Poetry can’t pay light bill!

maxresdefaultOn Tuesday, March 1,  Mutabaruku gave a riveting talk on ‘The Business of Reggae Poetry’ at the University of the West Indies, Mona. It was the first in a series of ‘Reggae Talks’ this month to celebrate the work of the Department of Literatures in English. No longer teaching only literature, the department has expanded its course offerings to include film and popular music.

In January, the big-time poet and recording artiste Linton Kwesi Johnson was visiting writer. He gave an intriguing talk, describing his stellar career as a case of ‘Reggae By Accident’. Mutabaruka also revealed that it was purely by chance that he became a recording artiste.

He was in his teens at Kingston Technical High School when he discovered his talent for poetry. His English teacher, Mrs Pusey, gave the class an assignment to write a poem. Muta called his composition ‘Birds’. The opening verse went like this:

“Birds are lovely things to see

Just to see them flying free

Birds with many colours

Is wonderful to see them flying for hours.”

With a big laugh, Muta reminded us that the poem was written by Allan Hope, his birth name. ‘Birds’ was a far cry from the militant poems for which the politically engaged writer would become world-famous. But in that early poem, the theme of freedom was already evident. Now I don’t want to sound like those literary critics at the UWI Creative Arts Centre who Muta mocked in his talk, much to the amusement of the receptive audience.

Muta insisted that what the poet writes is exactly what he means. And there’s no need for elaborate analysis of the text. He was dumbfounded by the assessment of his more mature poems made by high-brow critics like John Hearne and Mervyn Morris, who would spend long minutes deconstructing a single line of verse. It just didn’t make sense to him.


The schoolboy Allan Hope would certainly have said that his poem was just about birds flying free. All the same, I feel completely free to interpret the poem as a symbolic representation of a young man’s desire to break free from conventional expectations of his potential. And I don’t mind if either Allan or Muta laughs at me.

Instead of being confined to so-called technical subjects, Muta was finding a new medium of soaring self-expression. His mother, Sylvia, was not amused. When Muta stayed up late at night beating out poems on his typewriter, she would command him to “turn off the light! Poetry can’t pay light bill!” Muta paid her no mind. He kept on burning light and blazing out poems.


Even though Muta disdained the literary critics at UWI, he did want to get exposure for his poems. So he sent them far and wide. At last, Swing magazine published ‘Festival’ in July 1971. Here’s the first verse:

“Yes, mi fren

A festival again

Run come look

Big pot a cook.”

That was Muta’s big break. It was Johnny Golding of Golding’s printery who put out the magazine, and he paid Muta $4.00 for that first poem. Note the position of the decimal point! Even so, those days, that was nuff money. Golding published Muta’s first poetry collection, Outcry, in 1972. It opened doors. Muta was invited to perform on a reggae show that Jimmy Cliff hosted in Somerton. His signature chant, “Every Time I Hear De Sound”, mash up di place.

Muta made his Sunsplash debut in 1980. His friend, Malaika Whitney, negotiated the contract. His fee was the princely sum of $2,000. Muta ended up with $200. Malaika’s commission was 10 per cent and the fee for each of the four members of the backing band was $400.

Muta’s first overseas tour was even more disastrous. It was organised by John Blackwood, a Jamaican booking agent in California. Muta performed in sold-out venues across the US. He came back home with not a single dollar! By the time expenses were deducted from his fee, there was absolutely nothing left. It was looking like Mama Sylvia was right.

Muta realised that he had to quickly learn the business. He figured out that he didn’t need an expensive band. His words were powerful enough. And he mastered merchandising. At his concerts, he sold records, posters of his poems and T-shirts with his image. And he took Rasta craft on consignment when he went on tour. Poetry was finally becoming profitable. Muta was able to show his mother that poetry not only paid light bill. It bought house and land and high-end cars.


Tanya+ShirleyThe ‘Reggae Talks’ continued on Tuesday, March 8 with Bob Andy speaking on the topic, “Stages On My Journey’. In celebration of International Women’s Day, Tanya Shirley performed a selection of her poems. It was at 6 p.m. in Lecture Theatre 3, Faculty of Medical Sciences, thanks to the dean, Professor Horace Fletcher. And nuff rispek to the Creative Production and Training Centre for recording the talks!

‘Love Affair With Literature’ was held at 11 a.m. on Sunday 6 at the Neville Hall Lecture Theatre, Faculty of Humanities and Education, UWI. Olive Senior, Mel Cooke, Adzika Simba Gegele and writer-in-residence Vladimir Lucien read from their work. Poetry does pay but, this time, admission was free.


Creating Wealth From Culture

In December 2015, The UNESCO Creative Cities Network dubbed Kingston a ‘Creative City of Music’. This distinction confirms what we already know. Kingston’s culture is world-class. In spite of all the problems of urban blight, the city does have the potential to become a livable home for all of us, and an attractive destination for tourists.


But the history of the city is far from glamorous. Kingston was founded in July 1692 as a place of refuge for survivors of the Port Royal earthquake. They camped on the seafront in dreadful conditions. And mosquitoes ravaged them. Approximately 2,000 survivors of the earthquake died from diseases carried by mosquitoes.

It wasn’t ZIKV or chik-V. And, by the way, chik-V didn’t come to the Caribbean in the 21st century. As early as 1827, the disease was already in the region. In a case of mistaken identity, it was called dengue. That name comes from the Kiswahili language of East Africa. The word ‘dinga’ means ‘seizure, or cramp’.

But the big difference between chik-V and dengue is arthritis. Chik-V weakens the joints. And it has devastating consequences, both physical and social. For example, The Journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases reports that, in 1827, “when the disease first appeared in St Thomas [US Virgin Islands], several Negroes, who, being all at once attacked with pain in the knees, had fallen down, [and] were actually apprehended by the police for drunkenness”.


Kingston gradually recovered from its disastrous start. By the middle of the 18th century, it had become the commercial centre of the island. Sitting on the seventh largest natural harbour in the world, the city was ideally located to be a global player in international trade.

1375285952-1In 1891, Kingston hosted the Great Exhibition. It was a very ambitious affair. Its aim was to show Jamaicans all the latest in foreign products and machinery; and to exhibit Jamaican products to foreign investors. The Jamaican economy was in decline and a small group of visionaries realised that something grand had to be done to drive productivity. One of them was George Stiebel, who made his money in shipping and mining.  Devon House was one of his homes.

The Exhibition wasn’t an easy sell. As Joy Lumsden reports in a 1991 article in the Jamaica Historical Society Bulletin, “From the start, it was feared that the attempts to get people to send produce to the exhibition was an indirect way of finding out how much they produced so that taxes could be increased.”

Sounds familiar. Many players in the field of the creative/cultural industries are now very suspicious of the Government’s relatively new interest in their work. Where was the Government when the music industry, for example, was struggling to establish itself in Kingston’s concrete jungle? And why the sudden interest in the earnings of the industry?


UNESCO identifies seven creative fields in which selected cities are judged: Crafts and Folk Art, Design, Film, Gastronomy, Literature, Media Arts and Music. I think Kingston’s creativity extends way beyond music. We could just as easily have been recognised as a creative city of literature. And it’s not only Kingston; it’s the entire country.

Jamaica has produced a whole heap of distinguished writers. Edward Baugh, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, Erna Brodber, Colin Channer, Michelle Cliff, Neville Dawes, Kwame Dawes,  H.G. DeLisser, Lorna Goodison, John Hearne, Roger Mais, Rachel Manley, Claude McKay, Kei Miller, Mervyn Morris, Tony McNeill, Mutabaruka, Velma Pollard, Claudia Rankine, Trevor Rhone, Andrew Salkey, Olive Senior, Dennis Scott, Tanya Shirley and Sylvia Wynter are just some of the writers whose work has received international recognition. Many have won major literary prizes.

Linton Kwesi Johnson, who was born in Chapelton and migrated to the UK as a child, enjoys the distinction of being the second living poet and the only black poet to be published in the Penguin Modern Classics series.

lead_960Marlon James recently won the 2015 Man Booker prize and a 2015 American Book award for his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings.  With all its blood and gore, the novel is Kingston hard-core. James’ transformation of the murderous reality of the city into brilliant literature is a powerful manifestation of the creativity of Jamaicans.


In the 1970s, the Jamaica Tourist Board rebranded the island this way: “We’re more than a beach. We’re a country.” UNESCO’s designation of Kingston as a ‘Creative City of Music’ is good news. But we’re much more than music. We’re a creative country in so many domains.

So how are we going to turn our new UNESCO branding into cultural capital? And where is our museum of Jamaica music? It’s on Water Lane, an alley in downtown Kingston. The creators of our music deserve much, much better than this.

The director/curator of the so-called museum, Herbie Miller, has been given basket to carry nuff water. He has done his best to apply tar. Every Sunday in Reggae Month, he hosts a public forum on our music at the Institute of Jamaica’s lecture hall.  This year, the focus was on Don Drummond.


Kingston is, indeed, a capital city for music and literature. If only all our politicians could understand this and invest in our culture!

Independence ‘Pin of Pride’ Made in China

ImageOnce upon a time, the tag ‘Made in China’ was a dead giveaway.  The China brand meant cheap goods of very poor quality.  Over the years, many Chinese products have had to be recalled because of grave safety issues: killer toys, poisonous food, toxic toothpaste, shocking hair dryers, hazardous heaters, flammable baby clothes, deadly lead necklaces, frightfully collapsing stools and recliners, shattering glass, separating tyres and the list goes on and on.

Despite this tainted track record, China is now the largest exporter in the world.  These days, Chinese manufacturers are being held to higher standards, particularly for the export market.  And many U.S. companies, for example, try to get around the ‘Made in China’ stigma by advertising the fact that their products are ‘designed’ at home.  Apple iPhones and iPads, though made in China, loudly proclaim their American pedigree.

China’s appeal as the preferred manufacturing destination for foreign companies is largely based on the low wages and terrible working conditions of poor people.  Top-end ‘cheap’ goods, like electronics, are, arguably, the product of exploited labour.  The social cost is often rather high.  It makes you wonder if some of China’s scandalous manufacturing disasters may not be the result of deliberate acts of sabotage committed by angry workers.

Fake Memories

Image     One of the niche markets in which Chinese manufacturers have long specialised is cheap souvenirs designed for tourist destinations across the globe. The French word ‘souvenir’ means ‘to remember’.  Ironically, the souvenir industry is sustained on the principle that intangible memories are not enough.  Even photographs are not enough.  You need to take home a little piece of something to remind yourself of your trip. Or you might forget just how much fun you had!  I guess.

Most tourists don’t seem to mind if the souvenirs they purchase on vacation aren’t actually made in the places they visit.  Since memories themselves are often manufactured, I suppose it doesn’t really matter if the souvenir of the fake memory is just as fake.

Image      It’s the manufacturers of ‘authentic’ memories that do have a vested interest in protecting tourists (and their own markets) from what they see as rip-off artists.   The screaming headline of a February 3, 2012 article posted on the website of the UK newspaper the Daily Mail warns: “Olympic sell-out!  91% of London 2012 souvenirs made abroad with two thirds coming from China”.

True enough, I went on the website Made-in-China.com and on the very first page there’s an ad for “2012 London Olympic Games Jewellery for Promotion and Accept as a Souvenir”.  The English used in these ads is as ‘authentic’ as the souvenirs.  That’s the trouble with being a global language.  The whole world feels entitled to use you just as they please.  And, in this instance, all that the sellers and buyers really care about is the business deal.  Niceties of grammar are quite irrelevant.

Showcasing nationalism?

Image       Jamaica is in excellent company.  You don’t even need to be a tourist to buy fake memories and even more fake memorabilia.  You can stay right at home.  I suspect that most of our official Independence souvenirs are not made in Jamaica.  I’d be very happy to be proven wrong.  But I do know for sure that the much-advertised ‘Pin of Pride’ is made in China.  I checked with the distributor.

The Jamaica 50 Secretariat gives a grand account of the vision that motivated production of the pin: “The One Million Pins Initiative represents the global movement behind our celebration of fifty years of independence, where all Jamaicans showcase their nationalism by wearing our official commemorative ‘Pin of Pride’ on August 6, 2012.

The OMP Initiative seeks to rally ONE Million Jamaicans to pledge proudly with their Pin of Pride and start a tradition of passing down this trinket of our history from generation to generation”.

It really does sound very good.  Don’t? But couldn’t we have come up with a locally manufactured symbol of national pride?  Did it have to be a pin from China?  And a ‘trinket’ really isn’t so hot.  It’s a rather trifling ornament; certainly not an heirloom.

There are so many world-class artists and artisans in Jamaica!  Couldn’t a collective have designed souvenirs that could actually be mass-produced in Jamaica?  Which would really make us feel proud of what we’ve accomplished as a nation over the last fifty years?  What happened to the sensible economic principle, “Be Jamaican, buy Jamaican”?

‘Might as cheap’

All the same, I have to admit that I do have a ‘Pin of Pride’.  It was a gift I somewhat reluctantly accepted two Fridays ago.  The National Library of Jamaica hosted a brilliant evening of readings of Jamaican literature in Emancipation Park, “From Claude McKay to Olive Senior”.  I was one of the readers and got a trinket of appreciation.

A beautiful exhibition on Jamaican literature was also launched in the park.  Huge display stands tell an edutaining story of our literary journey from colonialism to Independence.  I urge everyone to go and have a look.  It’s something to be really proud of.

To be honest, my ‘Pin of Pride’ does look good.  And since we have a million of them for sale, we ‘might as cheap’ buy them.  At $700, the price is quite modest, considering all the weighty meanings the little pin is supposed to bear.  In any case, I don’t want to be held responsible for any drop in sales of the China pride pins.  I really can’t deal with ‘big foot’.

But, surely, there’s a lesson to be learnt about the cost of pride.  The Chinese manufacturers are likely to be the biggest beneficiaries of Jamaica’s ‘Pins of Pride’.  They will be laughing all the way to the bank.  In our fiftieth year of supposed Independence, we couldn’t manage to produce our own souvenirs that we could be really proud of!  And that’s rather shameful. ,