Tanya Stephens to lecture at UWI

The Mona campus of the University of the West Indies brings down the curtain on International Women’s Month with a big bang.  On Thursday, March 31, the ‘infallible’ Tanya Stephens will give a public lecture in the Assembly Hall on the topic, “Music, the Power to Shape Societies,” hosted by the Department of Literatures in English.

Ms Stephens is one of the songwriters whose lyrics are studied in the Department’s innovative course, “Reggae Poetry”.   The other prescribed poets this year are Burning Spear, Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh, Bob Marley, Steel Pulse and Buju Banton.

And, yes, veteran journalist Ian Boyne, I still believe in the innocence of Buju.  My heart is much too heavy for glib opinions on the catastrophic circumstances in which the Gargamel now finds himself.  Many commentators, and even some musicians, are gloating.  ‘Time longer than rope.’

If worst comes to worst and Buju is forced to spend a long, long time in prison, he will have to take comfort in the experience of other great men who learned to turn adversity into opportunity, as in the famous case of Marcus Garvey.

The African Studies Center at the University of California Los Angeles houses an important project with global reach focusing on the papers of Marcus Garvey and the UNIA.  The project director is Professor Robert Hill, a Jamaican academic who has devoted much of his distinguished career to preserving Garvey’s intellectual legacy.

The Center’s website notes that “Garvey met the challenge of imprisonment by applying a significant part of his time to writing. ‘African Fundamentalism,’ perhaps his most famous essay, was published as a Negro World editorial in June 1925 and quickly made its way onto the walls of UNIA members as a manifesto of the philosophy of the Garvey movement.

“Garvey also turned his hand to writing verse, producing and publishing ‘The White Man’s Game – His Vanity Fair,’ a lengthy polemic that he later republished under the title the Tragedy of White Injustice. It is, indeed, tragic that ‘white injustice’ enables unprincipled individuals to make a ‘good’ living in America as informers and entrappers.

‘Room to exercise our minds’

Tanya Stephens’ lecture will challenge stereotypes of dancehall as a “betrayal of reggae; the tragic case of the child doing violence to his mother”, to quote Ian Boyne in full melodramatic mode.  Tanya is a dancehall DJ who knows that verbal creativity is not limited to reggae.

In “Way Back,” she reflects on her own best practice as a dancehall DJ, critiquing sub-standard composers who substitute un/dress for verbal skill:

I wanna take you way back

To when a girl on a mike’s worth

Wasn’t determined by the length of her skirt

I mean way back to creativity before MTV, before BET

Tanya celebrates lyrical prowess:

Let us journey past this melody

Give us room to exercise our minds

Take me to another place, another time,

Better hooks, better rhymes

Stronger lyrics every line,

You could even press rewind

Come with me,

Let us journey past this fallacy.

We have come to expect ‘phalluses’ not ‘fallacies’ in dancehall lyrics.  But this is precisely the dominant fallacy: that dancehall culture is all body and no mind. “Language is the dress of thought” is a famous witticism of the Roman orator Quintillian that was translated into English by the poet Dr. Samuel Johnson.  Some DJs are, indeed, completely naked, lyrically speaking.  Tanya’s thoughts, by contrast, are very well dressed.

In the song “Who is Tanya?” the DJ describes herself as the “gyal weh come fi change di whole game wid a pen.”  Elaborating the image of writing, she adds,  “Well although di mike a mi favourite utensil,/  Still numba 1 wid a numba 2 pencil.”  The humorous interplay of 1 and 2 and ‘utensil’ and ‘pencil’ is characteristic of Tanya’s witty style. The word ‘utensil’ also suggests the DJ’s escape from the trap of domesticity through the power of the pen and the mike.

Women in Reggae

Ibo Cooper

Tanya Stephens’ lecture marks the revival of the brilliant public forums on ‘Women in Reggae’ that used to be hosted by the Reggae Studies Unit at UWI to mark International Women’s month.  The first forum, held almost a decade ago in March 2002, was organised by Mr. Ibo Cooper who was then a research fellow in the Unit.

Judy Mowatt, Cherry Natural, Lady G, Lady Saw, Angie Angel, Queen Ifrica and attorney Sandra Alcott spoke with passion about their experiences in the reggae music industry. Tanya Batson, writing for the Gleaner, reported that “One of the major problems appears to be the ‘commodification’ of women in the industry. Ms. Alcott noted that many women were often pressured to engage in sexual relations with producers in order to make record deals.”

Ms Batson also reported that “[t]he other major problem faced is beauty standards. Ms. Alcott stated that many record producers will not sign female artistes who are above the age of 21 years. This is in keeping with the idea that the female artiste should be ‘sexy’, ‘good-looking’, and ‘young’.

Queen Ifrica

“This is not true of male artistes, who can tie their looks to a part of their act, whether it be a ‘big belly’ or any other feature deemed ugly. Furthermore, she also noted that ideas of female beauty are not in favour of the black woman. ‘Our standards of beauty have for too long been based on Western ideals woven from fantasy,’ Ms. Alcott said.”

Pam Hall, Sabrina Williams, Jana Bent, Shirley McLean, Italee, Crissy D, Ce’Cile, Nadine Sutherland and attorney Diane Jobson have all been speakers at the UWI ‘Women in Reggae’ forums.  Tanya Stephens’ lecture promises to be an eloquent celebration of the creativity of Jamaican women.

Mi Deh Pon Di Gaza!/Mi De Pan Di Gaaza!


Haaretz photo

Four months ago I got an email from an Israeli journalist, Nirit Ben-Ari:  “I am writing a feature article for the weekend edition of Haaretz on dancehall reggae in Jamaica.  It is so interesting and mind-boggling!  I read your Noises in the Blood (the part which is available online, because unfortunately the book is not available in Israel), and it was a fascinating read.”

Nirit’s first question was, “Do you think that the choice of the name ‘Gaza’ represents a political awareness and identification with the underdog?” I agreed and elaborated:  In Jamaican dancehall culture, Gaza is a symbol of resistance to oppressive political powers.  ‘Mi deh pon di Gaza’ (not quite ‘I am in Gaza’) signifies a constant struggle for survival like that of the Palestinians who are relentlessly fighting against Israeli domination. ‘Gaza’ is not so much a place as a state of mind.

You hear this, for example, in Vybz Kartel’s ‘Black Child – Pon Di Gaza’:

Mi see car for sale but mi cyaa buy none

Mi see house for sale, too

Tell mi when dah money deh a go come?

Ghetto yute lef school and cyaa see no future

Ten years from now tell mi

Wa a go happen to mi daughter?

If every day wi till the soil

An Babylon no share di spoil

Every day wi a suffer

Where is the love for the black child?

Mr. Chin done have him own

Dem treat wi like dog an wi still no get no bone

Tell mi, where is the love for the black child?

How mi fi live offa four grand a week, Lawd Jesus?

Dat a just fi mi son sneakers

Lawd God, mi bridge di water

Cyaa pay di bill mi ha fi back di light meter.

When mi get pay by Friday,

Everyting done by Satday

When mi tek one step forward

It come een like mi tek three step backward.

Babylon yu naa go get weh

Yu ha pay fi wa yu do to ghetto yute

Yu black bredda dem just hold di faith

Selassie I have a plan fi yu

When one ghetto youth drop out

Ten more born cau di journey continue.

Ten years from now tell mi

Wa a go happen to mi daughter?

If every day wi till the soil

An Babylon no share di spoil

Every day wi a suffer

Where is the love for the black child?

Mr. Chin done have him own

Dem treat wi like dog an wi still no get no bone

Tell mi, where is the love for the black child?
Eeh?  Not nice

Mi a lead out fi di ghetto yute, mi no care

That’s why when mi reach inna Jamaica house weh day

Mi tell dem, every ghetto yute have a talent

Babylon, why yu want fi see dem fail?

Dem naa no job, dem own di future

Is not di morgue, or is not di jail

Dis is not a threat is a warning

Babylon yu naa go get weh

Yu ha pay fi wa yu do to ghetto yute.

Mi black bredda dem just hold di faith

Selassie I have a plan fi yu

When one ghetto youth drop out

Ten more born cau di journey continue.

Ten years from now tell mi

Wa a go happen to mi daughter?

The prophetic warning of these lyrics is identical to the judgement of Bob Marley’s ‘Babylon System’:

We refuse to be

What you wanted us to be.

We are what we are

That’s the way it’s going to be.

You can’t educate I

For no equal opportunity

Talking about my freedom

People freedom and liberty.


We’ve been trodding on the winepress

Much too long

Rebel, rebel.

Babylon system is the vampire

Sucking the children day by day.

Babylon system is the vampire

Sucking the blood of the sufferers.

Building church and university

Deceiving the people continually.

Me seh them graduating

Thieves and murderers,

Look out now

Sucking the blood of the sufferers.

Tell the children the truth.

Observing Mental Slavery

Ever since 1992 when I first conceived the idea of a reggae studies centre in Jamaica that would attempt to tell the children the truth that is recorded in our popular music, ‘mi deh pon di Gaza!’  It has been an epic struggle to demonstrate the academic legitimacy of the enterprise.

Last week Tuesday’s malicious cartoon in the Observer is a classic manifestation of the mental slavery I’ve been fighting against.  Making a mockery of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Clovis represented Vbyz Kartel’s guest lecture at the University of the West Indies, Mona as a sacrilegious act, undermining the academic integrity of the institution.

There I am, with my bleached-out face, leading the donkey on which Kartel is riding. Poor Professor Shirley, with that quizzical look on his face, is obviously wondering what he’s doing in the midst of the rabble.

At a time when the University is suffering from severe budget cuts, Clovis insinuates that reggae studies is a complete waste of resources.  So a nerdy male student asks, “Is this mi parents spend millions fi mi fi com’ university com’ learn?!”  Ironically, this is the same language that is also derided in the cartoon.  ‘Patwah Docta’ is branded across my pubic region thus confirming the lower reaches of the Jamaican language.

There are other ironies that I’m sure our Israeli journalist would appreciate.  Kartel’s legal name, ‘Palmer,’ is of French origin.  It was the name given to a pilgrim who had visited the Holy Land and who brought back a palm branch as confirmation of the journey.  Similarly, a Muslim who makes the pilgrimage (or hajj) to Mecca takes the title ‘Alhaji.’

So in my subversive re-reading of the cartoon, the students who throw palm branches at Kartel’s feet are paying due homage to Mr. Palmer who has visited the Holy Land of the University of the West Indies.  Unlike Ragashanti, who is left outside the gates of the hallowed institution because of bad behaviour (as in Wednesday’s Observer cartoon), ‘Di Teacha’ is allowed to enter.

There are positive stories that do encourage me on my own pilgrimage ‘pon di Gaza.’  A colleague told me that she overheard her sons and their friends discussing last week’s column.  A couple of them who had been thinking about dropping out of U Tech decided they couldn’t.  If Kartel was going to get a degree they had to finish.  These are middle-class youths in Mona.  I keep wondering about the impact of Adidja Palmer’s admission to university on talented ghetto youth who want to ‘own di future.’

Mi De Pan Di Gaaza!

Fuor mont abak, mi get wan iimiel fram wan Izrieli nyuuspiepa raita, Nirit Ben-Ari:  “Mi a rait wan tuori fi di Haaretz wiiken piepa bout daansaal rege iina Jamieka. It so inchrestin an it mek mi ai dazl! Mi riid yu buk Noises in the Blood (di paat we de pan lain kaa, laik a spait, yu kyaan get di huola buk iina Izrel.  Di buk huol mi.

Di fos kweschan Nirit aks a, “Yu tink se wen piipl se ‘Gaaza’ dat miin se dem andastan di palitiks an dem a difen di sofara dem?” Mi agrii wid ar an mi spel it out:  Iina Jamiekan daansaal kolcha, Gaaza stan fi rizistans tu Babilani.  ‘Mi de pan di Gaaza’ (dat a no siem laka ‘mi iina Gaaza’) miin se evri die yu a put op a fait fi sorvaiv laka di Palistiniyan dem we a fait fi dem laif gens di Izrieli dem. ‘Gaaza’ a no wan plies; a wan stiet a main.

Tek far instans Vybz Kartel ‘Blak Pikni– Pan Di Gaaza’:

Mi si kyaar a sel bot mi kyaa bai non

Mi si ous a sel, tu

Tel mi wen da moni de a go kom?

Geto yuut lef skuul an kyaa si no fyuucha

Ten ier fram nou tel mi

Wa a go apn tu mi daata?

If evri die wi til di sail

An Babilan no shier di spwail

Evri die wi a sofa

We di lov fi di blak pikni de?

Mr. Chin don ha fi im

Dem chriit wi laka daag an wi stil no get no buon

Tel mi, we di lov fi di blak pikni de?

Ou mi fi liv aafa fuor gran a wiik, Laad Jiizas?

Dat a jos fi mi son sniika

Laad Gad, mi brij di waata

Kyaa pie di bil mi ha fi bak di lait miita.

Wen mi get pie bai Fraide,

Evriting don bai Satde

Wen mi tek wan step faawad

It kom iin laik mi tek chrii step bakwad.

Babilan yu naa go get we

Yu ha fi pie fi wa yu du tu geto yuut

Yu blak breda dem jos huol di fiet

Selassie I av a plan fi unu

Wen wan geto yuut jrap out

Ten muor baan kaa di jorni a gwaan.

Ten ier fram nou tel mi

Wa a go apn tu mi daata?

If evri die wi til di sail

An Babilan no shier di spwail

Evri die wi a sofa

We di lov fi di blak pikni de?

Mr. Chin don ha fi im

Dem chriit wi laik daag an wi stil no get no buon

Tell mi, we di lov fi di blak pikni de?

Ii?  Nat nais

Mi a liid out fi di geto yuut, mi no kya

A it mek wen mi riich iina Jamieka ous we die

Mi tel dem, evri geto yuut gat a talent

Babilan, wa mek yu waan fi si dem fiel?

Dem naa no jab, di fyuucha a fi dem

A no no maag, an a no no lak-op

Dis a no no chret; a waan mi a waan.

Babilan yu naa go get we

Yu ha fi pie fi wa yu du tu geto yuut.

Mi  blak breda dem jos huol di fiet

Selassie I av a plan fi unu

Wen wan geto yuut jrap out

Ten muor baan kau di jorni a gwaan.

Ten ier fram nou tel mi

Wa a go apn tu mi daata?

From Haaretz article

A di sed siem profisait an profisi iiina Bob Marley ‘Babilan Sistim.’  Jojment:

Wi naa ton wiself

Iina wa unu waan.

Unu si wi; a so wi tan

An a so it a go tan.

Unu kyaan edikiet Ai

Fi no iikwal apachuniti

Chat bout fi mi friidom

Piipl friidom an libati.


A lang lang lang

Wi a chrod pan di wainpres

Ribel, ribel.

Babilan sistim a wan vampaya

A sok di pikni dem evri die

Babilan sistim a wan vampaya

A sok di blod a di sofara dem.

A bil choch an yuunivorsiti

A disiiv di piipl dem kyaa don.

Mi se dem a gradiyiet

Tiif an mordara,

Wach ya nuo

Dem a sok di blod a di sofara dem.

Tel di pikni dem di chruut.

Mi a obsorv mental slievri

Fram1992 wen it kom tu mi se wi fi set op wan senta iina Jamieka we uda chrai tel di pikni dem di chruut we rikaad iina fi wi myuzik, mi de pan di Gaaza!  Wat a fait fi shuo se fi wi kolcha a wan siiryos ting fi stodi.  A no wan juok bizniz.

Unu si laas wiik Chuusde bad-main kyaatuun iina di Observer! Dat a wan gud egzaampl a di mental slievri mi a fait gens.  Clovis tek Jiizas mek papishuo wen im dida raid pan di dangki iina Jeruusalem.  Azkaadn tu Clovis, Vybz Kartel kom iin laka Jiizas chruu im kom gi wan ges lekcha op a di Yuunivorsiti a di Wes Indiiz.  Dat a fi mek it luk laik se Yuunivorsiti a sin fi put Kartel pan di siem levl laka Jiizas.  An yuunivorsiti gaan tu notn if Kartel kyan a gi lekcha. An si mi, wid mi bliich-out fies a liid di dangki we Kartel a raid.  Puor Profesa Shirley im, wid dat kanfyuuz luk pan im fies, laik im a wanda a wan im a du a miks op wid di uop iip a uol niega dem.

Yuunivorsiti a sofa fram bad-bad bojit kot.  An Clovis wid im bad-main self a mek i luk laik se rege stodis a wan wies-a-moni sinting.  Unu si ou im tan bad! An ku pan di buk-worm miel styuudent im  a aks, ‘A dis mi mada an mi faada spen so moch moni fi mi fi kom yuunivorsiti kom laan!’  Di bes juok, dat a di sed siem langgwij wa Clovis a laaf aafta iina di kyatuun.  ‘Patwah Docta’ rait aaf big-big dong aanda mi wieslain fi shuo se a dong de so fi wi Jamieka langgwij fi tan.

Dat a no di ongl juok.  Mi shuor se di Izrieli nyuuspiepa raita uda lov disya wan. Kartel liigal niem, ‘Palmer,’ kom fram French.  Dat a di niem yu uda tek if yu go a di Huoli Lan.  Yu bring bak wan paam branch fi shuo se yu did go de. Siem laik out wen di Muslim dem go pan di jorni  (di haj) to Meka dem tek di taikl ‘Alhaji.’

So wen mi ton roun bak di kyaatuun pan Clovis mi si se di styuudent dem we a chruo dong paam branch fi Kartel raid uova, dem a pie rait an propa rispek tu Misa Palmer chruu im visit fi Huoli Lan – dat a di Yuunirositi a di Wes Indiiz.  Ragashanti get lef outsaid di giet a di huoli instityuuushan bikaaz a bad bihievya.  Nat di Teacha.  Im get fi kom iin.  Dat a Wensde Observer kyaatuun.

Varun Baker photo

Mi du get pazitiv vaibz fi di chrod pan di Gaaza.  Piipl tel mi stuori fi kip mi op. Wan uman we mi wok wid a yuunivorsiti tel me se si hier ar son an dem fren a taak bout laas wiik kalam.  Kopl a dem did a tink bout jrap out a U Tech.  Dem mek op dem main se dem kyaa jrap out.  If Kartel a go get yuunivorsiti digrii, dem ha fi finish.  Dem ya a migl klaas yuut iiina Muona.  Mi kip aan a wanda, if Adidja Palmer disaid im main fi go a yuunivorsiti fi chruu, wa impak dat uda av pan geto yuut wid talent, uu nuo se ‘di fyuucha a fi dem.’

UWI Erects Rampin Shop

Las May’s cartoon in last Wednesday’s Gleaner humorously insinuated that the University of the West Indies was about to erect a rampin shop because I’d invited Vbyz Kartel to give a lecture on his life and art.

Las May Gleaner cartoon

And there was Wilmot Perkins, prophet of doom and gloom, ominously declaring, “See’t . . . proof that UWI is an intellectual ghetto!”  Of course, opening up the university to popular culture is the very opposite of enclosing the institution in the narrow confines of a ghetto. But that subtlety appears to have been lost in the broad humour.

Spill-over audience at the Undercroft, Varun Baker photo

Erecting an academic romping shop might seem like a complete contradiction in terms.  The life of the intellect is often presumed to be purely cerebral.  And romping, as in Spice and Kartel’s shop, is definitely a lower order, hands-on sport:  “Every man grab a gyal . . . and every gyal grab a man.”

But the best of universities really are romping shops in which passionate, creative energy flows freely. That ‘eureka’ moment of insight when a difficult mathematical problem is solved, or a dense passage of prose suddenly releases its meaning is practically orgasmic.

In fact, we often use sexy images to talk about academic concepts. Like conception.  We conceive ideas in much the say way that we reproduce.  Men tend to think that their ideas are all seminal.  But since ‘so-so’ semen can never produce a child, I always add ovular with a stroke. An egg is essential for conception.

Jamaica in a pothole

Las May’s cartoon, with its implied criticism of my decision to invite Mr. Adidja Palmer to give a lecture at UWI, anticipated Clovis’s cartoon published this Tuesday in the Obsever.

Clovis's Observer cartoon

Both cartoons reminded me of the controversy provoked by my asking Ninja Man to be the first speaker in a series of talks by reggae/dancehall artists that the Reggae Studies Unit launched in 2002.

Ninjaman performing at Curefest 2007

The DJ chose as the title of his presentation, ‘Ninja Man’s Programme to Elevate Jamaica.’ Skeptics questioned his capacity to speak with authority on the subject.  Decent citizens bombarded the University administration with strident complaints that the decision to invite the DJ to lecture was a clear sign that the walls of the ivory tower had been irreparably breached.  On Friday, October 13, the Daily Observer converted into national news a routine press release announcing the DJ’s presentation.

Ninja Man did not come after all.  In response, the October 15 Sunday Observer published a deliberately misleading cartoon:  a notice on the chalkboard in a lecture room, presumably on the UWI campus, announces Ninja Man’s talk, scheduled for 5:00 p.m. A clock says 7:00 p.m.  The teacher looks impatiently at her watch.  Two students are fast asleep and one of the remaining two says to her, ‘Him not coming again Miss Cooper, maybe him gone border clash.’

The dismissive cartoon did not accurately reflect what happened.  A capacity audience of several hundred students, faculty and members of the public engaged in lively conversation about the meaning of Ninja Man’s work when it became clear that he was not going to appear.  The discussion lasted for well over an hour.

The following week Ninja Man did come to talk as the opening act for Louise Frazer-Bennett.  He observed:  ‘Jamaica a go dung into a pothole.  And we need . . . not me, not you, not some of us . . . we need the whole country to come together and mek a start.  The Prime Minister himself need help.’  Ninja Man’s startling image of the state machinery crashing in a pothole vividly turns the everyday horrors of Jamaica’s steadily deteriorating roads into a powerful symbol of total moral recklessness.

Rude bwoy dancehall

Kartel lecturing, Varun Baker photo

As was to be expected, Kartel’s lecture at the academic rampin shop proved to be both entertaining and analytical.  One of his most perceptive insights focused on the politics of reggae and dancehall:

“Whereas reggae spoke to the Garveyite message of one love, dancehall generally speaks to the Bogle message of rebellion which, in my opinion, is why it is sometimes feared, scrutinised and demonised by our post-colonial masters and their subordinates.  My music is controversial. But so was reggae which, interestingly, was labelled ‘rebel music’ back in the day.

“So reggae was also controversial before it was fully accepted first by the lower class of people where it originated; then by the upper class of society after it had garnered international recognition.  So, basically, it went abroad and came back to us and we accepted it.  Cau you know Jamaican love foreign tings.  Yeah.

“Seriously, though, much of what dancehall is saying today is not much different from the rude bwoy era of reggae music.  For reference I would like to quote two Bob Marley songs:

‘I want to disturb my neighbour cause I’m feeling so right

I want to turn up di disco blow them to full watts tonight.’

Or the more politically poignant, ‘Cause I feel like bombing a church now now that you know the preacher is lying.’

“The point that I am trying to make is that ‘the stone that the builder refused shall become the head cornerstone.’  And right now dancehall has become that disregarded stone.  Because, look into this.  Thirty odd years ago Bob Marley was despised and ridiculed by the upper echelons of society as a dutty-head Rasta bwoy, ganja-smoking . . . .  Now, now that same Bob Marley is poster boy for the Jamaica Tourist Board wid im big spliff inna im mout same way.  Alright.  Fast forward to Vybz Kartel.”

Part of the 5000 strong audience, Varun Baker photo

For an excellent account of the lecture which attracted an unprecedented audience of 5000, visit Annie Paul’s blog:


In all the interviews I did before the lecture, the same question kept coming up:  What do you expect to accomplish? Kartel has decided to apply for admission to the UWI to do a degree in business management. He will certainly show us how to run the rampin shop.

Kartel To Lecture At UWI

I got an instructive email from Vybz Kartel last Wednesday in response to my letter to the editor published that same day (‘More on Kartel and bleaching’). I reproduce it here with his permission. Since the email was sent on his BlackBerry, the punctuation was a bit informal, so I did just a little editing for clarity.

“Ms Cooper, firstly, I’d like to wish you a pleasant goodnight (or morning depending on when u receive this email). Secondly, I’d like to say that I am the author of the song. Russian didn’t write a line. And if you’d paid as much attention to the dexterity exhibited in the song as you have to the perceived subliminal messages of self-hate blah blah blah etc etc, you’d have figured that out.

“Thirdly, neither ‘di gyal dem’ opinion or urs matter to vybz kartel. What matters is that my songs get so popular (as is the case with the one u and ur colleagues ‘a look a fawud offa’), I can provide for myself and my family which I have been doing and will continue to do so, especially with the help of people such as urself who, by giving so much energy to vybz kartel via articles like this, make vybz kartel ‘the talked about one’. Which is all I need to capitalise on the prize. I hope you people write about me every day of the week. Thanks and have a goodnight.


Clovis cartoon (Jamaica Observer)

I sent an equally frank response:

“Mr Palmer, great to hear from you. I’ve wanted to link with you for a long time, so I’m glad you decided to get in touch with me. I don’t know if you saw my column on Sunday, as well as yesterday’s letter to the editor. Here’s the link to that column:


Spice and Kartel in di Rampin Shop

“I certainly agree with you that the more we talk about Vybz Kartel, the more popular we make you. I don’t have a problem with that. In fact, I’m quite proud of all the DJs who have been able to make a very good living from their craft. Mi know nuff people grudge unnu, but I am not one of them. I don’t know if you saw my column in which I strongly defended Rampin’ Shop when other people were attacking you and Spice. Here’s the link to that column: http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20090222/cleisure/cleisure6.html.

“Thanks for clarifying that you are the author of the lyrics that Russian performed. So, in a sense, I was right that those are all your words. Then, as you say, I know my opinion doesn’t really matter to you. But, for what it’s worth, I think you’re such a powerful role model for young people, I’m hoping you would think about reclaiming your original skincolour, which I thought was quite fine. Yes, I know, that’s just my opinion.

“I see Michael Jackson is a role model for you. But he really was a tragic figure. My opinion again :=) Michael was such a cute, little black boy. And he turned himself into a monstrosity.  Just look at the history of his face:

Michael Jackson was rich enough to manufacture himself but ‘im never turn out so right’. Something went wrong in the factory.

“Even if he’d had vitiligo, he didn’t have to end up looking the way he did. Anyhow, mek mi know what yu think about all of these opinions. And, given your appreciation of the role of the media in feeding celebrity, I figure you won’t object to my reproducing our email correspondence in my column on Sunday. So let me know if it’s OK with you. And in response to your P.S., ‘pretty’ is a word usually associated with females, as distinct from ‘handsome’, which usually refers to males.

“Then I teach a course on Reggae Poetry at UWI and the first assignment I give students each year is to select any reggae/dancehall song they like and analyse its literary qualities. As usual, some of the students selected your songs this semester. It would be great if you would come to one of the lectures and talk about your creative work. I can just see the headline, ‘Vybz Kartel lectures at UWI’. DWL. Looking forward to your response.



Public education

Mr Palmer readily accepted my invitation. So Vybz Kartel is going to lecture at UWI this Thursday at 7 p.m. on the topic ‘Pretty Like a Colouring Book: My Life and My Art’.

The Department of Literatures in English and the Centre for Gender and Development Studies are hosting the lecture, which takes place at the Undercroft of the Senate building. The public is invited to attend.

I’d actually like to see Vybz Kartel register as a student at the University of the West Indies and apply his considerable intellect in another sphere of influence. How many young men on the corner might consider the option of formal education if they saw Kartel in university!

Another cultural event this week to which the public is invited is the launch of the book Herbs of Jamaica, written by Ivelyn Harris, a seventh-generation Maroon herbalist. The launch takes place on Thursday at 3 p.m. in the Lecture Hall of the Institute of Jamaica on East Street.

Ms Harris has spent over 30 years documenting the healing properties of Jamaican herbs. These natural products have been tested by the Maroons for more than 300 years. Herbal remedies can improve sexual stamina; heal rashes, sores, stings and bites; relieve menstrual, urinary and prostate problems; and a host of other ailments. I wonder if there’s a herbal cure for the mental slavery, which is so vividly manifested these days in the plague of skin bleaching.

More On Kartel And Bleaching

My letter to the Gleaner

Published: Wednesday | March 2, 2011


Tarik 'Russian' Johnston

In my column on Sunday, ‘Skin bleaching easy as cheese’, I mista-kenly attributed to Adidja ‘Vybz Kartel’ Palmer the following lines from Look Pon Me that are actually performed by Tarik ‘Russian’ Johnston:

Gyal a ask if mi a American citizen!

An she tell mi fi dash weh di condom because

She tell mi she wah get a pretty son!

I am indebted to my colleague Winston Campbell for pointing out my error. Campbell wittily observes: “Not known to be ‘a bandooloo browning’ (as Killer has referred to Kartel), Johnston may be genetically capable of being part ‘producer’ of the ‘pretty son’.”

The line ‘Di gyal dem love off mi cute brown face‘ is also Russian’s, not Kartel’s. In response to Russian’s boasting, Kartel counters, ‘Di gyal dem love off mi bleach-out face.’ What strikes me about this exchange is that Kartel seems to be asserting that Russian has no natural advantage over him: ‘bleach-out’ is directly equivalent to ‘cute brown’.

If I’m right on this one, Kartel’s counterclaim is a perfectly logical explanation for why he’s bleaching. Nature cannot be depended on to distribute social advantage fairly. Sometimes you have to take matters into your own hands. So ‘cake soap’ becomes just as effective as genes in ensuring the DJ’sattractiveness.

Quite frankly, Kartel looked much better to me when he was blacker. But, of course, I’m not one of the ‘gyal dem’ whose opinion seems to matter so much to both Kartel and Russian. Look Pon Me accurately documents the fact that many Jamaican women do wish to have light-skinned children because they completely understand social privilege.

colour privilege

In response to my column ‘Whose Black History Month?’ (February 13, 2011), I was told a rather depressing story by a black man who had once employed a relatively uneducated man, who happened to be light-skinned, to do delivery work. After a few months, the man resigned from the job because black people kept on telling him that a man with his colour shouldn’t be doing delivery work. God only knows the heights he probably attained purely because of his colour!

So I do understand the light-skin issue. But what surprises me is the desire for a ‘pretty’ son. There was a time when ‘pretty’ was a word applied only to females and effeminate men. These days, dancehall culture seems to be celebrating a revolution in masculine identity.

I am, etc.,



Skin Bleaching Easy As Cheese

Grace Jones Outlook magazine

When I saw the picture of Grace Jones on the cover of last Sunday’s Outlook magazine, I did a double take.   Grace wouldn’t have even batted an eyelid, I suppose.  She’s a superstar fashion model, singer and actress who is accustomed to having her image manipulated by the media.  It comes with the territory.

What struck me forcibly, though, is that Ms Jones is so much darker in the flesh than in that cover photo.  The ‘high colour’ image was a vivid reminder of an unsettling fact.  Many Jamaicans have long discovered that there really is a safe and easy way to bleach:  just leave it up to the photographer.  Clever con artists have been selling their clients a false image of themselves:  several shades lighter.

In the long-ago days before digital photography became commonplace, we used to be held hostage by specialist shops that charged an arm and a leg to develop pictures.  Most of them have now gone out of business.  These shops usually determined how your image would turn out.

I once got into quite an amusing conversation at a photo shop in Kingston when I saw the print of what was supposed to be my face.  It was obvious that I had been robbed of much of my melanin. So I insisted that the print be done over and made darker.

When I went back to collect the new and improved version, I heard a staff member loudly declaring as soon as I got through the door, “See di uman deh who want to be blacker dan she is.”  Words to that effect:  I can’t remember exactly what she said.

In any case, I had become a spectacle.  Having refused to wear the distorting spectacles that were designed to ‘improve’ my look, I was obviously a kind of circus exhibit.  I foolishly didn’t seem to understand that the norm in the photography business was skin lightening.  Wanting to look like my own black self was pure vanity.

Face card

Of course, the problem with photographic bleaching is that it’s a ‘face card.’  Its benefit is largely psychological.  You can deceive yourself into thinking that you really do look like the picture.  But you really won’t fool anybody else.  That’s why these days so many people are going for the real thing.  With the help of ‘cake soap,’ the face of the nation is being magically transformed.

From Urban Islandz site

Our most celebrated example of ‘successful’ skin bleaching is, of course, the notorious Vybz Kartel.  Just take a look at the ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures.  Last month, on a visit to Montserrat, I had a chat with a young man on his way to high school.  He was listening to dancehall music on his phone.  It turned out to be Kartel’s ‘Look pon me.’

The lyrics are quite alarming especially since Kartel makes ‘di gyal dem’ look rather foolish:

‘Di gyal dem love off mi brown cute face!

Di gyal dem love off mi bleach out face.’

That value judgment is bad enough.  But it gets worse:

‘Gyal a ask if mi a American citizen!!

An she tell mi fi dash weh di condom because

She tell mi she wah get a pretty son!!’

Any sensible woman would know that skin bleaching cannot alter a man’s genetic structure.  No matter how brown and cute Kartel’s face supposedly now is, there’s no guarantee he will father a ‘pretty’ son.  It’s all in the genes; not the cake soap.  And as for the assumption that the DJ must be an American!  Another sad case of ‘foreign mind’ and ‘local body’, as the singer Little John put it so wittily.

Incidentally, there’s a radio station in New York that has banned Kartel’s songs for Black History month. It’s nothing but a gimmick. This is such a good example of what’s wrong with a single month of black history.  Is it OK for Kartel to celebrate skin bleaching for the rest of the year?

‘Browning a come through’

More than a decade ago, students at the Caribbean Institute of Media and Communication (CARIMAC) at the University of West Indies, Mona did a research project on skin bleaching and produced a video with the theme “Love the Skin You’re In.”

The students hosted a screening in one of the communities they had investigated.  In the lively panel discussion that followed, a DJ who had participated in the study conceded that bleaching was harmful and said he was planning to stop. But not right away: “Christmas a come an mi ha fi look good. Mi a go gwaan bleach. An when yu see mi ready fi go out, mi a go put on one long sleeve ganzie and wear mi cap. An dem wi tink a one browning a come through.”  Not his exact words but close.

I was fascinated by this young man’s rather practical sense of seasonal brownness. He knew that being brown, however achieved, was not really an essential part of his identity. Like the bright lights that decorate the Christmas landscape, light skin was just a ‘bling’ fashion accessory that would give him added visibility.

If we really want to control the spread of the skin-bleaching virus, we first have to admit that there’s an epidemic of colour prejudice in our society.  And we have to recognise the role of the media in maintaining lines of privilege and exclusion.  Just look at the social pages!

That striking image of coming through reveals the DJ’s clear perception of the colour line as a barrier that he has to literally burst so that he can become socially visible. Like it or not, that’s a true picture of Jamaican society.