capital’s business district.”

outerdarknessThis is a complete disgrace. Not on the homeless who have taken refuge in the gully; but on all us who live somewhere! We cannot self-righteously keep on singing the same old Sankey from the Book of Leviticus. We have to move past the rhetoric of abomination and change our inhumane attitudes to queer people. We cannot continue to cast them into outer darkness.

UNJUST GAY-RIGHTS ACTIVISTS

We also have to challenge unjust gay-rights activists when they misuse their collective power and victimise others. The recent termination of the contract of Professor Brendan Bain, director of the Caribbean HIV/AIDS Regional Training (CHART) initiative, is a complicated case of competing rights.

The press release issued by the Office of the Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies states: “The issue in question arose about two years ago in a high-profile case in Belize in which Caleb Orozco, a gay man in Belize, challenged the constitutionality of an 1861 law that criminalises men having sex with men (MSM).

“Professor Brendan Bain provided a statement on behalf of a group of churches seeking to retain the 1861 law. Many authorities familiar with the brief presented believe that Professor Bain’s testimony supported arguments for retention of the law, thereby contributing to the continued criminalisation and stigmatisation of MSM. This opinion is shared by the lesbian, gay and other groups who are served by CHART.”

I speculate that many of Professor Bain’s detractors have not read his now-infamous statement. There, he clearly affirms that he was “given no instructions by any party”. He makes no reference to the contested law. Professor Bain gives well-documented scientific evidence on public-health issues relating specifically to men who have sex with men.

53108bainprotestj20140521ng_300The UWI press release comes to a disturbing conclusion: ” … It has become increasingly evident that Professor Bain has lost the confidence and support of a significant sector of the community which the CHART programme is expected to reach, including the loss of his leadership status in PANCAP [Pan Caribbean Partnership Against HIV& AIDS], thereby undermining the ability of this programme to effectively deliver on its mandate.” That’s not a good reason for firing Professor Bain.

I do support repeal of the Belize law that criminalises “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any person or animal”. But I am appalled by the decision of the UWI administration to bow to belligerent gay-rights activists, bringing down disgrace on a distinguished academic who has done so much to protect the health of MSM. Man to man is so unjust. Who di cap fit, mek dem wear it.

Taking Dennis Brown’s Name in Vain

   Image    The Crown Prince of Reggae has been royally dissed. D Brown’s duppy must be well vexed.  I expect he’s somewhere over the rainbow composing a wicked tune, and even wickeder lyrics, about the disorganisers of the tribute concert in his name. The Jamaica Reggae Industry Association (JARIA), Leggo Records, Sounds and Pressure and the Dennis Brown Trust are all going to be haunted for quite a long time.

       Since the inception of ‘Reggae Month’ in 2008, Dennis Brown’s name has been inextricably linked to the celebrations.  His birthday on February 1 has been a convenient date to launch the month’s activities. And the Dennis Brown Tribute Concert is a high-profile event. This year, the concert has been postponed two times.  First, it was lack of sponsorship; then security.  This is a very bad sign.   ‘Reggae Month’ seems to be in trouble.

The new date for the tribute concert is March 3, more than one month after Dennis Brown’s birthday. It’s like celebrating Christmas in January. There’s only one good thing about the postponement of the tribute.  Well, it may turn out to be a cancellation after all but let’s be optimistic for now.  In any case, the ‘cancelposting’ of the show proves that there’s nothing sacred about ‘Reggae Month’.  It doesn’t even have to be February!

Bob MarleyI suppose the rationale for dubbing February ‘Reggae Month’ was the fact that    the King of Reggae and the Crown Prince were born on the 6th and 1st respectively.  But instead of holding the whole month hostage to those two birthdays, I think we should free up February from all of the reggae-related events that have been compressed into the shortest month of the year.

I’m proposing that we celebrate the birthday of Dennis Brown and Bob Marley in February and that’s that.  If we want a ‘Reggae Month’, let’s find a less hectic season.  Cynics are already saying that ‘Reggae Month’ was intended to upstage ‘Black History Month’.  You know how ambivalent we are about blackness in this country. Be that as it may, there are eleven other months from which to choose.

International Reggae Day

images-6 I think July is an excellent candidate for ‘Reggae Month’.  There’s Sumfest, our international reggae festival, in the last week of the month.  And we shouldn’t forget the heroic efforts of our own cultural activist Andrea Davis to establish July 1 as International Reggae Day (IRD). The brand was launched in 1994 – almost two decades ago – as a “marketing platform for Jamaica’s creative industries and global Reggae culture”.

In a billboardbiz article, published on July 1, 2011, music journalist Patricia Meschino underscores the worldwide reach of Andrea’s vision: “Enabled by the proliferation of internet usage in the mid-90s and the rise of social media in the late ’00s, IRD now encompasses a vast international network of online newspapers, magazines, radio stations and other web based platforms, each tailoring their content on July 1 towards examining the power and potential of the island’s signature rhythm while highlighting the finest in Jamaican and international reggae, made by veterans and upstart artists alike”.

images-5 In the early years of the media festival, Andrea’s company, Jamaica Arts Holdings, promoted high-level workshops and full-scale concerts.  Celebration of IRD has become much more virtual over time largely because of lack of sponsorship for live events.  It’s a familiar story.  In the case of the Dennis Brown Tribute Concert, we may very well have to settle for a virtual, if not virtuous, staging this year.

‘Reggae Month’ Sound Clash

images-7    Whatever we decide about the scheduling of ‘Reggae Month’, we will still have to resolve the problem of clashing events.  In theory, JARIA’s calendar is the definitive guide to what’s on.  But it seems as if organisers of events don’t bother to consult JARIA.  They just do their own thing.

Before setting the date of my Global Reggae book launch, I checked with JARIA.  The only other event on their calendar for the 17th was the Jamaica Music Museum’s ‘Grounation’, scheduled for 2:00 p.m.  It was unlikely to clash with my 6:00 p.m. launch.

Then, out of the blue, the Dennis Brown Tribute Concert was rescheduled at exactly the same time.  Not even JARIA appears to have consulted JARIA!  Or, if they did, they must have decided that the launch of a book on the globalisation of reggae in ‘Reggae Month’ wasn’t all that important.  Then again, they may have assumed quite wrongly that people who read books don’t go to reggae concerts.

Seriously, though, the clash wouldn’t have mattered all that much really.  Patrons obviously do have the right to choose.  Except that Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus, Jah9 and Protoje, who had all graciously agreed to make a cameo appearance at the launch, also needed to perform at the rescheduled Dennis Brown tribute, based on their earlier commitment.  Fortunately, No-Maddz and Cali P, the other ‘brand-name’ performers for the book launch, were not on that ill-fated show.

GlobalReggaeCoverWhen Ras Michael apologetically telephoned to let me know that he couldn’t make it back to PULS8 in time to do the invocation, I have to admit I called down judgement on the engineers of the clash.  I hadn’t realised how potent my words were.  Within an hour, Ras Michael called back to say that the show was cancelled.

Of course, I don’t actually take any responsibility for influencing the decisions made by the organisers of the tribute concert. It’s not my ‘judgement’ that mystically caused postponement.   ‘Me woulda never diss di Crown Prince’.  Hopefully, Dennis Brown will be honoured appropriately some time this year in a tribute concert that lives up to his name.  Respect is most certainly due, whatever the month.

Bleaching in Black History Month

images-2It’s Reggae Month and Black History Month, combination style.  Unless you have superhuman stamina, you cannot possibly keep up with all the events.  I’m not even trying.  I’ve selected a few and that’s it.  I have a day job and I simply cannot ‘bleach’.  Neither in English nor Jamaican.

Incredibly, the English words ‘bleach’ and ‘black’ seem to share a common origin.  According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, they both appear to come from a prehistoric language for which there are no written records.  This tongue has been reconstructed by linguists who see it as the ancestor of many of the modern languages of Europe and Asia.

cartelIn this ancient mother tongue, the word “bhleg” meant “to burn, gleam, shine, flash”.  The flash of fire became brightness as in ‘bleach’; and the burning produced darkness as in ‘black’. I can just imagine how pleased Vybz Kartel would be to realise that there is linguistic evidence for his paradoxical claim that bleaching is not necessarily a sign of self-hate.  It might actually be a most peculiar manifestation of blackness.

Seriously, though, I gave a paper yesterday at the International Reggae Conference held at the University of the West Indies, Mona.  Scholars from across the world came to Jamaica to reflect with us on “traditional and emerging expressions in popular music”.  I focused on Vybz Kartel’s insightful book, The Voice of the Jamaican Ghetto.  And I mean ‘nuff’ insights.

images-3Co-author Michael Dawson, of People’s Telecom fame, admits that, “Many people have wondered how this improbable collaboration came about.  How could someone who is a known Garveyite collude with the ‘Bleacher’ to write a book”?  In the chapter “No Love for the Black Child” Kartel gives a sarcastic answer:  “Ironically, I lightened my skin and everyone condemned me.  All of a sudden there is an outpouring of love for black skin”.

Kartel elaborates the ironies:  “Some of my executioners are women with false hair, multi-coloured contact lenses or others who have been using various agents to ‘cool down’ their skin.  All of a sudden, after 500 years they start to love the Black Child?  Or is it me you hate?”

Adulterers and Homosexuals

images-4One of the most popular sessions of the conference was the Annual Bob Lecture, delivered by Alan ‘Skill’ Cole.  It wasn’t really a formal lecture, as the title made clear: “Bob Marley:  The Man That I Know”.  The talk was an intimate, wide-ranging celebration of an exceptional friendship.

This is how ‘Skill’ puts it in the programme notes: “I trained him . . . and we lived a life consistent with being a good athlete. . . . . We would wake up around 4:30-5:00 and train; eat, then go to the studio; then go sell records; come back, play some football and, in the night-time, write some music”.

skill4I missed a fair bit of the talk because I had a class. One of the moments I found most touching was Cole’s nostalgia about going to bathe with Bob some nights at a spring just above Papine.  I couldn’t help thinking that these days, two men bathing together would be a sure sign of ‘deviant’ behaviour that should be both bleached and burned.

Healthy relationships between men have been contaminated by fears of homosexuality.  In Black History Month, as we attempt to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery, we really do need to look again at some of the Old Testament judgements that are completely irrelevant in the modern age. The book of Leviticus condemns adulterers but we conveniently ignore that inconvenient fact.  Why can’t we do the same with homosexuals?

Reggae Ambassadors

Another big event for Reggae Month is the launch today of the book Global Reggae. This is how Kwame Dawes describes it (and I didn’t pay him a red cent): “Carolyn Cooper has skilfully edited a book of startling visual design and intellectual depth that manages to demonstrate, through complex and varied voices, reggae’s astounding impact on the globe. The term ‘essential’ is used a lot these days, but sometimes it is a fit and righteous word to employ. Global Reggae is essential reading for anyone who is seeking to appreciate this great cultural phenomenon.”

GlobalReggaeCoverAll of the contributors to the Global Reggae compilation are authorities in their field: Kam-Au Amen, Peter Ashbourne, Erna Brodber, Louis Chude-Sokei, Brent Clough, Carolyn Cooper, Cheikh Ahmadou Dieng, Samuel Furé Davis, Teddy Isimat-Mirin, Ellen Koehlings, Pete Lilly, Amon Saba Saakana, Roger Steffens, Marvin D. Sterling, Michael Veal, Leonardo Vidigal and Klive Walker.

It was the Third World Band who popularised the idea of the “reggae ambassador”.  And they tell a now familiar story:

“So everywhere I jam it’s the same question

‘How can a big music come from a little island?’

When the music play[s] it leaves them in a state of shock

The big-big music from the little rock!”

The self-concept of Jamaicans certainly cannot be measured by the small size of our island. We’re much more than a little speck in the Caribbean Sea.  And it was Shabba Ranks who so vividly said that it is the talent of reggae and dancehall artists that enables them to “fly off Jamaica map”.

Dj_Afifa_Banner_by_Dr_JayBone_DesignzThe launch of the Global Reggae book takes place at PULS8, 38A Trafalgar Road, and starts at 6:00 p.m. The public is invited and admission is free.  Guest speaker is Michelle ‘DJ Afifa’ Harris, a doctoral candidate at the University of the West Indies, Mona and a very talented selector. Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus, Jah 9, Protoje, No-Maddz and Cali P will perform.  If all goes well, the event will be streamed live on the Internet at UWI TV and will  be archived here:  http://tv.mona.uwi.edu/.  After all, Global Reggae is a big-big book that fly off Jamaica map.

Peter Tosh Pulse Interview

I’ve had several requests for this interview which I did with Peter Tosh after his last concert.  It was a magnificent performance  at Pulse Superjam in December 1983.

ToshPulse(Cooper)1984-06

Out of Many, Fi Wi Langgwij

Lake Rotorua

Late one night, several years ago, I find myself in idle conversation with a drunken Maori man in the main bus station in the city of Auckland.  I’d just come by train from Rotorua, a fantastic region of New Zealand full of geysers, mud pools and all sorts of volcanic activity.  I was quite tired from the four-hour journey so I was definitely not in the mood for conversation with sober people, much more drunks.

“Kia ora!”, the man calls out.  After almost a week in New Zealand I know this means ‘hi’ in Maori.  I pretend to be deaf.  But this old man is persistent and quite loudly repeats his ‘kia ora’.  He proudly announces, “That’s ‘hello’ in my language, Maori.”  Big laugh now.  “You can say it?”, he challenges me.

Fijian women in traditional dress

I say to myself, “This man drunk but im not drunk to dat”.  So I decide to humour him.  I imitate his greeting and he laughs heartily.  “Good,” he says, “Not like these pakeha people.  Can’t talk Maori”. I also now know that ‘pakeha’ means ‘white people’ in Maori.  The old man warms to the conversation.  “You from Fiji?”, he asks.  “No”, I respond.

Naturally, this monosyllabic answer is getting us nowhere.  So he follows up, “Where?”  I say, “Africa”.  Then he asks, and I should have seen it coming, “Kia ora!  How you say ‘hello’ in your language?”  Big trouble now.  What am I going to tell this man?  Im drunk, so I’m tempted to make up some mumbo-jumbo.  But that would be taking a joke too far.

English colonized by Africans

So I draw my ‘real-real’ language, Jamaican.  I tell him that in my language we say, “Wa a gwaan?”  So for the next few minutes this drunken man keeps on repeating, “Wa gwaan?”  He doesn’t quite catch the extra ‘a’ in the middle.

My sister, Donnette, who used to work for an airline company and so could do crazy things like fly from Maryland to New Zealand for a long weekend, is by this time shaking her head in amazement.  Her contribution to the conversation is, “I hope is not this kind of fraudulent information you been giving out along the way”.  I was on a six-week lecture tour of the Pacific.

“Fraudulent?” I protested.  “‘Wa a gwaan?’ is kinda African”.  After all.  Even though ‘Wa a gwaan?’ is really Jamaican not African, we all know where Jamaican came from:  various dialects of 17th English colonized by speakers of various West African languages, for the most part.  I know that some backward people still insist that Jamaican is not a language; it’s just a ‘corruption’ of English.  Africans are doing the corrupting.

So ‘wa a gwaan?’ is nothing but a rotten version of ‘What’s going on?’  But, trust me, nobody who doesn’t know Jamaican, drunk or no drunk, would ever figure out that ‘Wa a gwaan?’ started life as English.  It has been completely disguised.

Language death and rebirth

While in New Zealand I was fortunate to interview Professor Pat Hohepa at Auckland University’s Maori Studies Centre.  One of his big concerns is what he calls ‘language death’.  There was a period in New Zealand’s recent history when it looked as if the Maori language was dying out.

     Now, there’s a concerted effort to teach Maori in schools.  Speaking the Maori language is recognized as an essential way of keeping the culture alive.  And it’s not only Maoris who need to learn the language.  If pakehas are really serious about creating a truly bi-cultural New Zealand, they will have to learn Maori too.

Professor Hohepa also talked about reggae music in Maori.  And he highlighted Bob Marley’s revolutionary music as a language of resistance for the Maoris in their struggle to regain control over their collective destiny:  “Every man got a right to decide his own destiny”.

I wonder how long it’s going to take us in Jamaica to realise the value of the new mother tongues Africans created in this country and across the African diaspora.  Our educators don’t seem to understand that as long as we tell children that they ‘chat bad’ when they use their mother tongue, we are planting the seeds of low self-esteem.  And we will reap badness.  Or, perhaps, we do understand and that’s why we refuse to acknowledge Jamaican as a ‘proper-proper’ language.

International Creole Day

Creole languages map

Last Friday was International Creole Day. The Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies, Mona, led the local celebrations.  Regretfully, these were affected by Hurricane Sandy.  Across the Caribbean region and the wider Creole world, the resilience of the speakers of often-marginalised languages was acknowledged.

French Creole languages are spoken and written in Haiti, St. Lucia, Dominica, Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guyana, Reunion, Seychelles, Mauritania and Louisiana.   The vocabulary of our own Jamaican Creole is mostly of English origin.  So it’s sometimes not so easy for amateurs to see how different the language really is from English.

We don’t fully understand ‘wat a gwaan’ with the other aspects of the Jamaican language such as grammar, word order and the structure of sounds.  And we arrogantly refuse to take the linguists seriously even though they actually know what they’re talking about.

Mother and Tongues by Vito Bica

If we had stopped to listen to the linguists who have been doing serious research on Caribbean Creoles for more than half a century, we would have realised by now that we should have been joyously celebrating the Jamaican language in this fiftieth anniversary of independence.  For language is one of the primal expressions of identity.

One of the big ironies of our racialised national motto is that it fails to recognise that it’s not a vague ‘out of oneness’ that unites us as a people.   It’s the specificity of the Jamaican language.  Most Jamaicans, irrespective of class, colour, gender, sexual orientation and age, are more or less competent speakers of Jamaican.  And if you don’t know the language, you are the odd one out: yu salt!  Yu no know wat a gwaan.

Why Is Marcus Garvey A National Hero?

Michael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson poster

I suppose it would look bad.  The leader of the largest organised mass movement of African people in the twentieth century disregarded in his country of birth!   All the same, given the anxiety in some quarters about the African heritage in Jamaica, it is truly remarkable that the political elite had the good sense to recognise Garvey’s heroic stature and honour him accordingly.

Born in 1887, only 21 years after the Morant Bay rebellion, and 53 years after Emancipation, Garvey grew up in a Jamaica that was still trapped in psychological bondage.  As a child, he would probably have heard the denigrating mantra, ‘Nutten black no good’.  He might even have been asked, ‘How yu so black an ugly?’  As if he had anything to do with it.

Garvey grandly rose above the hateful definitions of blackness in Jamaican society and prophetically affirmed, “We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind”.  Many of us sing along with Bob Marley, who popularised Garvey’s words in his “Redemption Song”.  But do we fully comprehend the profundity of the exhortation to free the mind?

Garvey made that liberating statement in 1937 at a meeting in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  By then, he was almost at the end of his tumultuous life.  He died less than three years later in London.  Like many Caribbean migrants of his day, Garvey caught the spirit of exploration.  He went to Central America when he was twenty-three, then to the UK, returning home in 1914.

UNIA Parade, Harlem, N.Y.

In August that year, Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in Jamaica.  He went to the U.S. in 1916, and by 1917 had launched the New York Division of the UNIA with all of 13 members. After three months, there were 3500 dues-paying members!

‘The Moses of the Negro Race’

Without access to Facebook and Twitter, the UNIA grew exponentially.  Almost one thousand UNIA divisions were established within seven years.  Garvey was soon described in messianic terms.  The headline of a 1920 article published in the New York World loudly and, perhaps sceptically, proclaimed“The Moses of the Negro Race Has Come to New York and Heads a Universal Organization Already Numbering 2,000,000 Which is About to Elect a High Potentate and Dreams of Reviving the Glories of Ancient Ethiopia”.

Van der Zee photo

       At the heart of Garvey’s vision of a universal movement of black people committed to self-improvement was the expectation that the colonised African continent would be liberated. Garvey asked himself some unsettling questions:“Where is the black man’s government? Where is his King and his kingdom? Where is his President, his ambassador, his country, his men of big affairs?”  His answer:  “I could not find them and then I declared, ‘I will help to make them.’”

You have to admire Garvey’s nerve.  A lesser man might have quailed at the prospect of taking on such a superhuman mission.  At the beginning of the twentieth-century there were only two independent African countries:  Ethiopia and Liberia.  The rest of the continent had been captured by European squatters.  Lion-hearted Garvey, girded with his philosophy of African Fundamentalism, militantly declared, “Africa for Africans, at home and abroad.”

Liberty Hall, Harlem, N.Y.

Garvey saw parallels with the struggles of other oppressed groups who were demanding the right to self-government.  In a speech delivered at Liberty Hall in New York in 1920, Garvey related why he’d started his career as a street preacher, spreading the good news of African redemption: “Just at that time, other races were engaged in seeing their cause through—the Jews through their Zionist movement and the Irish through their Irish movement—and I decided that, cost what it might, I would make this a favorable time to see the Negro’s interest through.”

“The Place Next To Hell”

Despite the global reach of Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, and his overarching vision of economic enterprise, his wings were clipped when he was arrested on bogus charges of using the mail to defraud.  Imprisoned, he took flight, writing The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, with the sustained editorial oversight of his second wife, Amy Jacques.

Deported in 1927, the indomitable Garvey launched a newspaper, The Blackman (1929-1931), then The New Jamaican (1932-1933).  Perhaps Jamaica wasn’t ready for the black man.  In his first editorial, for The New Jamaican, Garvey spoke the plain truth:  “Jamaica is a fine country from a natural viewpoint—it is a terrible country from economic observations. To consider how the people of Jamaica live, that is, the bulk of the population, is to wonder if we, at all, have any system of economics. We shall endeavour to enlighten the country on the possibility of creating a better order of things for everybody through a system of education in economics—a thing not generally known nor taught in Jamaica.”

Eighty years later, things have not changed ‘to dat’, despite political independence.  We still haven’t gotten the economics right.  In frustration with Jamaican politics, Garvey once described the island in an issue of The New Jamaican as “the place next to hell”.  Despite the almost hellish circumstances in which he sometimes found himself, Garvey was always self-assured.  An article published in The Daily Gleaner on January 19, 1935, quotes Garvey:  “My garb is Scotch, my name is Irish, my blood is African, and my training is half American and half English, and I think that with that tradition I can take care of myself”.

This afternoon at 3:00 p.m., Professor Tony Martin, a distinguished Pan-Africanist scholar, will deliver the 3rd annual Marcus Garvey lecture at Liberty Hall in honour of the 125th birthday of our First National Hero:  “If Garvey Dies, Garvey Lives: The Enduring Relevance of Garvey’s Ideas”.   This lecture will certainly silence those cynics in this “place next to hell” who object to the teaching of Garvey’s philosophy in our schools.  Claiming Garvey’s legacy for our children is full freedom.

Who is Jamaica?

The morning after Emancipation Day, August 1st, I took out my prized Independence commemorative plate from the hand-carved mahogany cabinet in which it’s kept.  It was a gift from the mother of a long-ago boyfriend who, incomprehensibly, complained constantly that she loved me more than him.  Needless to say, he didn’t last.  Gender politics in Jamaica can be quite complicated.

The plate does have a little chip, but it really doesn’t matter.  It’s the spirit of the thing that counts: a little bit of tactile history.  The decorated plate features the Jamaican coat of arms.  On February 3, 1661, Jamaica became the first British colony to receive its own arms.  The Latin motto grandly declaimed: ‘Indus uterque serviet uni’ (Both Indies will serve one).  From East to mythic West, colonial relations of domination were inscribed in heraldry.

1661 Coat of arms

The coat of arms memorializes the Amerindian people of Jamaica.  There is a woman bearing a basket of pineapples and a man holding a bow.  At school we were taught that they were Arawak.  These days, they are Taino.  But the subtle distinction is purely academic.  The native people of Xaymaca, as the island was once called, are extinct. In their culture, the pineapple symbolized hospitality.  Genocide was their reward for the naïve welcome they gave Christopher Columbus.   They survive only in the coat of arms and in the modest museum that is dedicated to their history.

Perched above the Taino man and woman is a crocodile.  This reptile has fared much better than the indigenous people.  Its descendants are still alive.  A popular tourist attraction is the Black River safari which allows foolhardy explorers to get up close and personal with crocodiles.  An ad for the safari promises:  “A smiling crocodile right alongside the boat.  You can touch him if you are brave”.

At Independence in 1962, the national motto, enshrined in the coat of arms, was changed to “Out of many, one people”.  Though this might at first appear to be a vast improvement on the servile Indies, both East and West, the new motto does encode problematic contradictions.  It marginalizes the nation’s black majority by asserting compulsively that the idealized face of the Jamaican nation is multiracial.  In actuality, approximately 90% of the population is of African origin; 7% is mixed-race; 3% is European, Chinese and East Indian combined.

It was my high school English teacher, Miss Julie Thorne, who, for me, first interrogated the racial politics of the supposedly unifying motto.  She had come from the United Kingdom to teach on an international   development program much like the Peace Corps.  As an outsider, she could immediately detect the fraudulence of the homogenizing racial myth.  She asked us students a rather cynical question.  “Out of many, one people?  Which one?”

The classic Jamaican film, The Harder They Come, released in 1972, documents the mood of the earlier decade.  Optimistic rural youth migrated to Kingston and the smaller towns, looking for fulfillment of the promise of Independence.

On my commemorative plate, there’s a map of Jamaica which highlights Kingston, Spanish Town, Mandeville, Montego Bay and Port Antonio.  These were the centres of commerce to which ambitious youth gravitated.   Jimmy Cliff, the star of The Harder They Come, sang their hopes:

‘You can get it if you really want,

But you must try, try and try, try and try

You’ll succeed at last’.

Cliff’s lyrics echo a famous 19th century exhortation that has been much spoofed:  “‘Tis a lesson you should heed, try, try again.  If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”.  Schoolchildren in Jamaica memorized that gem.  It motivated us to excel.  But ‘it’ often proved elusive, especially for the underclass who had no sustained access to formal education even after Independence.

The Jamaican sociologist Orlando Patterson wrote an empathetic novel The Children of Sisyphus, published in 1965, which skillfully recounts the uphill battle of those who tried to make it in Kingston, or ‘Killsome’, as Peter Tosh wittily dubbed the city.  The crushing boulders of oppression kept rolling back down.  Trapped in a cycle of repetitive failure, pauperised people struggled, nevertheless, to make meaning out of despair.

Reclaiming ancestral traditions of resistance, the urban poor fashioned new languages of survival.  Reggae music became the heartbeat of a people who refused extinction. In the words of Bob Marley’s “One Drop”:

“Feel it in the one drop

And we still find time to rap

We making a one stop

The generation gap

So feel this drumbeat as it beats within

Playing a rhythm resisting against the system”.

Reggae music filled the gap between reality and expectations. It articulated the philosophy and opinions of pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey.  The reggae drumbeat evoked Rastafari philosophy and livity, a coinage that is the decided antithesis of levity. With biblical authority, Rastafari claimed the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1930 as fulfillment of the prophecy recorded in Psalm 68:31:  “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God”.

Marley’s conception of reggae as a rhythm of resistance brilliantly traces the lineage of ‘word, sound and power’ that connects African Jamaicans across several generations and to the continent.  The deployment of music as a therapeutic weapon of resistance is a long- established tradition in African Jamaican culture.

The abeng, a wind instrument of West African origin made from cow horn, is preserved in Jamaica by the legendary Maroons who emancipated themselves from enslavement.  In highly tactical wars of resistance, they defeated the British, asserting their right to self-government. The abeng sounded the alarm, protecting the Maroon strongholds from sudden attack.

The relationship of the Maroons to the wider community of African-Jamaicans is complex.  They signed a treaty with the British which demanded that they return belated runaways to plantation slavery.  Betrayal of other blacks was the price of their own freedom.  It is a familiar tale – divide and rule.

But even on the plantations, maroon traditions of resistance took root.  Forced to survive in the very belly of the beast, enslaved

Africans perfected weapons of war from within.  Silent poisoning of their supposed masters was a deadly tool.   And music, the drumbeat of resistance, was a potent language of communication through which those who were forced to simulate accommodation to servitude were empowered to exercise agency.

The word ‘abeng’ is of Twi origin.  This language provided much of the African-derived lexicon of the Jamaican Creole language that is now the mother tongue of most Jamaicans.  Devalued by the elite, the language of the majority speaks to the marginality of African culture in the construction of the nation state.

Conversely, cultural icon Louise Bennett, affectionately known as Miss Lou, has used her heart language to affirm Jamaican identity.  In her humorous poem “Independance”, [sic], which satirizes the song and dance of the elitist project of constitutional decolonization, Bennett creates a vociferous working-class persona, Miss Mattie, who has a rather grand vision of Jamaica’s geopolitical location:

Jamaican

She hope dem caution worl-map

Fi stop draw Jamaica small.

For de lickle speck cyaan show

We independantness at all!

Moresomever we must tell map dat

We don’t like we position –

Please kindly tek we out a sea

An draw we in de ocean

English 

She hopes they’ve warned the mapmakers

To stop drawing Jamaica so small

Because that little speck

Can’t show our greatness at all!

Moreover we must tell the mapmakers

That we don’t like our position –

Would they be kind enough to take us out of the sea

And relocate us in the ocean

Jamaicans are island people with a continental consciousness.  We remember our origins across oceans of history.  For us, Independence is not just about constitutional rearrangements.  It’s in our blood.  From Miss Mattie’s perspective:

Jamaican

Independence is we nature

Born an bred in all we do

And she glad fi see dat Government

Tun independent to

English

We are independent by nature

That’s how we’ve been born and bred

And she’s happy to see

That the government has now become independent

Elitist and popular conceptions of the Jamaican character finally converge.  Independent is who Jamaica is.

Rastafari Reclaim Jewish Roots

Stuart Reeves photo

Last Sunday evening, a binghi was convened on the sandy ground of the Shaare Shalom synagogue, located downtown at the intersection of Duke and Charles Street.  This crossroads, named for British royalty, was transformed into a gateway to the roots of Rastafari.  Majestic Nyahbinghi singers and players of instruments celebrated the survival of both Jewish and African people who learned to chant songs of freedom in a strange land.

Grounded in the Bible, much of Rastafari symbolism is rooted in Judaism.  Though Rastafari themselves reject ‘ism and schism’, their philosophy and livity owe much to the ‘ism’ of the Jews. Captive Africans in the Americas identified with Jews enslaved in Babylon.  Zion became a code word for Africa; and Babylon was the Diaspora.

It was the Melodians who composed and first recorded the Rastafari chant, “By the Rivers of Babylon”, which was adapted from Psalm 137: 1-4.

“By the rivers of Babylon

Where we sat down

And there we wept

When we remember Zion

For the wicked carry us away captivity

Require from us a song

How can we sing King Alpha’s song

In a strange land?”

The holy book of the Jews provided vivid imagery for many other reggae songs, as in Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”.

“Old pirates, yes, they rob I

Sold I to the merchant ships

Minutes after they took I

From the bottomless pit

But my hand was made strong

By the hand of the Almighty

We forward in this generation

Triumphantly.”

Marley’s lyrics echo Genesis 49:24: “But his bow abode in strength, and the arms of his hands were made strong by the hands of the mighty God of Jacob”.

Shashamane

King Alpha, Emperor Haile Selassie I, empowered Rastafari to refrain from weeping in exile.  He facilitated the process of repatriation to the continent of Africa.  In 1948, the Emperor set aside 500 acres of his own land for Rastafarians in Jamaica and members of the Ethiopian World Federation Incorporated (EWF), based in the United States, to establish a settlement in Shashamane. The EWF took its mission from Psalm 34:14 – “Depart from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it”.

Kingston on the Edge

The cross-cultural groundation in the synagogue was part of Kingston on the Edge (KOTE), the exhilarating urban arts festival that ended yesterday.   First staged in 2007, KOTE continues to cross borders and level barriers.  This year’s theme was “Identity The Opened I”.  The sacred concert in the synagogue was certainly an eye-opener.

The photograph taken by Stuart Reeves documents the grandeur of the occasion. The sand on the floor is a reminder of the wandering of the children of Israel in the desert for 40 years after they escaped Egypt.  It is also a symbol of the divine promise recorded in Genesis 22:17: “That in blessing I will bless you, and in multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies”.

The Spanish Inquisition

During the Inquisition, many Jews were forced to convert to Christianity to escape death.  But they continued to practice Judaism in secret – in much the same way that many Christians in Jamaica practice obeah, I suppose. According to legend, the undercover Jews used sand on the floor to muffle the sounds of their prayers.

Behind the magnificent mahogany doors in the synagogue is the sacred space in which the Torah is housed.      These doors also provided a towering backdrop for the musicians. Earl ‘Chinna’ Smith, popularly known as ‘Melchizedek, the High Priest of reggae guitar’, was the chief celebrant.  The Hebrew word Melchizedek means ‘my king is righteousness’.

Enola Williams photo

All of the ‘Inna de Yard’ musicians who performed with Chinna Smith lived up to their righteous, royal calling: Kiddus I, Cedric Myton, Jesse Royal, to name just a few. Della Manley and Suzanne Couch also performed.  After the concert, Ras Sangie confided that it was he who had written “Wake Up and Live”, a song he gave to Bob Marley.

L A Lewis Almost Famous

Other events for this year’s KOTE festival included an Open House with the Rose Town Potters; a short film festival at Red Bones curated by David Morrison; a public forum on “Copyright Laws and the Creative Arts” at the National Gallery.  The Kapo Gallery was re-opened last Sunday.  One of my favourite Kapo paintings is titled ‘You Are My Plumbubi’.   It shows a man and woman tightly locked in an erotic embrace – a divine encounter.

Last Friday evening, the infamous L A Lewis, whose purported signature defaces many public spaces, made his debut as a ‘real-real’ artist at Redbones.  Described as a ‘conceptual’ artist, L A created an installation that included, according to the KOTE brochure, “some items that he has ‘actually touched’”.

More conventional artists like David Muir, Maxine Gibson, O’Neal Lawrence, Carol Crichton, Mortimer McPherson, Gisele Gardner, Garfield Morgan, Olivia McGilchrist, Mark Harrison, Ingrid Coke and Inasi also exhibited during the festival.

Thanks to the founders of KOTE – Enola Williams, Beatriz Pozueta, Carolyn Lazarus, Joaquin Portocarero and Omar Francis – we’ve been reminded yet again that, despite all the crime and violence, Kingston is a capital city.

Jamaican Men Love Oral Sex

Yeah, right!  And they believe it is more blessed to give than to receive.  Seriously, though, no matter how much our men protest in public, I’m convinced that deep down, where it really counts, Jamaican men love oral sex. I mean they just love to talk about sex.

That’s why a lot of our men simply can’t keep their mouth shut in the presence of an attractive woman.  They think they know exactly how to sweet-talk us.  And they don’t miss an opportunity to show off. In this context, someone has got to do the listening, willy-nilly. So there’s oral sex and aural sex.

I got a most entertaining response to the column, “I Have Outlived My Penis”, published two weeks ago.  It came from a man whose partial email address is ‘cunnilingus69@.’  To protect his identity, if not his virtue, I will not disclose what comes after the @.  No, I’m not saving him for myself.  There’s no need to.  I suspect that there are far more men like him around.  But they’re undercover.  They know they’re not supposed to admit that they do ‘it’.  So they pretend to be tongue-tied.  Or, at best, they speak with a forked tongue.

Engraving by Felicien Rops

This is what #69 had to say: “No, that headline is definitely not for me, and even if that was so, I am damn sure I can find a hell-of-a-good substitute!!!!! Good morning there rebel, eh. I really meant lady. I merely read the headline and without blinking, I said that that had to be you. And thank God I was not disappointed.

“Poor Ralph, well, if it ded it ded, nothing can be done about a dead penis. You seem to be forgetting that even if that man cannot stand firmly on his third leg that there is another part of his body that can become very stiff in a split second and one that most women eagerly enjoy, if not more. The tongue. No resuscitation is necessary”.

‘Dem bow’

Bowing, the dancehall term for oral/aural sex, wittily expresses both the physical posture and mental state of the devotee.  Literally, to bow is to bend or incline (the knee, body, or head) in worship, submission, respect, civility, agreement, etc. In the dancehall sense of the word, bowing suggests deference to the woman’s pleasure, a gesture no upstanding man is prepared to admit that he makes.  But, of course, women do bow as well.  It’s the golden rule:  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  In some instances, bowing is not reciprocal, a clear case of ‘wash-over gold’ misrule.

Shabba Ranks

Shabba Ranks’ 1990 hit “Dem bow” is a classic chant of damnation against those who do, in fact, bow. The DJ condemns both cunnilingus and fellatio in graphic imagery:  “man under table” and “lipstick pon hood head”.  Oral sex is seen as deviant behaviour coming from ‘foreign’ to corrupt supposedly ‘pure’ Jamaican culture.  Like homosexuality, oral sex is vigorously censured in dancehall lyrics.

But the DJs protest much too much.  Their obsessive attack on certain sexual behaviours makes me wonder if they’re not running and a-running and a-running away from themselves, with apologies to Bob Marley.  If that’s not so, then it’s high time for the DJs to stop minding other people’s sexual business.  On that score, I must congratulate Beenie Man for having the good sense to bow out of the name-calling game.  And the U.S. Embassy in Jamaica must also be congratulated for bowing to reason and giving back the DJ a work permit.

Beenie Man

Beenie Man has been much derided for his decision to make an uneasy peace with gay rights activists.  Bounty Killer has charged Beenie Man with selling out.  In an interview reported on the OutAroad website, Killer is alleged to have said, “Me can’t ever put a dollar over Jamaica and its culture. If it wasn’t for dancehall and its culture I don’t know where or who I’d be today. Mi nuh sorry fi nothing that I said or sang; I am sorry to know it offended anybody but that’s how I see it. My views and beliefs, all I can say is that homosexuals fi stop try ban we shows and dancehall must leave dem alone to God still and let peace reign.”

Bounty Killer

Bounty Killer’s ‘leave dem alone to God still’ concession is not as innocuous as it seems.  In Jamaican parlance, leaving someone to God is a fate worse than death.  All the same, Killer’s conciliatory posture is definitely an act of bowing.  He does concede that dancehall DJs should stop acting on God’s behalf and leave judgment to Him/Her. This is a major advance in dancehall sexual politics that must be resoundingly applauded.

‘Marriage have teeth’

The Gleaner’s front-page story, “Lesbians Legally Wed”, published on June 4, 2012, was just as sensational as the lyrics of any of our homophobic DJs. The editors of the Gleaner turned a private affair into a public scandal.  Perceptive readers objected:    “The title of this article is a misleading lie.  ‘Lesbians legally wed’ infers along with the picture that the legal wedding was held here in Jamaica.  Shame on the gleaner for junk journalism”.

The floodgates were opened and the predictable responses came pouring in.  ‘Fire bun!’  Fundamentalist Christians in Jamaica (and elsewhere) take the Book of Leviticus literally and insist that homosexuality is an abomination that must be purged.  And, unlike Bounty Killer, they are not leaving judgement up to God.

On top of that, marriage is seen as the divine right of heterosexuals. But marriage is not all that it’s cracked up to be.  Jamaican proverbial wisdom warns that ‘marriage have teeth an bite hot’. I think gay people should have equal rights to be bitten by marriage. And that’s not about oral sex.  It’s the whole penal institution.

Cooking Up A Storm In The ‘Intellectual Ghetto’

Last Wednesday, CVM TV aired an intriguing documentary on the life of Wilmot Perkins.  The sinister title of the programme promised high drama: Unmasking ‘Motty.’  Presumably, Motty had been masquerading all along as everything but himself. The TV programme was, apparently, designed to blow the dead man’s cover.

Elaine Perkins

I did see a new side of Motty.  He was very much a self-made man.  The most memorable mental picture from the documentary is the room full of tools for the many trades Motty mastered.  According to his widow, Elaine, Motty had a passion for shaping his world with his own hands.  He built several houses from scratch, a challenge that would stump his less clever detractors.

As it turns out, all of us who agreed to be interviewed for the documentary unmasked ourselves to some degree.  Our view of Motty was defined by our own angle of approach.  D.K. Duncan was deadly.  He pulled no punches.  By contrast, P.J. Patterson was rather restrained.  Much attacked by Motty, P.J. was, nevertheless, quite gracious in his final judgment of the man.

I thought I’d behaved myself.  All the same, I ended up in trouble with Mrs. Perkins. In response to a question from the presenter, Andrew Cannon, about why the University of the West Indies, Mona (UWI) was constantly attacked by Motty, I offered this opinion:

Motty at St. Peter's College

“Well, I saw Motty as a man who didn’t get a chance to get the formal education that he wanted.  And I felt that having dropped out of ahm the seminary, and didn’t, you know he didn’t get the opportunity to go back to university, he ‘carried a little feelings’ against university-educated people.  He used to ‘throw word’ on the University of the West Indies – the intellectual ghetto.  And, you know, you don’t want to say is because he didn’t come to UWI; but he sounded like a lot of it was just ‘bad mind an grudgeful’”.

Elaine Perkins was not amused. Staunchly defending her husband’s contempt for the intellectual ghetto, this is what she had to say:  “Well if it produced her, it is indeed a ghetto.  He’s not wrong.  You know, why doesn’t she go and, you know, do some good work for her country.  She should do something worthwhile with herself.  Go and cook!”

Miss Hottas

And there I was thinking I was already cooking!  My students in the intellectual ghetto like to call me ‘Miss Hottas’.  I tell them I can’t leave all the hotness to them.  I have to keep ‘lickle fi miself’.  So I just laughed when I heard Elaine Perkins trying to relegate me to the kitchen in a most classist and un-feminist way.

But so many people have commented on what they saw as her deliberate rudeness, I felt obliged to become aggrieved.  I didn’t want to disappoint my defenders who were winding me up.  But before getting all hot and bothered, I thought I should ask Mrs. Perkins exactly what she meant by cooking.  Perhaps, she simply wanted me to have a nice diversion from intellectual work.

I called CVM TV and asked the producer of the show, Garfield Burford, to put me in touch with Mrs. Perkins. She told him she didn’t want to talk to me.  And I could write anything I felt like about her. Living with Motty must have its rewards.  You learn how not to give a damn.

So here’s how I deconstructed Mrs. Perkins’ off-the-cuff remark.  The ‘ghetto’ bit didn’t bother me.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘ghetto’ is an abbreviation of the Italian word  ‘borghetto’, meaning “the quarter in a city, chiefly in Italy, to which the Jews were restricted”.  True, the word implies discrimination.  But people who are culturally isolated often turn disadvantage into opportunity.  They are forced to become self-reliant and very creative.

Last Thursday, as I watched Kevin MacDonald’s magical documentary on Bob Marley, I kept thinking of just how many talented people have emerged from Trench Town!

That ghetto has certainly been a centre of intellectual ferment.  If the University of the West Indies could find a way to recharge and transmit the creative energies of Trench Town in its heyday, we’d definitely be cooking.

Flying past my nest

Elaine Perkins appears to have unmasked herself by sending me off to the kitchen.  Throughout the documentary, she tried to present a pretty image of Motty as a defender of poor people.  He was a heroic figure who wanted to see the underprivileged rise up to claim their rightful place in a truly democratic Jamaica.  And Mrs. Perkins’ seemed to share her husband’s love of the oppressed.

Caribbean Domestic Workers Network Launch

But her dismissive ‘go and cook’ comment could reasonably be interpreted as a sign of vexation that I had flown past my nest.  My branch of work clearly ought to be domestic service. Even so, are helpers not entitled to pass judgment on Motty? And how could I be bright enough to think I’m qualified to be a professor?  Only at a ghetto university.

For the sake of my supporters, I must defend myself against Mrs. Perkins’ charge that I’m good for nothing but cooking.  By the way, I’m a pretty good cook.  The problem I have with cooking is that the fruits of one’s labour are so quickly consumed.  You cook for half a day and it’s all over in a few minutes.

I know I’ve done ‘something worthwhile’ with myself for the three decades I’ve taught literature and popular culture at the University of the West Indies.  Just last week, at the final class for the semester on “Reggae Poetry”, I asked students what had they really learnt in the course.  One of them said, “I’ll never look at reggae the same way.”  Another said, “I didn’t know it was that deep”.  That’s good enough for me.  I’ll just keep on cooking.