“This is so uplifting!” That’s how an enthusiastic reviewer spontaneously described our tour last Sunday of the huge murals on Water Lane and adjacent streets. Our guide, Christine Neil Wright, was informative, passionate and most entertaining. She completed a 12-month course in tour guiding at the Old Harbour HEART Academy. She’s a dynamic ambassador for the programme. Her brilliant storytelling beautifully complemented the grand narrative of the vibrant murals that document Jamaican popular culture, particularly our music.
That engaging mural tour was put on by Kingston Creative, an innovative non-profit arts organisation co-founded in 2017 by Andrea Dempster-Chung, Allan Daisley and Jennifer Bailey. Tourism consultant Janet Crick manages tours, which include ‘Taste of the City’ and ‘Sounds of the City.’ Then, there’s Artwalk, a free street festival that used to attract hundreds of visitors each month. That’s before COVID mash it up and forced the organisers to wheel an come again virtually. After being suspended for more than two years, the live cultural event came back with a big bang last week. Not even rain could dampen the spirits of appreciative patrons.
The vision of the founders of Kingston Creative, as stated on their website, is inspiring: “We want to see the city of Kingston leverage its creative heritage, its world-class talent and reach its potential to become a Creative City, not just in name or by UNESCO designation, but for this to be a reality for all who live in Kingston.” In December 2015, The UNESCO Creative Cities Network named Kingston as a “Creative City of Music.” We didn’t need UNESCO’s stamp of approval to tell us who we are. But it’s a welcome reminder.
Despite persistent urban decay, Kingston still is a vibrant city. Vendors jostle with pedestrians and lawless taxi drivers as they hustle to make an honest living. Downtown Kingston on major market days reminds me of Dakar and Accra. It’s the same vibe. All that’s missing is the colourful clothing made from African textiles. Regretfully, these days, many cheap ‘African’ fabrics come from China. The perils of globalisation!
WATERED DOWN JERK
UNESCO identifies seven creative fields in which selected cities are judged: crafts and folk art, design, film, gastronomy, literature, media arts and music. Kingston’s creativity encompasses much more than music. We could just as easily have been recognised as a creative city in all of those other areas. And it’s not just Kingston. It’s all of Jamaica. Creativity is abundant here.
Take for example, gastronomy. Jerked food has become a global Jamaican brand. Jerk is one of the enduring legacies of the fusion of African and Taino cultures. Archaeological evidence confirms that Maroons who disdained enslavement and claimed freedom in Jamaica’s mountainous interior settled among the indigenous people who survived the trauma of ‘discovery.’ They shared culinary traditions.
Like reggae, Jamaican jerk has been appropriated and adapted with varying degrees of success. Products like Campbell’s jammin’ jerk chicken with rice and beans chunky soup are not taken seriously by Jamaicans who know that authentic jerk food cannot be easily packaged for mass consumption. It is often watered down to suit less sophisticated palates. The pungency of the pimento berries and Scotch bonnet pepper that are essential ingredients of the fiery seasoning is lost.
In an article for the Smithsonian Magazine, “A Brief History of Jamaican Jerk”, published in December 2020, Vaughn Stafford Gray asserted: “It’s more than just a seasoning or a flavor. Jerk is a whole culture worthy of celebrating, especially at Christmastime.” Gray, who studied in the Department of Literatures in English at The University of the West Indies, Mona, is an excellent example of the creative graduates who are using their degree in literature in inventive ways.
Gray describes himself as “Journalist. Copywriter. Editor. Storyteller. Speaker. Essayist. Man About Town.” In a recent email, he told me, “I am blessed that I can share our stories with the world. Also, I can finally tell people an arts degree can pay! And, well too.” Gray’s Caribbean lifestyle magazine, Cane Row, will make its debut in January. He describes it this way: “Cane Row will amplify the work of the Caribbean diaspora, transcending the barriers which separate us. Immigration has allowed the Caribbean diaspora to become one of the largest in the world. Inspired by The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and Monocle magazines, Cane Row will be a masterful storyteller featuring solely Caribbean writers whose work lies at the intersection of hard and soft news. After all, lifestyle journalism is about curiosity, behaviours, and the nuances of human life.” Gray will now have to add ‘publisher’ to his list of accomplishments.
Jamaicans even created a global religion in the 20th century. Rastafari livity emerged in the city of Kingston. On November 2, 1930, Ras Tafari Makonnen was crowned emperor of Ethiopia. He took the name Haile Selassie, meaning ‘Might of the Trinity.’ Selassie’s coronation was seen by dispossessed African-Jamaicans in Kingston’s concrete jungle as the fulfilment of the prophecy made by Marcus Garvey in 1927: “Look to Africa, for there a king shall be crowned.”
Jamaican films have also had global impact. The Harder They Come, which was released half a century ago, became a cult movie. The Cultures of Soul website noted in a post on “The Story of Boston Reggae” that, “Thanks largely to its unique musical architecture, The Harder They Come played for 26 consecutive weeks at the Orson Welles before departing, and then returned shortly thereafter, becoming a fixture at the cinema for another seven years.”
As a daring assistant professor in the 1970s at a conservative Seventh-Day Adventist college located a few miles from Boston, I took Caribbean students to one of the legendary midnight screenings. Believe it or not, going to the cinema was a sin. The Academic Dean summoned me to ask if I had, indeed, transgressed. I unrepentantly said that I had. It was for the education of students. I even screened the film at the college as part of a festival of Caribbean culture. Much to the distress of naïve students from upstate New England who were horrified, not by violence, but sex!
The film Dancehall Queen, released 25 years ago, is set primarily in Kingston. It exposed risqué Jamaican fashion to the world. It influenced the styling of a whole generation of female pop stars across the globe. Just one example is enough: Rihanna’s “Work” music video. Not surprisingly, it opens with a shot of ‘The Real Jerk.’ This suggests the authenticity of Rihanna’s claim on dancehall culture. From cuisine to couture! The dirty work is explicitly sexual. Rihanna’s mesh ‘overcoat’, which exposes her body, is pure dancehall. It’s the female version of the popular mesh marina sported by men.
The founders of Kingston Creative understand the huge potential of Jamaican culture in all its diversity. They are committed to “using Art and Culture to achieve social and economic transformation”. It’s not an easy mission. But they can take inspiration from the words of Kenrick ‘Lord Creator’ Patrick, a Trinidadian songwriter and singer who has made Jamaica his home. He was just awarded the national honour Order of Distinction (Officer Class) for his contribution to the development of our music. As he put it in one of his big tunes, “There is magic in Kingston Town.”
Reblogged this on Petchary's Blog and commented:
I missed last weekend’s events downtown – including the Water Lane walking tour organised by Kingston Creative, which Professor Carolyn Cooper refers to here. So I thought I would share her impressions, and this overwhelmingly upbeat article celebrating Jamaican “live” culture. The last time I enjoyed the Art Walk was at the end of February, 2020 – yes, just a few weeks before COVID19 arrived on our shores – and it was a joyous occasion, especially as we had a visitor, my Global Voices colleague Suzanne. After that of course hard times arrived.
I love my city of Kingston. As Carolyn says: “Despite persistent urban decay, Kingston still is a vibrant city.”
Enjoy this celebratory article of our still wonderful Jamaican culture!
Reblogged this on Boscobellpromo's Blog.