Michael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson to speak at UWI

Freestylee-500pxMichael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson, co-founder of the International Reggae Poster Contest, will speak about his work as a politically engaged graphic artist on Thursday, April 18 at 7:00 p.m. in the Neville Hall lecture theatre (N1) at the University of the West Indies, Mona.  Thompson, a Jamaican who now resides in the U.S., is a distinguished graduate of the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts.

In an interview posted on the Jamaica Primetime website, published June 7, 2010, Thompson highlights the cultural and political messages in his poster art:  “My graphic designs, and in particular my posters like the ones on Flickr draw their influences in terms of style from the retro Cuban Revolutionary Poster of the 1960s. The “golden age” as that period is called. The aesthetics and communication are based on the principle that “simple is best” and the message is king. The designs can be placed in the category of modern iconic art with strong political or social messages.

saudi2.jpg.w300h405“These types of activist or socially conscious art are now becoming main stream; made popular by artists like Bansky and Shepherd Fairey whom I admire greatly. My designs are quite varied, depending on the poster type and whether it is political or cultural, regional or international. I tend to lend a voice to issues which I feel passionate about, such as injustice against indigenous people, environmental exploitation and poverty.

“However, I also touch on Jamaica’s rich historical and cultural past. Jamaica’s musical experience is a treasure I just cannot ignore; Ska, Rocksteady and Reggae. My style is also deeply rooted in Jamaican popular symbols mostly from the iconic years of the 1970s. I take those images from Jamaica’s urban visuals and turn them into cool posters of our time. Images include hand carts, skates, Honda 50s, s-90 (Honda motorcycle), Rastafarian lion of Judah etc; turning them into hip international visual icons, anything that is retro Jamaican was fair game.

“I try to keep the designs crisp with a minimalist feel yet visually powerful. I always retain a fresh and direct approach to my designs. I illustrate all the elements and just roll with it in a freestyle way. The political side of my art plays a big role in my design collection. They speak on the burning international issues and conflicts. The Israeli attack on Gaza and the wider Israeli Palestinian conflict, the US embargo on Cuba, Healthcare, Police brutality, Exploitation in the Amazon, Freedom, Anti War and Peace, Tibet, and Globalization. I guess I am an internationalist at heart and so is my art”.

Alpha-Boys-SchoolThompson recently designed and generously donated a logo for the Alpha Boys’ School which has nurtered several generations of Jamaican musicians. Sister Susan Frazer, RSM, Director of the school, first saw the illustration of the boy playing the trombone that would become Alpha’s logo at the ‘World A Reggae’ exhibition held at the National Gallery of Jamaica in September 2012. “The moment I saw Michael’s work and the image which is now the Alpha logo I instantly knew it would fit perfectly with our history and our vision for the future at Alpha,” remembers Sister Susan. “The logo has really become not just about branding but a catalyst for collective action across the Alpha community”.

An exhibition of Thompson’s reggae posters is on show at the UWI Museum. These posters were used in the design of the Global Reggae book, edited by Carolyn Cooper.  Maria Papaefstathiou, a Greek graphic artist who co-founded the International Reggae Poster Contest, designed the elegant book:

http://www.behance.net/gallery/Global-Reggae-Book/7627493

Dr. Suzanne Francis-Brown, curator of the museum, says Thompson’s exhibition has attracted a lot of positive attention, both for the vibrant graphics and for the reggae music content. Visitors have been intrigued by his visualisation of the music from its early days through to its global incarnations. The exhibition remains up through the month of April, in tandem with an exhibition on the Origins of the University of the West Indies.

michael-thompson-freestylee-i-am-tivoliThe UWI Museum is located on the ground floor of the University’s Regional Headquarters on the Hermitage Road, across from the main entrance to the Mona Campus.  Opening hours are 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.  On the 18th of April, the Museum will remain open until 6:30 p.m. to facilitate visitors on their way to Thompson’s talk.  He will speak on the subject, “Freestylee:  Artist Without Borders”.  The public is invited to attend and admission is free.

No Extinguisher, Big Problem

imagesThose German men in that inflammatory Saturn ad should have had a fire extinguisher in their tiny kitchen.  Even if the Jamaican flag did ‘catch a fire’ like the Bob Marley and the Wailers album, there would have been no need to take it to the streets. The fire could have been extinguished immediately, and an international incident would have been averted.

Our Ministry of Foreign Affairs wouldn’t have had to issue a statement on the improper use of the Jamaican flag, including an appeal to the appliance manufacturer to “repair this most unfortunate breach”.  Olivia ‘Babsy’ Grange, JLP spokesperson on culture, wouldn’t have needed to call on Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller to take up the matter at the highest diplomatic levels.

http://adpressive.com/saturn-electronics-commercial-banned-burning-jamaican-flag-030613/

All of the fuss over the ad is a classic example of life imitating art, or, more accurately, artifice.  The real-life protest mirrors the outrage of the masses of ‘Germaican’ fans in the fictitious drama who invest cultural capital in our flag and what it represents:  a nation of people who excel in all sorts of fields.

jamaican-bobsledder-1And beyond all reasonable expectations!  How could Jamaicans really think we could compete internationally at winter sports? Quite easily!  Bobsledding is no big deal.  We have a history of go-kart racing.  Freestyle skiing?  ‘A no nutten dat!’  Errol Kerr certainly carried our flag with grand style at the 2010 Winter Olympics.

The high visibility of the Jamaican flag on the world stage, particularly at the Olympics, both summer and winter, is the very reason it was selected for ‘desecration’ in the Saturn ad.  Which other nation’s flag would have excited that extreme response?  Cynics will argue that our flag was abused in order to cut Jamaicans down to size.   They’ve missed the point.

Hate crimes

     images-3 The protestors in the ad can be forgiven for their righteous anger.  They don’t know the whole story.  Viewers of the ad have no excuse.  They know that the real culprit is a defective coffee machine.  That’s what caused the fire.   It forced the endangered men to turn a private matter into a most public affair.  Their cramped living quarters could not contain the fire so they end up trampling the Jamaican flag in a full view of surveillance cameras.

images-1The burning flag becomes national news.  A female news anchor announces, “Our top story today: rioting on streets, as burning Jamaican flag leads to country-wide protests.”  A diplomat in an international setting declares, “We all love Jamaica. These people are burning the Jamaican flag!” A baffled journalist at the scene of the ‘crime’ asks, “The question is:  why all this hatred?”  Of course, it’s not hatred at all.  It’s admiration.

Though I’m quite willing to concede that the Saturn ad was well intentioned, I must admit that I do find it troubling.  The burning flag is the least of the issues. The average Jamaican is not going to go out on any demonstration because the national flag got burnt accidentally.  I suspect that most of us watching that Saturn ad would just kiss our teeth and ask how come ‘di eedyat man dem never throw lickle water pon di flag an out di fire inna di kitchen, an no tek it outa road’.

What struck me most forcibly was the way in which the Jamaican flag got caught up in a specifically European culture of political violence. ‘How we get mix up into dat?’  When a black man is interviewed on the street, his immediate response to the crime is retaliation:  “If they burn our flag, I’m going to burn theirs”.  It’s now a racialised hate crime.

images-2Despite the apparent affirmation of the power of Jamaican identity as represented by the flag, the Saturn ad seems to be feeding on fears of foreign culture.

Burning Questions

2dabcbe173      Ellen Koehlings and Pete Lilly, co-editors of Riddim, Germany’s upscale reggae/dancehall magazine with a bimonthly circulation of 45,000, ask a penetrating question in their chapter of the Global Reggae book: “How did it come about that youths from European countries without significant Caribbean communities are able and motivated to recreate something that is genuinely Jamaican in origin but can, to a certain extent, even compete with what’s happening in Jamaica today?”

Ellen and Pete argue that German folk music had been taken over by the Nazis and so was discredited.  This music could not, therefore, be embraced as the source of modern pop songs.  So German youth tuned into the music of Britain and the United States to find a language to express their ‘post-Holocaust’ identity.

images-5Then they discovered Bob Marley who embodied the spirit of rebellion against ‘ism and schism’. So the Jamaican flag and the reggae sound track of the Saturn ad are both signs of German identification with a ‘cool’ culture.  But why “Murderer”?  I much prefer the ‘get in and get happy’ vibe of the VW Super Bowl ad.

Both ads celebrate German technology.  But the scenes of social chaos in the Saturn ad are problematic. The image of Jamaica is tainted by association with street violence. When the new coffee machine goes on and the only flames are in the street, the voice of authority declares, “The world needs better technology.  Saturn:  that’s what technology should be all about”.  But the ad is not all about that.

Bowing to the demands of literal-minded fanatics, protocol experts, humourless viewers, incompetent readers of signs etc. etc., the electronics company has done the decent thing. It has pulled the ad.  But the flames of dissent have not been entirely doused.  If Saturn doesn’t already do so, it needs to start manufacturing extinguishers.  For all sorts of fire!

 

Taking Dennis Brown’s Name in Vain

   Image    The Crown Prince of Reggae has been royally dissed. D Brown’s duppy must be well vexed.  I expect he’s somewhere over the rainbow composing a wicked tune, and even wickeder lyrics, about the disorganisers of the tribute concert in his name. The Jamaica Reggae Industry Association (JARIA), Leggo Records, Sounds and Pressure and the Dennis Brown Trust are all going to be haunted for quite a long time.

       Since the inception of ‘Reggae Month’ in 2008, Dennis Brown’s name has been inextricably linked to the celebrations.  His birthday on February 1 has been a convenient date to launch the month’s activities. And the Dennis Brown Tribute Concert is a high-profile event. This year, the concert has been postponed two times.  First, it was lack of sponsorship; then security.  This is a very bad sign.   ‘Reggae Month’ seems to be in trouble.

The new date for the tribute concert is March 3, more than one month after Dennis Brown’s birthday. It’s like celebrating Christmas in January. There’s only one good thing about the postponement of the tribute.  Well, it may turn out to be a cancellation after all but let’s be optimistic for now.  In any case, the ‘cancelposting’ of the show proves that there’s nothing sacred about ‘Reggae Month’.  It doesn’t even have to be February!

Bob MarleyI suppose the rationale for dubbing February ‘Reggae Month’ was the fact that    the King of Reggae and the Crown Prince were born on the 6th and 1st respectively.  But instead of holding the whole month hostage to those two birthdays, I think we should free up February from all of the reggae-related events that have been compressed into the shortest month of the year.

I’m proposing that we celebrate the birthday of Dennis Brown and Bob Marley in February and that’s that.  If we want a ‘Reggae Month’, let’s find a less hectic season.  Cynics are already saying that ‘Reggae Month’ was intended to upstage ‘Black History Month’.  You know how ambivalent we are about blackness in this country. Be that as it may, there are eleven other months from which to choose.

International Reggae Day

images-6 I think July is an excellent candidate for ‘Reggae Month’.  There’s Sumfest, our international reggae festival, in the last week of the month.  And we shouldn’t forget the heroic efforts of our own cultural activist Andrea Davis to establish July 1 as International Reggae Day (IRD). The brand was launched in 1994 – almost two decades ago – as a “marketing platform for Jamaica’s creative industries and global Reggae culture”.

In a billboardbiz article, published on July 1, 2011, music journalist Patricia Meschino underscores the worldwide reach of Andrea’s vision: “Enabled by the proliferation of internet usage in the mid-90s and the rise of social media in the late ’00s, IRD now encompasses a vast international network of online newspapers, magazines, radio stations and other web based platforms, each tailoring their content on July 1 towards examining the power and potential of the island’s signature rhythm while highlighting the finest in Jamaican and international reggae, made by veterans and upstart artists alike”.

images-5 In the early years of the media festival, Andrea’s company, Jamaica Arts Holdings, promoted high-level workshops and full-scale concerts.  Celebration of IRD has become much more virtual over time largely because of lack of sponsorship for live events.  It’s a familiar story.  In the case of the Dennis Brown Tribute Concert, we may very well have to settle for a virtual, if not virtuous, staging this year.

‘Reggae Month’ Sound Clash

images-7    Whatever we decide about the scheduling of ‘Reggae Month’, we will still have to resolve the problem of clashing events.  In theory, JARIA’s calendar is the definitive guide to what’s on.  But it seems as if organisers of events don’t bother to consult JARIA.  They just do their own thing.

Before setting the date of my Global Reggae book launch, I checked with JARIA.  The only other event on their calendar for the 17th was the Jamaica Music Museum’s ‘Grounation’, scheduled for 2:00 p.m.  It was unlikely to clash with my 6:00 p.m. launch.

Then, out of the blue, the Dennis Brown Tribute Concert was rescheduled at exactly the same time.  Not even JARIA appears to have consulted JARIA!  Or, if they did, they must have decided that the launch of a book on the globalisation of reggae in ‘Reggae Month’ wasn’t all that important.  Then again, they may have assumed quite wrongly that people who read books don’t go to reggae concerts.

Seriously, though, the clash wouldn’t have mattered all that much really.  Patrons obviously do have the right to choose.  Except that Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus, Jah9 and Protoje, who had all graciously agreed to make a cameo appearance at the launch, also needed to perform at the rescheduled Dennis Brown tribute, based on their earlier commitment.  Fortunately, No-Maddz and Cali P, the other ‘brand-name’ performers for the book launch, were not on that ill-fated show.

GlobalReggaeCoverWhen Ras Michael apologetically telephoned to let me know that he couldn’t make it back to PULS8 in time to do the invocation, I have to admit I called down judgement on the engineers of the clash.  I hadn’t realised how potent my words were.  Within an hour, Ras Michael called back to say that the show was cancelled.

Of course, I don’t actually take any responsibility for influencing the decisions made by the organisers of the tribute concert. It’s not my ‘judgement’ that mystically caused postponement.   ‘Me woulda never diss di Crown Prince’.  Hopefully, Dennis Brown will be honoured appropriately some time this year in a tribute concert that lives up to his name.  Respect is most certainly due, whatever the month.

Exploiting Brand Jamaica

“So wat we a get outa it?” That’s the question I was asked by a rather sceptical Rastaman, Raymond, who sells in Papine Market.  He seemed to think that VW of America, Inc. owed Jamaicans something for the viral super bowl ad which has gotten two million more hits since play day.  Well over twelve million in all!  “How yu mean?”, I asked.  “We can’t stop people from trying to talk like us!”  The man just kiss im teeth.  Obviously, I was a big eedyat.

The more I thought about the vendor’s penetrating question I realised that it wasn’t limited to the specific case of the VW ad.  He was actually raising the much broader issue of whether or not Jamaicans can, in fact, benefit from the global appeal of our culture.  Who defines ‘Brand Jamaica’?  Who ‘owns’ the brand?  And how can this brand be best exploited in the interest of the masses of the Jamaican people?

92983.gifThere’s a big difference between brand identity and brand image. Identity is who we really are; image is how others see us.  So they attempt to construct an alternative image that suits their own needs.

On the other hand, the very people who embody ‘Brand Jamaica’, like that market vendor, are usually left out of the process of defining and marketing the brand. They are not entitled to interrogate the ‘experts’. All the same, Jamaica’s distinctive identity is not ‘uptown’; it’s ‘downtown’.  And, at the risk of offending our minority racial groups who do not wish to be seen as ‘minority’, it’s obvious that ‘Brand Jamaica’ is the black majority.

“Proper-proper Language”

Even though some of us consistently refuse to see ourselves as we actually are, non-Jamaicans find it relatively easy to immediately recognise some of the key components of our identity: for example, our distinctive language.  And some of them make a big effort to try to learn it.  They want to be in the know.

GlobalReggaeCoverI recently telephoned a European embassy about the launch of the Global Reggae book I edited, which takes place today at 6:00 at PULS8.  The diplomat I spoke to said he’d been planning to contact me.  Several of his colleagues want to take a course in ‘patwa’.  I couldn’t resist saying ‘Jamaican’.  And I put him in touch with Professor Hubert Devonish who heads the Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies.

How do we see Jamaican?  It’s not even a language.  It’s nothing but a ‘corrupt’, ‘broken’ version of English, with absolutely no social status.  After all, “is black people mek it up”.  You can bet your last devalued dollar that if Europeans had created ‘patwa’ it would now be accepted as a ‘proper-proper’ language.

Counterfeit Jamaicans

bolt_to_di_world_jamaican_flag_hat-p148359947895250901en80o_216I think it’s a great idea for everybody in the whole world to learn Jamaican.  It’s a global language of athletic prowess, musical genius, dutty winery, business acumen and innovation in so many other fields.  The real problem is the counterfeiting of Jamaican products in global markets; and the exploitation of the name ‘Jamaica’.

The Jamaica Intellectual Property Office (JIPO) has been valiantly negotiating for the recognition of “nation branding as a development tool”.  In a major report to the World Intellectual Property Office (WIPO), a very strong case was made for protecting Brand Jamaica.  The report documents “the extent of use of Jamaica’s country name in trade marks that are registered by persons or entities which have no association with Jamaica in relation to good and services which do not originate in Jamaica”.

4000304_f260A classic example is the “Jamaica energy drink” which was actually made in Croatia.  Turning Jamaica’s superlative Olympic performance into a marketable commodity, Croatians just decided to ‘try a ting’.  And talking of ‘ting’, remember how hard it was for the Ting soft drink to enter the US market.  It was argued that ‘Ting’ was too similar to ‘Tang’, the U.S. fruit-flavoured drink.  I can’t recall all the details of the case but I do remember being asked to write a statement confirming that ‘ting’ was a Jamaican word.

Thanks to the expertise of JIPO, the bogus “Jamaica energy drink” was yanked from the shelves.  We haven’t been so lucky with the “all natural Jamaican style ginger ale” which has not a shred of Jamaican ginger in its ingredients.  Well, the label does say “style”.  It doesn’t claim to be the real thing.  So the product is still on the market.

Paying to get happy

imagesI was quite disappointed to find out that, in a not-so-surprising twist, Sandals has had to pull their ‘Germaican’ spoof of the VW ad.  Adam Stewart, CEO of Sandals Resorts International, told me that the Partridge Family, copyright holders of “Come On Get Happy”, were insisting on payment of a “sizeable sum” for its use.

I suppose if Adam had anticipated that his version of the ad would have become so visible, he wouldn’t have used the copyrighted song.  He would have taken a leaf out the uncopyrightable proverbial book of Dr. Michael Abrahams, who uses a basic riddim as the sound track for his own wicked version of the ad, “Miserable Jamaican”.

We’re a ‘brand name’ nation.  But if we really intend to get anything out of the high visibility of our culture, we will have to consolidate our efforts.  JIPO, the JTB, JAMPRO and all of us in Papine and other markets and sectors, just have to come on and get really serious about it.