Bob Marley’s Literary Legacy

Bob Marley is one of the finest poets Jamaica has produced. His skilful use of language – both English and Jamaican – compellingly affirms his highly charged literary sensibility. Biblical allusion, proverb, riddle and Rastafari symbolism are all potent elements of his creative writing. His words require the careful critical attention we usually give to poets who don’t know how to sing.

In “One Drop”, Bob Marley vividly defines reggae as a “drumbeat … playing a rhythm/resisting against the system.” And the central concern of his songs is, most certainly, beating down the oppressive social system. Babylon, the whore, the fallen woman of St John’s Revelation, must be chanted down in fiery poetry.

The Rastaman’s chant against Babylon echoes the fall of biblical Jericho. The power of the spoken word is brilliantly manifested in the distinctive language of Rastafari. With upful lyrics, Rastafari condemn downpressors of all stripes. And they teach a revolutionary philosophy that puts truths and rights at the very centre of the new curriculum.

In “Crazy Baldhead”, from the Rastaman Vibration album, the theme of revolution resounds. The social institutions of Babylon are seen as dysfunctional – the educational, religious and penal systems. “Brain-wash education” must be rejected and the con-man/crazy baldhead sent running out of town:

Build your penitentiary

We build your schools

Brain-wash education to make us the

fools.

Hateraged you reward for our love

Telling us of your God above.

We gonna chase those crazy

Chase those crazy bunkheads

Chase those crazy baldheads

Out of town.

Here comes the con-man

Coming with his con-plan

We won’t take no bribe

We got to stay alive.

ROBBERS AND SELLERS

Marley’s lyrical “Redemption Song”, from the Uprising album, is a classic example of the songwriter’s literary skill. The opening lines telescope time, compressing a whole history of exploitation and suffering into minutes:

Old pirates, yes

They rob I

Sold I to the merchant ships

Minutes after they took I

From the bottomless pit

Marley’s use of the word ‘pirates’ confirms the fact that many heroes of the British empire were nothing but common criminals. Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake were key actors in the slave trade, earning great wealth from the business of human torture. But Marley also reminds us that Africans were implicated in the mercenary enterprise of transatlantic slavery.

The ambiguous placement of Marley’s neutral ‘they’ inextricably links both the robbers and sellers. There is no real difference between the ‘they’ who rob and the ‘they’ who sell. True, if there were no buyers, there would be no sellers. But the instinct to exploit seems to be our common inhumanity.

iaap2In “Redemption Song”, Marley also acknowledges the divine hand that enabled victims of enslavement to rise from the bottomless pit of horror that was the Middle Passage:

But my hand was made strong

By the hand of the Almighty

We forward in this generation

Triumphantly.

This triumph requires of us a song, as the Melodians so plaintively chanted in Rivers of Babylon. Putting to music Psalm137, verse 1, they, like Bob Marley, knew that song is therapy:

Won’t you help to sing

These songs of freedom?

Cause all I ever have

Redemption songs.

HEAD-DECAY-SHUN

Redemption SongsBob Marley appears to be contrasting songs of freedom with redemption songs. There’s a popular hymnal, Redemption Songs, that was first published in London in 1929 or thereabouts. It has become part of the religious culture of Jamaica, regularly showing up at wakes. The title page describes the book in this way: “A choice collection of 1,000 hymns and choruses for evangelistic meetings, solo, singers, choirs and the home.”

Redemption Songs seems to have come to Jamaica with evangelicals from the United States. It was my friend, Erna Brodber, a historical sociologist and novelist, who persuaded me that Marley is actually rejecting “redemption songs”. They are part of the Euro-American religious legacy. And that’s all he was once forced to have.

But there’s another meaning of redemption that I think we should also take into account. Redemption is the act of buying oneself out of slavery. The religious and commercial meanings of ‘redemption’ converge in Marley’s song. Redemption songs are also songs of freedom. There is divine grace – the hand of the Almighty. But there is also the practical justice of freeing one’s self from both physical and mental slavery.

Marley’s Redemption Song is both a rejection of evangelical Christian orthodoxy and an affirmation of a new redemptive vision. So, Marley pays tribute to Marcus Garvey, who prophetically declared, “We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind.”

But Garvey does not stop there. He gives a profound warning: “Mind is your only ruler, sovereign. The man who is not able to develop and use his mind is bound to be the slave of the other man who uses his mind.”Garvey is advocating a new kind of education. Not ‘head-decay-shun’, as Rastafari mockingly describe colonial schooling. If that’s all we ever have, we will continue to be enslaved by old notions of redemption. Like Bob Marley, we must create our own new songs of freedom.

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Passive Resistance At UWI, Mona

Three days after the student protest at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, over the administration’s firm response to the non-payment of fees, I had a most unsettling experience in the examination room for my Reggae Poetry course. University regulations require examiners to be present for the first half-hour of every exam, just in case any clarification is needed about the paper.

After about 20 minutes or so, it struck me that one of the brightest students in the class was missing. I walked up and down the rows of candidates more than once to make sure. I even disturbed one of her friends to ask if he knew where she was. Given the large number of exams that have to be scheduled, there are inevitable timetable clashes. So provisions are made for students to take a clashing exam at another time and venue under special supervision. But, as far as he knew, she should have been there.

I hurriedly phoned her. She was such a good student, I knew that even if she came late to the exam, she could pass it. She didn’t answer, so I left a voicemail message. Two days later, she emailed to say that she had come to the venue but wasn’t allowed to sit the exam because of registration issues. In response, I asked what, exactly, was her story. She didn’t seem to be the kind of student who would not make appropriate arrangements to pay fees. She came to class regularly, did her coursework assignments and was all set to earn an ‘A’ grade.

I haven’t heard back from from her. Of course, she owes me no explanation. But I did leave another voicemail message because I was quite concerned. I wondered if she was too embarrassed to let me know that she had been plain delinquent. Or had been hoping for a miracle.Despite the hard line I took last week in condemnation of those unconscionable protesters who stopped their classmates from taking their exams, I do have reservations about the policy to stop students from sitting exams. My missing student sealed the case.

A moral dilemma

As soon as I heard about the protest, I called the office of the campus principal. I wanted to know why the option of withholding exam results was not seen as a better solution to the problem of non-payment of fees. It seemed simple enough. Students could not register for the next academic year, or graduate, if they owed fees. But if they were prevented from taking exams, they, obviously, couldn’t pass them. A whole semester’s effort would be wasted.

As it turns out, for the last two years the university administration had, in fact, leniently allowed students in arrears to take exams and their grades had been withheld – officially. But sympathetic lecturers had been sabotaging the system by releasing grades to the students. Armed with the knowledge that they had passed their courses, students managed to manipulate the system and re-register. There seems to be widespread passive resistance to the official policy. And this is understandable.

Academic failure should not be the inevitable consequence of economic disadvantage. It becomes a moral dilemma, not just a cut-and-dried financial issue. Many UWI students are, in fact, quite poor and are struggling to come up with the basics of survival. True, many of them have expensive cellphones. But very few of them have credit. That’s a very elusive commodity. In fact, ‘credit’ seems to be purely virtual. I often overhear conversations that start like this, ‘Anybody have any credit?’ Yes, ‘have’. Most students speak Jamaican outside the classroom. The usual response to the credit question is a big laugh. Or someone will admit to having $20 or so.

With my ‘faas’ self, I often ask students how come they have expensive phones and claim they can’t afford to buy books. They always say it’s a gift. So I persist. Why can’t you ask your benefactor to buy books instead? They look at me as if I’m crazy. Books instead of a cellphone? A student actually told me that she’d lost her phone and her “whole life mash up”. So I’ve come to accept the fact that no self-respecting young person can live without a cellphone. It’s the not-quite-adult equivalent of a baby’s pacifier. Seriously, though, students do take lecture notes on their phones and search the Internet for assignments. So the cellphone is not just an expensive indulgence; it’s an academic tool.

UWI cheaper than prep schools

There is a small minority of students at Mona who are relatively wealthy. I suppose these are the students who would have gone to college in the US in better times: before Olint became Cash Minus. Given the high cost of tuition in the US if you don’t manage to earn a scholarship, UWI is a big bargain. Here, in many cases, undergraduates are taught by full professors, not graduate students. Even in brand-name US universities, most of the undergraduate teaching is done by graduate students.

In comparison to US tuition fees in excess of $40,000 per year, UWI tuition fees of approximately US$2,000 per year are quite affordable for some middle-class families. Much cheaper than your typical upscale prep school. But for the vast majority of UWI students, US$2,000 might as well be US$40,000. It ‘s still out of reach. And most students don’t want to take a student loan. As I understand it, the loan becomes repayable within three months of graduation, whether or not the borrower gets a job. So students would rather ‘batter-batter’ than get caught in what they see as the student-loan trap.

I routinely give nutrition lessons in my literature classes, warning students that they can’t function on dry biscuits. And I’ve taken to keeping sweeties in my office. It’s not real food, but the students appreciate the gesture. I once got a very ‘sweet’ joke in class. One of my students confessed that she’d been rummaging in her bag and unexpectedly came up with one of the sweeties. As she put it, “It was like heaven.” The whole class laughed, and some of them admitted that they’d had the same experience.

Fun and joke aside, funding tertiary education in Jamaica today is no laughing matter. Sensitive to the complex social issues, the UWI administration is giving debarred students the opportunity to take exams in the summer semester. This is a welcome stopgap measure. But the contentious problem posed by large numbers of students perennially in arrears is not going to disappear overnight. New, long-term solutions have to be crafted. Otherwise, as a society, we’ll be forced to concede that our underfunded public education system simply cannot earn a passing grade – from GSAT all the way to the top.

Cooking Up A Storm In The ‘Intellectual Ghetto’

Last Wednesday, CVM TV aired an intriguing documentary on the life of Wilmot Perkins.  The sinister title of the programme promised high drama: Unmasking ‘Motty.’  Presumably, Motty had been masquerading all along as everything but himself. The TV programme was, apparently, designed to blow the dead man’s cover.

Elaine Perkins

I did see a new side of Motty.  He was very much a self-made man.  The most memorable mental picture from the documentary is the room full of tools for the many trades Motty mastered.  According to his widow, Elaine, Motty had a passion for shaping his world with his own hands.  He built several houses from scratch, a challenge that would stump his less clever detractors.

As it turns out, all of us who agreed to be interviewed for the documentary unmasked ourselves to some degree.  Our view of Motty was defined by our own angle of approach.  D.K. Duncan was deadly.  He pulled no punches.  By contrast, P.J. Patterson was rather restrained.  Much attacked by Motty, P.J. was, nevertheless, quite gracious in his final judgment of the man.

I thought I’d behaved myself.  All the same, I ended up in trouble with Mrs. Perkins. In response to a question from the presenter, Andrew Cannon, about why the University of the West Indies, Mona (UWI) was constantly attacked by Motty, I offered this opinion:

Motty at St. Peter's College

“Well, I saw Motty as a man who didn’t get a chance to get the formal education that he wanted.  And I felt that having dropped out of ahm the seminary, and didn’t, you know he didn’t get the opportunity to go back to university, he ‘carried a little feelings’ against university-educated people.  He used to ‘throw word’ on the University of the West Indies – the intellectual ghetto.  And, you know, you don’t want to say is because he didn’t come to UWI; but he sounded like a lot of it was just ‘bad mind an grudgeful’”.

Elaine Perkins was not amused. Staunchly defending her husband’s contempt for the intellectual ghetto, this is what she had to say:  “Well if it produced her, it is indeed a ghetto.  He’s not wrong.  You know, why doesn’t she go and, you know, do some good work for her country.  She should do something worthwhile with herself.  Go and cook!”

Miss Hottas

And there I was thinking I was already cooking!  My students in the intellectual ghetto like to call me ‘Miss Hottas’.  I tell them I can’t leave all the hotness to them.  I have to keep ‘lickle fi miself’.  So I just laughed when I heard Elaine Perkins trying to relegate me to the kitchen in a most classist and un-feminist way.

But so many people have commented on what they saw as her deliberate rudeness, I felt obliged to become aggrieved.  I didn’t want to disappoint my defenders who were winding me up.  But before getting all hot and bothered, I thought I should ask Mrs. Perkins exactly what she meant by cooking.  Perhaps, she simply wanted me to have a nice diversion from intellectual work.

I called CVM TV and asked the producer of the show, Garfield Burford, to put me in touch with Mrs. Perkins. She told him she didn’t want to talk to me.  And I could write anything I felt like about her. Living with Motty must have its rewards.  You learn how not to give a damn.

So here’s how I deconstructed Mrs. Perkins’ off-the-cuff remark.  The ‘ghetto’ bit didn’t bother me.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘ghetto’ is an abbreviation of the Italian word  ‘borghetto’, meaning “the quarter in a city, chiefly in Italy, to which the Jews were restricted”.  True, the word implies discrimination.  But people who are culturally isolated often turn disadvantage into opportunity.  They are forced to become self-reliant and very creative.

Last Thursday, as I watched Kevin MacDonald’s magical documentary on Bob Marley, I kept thinking of just how many talented people have emerged from Trench Town!

That ghetto has certainly been a centre of intellectual ferment.  If the University of the West Indies could find a way to recharge and transmit the creative energies of Trench Town in its heyday, we’d definitely be cooking.

Flying past my nest

Elaine Perkins appears to have unmasked herself by sending me off to the kitchen.  Throughout the documentary, she tried to present a pretty image of Motty as a defender of poor people.  He was a heroic figure who wanted to see the underprivileged rise up to claim their rightful place in a truly democratic Jamaica.  And Mrs. Perkins’ seemed to share her husband’s love of the oppressed.

Caribbean Domestic Workers Network Launch

But her dismissive ‘go and cook’ comment could reasonably be interpreted as a sign of vexation that I had flown past my nest.  My branch of work clearly ought to be domestic service. Even so, are helpers not entitled to pass judgment on Motty? And how could I be bright enough to think I’m qualified to be a professor?  Only at a ghetto university.

For the sake of my supporters, I must defend myself against Mrs. Perkins’ charge that I’m good for nothing but cooking.  By the way, I’m a pretty good cook.  The problem I have with cooking is that the fruits of one’s labour are so quickly consumed.  You cook for half a day and it’s all over in a few minutes.

I know I’ve done ‘something worthwhile’ with myself for the three decades I’ve taught literature and popular culture at the University of the West Indies.  Just last week, at the final class for the semester on “Reggae Poetry”, I asked students what had they really learnt in the course.  One of them said, “I’ll never look at reggae the same way.”  Another said, “I didn’t know it was that deep”.  That’s good enough for me.  I’ll just keep on cooking.

Kartel To Lecture At UWI

I got an instructive email from Vybz Kartel last Wednesday in response to my letter to the editor published that same day (‘More on Kartel and bleaching’). I reproduce it here with his permission. Since the email was sent on his BlackBerry, the punctuation was a bit informal, so I did just a little editing for clarity.

“Ms Cooper, firstly, I’d like to wish you a pleasant goodnight (or morning depending on when u receive this email). Secondly, I’d like to say that I am the author of the song. Russian didn’t write a line. And if you’d paid as much attention to the dexterity exhibited in the song as you have to the perceived subliminal messages of self-hate blah blah blah etc etc, you’d have figured that out.

“Thirdly, neither ‘di gyal dem’ opinion or urs matter to vybz kartel. What matters is that my songs get so popular (as is the case with the one u and ur colleagues ‘a look a fawud offa’), I can provide for myself and my family which I have been doing and will continue to do so, especially with the help of people such as urself who, by giving so much energy to vybz kartel via articles like this, make vybz kartel ‘the talked about one’. Which is all I need to capitalise on the prize. I hope you people write about me every day of the week. Thanks and have a goodnight.

“Famously yours, ADIDJA ‘MICHAEL CAKESOAP JACKSON’ PALMER”

Clovis cartoon (Jamaica Observer)

I sent an equally frank response:

“Mr Palmer, great to hear from you. I’ve wanted to link with you for a long time, so I’m glad you decided to get in touch with me. I don’t know if you saw my column on Sunday, as well as yesterday’s letter to the editor. Here’s the link to that column:

http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20110227/cleisure/cleisure3.html.

Spice and Kartel in di Rampin Shop

“I certainly agree with you that the more we talk about Vybz Kartel, the more popular we make you. I don’t have a problem with that. In fact, I’m quite proud of all the DJs who have been able to make a very good living from their craft. Mi know nuff people grudge unnu, but I am not one of them. I don’t know if you saw my column in which I strongly defended Rampin’ Shop when other people were attacking you and Spice. Here’s the link to that column: http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20090222/cleisure/cleisure6.html.

“Thanks for clarifying that you are the author of the lyrics that Russian performed. So, in a sense, I was right that those are all your words. Then, as you say, I know my opinion doesn’t really matter to you. But, for what it’s worth, I think you’re such a powerful role model for young people, I’m hoping you would think about reclaiming your original skincolour, which I thought was quite fine. Yes, I know, that’s just my opinion.

“I see Michael Jackson is a role model for you. But he really was a tragic figure. My opinion again :=) Michael was such a cute, little black boy. And he turned himself into a monstrosity.  Just look at the history of his face:

Michael Jackson was rich enough to manufacture himself but ‘im never turn out so right’. Something went wrong in the factory.

“Even if he’d had vitiligo, he didn’t have to end up looking the way he did. Anyhow, mek mi know what yu think about all of these opinions. And, given your appreciation of the role of the media in feeding celebrity, I figure you won’t object to my reproducing our email correspondence in my column on Sunday. So let me know if it’s OK with you. And in response to your P.S., ‘pretty’ is a word usually associated with females, as distinct from ‘handsome’, which usually refers to males.

“Then I teach a course on Reggae Poetry at UWI and the first assignment I give students each year is to select any reggae/dancehall song they like and analyse its literary qualities. As usual, some of the students selected your songs this semester. It would be great if you would come to one of the lectures and talk about your creative work. I can just see the headline, ‘Vybz Kartel lectures at UWI’. DWL. Looking forward to your response.

“Bless

“Carolyn”

Public education

Mr Palmer readily accepted my invitation. So Vybz Kartel is going to lecture at UWI this Thursday at 7 p.m. on the topic ‘Pretty Like a Colouring Book: My Life and My Art’.

The Department of Literatures in English and the Centre for Gender and Development Studies are hosting the lecture, which takes place at the Undercroft of the Senate building. The public is invited to attend.

I’d actually like to see Vybz Kartel register as a student at the University of the West Indies and apply his considerable intellect in another sphere of influence. How many young men on the corner might consider the option of formal education if they saw Kartel in university!

Another cultural event this week to which the public is invited is the launch of the book Herbs of Jamaica, written by Ivelyn Harris, a seventh-generation Maroon herbalist. The launch takes place on Thursday at 3 p.m. in the Lecture Hall of the Institute of Jamaica on East Street.

Ms Harris has spent over 30 years documenting the healing properties of Jamaican herbs. These natural products have been tested by the Maroons for more than 300 years. Herbal remedies can improve sexual stamina; heal rashes, sores, stings and bites; relieve menstrual, urinary and prostate problems; and a host of other ailments. I wonder if there’s a herbal cure for the mental slavery, which is so vividly manifested these days in the plague of skin bleaching.