Stage show in Heaven for Lady Saw

Marion Hall’s recent decision to get baptised again won’t surprise anyone who has been following Lady Saw’s flamboyant career. In a 1998 interview in the Uncensored series on FAME FM, the deejay frankly announced, “Lady Saw is a act.”


She describes her 2014 album, Alter Ego, in this way: “It’s Marion Hall with a touch of Lady Saw.” The deejay’s spectacular performance of the role of Lady Saw is not usually seen by her detractors as a calculated decision by the actress Marion Hall to earn a very good living on the dancehall stage.

This self-possessed artiste has always claimed the right to privacy and freedom to escape her public image. In that interview almost two decades ago, she draws a straight line between her job and her true-true identity: “I’m a nice girl. When I’m working, you know, just love it or excuse it.”

Many critics just can’t love Lady Saw’s performances or excuse her transgressions. So she’s usually censured for being far too slack. Or worse, she’s dismissed as a mere victim of circumstances, mindlessly playing the expected role as sex object.


Crotch-grabbing-collection-WooHoo-michael-jackson-12121433-804-1200In that FAME FM interview, the deejay was questioned about her body language: “Lady Saw, you do things like, yu grab yu crotch onstage … .” Her answer makes it clear that sexism is the real issue: “Uh-huh. Michael Jackson did it and nobody say anything about it.”

The interviewer persists: “And you gyrate on the ground. I mean, do you think this is acceptable for a woman?” Lady Saw responds boldly: “Yes, darling. For this woman. And a lot of woman would like to do the same, but I guess they are too shy.”

Lady Saw is absolutely right. Her female fans enjoy her daring. They would like to act like her. But they are trapped in roles of respectability. So they leave it to her to speak and gyrate for them. And she simply brushes off criticism: “I think critics are there to do their job and I am here to my job … . To entertain and please my fans.”

Even those critics who would never admit to being fans are often mesmerised by Lady Saw’s brazenness. They are caught between self-righteous condemnation and open-mouthed fascination. For example, Papa Pilgrim, a radio disc jockey in Salt Lake City, in his 1993 report on Reggae Sunsplash Dancehall Night, published in The Beat magazine:

“Then came a performance that was more vulgar than any I have seen from anyone anywhere! Her name is Lady Saw, and as a Jamaican friend commented, you cannot put enough Xs in front of her name to adequately describe what she did. To quote from the August 3 Gleaner, ‘She went to the bottom of the pit and came up with sheer filth and vulgar lyrics which made Yellow Man at his worst seem like a Boy Scout.'”



There’s always been another side to Lady Saw. She knows her Bible. At 12, Marion Hall was baptised in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. And that upbringing has left its mark on her alter ego. Lady Saw can be as pious as ever.

She has quite a few hymns in her repertoire, celebrating divine guidance. For example, Glory Be to God:

When I remember where I’m coming from

Through all the trials and the tribulation

Yes, the hardship and the sufferation

I have to go on my knees

And sing praises to God

Glory be to God!

Praises to His name!

Thanks for taking me

Out of the bondage and chains.

Lady Saw knows she has a duty to help liberate young women from the bondage and chains of unwise choices. In that Uncensored interview, she was asked, “What would you say to a young girl now out there who wants to be nothing but just like you?” It’s Marion Hall who answers: “I tell them all the time them come to me with it: ‘I want to be like you, Lady Saw.’

“‘Like me? You choose suppen else.’ I can tek my consequences dem right now. I don’t know if she strong enough to deal with what I’m dealing with. So I don’t encourage them to be like Lady Saw. Sometimes they say, ‘I love all yu songs.’ I seh, ‘Yu try listen to the good ones, not the bad ones.'”


Heartbeat-6-1Marion Hall’s conversion inspired a typically witty response from Ninja Man, aka Brother Desmond: “A di greatest move anyone ever mek in the history of dancehall. Lady Saw don’t need a pound of flour. She don’t need a pound of sugar. She don’t need nothing. All she need now is God. God bless her and put her which part she fi reach. And she feel that is time now.

“She do her time wid di devil. Now is time to serve the Lord. In the name of Jesus … . As the Bible tell yu seh, yu know, when one gi im soul yu know, Heaven bruck loose, yu know. So yu know a stage show up there last night.”

I’m going to miss Lady Saw. She’s been a model of feminist emancipation from sexual repression. I hope Marion Hall will find a way to keep her alter ego in the church.

Twenty Years Of Reggae Day

Last Tuesday, July 1, was International Reggae Day. One of the highlights of the celebration was a huge video installation projected on to the exterior wall of The Jamaica Pegasus hotel. From Emancipation Park, it was quite a sight. Reggae posters from across the world were displayed, demonstrating the magnetic power of Jamaican popular culture, especially our music.

5-taj-francis-jamaicaI overheard a woman complaining with typical arrogance: “Mi a see picture from all bout an mi naa see nothing from Jamaica.” Mi naa lie. As soon as she said it, Taj Francis’ brilliant poster of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, the Upsetter, appeared with a big flag of Jamaica beside it. Seet deh! My lady laughed contentedly.

The moral of this little story is that we’re often so nationalistic we just can’t appreciate the global impact of Jamaican culture. It’s quite ironic. The fact that so many of the reggae posters came from outside Jamaica should be a cause for pride, not complaint.

We don’t seem to realise just how far Jamaican popular music has spread. We take our creativity for granted and we rarely stop to think about why so many people from such diverse cultures are attracted to the music produced on this little rock. And it’s not just the beat and the lyrics that fascinate foreigners. It’s also the academic value of the music.


Just last Friday, I got a telephone call from Christian Moll, a graduate student specialising in English/American studies and music at the University of Regensburg in Germany. He was trying to find an external supervisor for his thesis on dancehall. Moll is also a reggae artiste who has been performing for over a decade. His band, Rootz Radicals, plays original music, both roots and dancehall.

Of course, I’m going to take on the project. It sweet mi so til! Twenty-five years ago, this month, I presented my first academic paper on dancehall at the annual conference of the UK-based Society for Caribbean Studies, ‘Slackness Hiding From Culture: DJ Rule’. I am indebted to DJ Josey Wales for the title. That pioneering work has inspired a younger generation of scholars, both local and international, to take dancehall culture seriously.

So we’ve given reggae music to the world. But sometimes we act as if reggae was stolen from us. We conveniently forget that the roots of reggae run deep into other black musical traditions. African-American R&B, fused with jazz and mento, produced ska – Jamaican jazz! Ska evolved into rocksteady, then reggae, and now dancehall. And we hear the riddims of religious revival music in dancehall.

Jamaican popular music is a ‘mix-up an blenda’ of musical traditions, both sacred and secular, that take us straight across to the continent of Africa. We don’t ‘own’ the music. Of course, this certainly does not mean that individual creators of song lyrics, melodies and riddims are not entitled to claim all the benefits of their intellectual property.


Unknown-1One of the tragedies of our music industry is that so many of the pioneering artists were cruelly exploited. Not by foreigners, but by unconscionable Jamaican producers who knew that for some never-see-come-see artistes, just hearing their tune on the radio was enough of a reward.

Leading up to International Reggae Day, there was an excellent conference held on June 30. One of the sessions focused on ‘Copyright Term Extension: Preserving the Past and Protecting the Future’. No matter how many of these conferences are convened, there are still so many players in the creative industries who do not know their rights.

Another session examined ‘Social Design: The Power of Art to Transform Space’. Like the exterior wall of the Pegasus hotel! Thanks to Michael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson, founder of the International Reggae Poster Contest (IRPC), art moved out of the gallery and into public space. Phase Three Productions, one of the sponsors of International Reggae Day, provided technical support for the video installation.

reggea-poster-map-1The 2012 IRPC attracted 1,142 entries from 80 countries. In 2013, there were 1,100 submissions from 78 countries. The 2014 contest was launched on International Reggae Day, and within hours entries came in from Slovenia, the UK, India, Portugal, Croatia, Spain, Greece, Japan, Venezuela and, of course, Jamaica – as that anxious woman in Emancipation Park will be pleased to hear.

Andrea Davis, founder of International Reggae Day, must be commended for her grand vision. Two decades ago, she recognised that the globalisation of reggae should be acknowledged and celebrated. It hasn’t been an easy journey. Sometimes, vision isn’t enough. You also need plenty backative.

I think it’s most unfortunate that six years ago when the bright idea of a Reggae Month came from out of the blue, somebody forgot that we already had a Reggae Day. It would have been so sensible to build on the foundation laid by Andrea.

134_imgaWe could easily have dubbed July Reggae Month. It would now fit so well into the Government’s plan for ’90 Days of Summer’. There’s Sumfest, which, like its predecessor Sunsplash, helps to fill empty hotel rooms in the slow summer season. But we always have to keep on starting from scratch. We forget that protecting the future also means remembering the past.

Sexual Falsehood Top To Bottom

ninth-280I got several emails last week from angry people trying to persuade me that Dwayne Jones was responsible for his own murder.  His crime was not cross-dressing.  It was deceit. But since the whole point of cross-dressing is to deceive, this distinction really makes no sense.

Some people passionately argued that the men who were deceived into thinking that Dwayne was female were the real victims.  And they had every right to take defensive action.  One woman compared the deceit to rape.  This is how she put it:  “There is an emerging way of telling stories nowadays that lays no responsibility on the victims whatsoever and I don’t get it.

“Dwayne was Jamaican.  Why did he put himself at risk like that? AND!!!! he also put the lives of other men at risk.  If no alarm had been made, some of those other men would have been labelled gay. Some of the men who were wined upon against their will may even have been traumatised for life.   As my friend was when his schoolmates from a prominent Kingston high school raped him”.

But the men who were ‘wined upon’ were quite willing to participate.  Dwyane did not wine on them against their will.  It was not rape.  It was consensual wining.  As far as the men knew, they were not dancing with a man.  Dwayne had become the self-styled ‘Gully Queen’.  It was pure theatre.

Simone Perrotta, Christian ChivuCross-dressing men are not necessarily gay.  And dancing with a cross-dressing man doesn’t automatically put a man at risk of being labelled gay.  Full body contact between Jamaican men is not always taboo.  It’s perfectly acceptable on the sports field. Footballers passionately embrace when a goal is scored.  It’s a ritual of the game.  I know it’s not exactly the same as wining in the dancehall.  But the body language is similar.  It’s just a different dialect.


Perhaps I’m expecting too much of Jamaican men.  But I think a self-confident man could have acted far differently to the outing of Dwayne.  A real man could have made a joke of it. He could have just said, “Bombo claat! Di bwoy good!  Im ketch mi fi true!” And even though Dwyane didn’t have a bombo, the profanity would have been enough of a judgement.

a-dictionary-jamaican-english-frederic-gomes-cassidy-paperback-cover-artThe so-called ‘bad’ word, ‘bombo’ is a perfectly good word of African origin, meaning ‘vulva’.  But like many other elements of African culture in Jamaica, the word has been devalued.  The word shows up in Eric Partridge’s 1949 Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English where it’s described as “West Indian; orig[inally] a negroes’ word”.

Our own Dictionary of Jamaican English, published in 1967, notes that in the Zulu language there’s a similar word ‘bumbu’, meaning ‘pubic region’.   So a cloth for the bombo, like a cloth for blood, is simply a ‘sanitary pad’.  How a clean cloth could become a very dirty word in Jamaica is a whole other story.

And talking of cleaning cloths, I got an informative email from a Jamaican living abroad: “When I first came to Asia, I noticed that many men carried a small packet of wet wipes.  I asked what it was used for.  I learnt only Muslims did this. I learnt that they used it in the bathrooms to wipe their penises to ensure there was no dribbling after they passed urine. Urine on clothing is considered unclean and it is avoided like the plague.”  So our male cross-dressers at Caribbean Fashion Week do have a point.


rooster-prev1230259193QKMb3gAll of the angry email-writers stopped short of saying that Dwayne should have been put to death.  They couldn’t quite go there.  But none of them laid any blame on the woman who let the cock out of the bag.  I think she should have taken a less scandalous approach.  She could have called Dwayne aside and said something like this:  “Hey bwoy!  Yu mad! Yu no know dem man wi kill yu if dem find out?  Mind yu self!”  But she didn’t.

Dwayne’s deception is an extreme version of the sexual games people play all the time.  These days, women have mastered the art of deceit.  They completely reengineer themselves:  false hair, false eyelashes, false nails, false breasts, false bottoms, false everything.  You can actually buy panties in local stores with padded bottoms.  And men have been known to stuff their briefs, especially when the contents are very brief.  A most wicked falsehood!

Picking up a ‘man’ or ‘woman’ at a dance is a very risky business. You really don’t know if you’re going to get fish or fowl.  It’s a big chance you take.  And as for online dating, that’s a whole other kettle of fish.  People just lie, out and out.  I’m amazed by the statistics you hear on American television about all the marriages that dating services have arranged.  I keep wondering about the divorce rates.


I got a most intriguing email about a Chinese man, Jian Feng, whose unnamed wife gave birth to a rather ugly baby, in his opinion. The child looked like neither parent.  Feng assumed the child was a ‘jacket’ and accused his wife of adultery.  But that was not her abomination.  The rather plain woman had done extensive plastic surgery to make herself beautiful.  Genes don’t lie so the baby came out looking like the ‘real’ mother.

article-2223718-15B43F0C000005DC-575_306x423Jian Feng filed for divorce on the grounds that his wife had deceived him. He won the case and was awarded US$120,000 – more than  the US$100,000 his wife had spent on plastic surgery.  I suppose if Feng had been a certain kind of Jamaican man he would have batter-bruised his wife physically.

But divorce, in this case, is emotional abuse.  Why couldn’t Feng have lived with the fact that his wife simply wanted to be beautiful?  In much the same way, Dwyane Jones just wanted to be the gully queen.  Death is a very high price to pay for that forbidden desire.

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!


‘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.


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.

Who’s In Charge of the Rompin’ Shop?

Hot_Dancehall_Queen_by_answer973March is International Women’s Month.  It’s a good a time to talk about sexual politics in dancehall culture which is often dismissed by outsiders as misogynist. But dancehall culture can be seen in a quite different way as a celebration of full-bodied female sexuality.  Especially the substantial structure of the Black working-class woman whose body image is rarely validated in the middle-class Jamaican media!

The uninhibited display of female bodies in the dancehall is vividly illustrated in the lyrics of two foundation deejays whose endurance is legendary: Shabba Ranks and Lady Saw.   References to fleshy female body parts and oscillatory functions should not be seen just as devaluation of female sexuality.

32349In “Gone Up,” from the As Raw as Ever 1991 CD, Shabba, playing on the proverbial association between food and sex, notes that the price of a number of commodities is going up.  To a chorus of affirmative female voices, he asks women a rather pointed question and proceeds to give advice on negotiating a mutually beneficial sexual contract:

Woman, wa unu a do fi unu lovin?

(Wi a raise it to)

Before yu let off di work

Yu fi defend some dollars first

Mek a man know seh

Ten dollar can’t buy French cut

No mek no man work yu out

A body line, old truck.

‘Everything a raise’

images-2Shabba makes it clear that he’s not advocating prostitution. The complicated relationships between men and women cannot be reduced to purely economic terms of exchange. He insists that men must assume responsibility for their sexual partner.  It’s a moral issue:

Is not a matter a fact seh dat unu a sell it.

But some man seh dat dem want it.

As dem get it, dem run gone lef it.

No mek no man run gone lef it

An yu no get profit

Everything a raise, so weh unu a do?

Shabba encourages robotic, domesticated females to stand up for themselves. They are often too timid to question the unequal exchange of services and resources in the household:

Have some woman gwaan like dem no worth

Hitch up inna house like a house robot

House fi clean, dem clean dat up

An clothes fi wash, dem wash dat up

An dollars a run an dem naa get enough

Shabba chastises irresponsible men who waste household resources on carousing with their male cronies:

IcyMint32x405g100ctNow yu have some man no want do no spending

Dem wuda do di spending pon dem bredrin

An naa buy dem darling  a icymint.

An icymint is one of the cheapest sweets on the market. The depth of the delinquent man’s failure is measured in very common currency.

Erotica or pornography?

Lady Saw would certainly not put up with this kind of cheap man. In a decisive act of feminist emancipation, she cuts loose from conventional social expectations. Marian Hall’s spectacular performance of the role of “Lady Saw” is not often acknowledged as a calculated decision by the actress to make the best of the opportunity to earn a good living in the theatre of the dancehall.

images-3     Flamboyantly exhibitionist, Lady Saw embodies the erotic. But one viewer’s erotica is another’s pornography. So Lady Saw is usually censured for being far too loose—or “slack”. Even worse, she is often dismissed as a mere victim of patriarchy, robbed of all power. But it is Lady Saw’s anansi-like personality that appeals to a wide cross-section of intelligent fans – both male and female.

In addition to the sexually explicit songs for which she is infamous, Lady Saw’s repertoire includes impeccable hymns, country and western laments, songs of warning to women about the wiles of men and politically “conscious” lyrics that constitute hardcore socio-cultural analysis.

pa-4942810In a radio interview in the “Uncensored” series on Fame FM, Lady Saw boldly countered charges of vulgarity with absolute self- assurance:

Interviewer: Lady Saw, you do things like, yu grab yu crotch on stage. . . .

Lady Saw: Uh huh. Michael Jackson did it and nobody say anything about it.

Interviewer: And you gyrate on the ground. I mean, do you think this is acceptable for a woman?

Lady Saw: Yes, darling. For this woman. And a lot of woman would like to do the same but I guess they are too shy.

Shyness is not one of Lady Saw’s virtues. In response to the question, “Some people are saying that you are vulgar on stage and your lyrics are indecent. Do you think they are justified?”, she dismissively asserts: “I think critics are there to do their job and I am here to my job . . .  to entertain and please my fans.”

Aphrodisiac Avocado

So who’s in charge of the rompin’ shop? In the case of Shabba Ranks and Lady Saw it’s a clear draw.  And, not so surprisingly, even the frontrunners of the reggae revival are singing rompin’ shop songs. Last Thursday evening, Janine ‘Jah9’ Cunningham gave a brilliant lecture at the University of the West Indies, Mona, tracing her musical journey to her first CD, New Name.

images-4One of Jah9’s sweetest tracks ‘bigs up’ her ‘humble lion’ who is almost seven feet tall and wears size 14.  He satisfies her with the ‘right remedy’:  avocado. The aphrodisiac qualities of this fruit are well known.  At the album launch at Redbones, she put on the mask of her sunglasses to sing “Avocado”.

Jah9’s lecture was the first in a series of ‘Reggae Talks’ that are being hosted by the Department of Literatures English. Protoje will give this week’s lecture on Thursday at 7:00 p.m. in the Neville Hall Lecture Theatre (N1).  No-Maddz, Cali P and Michael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson follow.  The public is invited and admission is free. The reggae dancehall rompin’ shop has many rooms.

Superpower Jamaican Accent for the Super Bowl

       images-11Don’t mind the IMF.  Thanks to Volkswagen of America, Inc., we’re been reminded yet again that Jamaica is a cultural superpower.   According to Wikipedia, “A superpower is a state with a dominant position in the international system which has the ability to influence events and its own interests and project power on a worldwide scale to protect those interests”.

       Of course, the meaning of ‘power’ in that definition is, essentially, political, economic and military.   Superpowers are the big guns of the world.  The British Empire in the bad old days of in-your-face colonisation was the first ‘modern’ superpower.  Britannia ruled the waves, captured lands far and wide and now evades reparations.  After all, Britons never, never, never shall be slaves – not even to fundamental principles of natural justice.

cold-war  Eventually, all across the globe, exploited colonies demanded independence and the sun finally set on the British Empire.  The Soviet Union and the United States of America both inherited the superpower mantle and aggressively fought for supremacy in the Cold War.  These days, China, India, Brazil and the European Union are all ready to claim superpower status.

Clearly, Jamaica is not in this big league. We’re not in the ‘Group of Eight’: Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia the U.K. and the United States.  We’re not in the ‘Plus Five’:  Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa.  We’re in no group.  We’re in a class by ourselves.


Michael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson image

Long ago, Marcus Garvey gave us the formula for our greatness:  “God and Nature first made us what we are, and then out of our own created genius we make ourselves what we want to be.  Follow always that great law.  Let the sky and God be our limit and Eternity our measurement”.

Garvey also wickedly said, “The whole world is run on bluff”.  But he certainly wasn’t bluffing when he conceived the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL).  Garvey had a grand vision of what black people could achieve.  Although he was born on a small island, Garvey was not insular. His consciousness was continental.

Peter Phillips and Miss Mattie

Like Garvey, Louise Bennett celebrated the unlimited potential of the Jamaican people.  In one of her most amusing poems, “Independance” – yes, “dance” – Miss Lou creates a raucous character, Miss Mattie, who gives a most entertaining account of what independence means to her.  It’s not the song and dance of constitutional arrangements.  It’s much more primal:

Mattie seh it mean we facety

Stan up pon we dignity.

An we don’t allow nobody

Fi teck liberty wid we.


Independence is we nature

Born an bred in all we do

An she glad fi see dat Government

Tun independant to.

Peter Phillips

Peter Phillips

Miss Lou here wittily suggests that so-called ‘ordinary’ people like Miss Mattie are way ahead of politicians in their understanding of power dynamics.  Perhaps Peter Phillips should ask Miss Mattie to come along to the IMF negotiations.  She would not be afraid of proposing her own conditionalities.

Indeed, Miss Mattie has a rather expansive view of Jamaica’s geopolitical location:

She hope dem caution worl-map

Fi stop draw Jamaica small,

For de lickle speck cyaan show

We independantness at all!


Moresomever we must tell map dat

We don’t like we position –

Please kindly tek we out a sea

An draw we in de ocean


Turning History Upside Down

black_britain   Miss Mattie shows up in another humorous poem by Miss Lou, “Colonization in Reverse”:

What a joyful news, Miss Mattie

Ah feel like me heart gwine burs –

Jamaica people colonizin

Englan in reverse

Taking our cultural “bag an baggage” to the stepmother country, Jamaicans turned history upside down, reversing the flow of influence.

These days, our distinctive Jamaican ‘Patwa’ is the preferred language of youth culture in England.  Last summer, in a moment of deranged grief as the embers of widespread riot died down, the British historian David Starkey lamented the success of Jamaica’s reverse colonisation of England:  “black and white, boy and girl, operate in this language together, this language which is wholly false, which is this Jamaican patois that’s been intruded in England, and this is why so many of us have this sense of literally a foreign country.”


It’s not only England that’s been colonised by Jamaican culture.  It’s the whole world, as Miss Mattie would say.  Which brings us to the VW Super Bowl ad that had 4.6 million hits by Friday morning.

Why does it feature a white man from Minnesota speaking with a stilted Jamaican accent?


a)   The man was born in Jamaica, migrated as a ‘yute’ and hasn’t been back in a very long time.  But he tries his best to sound Jamaican.

b)   The man was born in the US to Jamaican parents and has never visited Jamaica.  But he tries his best to sound Jamaican.

c)   The man was born in Minnesota, went to Jamaica on vacation, fell in love with the language and tries his best to sound Jamaican.

d)   The man was born in the U.S., has never been to Jamaica except on the Internet, fell in love with the culture and tries his best to sound Jamaican.

e)   The man is a pretty good actor who was coached by a Jamaican and tried his best to sound Jamaican.

In an excellent interview with Jamaican blogger Corve DaCosta, the star of the VW ad, Erik Nicolaisen, said, “I have been a lifelong reggae fan, and as a voice actor I have tried to put a little patois into my repertoire”.  Jamaican popular music has been a potent medium for spreading our language across the globe. As Miss Mattie confidently asserts, Jamaica is not in the Caribbean Sea; we’re in every ocean of the world.

Adam Stewart

Adam Stewart

As was to be expected, some very clever Jamaicans have produced a brilliant spoof on the VW ad.  It was Adam Stewart’s bright idea.  As CEO of Sandals Resorts International, he knows a thing or two about VWs.  The brand is in the family of companies.  The creative team at Sandals ran with Adam’s idea.  The satirical remake features a happy-go-lucky black man speaking English with a German accent. He dances off-beat and gets everybody in the nightclub to follow suit; he eats jerk chicken with sauerkraut and inspires the jerk man to do the same; he arrives to work seven minutes early and, when he is chided by his boss, cheerfully promises to return in ten minutes.

The Jamaican dub version of the VW ad slyly mocks German efficiency.  It also takes a crack at our own willingness to follow fashion. We often copy others who are copying us.  But since the inspiration for the original ad appears to be the perception that Jamaicans set standards that the whole world can imitate – whether it’s exceptional happiness or inventive language – it’s all in good fun.

The Jamaican presence at the Super Bowl wasn’t just the VW ad.  It was Beyoncé doing the dutty wine, to the invigorating beat of Sean Paul.  And to makes things even more like home, there was that nicely orchestrated power cut!  Jamaica is a superpower. Be happy about it. Yeah, mon!






“Talk Like Miss Lou, Mi No Talk Like Foreigner”

I don’t usually give in to the demands of domineering men.  But two weeks ago, in response to my last Sunday Gleaner column, “Out of Many, Fi Wi Langgwij”, which was also posted here on the blog, R. Oscar Lofters made me an offer I could barely resist: “I demand that from now on the professor writes her columns totally in Patwa. I refuse to read anymore of her columns written in English. Since Jamaicans all speak, write and understand Patwa, why waste time writing in a mixture of both”.

   I suppose Mr. Lofters was being sarcastic.  But the very thought that he might possibly be sending a serious message to the Gleaner’s Opinion Page Editor sent waves of pleasure rushing through my being.  Here was a man after my own heart who was up for creativity; a man with a lofty vision of what my mother tongue could do.  Mr. Lofters seemed to be celebrating the unlimited potential of the Jamaican language as a tool of communication worthy of the Sunday Gleaner’s editorial page.

Mr. Lofters doesn’t stand a chance in hell of having his ‘dream’ come true.  However much my brain was stimulated by the thought of submitting to Mr. Lofters’ seductive proposition, I knew it was all anti-climactic.  My hands are tied.  I’m not allowed to write a whole column in Jamaican. I’m restricted to one paragraph per week. It’s the Gleaner’s editorial policy from time immemorial, it would appear.  Well, at least from 1834 when the ancient newspaper was established.

‘You can’t do science in Patwa’

      In any case, I really don’t want to use ‘so-so Patwa’ each week even though I thoroughly enjoy the challenges of writing expository prose in my mother tongue.  It’s a language we’ve been taught to diss:  it’s ‘limited’.  Sceptics keep on making silly claims like ‘you can’t do science in Patwa.’  They don’t know that speakers of a language can make it do anything they want.  It’s not the language that’s doing the thinking.  And if you need technical vocabulary for new concepts, you simply make it up or ‘borrow’ from another language.

Still for all, I’m never going to give up writing in English.  I just love the quirkiness of the language.  I think of English as the world’s greatest patois.  Its vocabulary is a grand mix-up of basic Anglo-Saxon words and a host of borrowings from other languages such as Greek, Latin, Old Norman, French, Arabic, Hindi, Japanese, Yoruba, Twi, Maori, Yiddish and, these days, even Jamaican!

Native speakers of English are often not hooked on ‘correctness’ in the way that up-tight second-language learners often are.  They actually experiment with their mother tongue, making it do all sorts of interesting things.  Words like ‘bling’ and ‘diss’ have found their way into English – not just as slang – but as ‘respectable’ new vocabulary.

Vote of confidence

   Ideally, I’d like to write a bi-lingual column for the Gleaner as I did for the Observer in the 1990’s. Then, I insisted that in our culture English and Jamaican are happily married, with no prospect of divorce.  It wasn’t easy to get the conservative editors of that young newspaper to agree.  Youthfulness is no guarantee of creativity.  And old age is no guarantee of wisdom.

       That newspaper stopped publishing the column because of Motty Perkins.  No, it wasn’t Motty’s fault.  It was a case of collateral damage. But that’s a whole other story.  I’ve almost given up on trying to help the editors of the Gleaner see the value of a bilingual column. Until they ‘sight’ the light, I’m saving my pearls for my blog.

‘Nation Language’

“Talk like Miss Lou, mi no talk like foreigner”.  So Anthony B seh inna fi im song, “Nah Vote Again.”  Im a one conscious DJ weh know seh how im talk reveal im history an im culture.  Im naa put on no twang an a try gwaan like seh im come from foreign.  Im a one heartical yardie.  An a so im a talk.

Professor Kamau Brathwaite, one big-time history man an poet from Barbados, im call fi wi creole language dem ‘nation language’.   Im know seh yu language talk yu nation.  It mek people know weh yu come from, who yu be an wa yu a defend.  A di said same ting Anthony B a seh.

Professor Brathwaite write one lickle book, History of the Voice, weh come out inna 1984. Im talk bout how di ‘system’ never set up fi mek African people over ya so member fi wi owna African language dem.  An wi no fi put no value pon di new language dem weh wi mek up.  Seet ya:

“What our educational system did was to recognize and maintain the language of the conquistador – the language of the planter, the language of the official, the language of the Anglican preacher. . . . And in terms of what we write, our perceptual models, we are more conscious (in terms of sensibility) of the falling snow, for instance . . . than of the force of the hurricanes which take place every year”.

A true.  Christmas a come an plenty a unu a go buy Christmas card wid snow pon Christmas tree.  And unu a go sing Christmas carol bout ‘I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.’  So unu no bodder gwaan like all a di foreign culture no deh ya pon top a wi, a beat wi dong inna di grong. A it mek IMF a tek step wid wi, cau wi love foreign tings so much.   Wi ha fi tek fi wi owna culture an fi wi owna language serious.  No true, Misa Lofters!

Seet deh now!  Gleaner never publish dis ya column sake-a it have een four ‘patwa’ paragraph.