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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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.