Tag Archives: University of the West Indies

‘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.

Extortion At Papine Market

Market20130704NGIT’S SO much easier these days to get in and out of Papine Market. Traffic congestion has been significantly reduced. Taxi drivers have been forced to line up instead of sprawling all across the road waiting for passengers. I’ve taken it upon myself to reason with those few delinquent drivers who refuse to play by the rules and stay in line. 

I got an unexpected response when I asked one of them why he was “mashing up” the programme. He said he was a victim of extortion and was protesting. Yeah, right.  But, as it turns out, Mr Outa Order does have a point. The new orderly system is designed to encourage passengers to simply take the first taxi in the line. This innovation has made loaders redundant. Refusing to accept the fact that things have changed for the better (or worse), loaders are still demanding money from drivers to fill taxis. They insist on business as usual. After all, loaders make a living out of chaos.

extortionIt is only in societies like ours that ‘loader’ is a proper job. In fragile economies, disadvantaged people have to come up with creative solutions to the depressing problem of regular unemployment. “We know how fi tek wi hand turn fashion”. We learn how to make do and make work. With grand, sweeping gestures and lots of sound effects, skilled loaders entice hesitant passengers into taxis. I suppose loading is a lot like the ancient art of herding sheep.

One loader stubbornly told me, ‘A long time now mi a do dis ya work right ya so a Papine an mi don’t plan fi stop now’. This redundant ‘public sector’ loader belongs to no union. He cannot go to Mama P to ask for severance pay. Having invested years in perfecting his craft, he is not prepared to retool. Robbed of the work he knows best, he may be tempted to take up a deadly tool. Unemployment often does lead to crime, as we know all too well.

UNCONSCIONABLE EMPLOYERS

timeoffWhen I told the loader I was going to write about the issue, he asked me not to. He didn’t want any trouble. I promised him I wouldn’t reveal his identity and I would give him a preview of the article so he could approve what I said about him. Unfortunately, when I went to Papine last Tuesday afternoon to look for him, he wasn’t at work. Loaders need time off too. And since they’re self-employed, they can regulate their hours. They’re not stuck with unconscionable employers.

Incidentally, since writing the column, ‘Email from a hellish resort’, published on July 7, I’ve got more complaints from frustrated hotel workers. One man used this headline for his letter: ‘Local hotel industry turning dreams into nightmares’. He was terminated, with immediate effect, from his job in management, after two and a half years, without even an exit interview or a proper explanation for why he was fired.

all_workers_should_have_the_right_to_unionize_sticker-r7092a29536e14df783035e10c01900f9_v9wf3_8byvr_324For the last 16 months, he and his industrial relations consultant have been trying to set up a meeting with his former employer through the Ministry of Labour and Social Security. As he put it, “all we have been getting appears to be a run around from the MOL”. When I suggested to another aggrieved man that hotel workers need to unionise, he asked a serious question: who is going to take the initiative to set up unions?

Workers are fearful about losing their jobs and trade union leaders seem to be fearful about confronting hoteliers. One woman who escaped the industry described it as “modern-day slavery”. If this is so, it is the employees who will have to emancipate themselves. “Backra massa” isn’t going to willingly allow trade unions to come into hotels unless workers fearlessly stand up for their rights.

“MI SHAME LIKE A DOG”

VoiceMailBack to Papine. I asked if anyone knew where the loader was and explained why I wanted to talk to him. A helpful woman telephoned him but got voicemail. A man who introduced himself as Chief Loader took the draft of the article. He was most offended when I asked if he could read: “Not because we a loader mek we can’t read”. I apologised profusely. “Mi shame like a dog”.

Chief Loader began to read the draft out loud to prove his point. But, to be honest, “im buck”. So I finished reading it for him. He said what I wrote was alright. I warned him: “No bodder tell me seh it alright an when it come out inna Gleaner unu blood me”. He reassured me that it was OK.

All the same, I took the number of the loader I had the agreement with and tried to call him. I got voicemail and left a message. I did get a call-back. But it was a woman saying rather suspiciously, “Is a uman answer”. I thought it prudent not to speak. “Next ting, my man ha fi go gi explanation bout why uman a call im. An is den im inna trouble”.

UNIVERSITY TOWN

Andre Hylton, member of parliament for Eastern St. Andrew, has a big vision to turn Papine into a university town. And expansion and rehabilitation of the market are part of the plan. How will the proposed development affect existing businesses? And who will benefit from the transformation of Papine? Presumably, things will get better for everybody who does business in Papine.

But, as the case of the redundant loaders proves, some players lose when development takes place. The challenge is to ensure that all stakeholders have a chance to take part in the ‘development’ process. But politicians rarely consult the people who will be most affected by the grand schemes they come up with.

logoAugust Town is a genuine university town. Many residents are employed by the University of the West Indies.   And the University has invested in the community, as in the recent Greater August Town film festival. Papine is a thoroughfare. If Andre Hylton does it right, Papine can become a first-class destination.

Leadership Crisis At UWI, Mona

wei1

wei

After the rumours were finally confirmed last week that Professor Gordon Shirley, principal of the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies, would soon be sailing into a new port of call, I had a spirited conversation with an optimistic colleague. In response to my fears that the campus would now be facing a leadership crisis, he reassuringly reminded me of that famous gem of Chinese wisdom: danger + opportunity = crisis. It’s the kind of thing you expect to find in a fortune cookie.

ji

ji

As it turns out, it’s a fake gem – even though all sorts of people have brandished it. John F. Kennedy once famously declared, “[T]he Chinese use two brushstrokes to write the word ‘crisis’. One brushstroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognise the opportunity.”

This much-recycled formula is not an accurate decoding of the Chinese symbols. In Kennedy’s case, the error is understandable. We don’t expect politicians to be linguists. Double-speak is their usual armour.

In an article on the Pínyín.info website, Victor Mair, professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylannia, relates an amusing anecdote: “I first encountered this curious specimen of alleged oriental wisdom about 10 years ago at an altitude of 35,000 feet sitting next to an American executive. He was intently studying a bound volume that had adopted this notorious formulation as the basic premise of its method for making increased profits even when the market is falling.

“At that moment, I didn’t have the heart to disappoint my gullible neighbour who was blissfully imbibing what he assumed were the gems of Far Eastern sagacity enshrined within the pages of his workbook. Now, however, the damage from this kind of pseudo-profundity has reached such gross proportions that I feel obliged, as a responsible Sinologist, to take counteraction.”

WISHFUL THINKING

images-1According to Professor Mair, the seductive proposition that danger and opportunity are equally balanced in a crisis is nothing but “wishful thinking”, based largely on a “fundamental misunderstanding about how terms are formed in Mandarin and other Sinitic languages”. Mair shows that ‘weiji’, the word for ‘crisis’, is made up of two syllables, ‘wei’ (danger) and ‘ji’.

Contrary to popular misconception, ‘ji’ definitely does not mean ‘opportunity’. Instead, it means ‘crucial point (when something begins or changes)’. Mair confirms that “a weiji is indeed a genuine crisis, a dangerous moment, a time when things start to go awry. A weiji indicates a perilous situation when one should be especially wary. It is not a juncture when one goes looking for advantages and benefits”.

Gordon Shirley

Gordon Shirley

As far as I can tell, the only opportunity in the leadership crisis on the Mona campus is for those who will be ‘run-jostling’ to temporarily replace Professor Shirley. Not surprisingly, the contenders are all male, from what I’ve heard. It appears as if there is no female who can fill the shoes of the well-heeled Professor Shirley, even if only for three years, the unusual duration of his secondment to the Port Authority of Jamaica (PAJ).

Secondment is a tricky business. It’s leaving and staying at the same time, somewhat like a bad marriage. You don’t want to cut your losses and just get a divorce. But you do want the freedom to roam. Secondment can turn out to be a case of either danger or opportunity for the secondee. You may like your new place of employment so much you can’t possibly return to the arms of your former love. That’s the opportunity. Or, you might dislike your new job so much you have to beg to be taken back. That’s the danger.

images-4For the institution that gets left behind, it’s usually more danger and less opportunity. Like a rejected lover, those who have been abandoned keep pining for the missing member. In the case of the principalship of the Mona campus, it’s the head of the institution that’s leaving. A head is not an appendage that can easily be replaced with a prosthesis. He or she symbolises the brainpower of the institution.

FAILURE AT SUCCESSION PLANNING

Especially given Professor Shirley’s distinguished performance as principal, it is imperative that he not be replaced by a stand-in who may have no mandate to bring his or her own distinctive vision to the task of leading the Mona campus. Curiously enough, the three-year term of Professor Shirley’s secondment is exactly half the length of his six-year tenure as principal. It’s a long time for the Mona campus to be led by a place-holder.

Noel Hylton

Noel Hylton

Furthermore, three years is a very short time for the new head of the PAJ to make his mark on that foundering institution. The relatively youthful Professor Shirley is replacing an octogenarian, Noel Hylton, who headed the PAJ for almost 40 years! It is hardly likely that in a mere three years Professor Shirley will be able to turn the ship around.

In a stinging Gleaner article, ‘Port Authority – a study in Jamaican management’, published on January 4, 2013, Aubyn Hill asks two damning questions: “No directive was given to prepare not one but a small group of able successors for Hylton? No younger Jamaican managers were capable?” Hill blames both the ministers of government and the members of successive boards of the PAJ for their collective failure at succession planning.

in_limbo1Professor Shirley is a serial secondee. He fully understands the politics of planting his feet firmly in two places at once. But, in this instance, both the Mona campus of the UWI and the PAJ are likely to suffer as a consequence of the temporariness of his appointment. Both institutions will be held in limbo, awaiting permanent leadership. And that’s ‘weiji fi true’.

Vybz Kartel’s Book For CXC

images-3Vybz Kartel’s arresting book, The Voice of the Jamaican Ghetto, co-authored with Michael Dawson of People’s Telecom fame, gives a penetrating account of the deadly conditions endured by too many youth who are barely surviving on the margins of Jamaican society. Claiming the authority of the traditional warner man, Kartel compels his audience to pay attention to his prophetic story. You just can’t put the book down.

Kartel’s intention is not to entertain but to upset: “As strange as it may sound, I hope you do not enjoy this book. I hope it disturbs you. I hope after reading you realise there is something wrong with Jamaica that needs to be fixed. I hope you will never look at a ghetto person the same again.”

Cynics have been asking if Kartel really wrote the book. They clearly have not listened to his songs. There’s an organic connection between the two: “… After seeing the crowd’s response to my conscious songs, I wanted to tell more of the story that I could not capture in three minutes riding a riddim. So I started writing, still unsure at the time if a book was what I wanted to do.”

Each of the 10 chapters amplifies the core concepts of selected songs. For example, chapter 1 is based on ‘Thank You Jah’:

Psalms 127 Selah,

Except di Lord build di house,

Dey labour in vain dat build it,

Except di Lord keep di city,

Di watchman watcheth, but in vain.

Thank yu, Jah, it’s just another day, selah,

It’s just another day,

Thank yu, Jah, mi wake up dis mornin

Roll out di herbs before mi start yawnin

Tun round buss a kiss pon mi dawlin

Tell har seh, “Honey, mi ah touch inna di steet.”

In di street mi see poor people bawlin

Nuff juvenile no even nyam from mornin,

“Weh di black woman future?”, me aks him

“Weh di system a do fi she”?

Now big up di gyal dem weh fight it alone

An ah raise two, three pickney pon dem own,

Weh di man deh? No man no deh home,

Babylon have dem inna jail.

Big up di juvenile dem inna di street

Weh a seh dem haffi make it

An nah touch di chrome!

Dem no waan wi fi claim our own,

But Africa nah form no fool inna Rome,

Ghetto youth, we go on and on

Babylon waan wi gone,

Hungry from morning til night come,

Dem waan wi fi live our life so,

Dem a wonder if di youth dem a go stop, no!

A wonder if di ghetto a go drop, no!

Dem a wonder if wi ketch inna di trap, no!

A wonder if Jah tun him back, no!

SAVAGES SAVING SOULS

‘Thank you, Jah’ is a prayer that every fundamentalist Christian in Jamaica can identify with – up to a point. Kartel chants his gratitude to Jah in Old Testament lyrics. But the song quickly changes tune and tone. ‘Thank you, Jah’ becomes a damning judgement on the failures of modern Babylon. Kartel’s invocation of the psalm is decidedly ironic.

images-1The Lord is certainly not keeping the city of Kingston. Babylon labours in vain to build a city founded on injustice. The so-called ‘system’ brutalises poor people in Jamaica. The profound philosophical question the song raises is whether or not ‘Jah tun him back’. Are ghetto people the victims of divine indifference, as Babylon hopes? The song condemns the conspiracy of Church and State to keep poor people in bondage.

In the book, Kartel has ample room to elaborate on the inequities of Jamaican society, especially the apparent willingness of the Church to postpone justice until ‘Thy kingdom come’. He gives a quick history lesson to demonstrate the origin of the racism at the root of imperial Christianity.

Christopher_Columbus3-1Kartel demolishes the myth of European conquest as a mission to save the souls of savages: “Sometimes, I wish Gaza was around in those days when these men came off their ships, dressed in their stockings, short pants and funny hats to tell Portmore people they are heathens so they should come and work for free and these men in stockings will show them salvation. I am confident you could stay from the toll road and hear those sailors begging for mercy when the Gaza done wid dem.” Although Kartel doesn’t want us to ‘enjoy’ the book, there’s lots of humour.

THE GARVEYITE AND THE BLEACHER

In a telephone interview last week, Michael Dawson explained his role in the creative process. He sees the book as a recording of the ‘reasonings’ between himself and Adidja ‘Vybz Kartel’ Palmer. In his ‘Preface’, Dawson admits the ironies of the project: “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? … How did my Campion background find common ground with the Gaza?”

Dawson gives an intriguing answer: “I realised what Addi was reluctant to admit; that deep down he realised he had the gift of being a lyricist and the ability to put it on a dancehall rhythm like no one else had. He feared, however (my observation), that being known as a conscious artiste would gain him a label that he did not want.”

It was the opportunity to lecture at the University of the West Indies that changed Kartel’s mind. Wilmot Perkins must be turning in his grave. The ‘intellectual ghetto’ has clearly served its purpose, promoting dialogue between town and gown.

images-2The Voice of the Jamaican Ghetto should be read in and out of school. It ought to be on the CXC social studies syllabus. It raises complex issues of social justice in an accessible way. This book will engage the attention of every student, from Campion College to Gaza Secondary. And Adidja Palmer needs to be given a fair trial. Quickly! Otherwise, we run the risk of turning Vybz Kartel into a political prisoner, fulfilling the expectation of the book cover.

Protoje to lecture at UWI

Protoje20130220CThe Department of Literatures in English, University of the West Indies, Mona continues our series of ‘Reggae Talks’  on Thursday, March 28  at 7:00 p.m.  This week’s  featured guest is Protoje.  He will speak on the topic, “Music From My Heart”.  The venue is the Neville Hall Lecture Theatre in the Faculty of Humanities and Education.   Copies of his latest CD, “Eight Year Affair” will be on sale for $1,000.  The public is invited to attend and admission is free.

6th Edward Baugh Distinguished lecture

Edward Baugh

This year, I will give the 6th annual  Edward Baugh Distinguished Lecture which  is put on by the Department of Literatures in English at the University of the West Indies, Mona.

Professor Emeritus Edward Baugh has earned an international reputation as an authority on Anglophone Caribbean poetry in general and on the work of Derek Walcott in particular.

An outstanding teacher, Professor Baugh has guided the  intellectual development of several generations of students at Mona.  I, myself, chose to do my PhD dissertation on Derek Walcott’s poetry and plays, largely because of Professor Baugh’s passion for the subject.

TheDistinguished  Lecture Series pays tribute to his stellar career.  Previous speakers  include Trinidadian writerEarl Lovelace,  Guyanese author/scholar Mark McWatt and Australian literary critic  Helen Tiffin, one of the co-authors of the foundational post-colonial text, The Empire Writes Back .  

Peter Tosh Did Not Joke With Words

Shortly after Peter Tosh made his last concert appearance in December 1983, I did an interview with him that was published in Pulse magazine.  One of his most powerful declarations was this: “. . . me don’t run joke wid words.”  Tosh was objecting to the way in which the term ‘peace treaty’ was being used so loosely.  And he gave a rather irreverent sermon on the subject:

“Claudie Mashup, or weh him want to name, him came to my house once and told me about this project that they had.  And dem say that dem going to call it a peace treaty.  I a look fe peace.  Because to me, peace should have really meant people respecting people, people loving people.

“A man becoming his brother’s keeper.  A man can lef him door open an go bout him business and a next man don’t come pop it off.  Is so me call peace.  A man don’t have gun over the next area an a tell you say him have a border cross ya-so and you can’t come across there.

  “So I mek them know me don’t run joke with words.  Every time I see the word ‘peace’ you know where I see it?  In the cemetery:  ‘Here lies the body of such and such.  May he rest in peace.’  So how a guy waan come tell me say him a go have a peace treaty amongst the living, where all the dead rest in wha?  Peace?  Ah-oh.”

I don’t know if this wicked mashing up Massop’s name was a Tosh original.  There are many such examples of witty word play in his lyrics.  Poliomyelitis became reggaemylitis, a joyous infection that moves every muscle in the body.  The words ‘system’ and ‘situation’ were cleverly transformed by the insertion of a well-placed ‘h’ and ‘t’.  Tosh evoked the stench of the oppressive dunghills of social injustice and moral corruption that continue to rise up everywhere in Jamaica.

In his dread lecture delivered at the so-called “Peace Concert” in 1978, Tosh chanted down the excremental system:   “Four hundred years an de same bucky maasa bizniz.  An black inferiority, an brown superiority rule dis lickle black country here fe a long [t]imes.  Well I an I come wid Earthquake, Lightnin an Tunda to break down dese barriers of oppression an drive away transgression and rule equality between humble black people.”

Garvey’s African Redemption 

Peter Tosh was an unapologetic advocate of what Marcus Garvey called “African Redemption”.  We hear this in his rousing anthem,  ‘African’, from the 1977 Equal Rights album:  “Don’t care where yu come from/  As long as you’re a black man/  You’re an African.”   Not all Jamaicans would agree.  Some of us don’t even want to admit that we’re black, let alone African.

In a letter to the Editor published in The Gleaner on September 25, Daive Facey asks a revealing question, “Who are ‘Blacks’, Ms Cooper?”  He already knows the answer:  “Many classified as ‘blacks’ based on external features and placed into the 90 per cent majority can easily trace their mixed lineages, and in terms of genealogy are no less Caucasian, Indian or Chinese”.

Mr. Facey is quite right. Many clearly black Jamaicans routinely claim ancestors of other races who have left no visible traces of themselves on the body of their supposed relatives. And even in cases where some racial mixing is evident, the African element in the mix is always the half that is never told.  Mixed-race Jamaicans are half-Indian; half-Chinese; half-Syrian; half-white.  But never half-African!

It is only people of African descent in Jamaica who do not define their racial identity in terms that point to ancestral homelands.  Europeans, Chinese, Syrians and Indians are all raced and placed in their very naming.  Africans are ‘so-so’ black.  Going against the tide,  Tosh deliberately chose ‘African’ as a marker of racial identity.

‘Inna di race ting’

In a witty newspaper article entitled ‘Perkins and Black History,’ the now late Eric ‘Macko’ McNish, former editor of the Jamaica Beat newspaper, related an anecdote that illustrates the complexity of racial politics in Jamaica:  “When Chinese Jamaicans and East Indian Jamaicans used to organise annual cricket matches between an All-Indian XI and All-Chinese XI at the Chinese Cricket Club (now owned by Melbourne), all Jamaicans applauded it.

“However, when two Black Jamaicans (which included this writer) asked the captain of the East Indian XI, who was a former Boys’ Town player, if an All-African XI of Black Jamaicans could play the winner of his match against the Chinese XI, his answer was ‘Bwoy wi doan waan get inna di race ting.’”

Tosh was more than willing to “get inna di race ting”. He establishes ‘African’ as a racial category and then goes on to assert, “No mind yu nationality/  You have got the identity/  Of an African.”

Furthermore, Tosh’s conception of African identity is quite inclusive:

No mind yu complexion

There is no rejection

You’re an African

Cause if yu plexion high, high, high

If yu plexion low, low, low

If yu plexion in between

You’re an African

Though Tosh seems to assert a hierarchy of high, low and in-between complexions, it is the very notion of hierarchy that is being contested.  Whatever the physical manifestation of ‘africanness’ in terms of skin colour, there is a rooted cultural identity that transcends the physical. ‘There is no rejection’ of mixed-race people from the category ‘African’.

Peter Tosh was one of reggae music’s greatest philosophers. In honour of his life and legacy, the University of the West Indies, Mona  hosteed a symposium on Friday, October 19:  “Peter Tosh – Reggae Revolutionary and Equal Rights Advocate”.   Tosh’s children, Niambe and Dave, as well as Herbie Miller, Clinton Hutton and I were the main spekaers.  Michael Barnett chaired the event. None of us ‘dida run joke wid words’.Ma

Happy Birthday All The Same, Buju!

It’s Buju Banton’s 39th birthday today and it ‘hurt mi to mi heart’ that he’s behind bars.  Buju should be walking like a champion down Redemption Street.  Instead, he’s trapped in Uncle Sam’s conspiracy to derail his career.  It’s not an easy road he’s been forced to travel.

The Jamaican poet Lorna Goodison certainly understands the difficult path of the Rastaman as he ‘trods’ through creation.  In her poem, “The Road of the Dread”, she declares:

Lorna Goodison

That dey road no pave

like any other black-face road

it no have no definite color

and it fence two side

with live barbwire

And no look fi no milepost

fi measure you walking

and no tek no stone as

dead or familiar

for sometime you pass a ting

you know as . . . call it stone again

and is a snake ready fi squeeze yu

kill yu

or is a dead man tek him

possessions tease yu.

That poem, published in 1980 in Goodison’s first collection, Tamarind Season, uncannily predicts the way in which a snake-in-the-grass squeezed Mark Myrie, teasing him with the possessions of a dead man.  That trip to the warehouse to inspect a boat turned out to be a one-way street to catastrophe.

Spreading propaganda

Brought down by a paid informer, Mark Myrie seems to have carelessly forgotten what Buju Banton knows about the ways in which the political systems of the West work to spread propaganda against the innocent.  In his prophetic pan-Africanist chant, ‘Til I’m Laid to Rest, on the ‘Til Shiloh album, he details his sense of alienation in the Diaspora and his longing for repatriation.

‘Til I’m laid to rest, yes

Always be depress

There’s no life in di West

I know di East is di best

All di propaganda dem spread

Tongues will ha fi confess

Oh I’m in bondage living is a mess

And I’ve got to rise up alleviate the stress

No longer will I expose my weakness

He who seek knowledge begins with humbleness

Work 7 to 7 yet mi still penniless

Fa di food upon mi table Massa God bless

Holler fi di needy an shelterless

Ethiopia await all prince and princess

A decade ago, when ‘Til Shiloh was released, Buju’s bondage was metaphorical.  Today, it’s all too literal. Having foolishly exposed his weakness – running up his mouth with a stranger – Mark Myrie is paying a terrible penalty.  He’s facing the prospect of incarceration for fifteen years.

Myrie could have been given a mere three-year sentence if he had yielded to the temptation of a plea bargain.  But he has resolutely refused to concede guilt.  Some may say he’s foolish to hold out for justice.  But those of us who believe in his innocence completely understand why Mark wants his name cleared.

Stamina Daddy and Mr. Mention

‘Til Shiloh was a decisive turning point in the artist’s stellar career.  It marked his transition from dancehall DJ to roots reggae Rastafari icon.  Buju’s first two albums, Stamina Dadda and Mr. Mention, both released in 1992, are classic dancehall.  Most of the tracks focus on sexual love.  Buju pays respect to the shape and flexibility of the well-endowed woman in tunes like Mampy Size, Bxtty Rider and Love How the Gal Dem Flex.  But it’s not only the woman’s body that Buju admires.  It’s also her intelligence and her capacity to make her way in the world:  “Unu move up inna life no doubt about that”.

The early albums also include the exceptional ‘bad-man’ tunes Gun Unnu Want and Man Fe Dead.  Assuming the persona of the Hollywood gangster, Buju Banton discharges dangerous lyrics with unbelievable bravado: “Di amount a gun wi have wi can’t run outa stock”; and “Gun shot fi bus up inna informer head”.

But there was also the occasional politically charged song that anticipated Buju’s later preoccupation with social justice.  In How the World A Run from the Mr. Mention album, Buju takes up the mantle of the Warner man:

Where food is concerned there is a problem

Uman can’t find food fi gi di children

While di rich man have di chicken back a feed di dog dem

But woe be unto dem

He who rides against poor people shall perish inna di end

Voice of Jamaica, released in 2002, featured even more tunes focusing on social issues: Deportees (Things Change), Operation Ardent and Wicked Act featuring Busta Rhymes.

On tour in France in the 1990s, Buju had a Damascus Road conversion.  At the launch of his Rasta Got Soul album at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Buju told a compelling story of the impact of Burning Spear’s performance:  “Di man deliver such a set dat if dem never call mi right weh, mi just run come back a Jamaica. So mi inna di dressing room now an mi start tink inna mi self, it start come to me, ‘Mark, you’re not ready for this. No, you’re not. Yu lickle Bxtty Rider an yu lickle Love Mi Browning weak. Dis bigger dan you, man.’”

The very next day, Buju turned to Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry for a spliff and advice: “Lee, mi waan music, Iyah! Weh mi see di I dem a do, an mi see dem a play, mi cyaan, mi mi waan music, man.” This is how ‘Scratch’ responded: “Heh heh heh heh heh! Yu have to go out and make the music that the people can feel wid a humanistic approach.” The result was the masterful Til Shiloh.

Marcus Garvey

Til I’m Laid to Rest documents Buju’s trod across Africa and his ‘overstanding’ of Marcus Garvey’s vision of African Redemption:

What coulda bad so bout di East?

Everybody want a piece

Africa fi Africans, Marcus Mosiah speak

Unification outnumber defeat

What a day when we walkin down Redemption Street

Banner pon head, Bible inna hand

One an all mek wi trod di promised land

Buju go down a Congo stop inna Shashamane Land

Di city of Harare is where Selassie come from

In Addis Ababa then Botswana

Left Kenya an end up inna Ghana

Oh, what a beauty my eyesight behold

Only Ethiopia protect me from the cold

Keep the faith, Buju!  You’ll soon be walking down Redemption Street again.

Squandering Resources On Reggae Poetry

In response to last week’s post,  ‘Passive resistance at UWI, Mona’, which was also was published in the Jamaica Gleaner, a disdainful reader who goes by the name of ‘Pauline Principle’ took a rather unprincipled position: “I am shocked that in these hard times, scarce resources are being squandered on a reggae poetry class that will bring zero value to the job market. UWI needs to review their courses before they become irrelevant. Those who want a reggae poetry class should be allowed to do this at a community centre or at an evening course but not with the aid of taxpayers’ dollars.”

Ms Principle does not appear to understand the principle that knowledge of one’s own history and culture has intrinsic value. And she seems to conceive the job market in rather limited terms. It’s singular, not plural. The diversity of opportunities in the creative/cultural industries completely escapes her. Ms Principle clearly has a very old-fashioned view of culture. It’s something you do as a hobby. Culture couldn’t possibly be serious business.

Five years ago, the Reggae Studies Unit at the University of the West Indies, Mona, introduced an undergraduate degree programme in entertainment and cultural enterprise management (ECEM). It was the brainchild of Kam-Au Amen, the very first graduate in cultural studies at UWI. As coordinator of the Reggae Studies Unit, I negotiated for institutional support to get the programme approved.

The ECEM degree is now the second most popular one in the Faculty of Humanities and Education, right behind Media and Communication. Unlike Ms Principle, enterprising students know that they can design jobs for themselves in the creative/cultural industries. They don’t have to sit and wait to see what the job market may or may not throw their way.

Humanities serve no purpose?

It’s feedback like Ms Principle’s that makes me wonder if I should really be spending time and energy week after week writing this column. Instead, I could be working on another book (on reggae) that would be appreciated by those of us who value intellectual enquiry in the humanities. All the same, I have to admit that supportive readers usually take up the fight against my detractors with great passion. I don’t have to get into the fray.

‘Jacandood’ made an excellent point: “Pauline, I am wondering why you choose to undermine the value of the Reggae Poetry class. I bet you don’t feel the same way about Shakespeare being taught at the university.” ‘Jacandood’ knows that courses in the humanities, such as music and art, are usually required in many undergraduate degree programmes. As he put it, “The purpose of tertiary education is to mould rounded individuals.”

Carlton Reynolds, who thoroughly enjoys abusing me, couldn’t resist counter-attacking ‘Jacandood’: “These ‘humanities’ are reserved for people who want to make up credits … usually serves no other purpose … you dare to compare Shakespeare to those reggae lyricists! If Prof is using the reggae lyrics to teach how not to write, then that would be a good thing!”

All I could do was laugh. If only Mr Reynolds knew! Shakespeare, in his time, would not have been on the curriculum of any self-respecting university in England. Latin, not English, was the language of instruction. Shakespeare’s plays were not written for academics but for fun. Full of sex and violence, the plays had mass appeal; just like the lyrics of our dancehall DJs. Translated into modern English, the ‘vulgar’ language of many of Shakespeare’s plays wouldn’t make it past the censors at our Broadcasting Commission.

Contempt for our own culture is at the root of our collective failure to engage in serious academic work on reggae. Most of the influential books on reggae have been written by non-Jamaicans. The author of one of the textbooks for my Reggae Poetry course is Swami Anand Prahlad, a professor of English at the University of Missouri. It’s calledReggae Wisdom: Proverbs in Jamaican Music.

Don’t be fooled by his name as I was. Professor Prahlad is African-American. His great-grandmother was among the first generation of freeborn blacks. He fell in love with the proverbs he was taught as a child. Eventually, he found his way to Jamaican culture. Making connections across the African diaspora is a recurring theme in his scholarly work.

Journey to Jah

Liberty Hall, Kingston

Most of the films and documentaries on reggae and dancehall are also produced by non-Jamaicans. They see value where we don’t. Last Thursday, Liberty Hall hosted a panel discussion for a feature documentary, Journey to Jah, by two German filmmakers, Noël Dernesch and Moritz Springer. The main speakers were the German reggae singer Gentleman; the Italian reggae singer Alborosie, who made sure to tell the lively audience that he has a Jamaican passport; and Terry Lynn, a brilliant poet and techno reggae singer from Waterhouse, who has made it big in Europe.

Each artiste told an arresting story of how they crossed cultural borders to find their creative inspiration. For me, the most powerful speaker was Terry Lynn. Rejecting the role of sex symbol, she made the decision early in her career to not be trapped in stereotypes. Even though she loves dancehall, she didn’t want to be stuck on the same ‘riddim’ every aspiring DJ has to ride. So she liberated herself to explore the techno scene. The title track of her first album, Kingstonlogic, is a brilliant take on Daft Punk’s Technologic.

All the same, things are picking up for ‘local’ writing on reggae. The Calabash International Literary Festival is on next weekend, branded Jubilation! 50. It’s still a secret if the festival is back for good. The opening session on Friday night, ‘Music is My Passion’, features four authors of books on reggae. Two are Jamaican, one has Jamaican roots, the other is an adopted Jamaican. Reggae scholarship is coming back home.

http://www.calabashfestival.org/2012/index.html

Passive Resistance At UWI, Mona

Three days after the student protest at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, over the administration’s firm response to the non-payment of fees, I had a most unsettling experience in the examination room for my Reggae Poetry course. University regulations require examiners to be present for the first half-hour of every exam, just in case any clarification is needed about the paper.

After about 20 minutes or so, it struck me that one of the brightest students in the class was missing. I walked up and down the rows of candidates more than once to make sure. I even disturbed one of her friends to ask if he knew where she was. Given the large number of exams that have to be scheduled, there are inevitable timetable clashes. So provisions are made for students to take a clashing exam at another time and venue under special supervision. But, as far as he knew, she should have been there.

I hurriedly phoned her. She was such a good student, I knew that even if she came late to the exam, she could pass it. She didn’t answer, so I left a voicemail message. Two days later, she emailed to say that she had come to the venue but wasn’t allowed to sit the exam because of registration issues. In response, I asked what, exactly, was her story. She didn’t seem to be the kind of student who would not make appropriate arrangements to pay fees. She came to class regularly, did her coursework assignments and was all set to earn an ‘A’ grade.

I haven’t heard back from from her. Of course, she owes me no explanation. But I did leave another voicemail message because I was quite concerned. I wondered if she was too embarrassed to let me know that she had been plain delinquent. Or had been hoping for a miracle.Despite the hard line I took last week in condemnation of those unconscionable protesters who stopped their classmates from taking their exams, I do have reservations about the policy to stop students from sitting exams. My missing student sealed the case.

A moral dilemma

As soon as I heard about the protest, I called the office of the campus principal. I wanted to know why the option of withholding exam results was not seen as a better solution to the problem of non-payment of fees. It seemed simple enough. Students could not register for the next academic year, or graduate, if they owed fees. But if they were prevented from taking exams, they, obviously, couldn’t pass them. A whole semester’s effort would be wasted.

As it turns out, for the last two years the university administration had, in fact, leniently allowed students in arrears to take exams and their grades had been withheld – officially. But sympathetic lecturers had been sabotaging the system by releasing grades to the students. Armed with the knowledge that they had passed their courses, students managed to manipulate the system and re-register. There seems to be widespread passive resistance to the official policy. And this is understandable.

Academic failure should not be the inevitable consequence of economic disadvantage. It becomes a moral dilemma, not just a cut-and-dried financial issue. Many UWI students are, in fact, quite poor and are struggling to come up with the basics of survival. True, many of them have expensive cellphones. But very few of them have credit. That’s a very elusive commodity. In fact, ‘credit’ seems to be purely virtual. I often overhear conversations that start like this, ‘Anybody have any credit?’ Yes, ‘have’. Most students speak Jamaican outside the classroom. The usual response to the credit question is a big laugh. Or someone will admit to having $20 or so.

With my ‘faas’ self, I often ask students how come they have expensive phones and claim they can’t afford to buy books. They always say it’s a gift. So I persist. Why can’t you ask your benefactor to buy books instead? They look at me as if I’m crazy. Books instead of a cellphone? A student actually told me that she’d lost her phone and her “whole life mash up”. So I’ve come to accept the fact that no self-respecting young person can live without a cellphone. It’s the not-quite-adult equivalent of a baby’s pacifier. Seriously, though, students do take lecture notes on their phones and search the Internet for assignments. So the cellphone is not just an expensive indulgence; it’s an academic tool.

UWI cheaper than prep schools

There is a small minority of students at Mona who are relatively wealthy. I suppose these are the students who would have gone to college in the US in better times: before Olint became Cash Minus. Given the high cost of tuition in the US if you don’t manage to earn a scholarship, UWI is a big bargain. Here, in many cases, undergraduates are taught by full professors, not graduate students. Even in brand-name US universities, most of the undergraduate teaching is done by graduate students.

In comparison to US tuition fees in excess of $40,000 per year, UWI tuition fees of approximately US$2,000 per year are quite affordable for some middle-class families. Much cheaper than your typical upscale prep school. But for the vast majority of UWI students, US$2,000 might as well be US$40,000. It ‘s still out of reach. And most students don’t want to take a student loan. As I understand it, the loan becomes repayable within three months of graduation, whether or not the borrower gets a job. So students would rather ‘batter-batter’ than get caught in what they see as the student-loan trap.

I routinely give nutrition lessons in my literature classes, warning students that they can’t function on dry biscuits. And I’ve taken to keeping sweeties in my office. It’s not real food, but the students appreciate the gesture. I once got a very ‘sweet’ joke in class. One of my students confessed that she’d been rummaging in her bag and unexpectedly came up with one of the sweeties. As she put it, “It was like heaven.” The whole class laughed, and some of them admitted that they’d had the same experience.

Fun and joke aside, funding tertiary education in Jamaica today is no laughing matter. Sensitive to the complex social issues, the UWI administration is giving debarred students the opportunity to take exams in the summer semester. This is a welcome stopgap measure. But the contentious problem posed by large numbers of students perennially in arrears is not going to disappear overnight. New, long-term solutions have to be crafted. Otherwise, as a society, we’ll be forced to concede that our underfunded public education system simply cannot earn a passing grade – from GSAT all the way to the top.