It’s Reggae Month and Black History Month, combination style. Unless you have superhuman stamina, you cannot possibly keep up with all the events. I’m not even trying. I’ve selected a few and that’s it. I have a day job and I simply cannot ‘bleach’. Neither in English nor Jamaican.
Incredibly, the English words ‘bleach’ and ‘black’ seem to share a common origin. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, they both appear to come from a prehistoric language for which there are no written records. This tongue has been reconstructed by linguists who see it as the ancestor of many of the modern languages of Europe and Asia.
In this ancient mother tongue, the word “bhleg” meant “to burn, gleam, shine, flash”. The flash of fire became brightness as in ‘bleach’; and the burning produced darkness as in ‘black’. I can just imagine how pleased Vybz Kartel would be to realise that there is linguistic evidence for his paradoxical claim that bleaching is not necessarily a sign of self-hate. It might actually be a most peculiar manifestation of blackness.
Seriously, though, I gave a paper yesterday at the International Reggae Conference held at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Scholars from across the world came to Jamaica to reflect with us on “traditional and emerging expressions in popular music”. I focused on Vybz Kartel’s insightful book, The Voice of the Jamaican Ghetto. And I mean ‘nuff’ insights.
Co-author Michael Dawson, of People’s Telecom fame, admits that, “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”? In the chapter “No Love for the Black Child” Kartel gives a sarcastic answer: “Ironically, I lightened my skin and everyone condemned me. All of a sudden there is an outpouring of love for black skin”.
Kartel elaborates the ironies: “Some of my executioners are women with false hair, multi-coloured contact lenses or others who have been using various agents to ‘cool down’ their skin. All of a sudden, after 500 years they start to love the Black Child? Or is it me you hate?”
Adulterers and Homosexuals
One of the most popular sessions of the conference was the Annual Bob Lecture, delivered by Alan ‘Skill’ Cole. It wasn’t really a formal lecture, as the title made clear: “Bob Marley: The Man That I Know”. The talk was an intimate, wide-ranging celebration of an exceptional friendship.
This is how ‘Skill’ puts it in the programme notes: “I trained him . . . and we lived a life consistent with being a good athlete. . . . . We would wake up around 4:30-5:00 and train; eat, then go to the studio; then go sell records; come back, play some football and, in the night-time, write some music”.
I missed a fair bit of the talk because I had a class. One of the moments I found most touching was Cole’s nostalgia about going to bathe with Bob some nights at a spring just above Papine. I couldn’t help thinking that these days, two men bathing together would be a sure sign of ‘deviant’ behaviour that should be both bleached and burned.
Healthy relationships between men have been contaminated by fears of homosexuality. In Black History Month, as we attempt to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery, we really do need to look again at some of the Old Testament judgements that are completely irrelevant in the modern age. The book of Leviticus condemns adulterers but we conveniently ignore that inconvenient fact. Why can’t we do the same with homosexuals?
Another big event for Reggae Month is the launch today of the book Global Reggae. This is how Kwame Dawes describes it (and I didn’t pay him a red cent): “Carolyn Cooper has skilfully edited a book of startling visual design and intellectual depth that manages to demonstrate, through complex and varied voices, reggae’s astounding impact on the globe. The term ‘essential’ is used a lot these days, but sometimes it is a fit and righteous word to employ. Global Reggae is essential reading for anyone who is seeking to appreciate this great cultural phenomenon.”
All of the contributors to the Global Reggae compilation are authorities in their field: Kam-Au Amen, Peter Ashbourne, Erna Brodber, Louis Chude-Sokei, Brent Clough, Carolyn Cooper, Cheikh Ahmadou Dieng, Samuel Furé Davis, Teddy Isimat-Mirin, Ellen Koehlings, Pete Lilly, Amon Saba Saakana, Roger Steffens, Marvin D. Sterling, Michael Veal, Leonardo Vidigal and Klive Walker.
It was the Third World Band who popularised the idea of the “reggae ambassador”. And they tell a now familiar story:
“So everywhere I jam it’s the same question
‘How can a big music come from a little island?’
When the music play[s] it leaves them in a state of shock
The big-big music from the little rock!”
The self-concept of Jamaicans certainly cannot be measured by the small size of our island. We’re much more than a little speck in the Caribbean Sea. And it was Shabba Ranks who so vividly said that it is the talent of reggae and dancehall artists that enables them to “fly off Jamaica map”.
The launch of the Global Reggae book takes place at PULS8, 38A Trafalgar Road, and starts at 6:00 p.m. The public is invited and admission is free. Guest speaker is Michelle ‘DJ Afifa’ Harris, a doctoral candidate at the University of the West Indies, Mona and a very talented selector. Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus, Jah 9, Protoje, No-Maddz and Cali P will perform. If all goes well, the event will be streamed live on the Internet at UWI TV and will be archived here: http://tv.mona.uwi.edu/. After all, Global Reggae is a big-big book that fly off Jamaica map.