Coming Out In Jamaica – Dead Or Alive

Last Wednesday, I got two emails that forced me to write this column. I’d already been thinking about sharing a schizophrenic email that came in response to last Sunday’s column. Homophobia in Jamaica is still so fierce that even writing about the subject makes people point fingers at you. But my back is broad. So mi just a gwaan.

coming-out-450x429Here’s the first email, which I’ve not edited for punctuation errors, etc. So mi get it, so mi give it: “Hello Ms Cooper, how are you?I am an occasional reader of your column and it seems like homosexuality is one of your favourite topics.Tell me something are you in the closet yourself? If not then why such passion and sympathy for these folks. Well, if i am right and you need a hook up feel free to let me know. Peace, love and respect.”

My response: “Thanks for taking the time to send feedback. If you were to read my columns regularly, not just occasionally, you would see that I write on a wide range of topics. I would say that chik-V (and the failure of the Ministry of Health to protect) is one of my recent favourites. You can catch up on my blog – the link is below.

“Then you wonder if I’m in the closet. Your question is a classic example of the fool-fool assumption that a newspaper columnist only writes about his or her personal issues. In any case, I must decline your facetious offer to “hook up” with me. I do not embrace abusive relationships. Best of luck with finding a suitable sexual partner!”

LIVING IN LEVITICUS

That email came from ‘Jordan’. Could be male or female. I suppose s/he was not necessarily proposing her/himself for the ‘hook up’. But the tone of the email is abusive. And what I find intriguing is that s/he is willing to source a lesbian for me, even though s/he appears to disapprove of homosexuality.

Then why does this ‘bright’ person feel I’m not able to find my own sexual partners? Why would I need his/her help? The email is not only facetious; it’s facety. And instinct tells me that the author is male. And Jamaican. There’s a type of Jamaican man who just loves to tell women what to do. Especially if it’s directing them to engage in sexual practices he enjoys watching under cover.

I’d decided not to bother to write about that out-of-order email. And then I got these two others. The first came from my friend Maria, co-organiser of the International Reggae Poster Contest, who lives in Greece.

http://www.reggaepostercontest.com

It was about a story in Pink News, ‘Europe’s Largest Gay News Service’, published on March 10.

The headline was sensational: ‘Report: Gay man stoned to death in Jamaica’. The actual ‘report’ is more cautious: “Video has emerged reportedly showing the bloodied body of a gay Jamaican man who it is claimed was stoned to death.” If this is true, we’re back in the Old Testament, in the book of Leviticus. This is not a good place to be in the 21st century.

‘BOYS WHO DIDN’T FIT IN’

The second email came from another friend, Ben, an attorney in the US. It was a link to a beautifully written personal essay by the novelist Marlon James, published in The New York Times on March 10. The essay is headlined “From Jamaica to Minnesota to Myself”. It opens with an unsettling quote: “I knew I had to leave my home country – whether in a coffin or in a plane.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/15/magazine/from-jamaica-to-minnesota-to-myself.html?_r=0

James’ account of growing up as an outsider in Jamaica is disquieting: “I’d spent seven years in an all-boys school: 2,000 adolescents in the same khaki uniforms striking hunting poses, stalking lunchrooms, classrooms, changing rooms, looking for boys who didn’t fit in.

“I bought myself protection by cursing, locking my lisp behind gritted teeth, folding away my limp wrist and drawing 36-double-D girls for art class. I took a copy of Penthouse to school to score cool points, but the other boys called me ‘batty boy’ anyway every day, five days a week. To save my older, cooler brother, I pretended we weren’t related.”

But we are related. No matter how religiously some of us deny it, gay Jamaicans are us: mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins – not-so-distant relatives. I suppose ‘Jordan’ could have been one of the boys who would have hunted Marlon James. And s/he might very well email me again this week, like a stalker, looking for confirmation that I’m in the closet. Another column on homosexuality, so I must be gay.

After writing the first draft of this column with those sentences, I did get a seemingly conciliatory response from ‘Jordan’: “Sorry Carolyn, no offence meant…Peace, Love and respect to you. Keep up the good work.” Makes no sense. But this is Jamaica. Conflicted about sexuality.

OverTheEdge_logoMarlon James writes about being suicidal: “One day after school, instead of going home, I walked for miles, all the way down to Kingston Harbor. I stopped right at the edge of the dock, thinking next time I would just keep walking.”Marlon found the courage to stay in Jamaica and not walk over the edge. He has written three brilliant novels that are rooted in our fertile/arid landscape. Thank God Marlon James came out of Jamaica in a plane, not a coffin!

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.

ROOTZ RADICALS

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.

http://rootzradicalzsound.wix.com/rootzradicals

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.

PROTECTING THE FUTURE

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.

Michael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson Exhibits at the University of the West Indies Museum

FreestyleeATUWI-f.eps copyMichael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson’s reggae posters inspired the design of the Global Reggae book which was recently published by the University of the West Indies Press.  As editor of the book, I suggested to the Director of the Press, Mrs. Linda Speth, that we needed a funky image for the cover.  She agreed and I went searching on the Internet.

There I found the work of ‘Freestylee’ who describes himself as an “artist without borders”.  He readily agreed to let the Press use the image of the selector I’d selected for the book cover.  He recommended that we ask Maria Papaefstathiou to design the book.  She’s the co-organiser with Michael of the International Reggae Poster Contest:

http://www.reggaepostercontest.com/

reggae-poster-exhibition-march2013Maria did a brilliant job incorporating other posters by Michael into the design of the book, especially for the chapter headings.  These posters are now on show for the month of March at the University of the West Indies Museum in the Regional Headquarters, Hermitage Road, Mona.  Opening Hours are Monday to Friday, 10:00 to 4:00.  Admission is free.