Throwing Words and Calling Foul

Zafer (Turkey), 2nd place winner

At the opening of the ‘world-a-reggae’ poster exhibition last Sunday at the National Gallery of Jamaica, I had an arresting conversation with one of my upper-upper uptown friends.  In a conspiratorial tone she insisted that she had to have a word with me.  Then she disclosed that one of her grandfathers was Scottish from Port Royal and the other was Haitian. One grandmother was Indian. She didn’t mention the other.  My friend wanted me to know that she was ‘out of many, one’.  And she was Jamaican.

I agreed.  I didn’t see a problem.  Then she told me she’d gotten to understand that I was saying that people like her are not Jamaican.  I was ‘flabberwhelmed’.  That’s a lovely word from one of the novels I’m teaching this semester:  Changes, by the Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo.

Where did my friend get this nonsense? I’ve never said ‘out of many, one’ people are not Jamaican.  I’m not crazy, though to judge from some of the feedback to my columns on the Gleaner’s website, you would think I’m certifiable.  My friend couldn’t come up with any particular source.  She had heard it or read it somewhere.  ‘Yu see how people get bad name!’  Just like that.

All the same, I was glad she had confronted me.  I was able to reassure her that I definitely thought she was Jamaican.  Of course, I also had to gently remind her that she didn’t look like the majority of Jamaicans. Then I tried to explain the real issue as clearly as I could.  It’s mostly ‘out of many, one’ people who are usually used to represent the national motto.  It’s as if they are the sum total of the Jamaican people.  She got my point.

Who is Jamaica, Again?

      I’ve been trying to figure out how this wicked rumour started.  It might have been triggered by the provocative headline of that New York Times opinion piece I wrote which was published on August 6th:  “Who Is Jamaica?”  But if you read the article you would immediately see that my answer does not exclude anybody.  Whosoever will may come.

The column generated a lot a debate in the local media.  And a lot of misunderstanding.  Once I realised how contentious the article had become, I asked the Gleaner to republish it.  I know lots of people don’t have access to the Internet.  Anyhow, so far, the Gleaner hasn’t seen fit to make the column available to the local audience.  ‘Mi ongle hope a no bex Marse Gleaner bex, seh mi a kip man up a New York wid im.  Mi a free agent’.

Where could this untruth have come from?  One of my colleagues had brought to my attention an article written by Jean Lowrie-Chin, published in the Observer on August 20. I’d read it and ‘mi just kiss mi teet’.  I figured Jean was ‘playing fool fi ketch wise’.  She couldn’t possibly be throwing words at me.

I decided to take a second look.  Jean’s column is headlined “Jamaica Still Ahead of the Race Curve”.  And she asks an inflammatory question:  “Will the UWI Mona folks who refuse to accept non-blacks as Jamaicans forgo their salaries and professorial chairs, since they are so heavily subsidised by non-black business owners who contribute significantly to our national coffers?”

Who are these “UWI Mona folks”?  Are they, perhaps, mythical? Jean is a distinguished graduate of the UWI’s Department of Literatures in English.  So she knows about myth and metaphor, connotation and denotation, imagery and symbolism and lots of other literary terms.  She couldn’t possibly have asked that question without being conscious of its nuances.  But ‘since as me know it coulda never me she a talk bout, she can gwaan throw her corn.  An me wi call foul’.

Craziness is relative

But quite apart from that foul ‘throw-word’, I’m surprised that Jean Lowrie-Chin doesn’t seem to understand the principle of academic freedom.  Why should any professor at the University of the West Indies – or any other academic institution for that matter – feel constrained to say only what private sectors companies want to hear?  Perhaps that’s how it works in public relations.

            Jean isn’t the only culprit.  In a letter to the Editor, published in The Gleaner on September 29, with the headline “Cooper Stuck in Racist Confrontation”, Elvena Reittie tells an outright lie in her last sentence below: “On Sunday, September 23, 2012, Professor Carolyn Cooper expressed concerns about the selection of children who were first displayed on the Jamaican two-dollar bills. She feels that Afro-Jamaicans who now form the greater portion of our population were not fairly represented in the picture. She feels that the selection of the children should have been all black Afro-Jamaica children.”  I never said that.

Minority groups in Jamaica tend to get jumpy when black people start to talk about racial politics. In a column published on January 16, 2012, headlined “An Honest Look at Jamaica”, Jean Lowrie-Chin asserts:  “Jamaicans have hybrid strength from the intermingling of various ethnic groups and there is nowhere in the world that enjoys our high level of racial harmony.  So let us vehemently reject Carolyn Cooper’s declaration that those of us whose ancestors did not hail from Africa are mere ‘minorities’.”  I didn’t say ‘mere’.

Privileged people in Jamaica are not prepared to lose status, even if it means admitting that they can’t do simple maths.  All that ‘minority’ literally means is smaller in number.  The sad irony of race in Jamaica is that numerical minorities tend to hog the majority of social space in so many arenas.  That’s why Jean Lowrie-Chin can ask, with a flourish of unquestionable authority,  “And what is this crazy accusation of racism in the selection of those featured in the Observer’s Page 2?”  I guess the right answer to that rhetorical question is this:  craziness is relative.

Israeli Artist Wins First International Reggae Poster Contest

For the first time in its almost 40-year history, the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ) is hosting an exhibition of poster art.  It opens this morning at 11:00 o’clock and showcases the top 100 entries from the First International Reggae Poster Contest. Six hundred and seventy-eight designers from 80 countries submitted 1,142 posters! The lyrics of the Hotstepper, Ini Kamoze, are the inspiration for the title of the exhibition: ‘World-a-reggae’.

‘Freestylee’ poster

The contest was co-founded by Michael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson, a  Jamaican digital poster artist, and Maria Papaefstathiou, a German-born  graphic designer and art director who now lives in Greece.

Michael defines himself as an ‘artist without borders’.  This is not just because he was born in Jamaica, lives in the U.S. and traverses the globe on the digital highway.

Thompson’s conception of his ‘freestylee’ art as borderless also signifies his refusal to get caught in narrow definitions of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture or ‘pure’ and ‘commercial’ art. And his work is ‘outer/national’.  It’s rooted in Jamaican culture and, at the same time, incisively engages with the whole world of international politics.

Maria’s brilliant blog, <www.graphicartnews.com>, documents what she calls her ‘twin passions':  graphic arts and photography.  She describes her blog in this way:   “It is a blog for graphic designers and photographers, focusing on high quality designs and art photography. The ultimate desire is to constantly inspire people and expand their work all over the world.”

Maria’s ironic design

Partisan ‘Politricks’

Like Maria, Thompson is a politically committed artist whose sophisticated posters lucidly articulate the breadth and depth of his insights.  In an interview posted on the House of Reggae website, he talks about how he started to do poster art.  His story is a graphic indictment of partisan ‘politricks’ in Jamaica.

“My poster art goes back to the late 1970s in Jamaica. My first protest poster was about an incident in Jamaica called the Green Bay Massacre. An incident that took place on January 5, 1978 in which seven youths from the South Side ghetto in Kingston were lured to the Green Bay military firing range in Hellshire, St. Catherine and were executed by JDF (Jamaica Defense Force) Soldiers. This incident was shocking when the truth came out and I had to use my art to protest the massacre by the Jamaican State.

“Some Reggae artist[s] at the time also recorded protest tunes about the incident, songs like ‘Green Bay Killing’ by Big Youth and producer Glen Brown. Incidentally one of the youths who was killed in the massacre was a young Reggae singer name Glenroy Richards who ironically recorded the chune ‘Wicked Can’t Run Away,’ on Glen Brown’s ‘Youthman’ riddim. This chune was later renamed ‘Green Bay Killing’, this was a wicked dancehall anthem and a haunting tribute to those who suffer injustice at the hands of the ‘wicked men’”.

Reggae Hall of Fame

Thompson conceived the International Reggae Poster Contest as a first step towards the construction of a Reggae Hall of Fame Pavillion and performing arts centre in downtown Kingston.  Thompson’s grand vision encompasses not just the intellectual capital of reggae culture but also the symbolic architecture of the building that would house the enterprise.

Biomuseo, Panama City

Michael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson is talking Frank Gehry:  architect of the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain; the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles; the Experience Music Project, Seattle; The Vitra Design Museum, Germany; the Novartis campus, Switzerland.   A magnificent BioMuseo has been designed for Panama but it’s still under construction.

So why not Kingston, Jamaica?  I can just see it.  On Kingston Harbour, the 7th largest natural harbour in the world, with the majestic Blue Mountains as a spectacular backdrop, an organic mass of crumpled steel rises to affirm the indomitable spirit of the Jamaican people.  Well, that’s before the IMF ‘done wid wi.’  Greece and Spain, here we come.

Yes, ‘wi ha fi tek bad tings mek joke’.  But fun and joke aside, doesn’t reggae music deserve a hall of fame worthy of the global reach of Jamaican popular culture?  Who would have thought that out of Kingston’s concrete jungle would have come a ‘riddim’ of resistance that now reverberates across the world?  Reggae music and its wild child, dancehall, symbolize the unlimited potential of the creative industries that enable hard-working, talented people to make ‘nuff’ money out of brainpower.

Jamaica Music Museum

Thompson’s dream of a Frank Gehry-designed Reggae Hall of Fame does not at all diminish the value of the pioneering Jamaica Music Museum, now temporarily located on Water Lane.  ‘Yu ha fi creep before yu walk an den bolt like Usain’.  Mr. Herbert Miller, Director/Curator of the fledgling museum, is doing the best he can in the cramped quarters he’s been assigned by the Institute of Jamaica.

The Museum’s current exhibition, “Equal Rights:  Reggae and Social Change”, uses mostly record album covers, along with sound clips, music samples and poster boards to document social history.   It resonates with the National Gallery’s ‘World-a-reggae’.  Both exhibitions focus on visual sound.  The powerful word and sound of music are transformed into the equally powerful image and ‘zeen’ of graphic art design.

All the same, can you imagine what a Gehry building would do for downtown Kingston? And for the Jamaican economy?  Without a penny in my pocket for the project, I contacted the Frank Gehry practice and was taken quite seriously when I asked if the firm might be willing to consider designing the Reggae Hall of Fame.  What is needed is a formal proposal and a commitment from ‘whole heap’ of people all over the world who love reggae music to come up with the ‘dunny’.  It shouldn’t be hard to do if the overwhelming response to the First International Reggae Poster Contest is anything to go by.

Alon Braier, winner of the contest, is a freelance illustrator and reggae musician living in Jaffa, Israel. His brilliant poster, “Roots of Dub”, features King Tubby, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Augustus Pablo. Alon uses the image of the recurring circle to represent dub echoes. He got it completely right.  I knew he had to come to Jamaica for the opening of the exhibition.  I called my sparring partner, Ainsley Henriques, honorary secretary of the United Congregation of Israelites in Jamaica.  He immediately caught the vision of cross-cultural exchange.  With the support of the Israeli government, ‘di yute deh yah’ in the Promised Land of reggae.