Buju Banton come off on the rightMe have two sticks of dynamiteAdmiral come off on de left
Me fold a newspaper, man and box yuh til yuh deaf
ATL Autobahn opened a few days ago in Jamaica’s capital city. At the cost of US$15 million, the state-of-the-art car showroom and service center has the regional dealership rights to BMW and MINI brands. With solar panels providing the majority of its power supply and UV-deflecting treatments on the see-through structure, the ATL Autobahn is
stunting stunning. The Autobahn is definitely a stylish space that complements the sleek, modern design of the automotive brands it houses.
I know what I know about the Autobahn because I read the Observer‘s feature on the space in today’s newspaper. But my outsider’s perspective gave me some insight, still. For months I had driven by the space that was ultimately to become the ATL Autobahn. And when the zinc fencing first went up on Lady Musgrave Road, the first to feel the sting were the goats. This is because there are not many green spaces left in the New Kingston area, and the unpaved lot that existed where the ATL Autobahn now rests, was prime grazing land for some twenty or so plump, happy goats. Well, goodbye goats; you were unable to withstand the gentrification process.
The Lady Musgrave Road goats are now long gone — relocated to greener pastures, I hope. Today, the ribbon has been cut, the asphalt has been laid and the concrete, steel, and glass have been erected on Lady Musgrave Road, a road that already carries a history of inequality and privilege as it was paved to appease the insulted eyes of 19th century governor of Jamaica Lord Anthony Musgrave’s wife. It was more than one hundred years ago when Lady Musgrave expressed her preference not to see the mansion of Jamaica’s first black millionaire George Steibel. So, to satisfy her sensitivities to black wealth, Lady Musgrave’s Road was constructed. Today, the goats are gone, the grass is gone, but, in a way, some of the inequality remains.
Last Saturday night, current BMW drivers and the brand’s prospective consumers were treated to an exclusive grand opening party that was akin to a “New Year’s Eve celebration,” according to The Observer‘s report. The highest ranking public sector officials were present and private sector moguls were in attendance as well. Adding to the party vibe, Saturday night’s festivities also featured the musical contributions of the girls’ dem sugar himself, Beenie Man. In his coverage of the event, Rory Daley said that Beenie Man, who famously sang out for the keys to his Bimma twenty years ago, drove into the function modelling an X3M 40i compact SUV then launched into the lyrics of “Sim Simma.” The guests all happily sang along while admiring the collection of cars on display.
The BMW or Bimma has long been seen as a status symbol. After all, it is the ultimate driving machine. It has been the aspirational vehicle for many drivers the world over. It is the vehicle that one drives to communicate driving excellence, smart wealth, and a need for speed. Yes, it is a dream car, but who in Jamaica can comfortably afford this dream? Not most, I’m afraid. When I see the shiny new imported cars, and calculate the duties and taxes to have them here, I am reminded of The Roots’ pointed music video for their 1996 hip hop classic “What They Do.” (The above picture is from the music video. If you haven’t seen the video or heard the song, click here and enjoy.) And from a practical stand point, in Jamaica, where potholes (like the one pictured at left) litter the roads, where rains can easily flood the interior of a car, and parts are expensive to replace, I find it perplexing that with a very low ride height BMW’s 3- and 5-Series vehicles are still sold. I suppose status symbols trump practicality. I suppose idolized objects of wealth win even when they are not ideal for the terrain. Why else is there a Porsche dealership in Jamaica?
Despite the roads and despite the goats, I still very much salute ATL Autobahn. I applaud them for being able to bring an ultra-sleek, energy-efficient architectural space to Jamaica and I am impressed that they did so so quickly. I am also happy to know that Jamaica’s economy is doing well enough for this dealership to be viable. But, when I drive by, I won’t be singing Beenie Man’s Bimmer song. I’ll be thinking of Protoje. Protoje, who did not perform at the opening event, also sings of the BMW and how it can sometimes be a marker of a less savory Jamaica. I’ve cued up the verse below; so you can just hit play.
I suppose national development struggles are always multi-fold, affecting the environment, the people, the animal life, and the economy. Still, I worry about those old Lady Musgrave goats. I hope they are well. As Kingston considers what symbols it wants to project about its status, this capital city will have many more gentrification battles to face. Goats are just the beginning.
Today is World AIDS Day (#WAD2017) and this year’s campaign theme is “Let’s End It.” World AIDS Day was the first global health day. The worldwide day of recognition began in 1988 as a campaign to raise funds to fight the disease, raise awareness about the disease, and commemorate the lives of those who have succumbed to the disease.
For too long AIDS has been thought of as “those” people’s disease. Since the dawn of fear and blame, “those” people have allowed “us” to sleep without worry. “Those” people remind “us” that “we” are okay. And with AIDS it is no different. “We” reason that AIDS is a disease afflicting LGBTQ individuals, so “we” recklessly reason that if “we” do not engage in same-sex encounters, we can never be infected. “We” reason that AIDS is a disease of drug-abusers, so we recklessly reason that as long as “we” do not use intravenous drugs, “we” can never be infected. “We” reason that individuals infected with HIV/AIDS are unattractive, undesirable, economically depraved, unkind, unholy, or uneducated. “We” tell ourselves that HIV/AIDS happens to people who are unfamiliar, people who are unlike “us.” This is the kind of flawed logic that allowed HIV/AIDS to spread during the 1980s and 90s. Few were willing to face the reality that HIV/AIDS has no sexual preference, no socioeconomic preference, no religious preference, no type at all. HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus, needs only a human body for it to thrive.
On this global day of support and reflection, I would like to spotlight the work of poet, writer, playwright, and academic, Kwame Dawes and photographer Joshua Cogan. After carrying out dozens of interviews with HIV infected individuals in Jamaica, in 2007 Dawes and Cogan, in partnership with the Pulitzer Center, created a visually stunning, multi-modal, and interactive website called Live Hope Love (and a book published by Peepal Tree Press) that takes a very human look at HIV and AIDS on the island of Jamaica. For too long HIV/AIDS has been thought of as “those” people’s disease, not “ours.” With the nuanced dexterity that only a poet and a photographer can bring, HIV/AIDS is explored in a way that reminds everyone that disease has no face or status, and that this disease does not discriminate.
In a poem titled “News,” we hear the voice of a man, newly diagnosed with HIV. Kwame Dawes captures the voice of reflection, ignorance, and regret. Dawes captures the voice of someone who thought he knew what AIDS looked like, someone who chose unprotected sex and wound up with a life-long diagnosis. Below, I quote portions of Kwame Dawes’ poem “News.” I warn you, the poem is uncensored and raw in language as well as in subject matter.
At first you look at your naked self
and you hold your dick in your hand,
and you think, “all this, all this
over some quick and fleeting fuck?”
You say you was minding your
business when the woman call
you; say you must come in,
take a test; you say you never know.
But people talk and you heard. Hannah
dead of AIDS. And you remember
Hannah, her legs over your shoulder,
And the way she laughed, dear God!
Outside, you can’t talk to a soul;
don’t know where you must turn.
You want to take a shower, and to shower
For days and days, and days.
But this betrayal of desire
is a cruel, cruel thing, for true.
Let Kwame Dawes’ words serve as a reflection and a warning. Don’t let the ignorance, discrimination, or the “betrayal of desire” infect you.
When we begin to understand that HIV/AIDS does not discriminate, then we all work to end the isolation and the stigma associated with the disease. And when we end discrimination and commit to protection, we all help to end HIV transmission. In honor of World AIDS Day and in honor of all those who have died to this disease, I urge everyone to be wise.
I posted a picture to my Instagram (@riddim.writer) yesterday. The caption was a simple acknowledgment of my #booklife struggle: “organized. not. alphabatized.” When I looked back at the image, I smiled as I realized that my shirt kind of resembles a mesh marina. Moreover, I realized that here I was pouring over some of the Caribbean’s best fiction and non-fiction; but, if I tried to enter any of Jamaica’s libraries in this semi-netted top, I would have been barred! I would have been prohibited from accessing books because of my bare arms. But I wonder if I would suffer a double rejection for wearing a marina-style top, too?
The netted tank-top – known locally as a mesh marina – has, for decades, been a symbol of Jamaican culture. But what is it, what does it represent, and from where does it originate? This iconic Jamaican clothing item was designed and created in the 1930s by a Norwegian army captain. Intended as a “health vest” to keep troops both warm and dry, Norway’s Brynje company began manufacturing and supplying the netted, woolen undergarment that was first adopted by British and American soldiers. The mesh vest didn’t arrive in tropical Jamaica until the 1950s.
From the 1950s to the 1980s the British maintained a view of the vest as an unpleasant marker of working class status. This negative connotation was solidified by the Scottish comic series and character Rab C Nesbitt who brought the underwear to television in the late 1980s.
According to the Wikipedia entry for the Nesbitt character, he is a less than savory man: “[an] alcoholic without denial, deadbeat, self-styled ‘street philosopher’ and ‘sensitive big bastard.’ […] Described by his wife Mary as not ‘an unemployed person’ but ‘the original unemployed person”, Rab is very rarely seen in anything other than a pinstripe suit in very poor condition, rotting plimsolls, a filthy headband and a string vest.” Flagrantly exposing his underwear for all to see, Nesbitt’s low social standing is represented in his rude, indecent attire. It’s interesting to think about the ways that this Nesbitt character connects with Jamaica’s rudeboy, reggae, Rasta, and dancehall counter-culture.
A couple of years ago, when the mesh marina re-surfaced on the bodies of Jamaican artists and the holey undershirt began popping up on fashion runways in Europe and New York, Largeup.com featured an extensive article detailing the history of the underwear that became outerwear. But, as often happens in Jamaica, the Norwegian import took on new meaning and new purpose when it docked in the Caribbean.
The marina became symbolic of the rebellious nature of the “rude boy”, who wore his undergarment as outerwear, aligning the garment with street culture. Reggae music put this rebellious culture onto an international platform, further popularizing the mesh marina as it was frequently spotted under the button downs of iconic reggae artistes like Bob Marley and Gregory Isaacs. (Largeup.com)
While “rude boy” is a term that has fallen out of vogue, so to speak, wearing the mesh marina or “merino” undergarment as an outer garment is still considered to be rude and inappropriate. Moving through Jamaica, signs like this one (right) adorn many a shop, government agency, restaurant, and office park. With startling regularity, dress codes cycle in and out of public debate in Jamaica with the #RightToBareArms being the most recent. A lot of the recent discussion has surrounded women’s clothing, but what about the dear merino? This holey garment (pun intended) is not welcome in “proper” places of business. But, if we really think about the merino metaphorically, it is exactly what we need in “proper” Jamaican establishments because the mesh marina represents an insiding-out of expectations and, more obviously, transparency.
Transparency suggests openness, it signals a willingness to share information. By eliminating the secrecy, this kind of openness has the capacity to build trust. It’s useful to think of the mesh marina as a metaphor for transparency and openness as it does not obscure, it reveals. Unfortunately, in Jamaica, where colonial traditions still remain, transparency is as indecent as a mesh marina. Just try asking someone who holds a position of power either of these questions: “Why is this the way it is?” or “Why can’t this be this way instead?” The answer that Mr. or Ms. I-Have-The-Power will provide will reveal a resistance to transparency, to openness. But openness and a willingness to reveal oneself is what we need more than ever.
Sociologists Holzner and Holzner write in their book Transparency in Global Change: The Vanguard of the Open Society (2006), that “transparency is valued by people who seek freedom” (3). Citizens have greater trust of government if the government is transparent. Not naive, Holzner and Holzner also point out that “many fear openness, since it means the flow of ideas and people across borders, thus respect for human rights and tolerance.” The authors explain that “mastering openness requires learning and adaptation. The open information society is necessarily a learning society, and that is a condition for success, even survival, in this era of global transformations” (3). When I read these words, I paused. Just imagine the learning society that could be fostered here if Jamaica were more open, more transparent, kind of like a mesh marina?!
I’m taking a cue from the aforementioned sociologists and from one of my personal heroes, cultural theorist and sociologist, the late Stuart Hall, I have decided to open up this blog space not only to write pon di riddim of life in the places I call home, but I’m opening up this space to write pon di riddim of my classroom as well. As a way of practicing academic transparency, I’ll be pushing the boundaries of learning discourse. For years now old friends and new acquaintances have asked with wild curiosity, “What happens in your classroom?” and “What Caribbean books do you recommend?” Well, if you would like to join me, here is a bit of what I do.
This semester I have had students read a range of texts. From the foul-mouthed writing in Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to the patwa writing in Miss Lou’s “Dutty Tough” to dancehall poet Vybz Kartel’s “Mhm Hmm” we have analyzed history, society, and culture. From classic rapper Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story” to classic Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay’s “Harlem Dancer” and from a classic Anansi story to a classic tale like “How to Beat a Child the Right and Proper Way,” I’ve challenged students to write, speak, and think beyond the obvious. I’ve challenged students to analyze and not just observe the world that surrounds them. So why am I telling you this? Why am I granting this “access” to the critical engagements that have taken place in my university classroom? The reason is as simple as it is radical. These readings and these conversations foster dialogue and reinforce appreciation of Jamaica’s unique culture.
I am presenting this access because I have been asked to do so. Imagine if more of Jamaica’s institutions and establishments offered mesh marina transparency. Imagine if when you asked a “why” question you were no longer met with a cold “because that is the way it is” reply. Imagine if when you asked “why” you actually got a thoughtful, respectfully inclusive explanation.
Maybe more of us can wear mesh marinas, even if only metaphorically.
Usually, preaching to the converted is a sign of redundancy, but in the case of Netflix’s Dear White People series, I’m not so sure. How many opportunities do black American college students and black American college graduates have to see themselves and their racial experiences hashed out on their television screens or on the silver screen where we first encountered Dear White People in 2014? Not very many. So, for what it’s worth, I thank the cast and crew of Dear White People.
After binge watching all of the Dear White People episodes back in April 2017, I waited for a Jamaican reply, of sorts. Every few weeks I would type into the Twitter search box the following hashtag: #DearJamaicans. I know that the show was viewed here so I supposed that Jamaicans were a part of the choir to whom the show was preaching. Twitter tells me that my supposition was incorrect. There are only a few posts that met the gauntlet that Dear White People’s Sam and Coco set with truth-bombs like: “Dear White People, if you wanted to demoralize us with your European beauty standard, mission accomplished.” But, still, a few is not zero.
Under #DearJamaicans I found a 2014 post by @cly_de (see left) and a few weeks ago, Jaevion Nelson, my Facebook friend and self-proclaimed “opinionated human rights and social justice advocate,” posted a brief “Dear Jamaicans” letter in response to a child abuse video that though initially shared on Whatsapp as a perverse form of humor, ultimately led to the abusive mother’s arrest and a national discussion of corporal punishment (see below). Nelson’s tweet got 32 retweets and @NicolasKhan retweeted Nelson, querying if it should become a hashtag. To date, a #DearJamaicans hashtag has not yet taken set. Why?
Like many of the Caribbean nations that have a majority African descendant population, Jamaica likes to boast a climate free of racism (insert look of suspicion and proceed with voice of sarcasm). Colorist, Jah know! But racist, no, never. Classist to bl**dcl*t. But, racist, no, never. And sexist? You can bet your pretty brown face it is. But why are so few willing to take Jamaica on? Where was #DearJamaica when either of the first two “Zones of Special Operations” (Sept. 2017 in Mount Salem and Oct. 2017 Denham Town) were launched? Zones were set up in the country to help reduce gun violence; but no zones have been established at the wharf — where the guns enter the country illegally. Big up to Dionne Jackson Miller for her weekly, hour-long panel discussion, All Angles, on Television Jamaica. But, that television show aside, why isn’t there more discussion taking place in the uncensored digital space of social media? Why not more public questioning of the instances of police officers shooting and killing particular citizens? Outside of the newspapers’ op-ed pieces, why not more online discussion of incidents of employers not hiring particular applicants?
In Jamaica, these kinds of instances are not necessarily viewed as racial discrimination or race prejudice. Instead, they are understood as encounters between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless, the brown and the black, the men and the women, parents and children. So, in Jamaica, even though these present-day binaries are rooted in a hierarchical, patriarchal plantation system, they are no longer divided racially as black and white. With no black and white binary it becomes clear why there is no #DearWhitePeople for Jamaica. But why no #DearJamaicans? Or, better still, why hasn’t Jamaican Twitter launched a #DearBrownJamaicans or #DearJamaicanMen as these are the two groups that possess power here (as power often leads to abuse of power)? I suppose I’m being provocative and I suppose I’m throwing down a dangerous challenge, as there is risk in ruffling the status quo with curious observation or oppositional thinking. But, there are some among us who have spoken out against what I will call Jamaica’s “traditional modes of discrimination.” Moreover, there are some among us who are boldly holding Jamaica’s privileged class up for scrutiny.
In 2007 international Jamaican music artiste Shaggy outed “Sister Paulette’s” husband and betrayed all of the closeted hypocrites of Jamaica on his incendiary single “Church Heathens.” In 2008 reggae singer Etana sang on behalf of job applicants who are denied jobs because, as the song title says, they have the “Wrong Address.” And earlier this year, reggae singer Protoje released the video for “Blood Money,” a powerful single that is a lyrical critique of the class inequity at the heart of Jamaica’s corruption. (As an aside, of late, dancehall artists seem to be shying away from overtly political statements. Perhaps Popcaan is speaking out. Perhaps Ishawna can be said to be speaking up for women, in a sense. But neither has a song that matches the older work of Vybz Kartel on “Emergency”. Thankfully, Bounty Killer put back on his “poor people’s governor hat” to voice “Duh Betta Than This” on the Law Riddim this October 2017. All fans of his classic, “Fed Up” were surely pleased to hear Bounty take up many of Jamaica’s concerns. But Bounty took a calculated risk, as he opens the song saying “after this they will try to ban me.” Thank you for speaking, Warlord.
But how can the less-musically-inclined Jamaicans challenge the discrimination? As a lecturer at the University of the West Indies, I have encountered some brave and bright minds. But with so much censorship and such limited anti-discrimination legislation in Jamaica, I wonder how are Jamaica’s university students and university graduates negotiating the frustration of living in Jamaica while being aware of discrimination, being woke to sexism, and being conscious of inequity? How are Jamaica’s young, cosmopolitan, professionals responding to the oppressive and regressive work environments that they enter into when they choose to live and work in Kingston? How are they handling the frustration of Jamaican sexism in 2017 (see example below, right)? How are they negotiating Jamaica’s performance of policing, yet the willful blindness to actual criminal activity? And, no, the answer to these questions is not “educated/privileged/brown Jamaicans do not feel frustration.” I regularly engage with students who are unsure of how to negotiate their progressive thinking and their regressive reality. I hear their frustrations and wonder if this realization is what feeds the desire for many Jamaicans to migrate if they can or self-medicate if physical departure is not possible.
I think this kind of accumulated frustration must have motivated writer and director Teeqs to craft the Jamaican mini web series Losing Patience. The series debuted July 2017 and it is smart, laser sharp, and it was right on time because I really was beginning to lose patience with my reality. For its regional uniqueness, I resist making direct comparisons to Dear White People. The lead character is Renee Patience, played by singer, songwriter, and newly-minted social activist Sevana. Renee’s best friend is Desiree, played by Kimberly Patterson of Nick Cannon’s King of the Dancehall. And the very clever Justine Henzell is executive producer. I believe the show’s gift is in how it balances dialogue and silence. As one watches the series, it’s useful to remember that mirrors never talk, they reflect. Through contemporary, uptown Jamaican eyes, this series takes a pointed look at Jamaican ism schism. And through the character Desiree it throws necessary shade on the self-serving use of social media. If you haven’t watched the episodes, I encourage you to do so right now by clicking here. They are mini, but effective catalysts for discussion. With humor to make it accessible, this is just the kind of show to spark the conversations that haven’t been had but need to be had here. And why not on Twitter? The handle @lpwebseries is the fictive Twitter account of the show’s lead character and is described as “Renee’s Random Thoughts.” I can only fantasize about the incisive #DearJamaicans posts Renee would make! Thankfully, season two is written and in pre-production. I hear that the second season is due to arrive early 2018. Praise the creative media gods!
In the meantime, I’ll keep checking Twitter for #DearJamaicans posts. It is clear to me that Jamaica has reached a new critical juncture. The creatives have always been the ones to expose society’s ills. Read Geoffrey Philp’s short story critique of religion and society titled “Dawn of the Dread” or Michelle Cliff’s sharp novel about class, gender, and sexuality titled No Telephone to Heaven, or any culturally classic poems by Miss Lou or Mutabaruka. Reggae music has always chanted down Babylon’s oppressive ways and, traditionally, dancehall music has boastfully rebelled against society’s codes of “decency.” This new visual series is similarly seeking to communicate with the Jamaican audience by pushing the boundaries of social critique.
The warning that accompanies Losing Patience is for viewers to “bringle responsibly” (“bringle” being a patwa term used to describe frustration or anger). Sevana, the singer-actress who plays Renee Patience, recently put her bringle where her heart is, and hosted a Jamaican first: #ShirtForAShow charitable concert. On Saturday, November 11, 2017, in creative partnership with Protoje, Runkus, Lila Iké, Ziah, and Leno Banton, Sevana put on a concert where the only requirement for admission was a donation of clothing for the less fortunate. I was there with my one-bag-ah-clothes and so was everyone else. Singer Lila Iké was on stage bigging up the crowd. Courtesy of @Regrann, check the video Lila Iké posted to her Instagram with the accompanying caption (follow Lila @lilaike) : “#NoteToSelf :Once yuh still got breath for the taking that’s another day to part take in something great and amazing #Thankful #ShirtForAShow was crazy vibes big up @sevanasiren.”
This is what positive vibrations look like and sound like. Sevana converted her bringle into upliftment and a social media hashtag helped. The success of this event shows that anyone of us can be the change we want to see. And after last week’s trending hashtag #RightToBareArms that was aimed at disavowing Jamaica’s out-of-date dress codes, it became clear that Jamaicans are not interested in maintaining repressive rules. And after this weekend’s “Imagine Kingston Conference,” it became clear that Jamaicans have identified the domestic problems and are ready to turn bringle into better. Using our own tools, and not those left behind by the colonial oppressors, it is time to rebuild the nation inclusively and free of discrimination.
Maybe this post will help #DearJamaicans to gain traction as a hashtag capable of uniting progressive Jamaicans to begin the task of rebuilding… Maybe it won’t. In the very least, this post celebrates those among us who are unwilling to rest on phrases like “this is just the way it is in Jamaica.” So, for what it’s worth, I’ll close with this: #DearJamaicans let’s think differently and do away with those traditions that divide us.
See you on Twitter.
Today marks a milestone for Jamaica. No, not Usain Bolt’s retirement run; that was yesterday. And, no, not Elaine Thompson’s fifth place run in the 100 meter event; that was upsetting. Today, August 6, marks a significant milestone as it is Jamaica’s fifty-fifth year of independence. But what does Jamaican independence mean? Just look at what the Jamaica Information Service says about independence:
Jamaica becoming an Independent Nation, now meant that Britain, no longer controlled the affairs of the country. […] Every year on August 6, (previously first Monday in August), Jamaicans celebrate the removal of our dependence on Britain, to control specific functions of the country. At this time we also honour all those persons who were responsible for the transfer of power.
Independence from Britain meant that Britain no longer controlled “specific functions of the country.” What a strange and vague description, no? Independence is a a time when Jamaica celebrates those who were “responsible for the transfer of power.” Goodness, isn’t that yet another interesting use of vague language? It seems to invite fill-in-the-blanks responses from political critics as one could readily insert the United States, the World Bank, the IMF, and/or tourist dollars as the recipients of the 1962 power transfer. But, I digress.
Today is a milestone for Jamaica. Today marks fifty-five years of independence. If Jamaica were a working citizen paying into the National Insurance Scheme, she would still have another ten years before she could retire and access her pension or Old Age Benefit. Presumably, Jamaica would embrace year fifty-five as a year for critical planning. Jamaica would use these next ten years to gain control of all finances and pay-off all debts. Jamaica would use the next ten years to carefully manage all investments and savings so that even if there are unforeseen obstacles, the future is safe and secure. Jamaica would assess her health and healthcare options so that she can not only survive but thrive in her golden years. Jamaica would, ideally by now, own her home and should take this time to fortify its infrastructure so that it lasts for many years to come. This is what Jamaica would and should do if she were a citizen. But she is not a citizen, Jamaica is a nation.
How does this nation prepare to move forward? In my estimation, the first step to forwarding is to stop reversing.
What I am saying is not new. In 1978 Jacob Miller, the gone-too-soon young reggae singer, sang out with love “forward ever, a backward never” yet wherever you go in Jamaica you see signs of backwardness. The reverse entry parking pictures above showcase my point. It is hard for me to calmly express the misfortune I feel when I enter a car park behind a driver determined to reverse into a space. I want to scream out, “Why can’t you just go forward into the space?!” But no, I either have to sit and wait for the driver to do a three-point turn into the space or I have to reverse to give the driver more space to do a five-plus-point turn. The parking lot’s driving lane fills with motorists who must all wait to accommodate these backwards moves. All progress is thwarted. We are all stalled. We all wait. Everyone around me seems un-bothered by this method. Sometimes a car park security guard appears to “assist” the backwards parker. Hand gestures usher the reversing motorist into a space and more hand gestures signal waiting drivers to be patient. I understand the logic of reverse parking (avoiding blind spots, not changing the direction of traffic, better sight for the driver), but the inherent caution associated with reverse parking and the immobilizing traffic jam that ensues, underscore my point: Jamaica, we can and should go boldly forward into spaces.
Barring the nation’s innovative musical history, Jamaica has been regressively cautious when it comes to moving forward. Clothing and dress code rules are often cautiously backwards. Rules regarding how one styles his/her hair in public are anti-progressive. Anti-buggery laws are backwards. Indeed the way that Jamaica polices the bodies of its citizens forwards a very backwards agenda that is steeped in colonialism and its mores. With more than a half-century of granted independence, Jamaica is not yet breaking from the traditions left by the British and Jamaica is still showing a preference for reversing. When will the day come when Jamaica relies less on colonial tradition and more on the potentiality of forward innovation? Wouldn’t that bring practical meaning to Jacob Miller’s words?
Rain clouds began gathering after Usain Bolt finished his 100 meter race yesterday. Heavy rains started to fall yesterday evening and all through the night into today. Some Independence Day events have been delayed but the Grand Gala event at National Stadium is proceeding as scheduled. With Elaine Thompson’s 100 meter upset, the rains returned. Much of Jamaica is wet; but Jamaica is not drowned. We celebrate fifty-five years of independence today. Bolt is set to retire from track competitions following his 4 x 100 meter race on Saturday, August 12. Upon retirement he will be thirty years old. Forbes estimates Bolt’s net worth at US$34M. Jamaica is fifty-five today. Jamaica is not eligible for retirement for at least another ten years and Jamaica has an external debt of US$16.76B (according to December 2016 figures). I do believe Jamaica has many a good race left to run. But, critically, Jamaica has some careful work to take care of before retirement time comes. Jamaica needs to invest in forward-thinking sustainability and infrastructure. Jamaica needs to invest in its women and its young people. Jamaica needs to support its scholars and artists and advocate for creative innovation that pushes beyond the boundaries of music. Jamaica needs to protect its environment and define its brand if she wants to have a comfortable future of independence. Let Jamaica start by heeding Jacob Miller: “forward ever, a backward never.”
Over the last several weeks I have been moving, rooting, stretching, grounding, and building. Check back soon for the manifestation of all this.
In the meantime, stay with me via IG @riddim.writer and/or Twitter @isissemajhall
The riddim cyaa cease and will never sekkle.
Once, in a game we were playing, something terrible happened. A man had recently killed his girlfriend and a man who was his best friend when he found them drinking together in a bar. Their blood splattered all over him. The cutlass he had used to kill them in hand, he walked the mile or so to the police station with the other customers of the bar and some people they picked up along the way. The murder of these two people immediately became a big scandal, and the most popular calypso song that year was all about it. […] Everybody wondered if he would be hanged, which was the penalty for murder; also it became a scandal because everyone had known the woman and all had predicted that she would come to a bad end. Everything about this soon became a spectacle. During the funerals of the murdered man and woman, people lined the streets and followed the hearses from the church to the cemetery. During the trial of the murderer, the courtroom was always packed. […] On the morning that he was hanged, people gathered outside the jail and waited until the jail’s church bell rang, showing that the hanging was completed. (pages 96-7, my emphasis)
In 1983 Jamaica Kincaid, the Antiguan-born author of Caribbean fiction and non-fiction, wrote a beautifully complicated story about a little girl and her introspective path to independence. Annie John, from which I quoted at length above, is a novel steeped with post-colonial discontent, pubescent angst, and the yearning to be something called free. Annie John and her friend Mineu are so enthralled by the community’s response to what can only be described as a heinous act of domestic violence that, in their childish naivete they decide to take the spectacle further by reenacting both the murder and the murderer’s punishment.
When it came to the hanging, we wanted that to be real, too, so Mineu had found a piece of rope and tied it to the top bar of the gate to his yard, and then he would make a noose and put his head in it. When the noose was around his neck, he would grab the rope from above and then swing on it back and forth to show that he was hanged and already dead. All of our playing together came to an end when something bad almost happened. We were playing in the usual way when we came to the part of the noose around the neck. When he lifted himself off the ground, the noose tightened. When he let go of the rope to loosen the noose with his hands, that only made matters worse, and the noose tightened even more. His mouth opened as he tried to get breath, and then his tongue began to come out of his mouth. His body, hanging from the gate, began to swing back and forth, and as it did it banged against the gate, and it made a sound as if he were swinging on the gate—the very thing we were always being told not to do. As all this happened, I just stood there and stared. (page 98)
Re-reading Annie John this morning I had to pause because Annie reminded me that the miscommunication of abuse and death is not new. For a long time now we have been staring at this violence that has served as a guilty spectacle in Caribbean society.
Here in Jamaica we have been gripped two weekends in a row with news of young women – girls – who have been taken, raped, slaughtered, and discarded. These women – these girls – whose bodies have suffered under the sexual aggression of rapists, and the violent aggression of murderers, these women – these girls – have been stripped of their right to rest in peace. Sadly, these women – these girls – have been made to suffer doubly under the post-mortem gaze of the spectator as images of decomposing flesh, alleged to be theirs, is circulated via social media and messaging apps. Sure we shouldn’t shoot the messenger, but why are we sending these images? What are we communicating when we do not speak 15 year old Shanika Gray’s name; but, instead, we stare at a terrifying image of her bare flesh on our mobile devices? What are we communicating when we do not speak Nile Brown’s name; but, instead we stare at an unfathomable image of her naked flesh on our palm-held devices? How are we not complicit in the misuse of their bodies?
I spoke to one man this morning who seemed some what eager to “break the news” to me. His demeanor told me that he was troubled by the “wickedness” that he said is “sweeping the nation,” but his readiness to tell the story suggested a quiet satisfaction at being the one able to pass along the (misuse of) information. What troubled me further was that he could not name Ms. Brown or Ms. Gray as the victims. He could only speak of these women – these girls – using the descriptors that their Whatsapp broadcasted images provided. Shanika Gray became “the one in the skirt” and Nile Brown became “the one in the cut pants” and “the one in the blue barrel.” Message broadcasting, group texts, Instagram, and any other social media that delivers an announcement of death in this gruesome way is doing an injustice both to the deceased and the bereaved. Honestly, can you fathom the idea of having an image of your loved one’s decomposing and tortured body being forwarded around like a party promotion or uploaded to a website for the world to behold?
If I press the issue it is possible to consider that this may be a barbaric legacy that some individuals have decided to resurrect and modernize. Or, perhaps, it is a barbaric legacy that simply never left. I am reminded of that frightful scene in Annie John where the spectacle of violence both desensitizes and paralyzes Annie and almost costs here friend his life. I am also reminded that in 1760 the enslaved Coromantee rebel leader Tacky, was killed then decapitated and his head was mounted on a pole in Spanish Town, Jamaica as a warning to all slaves that this kind of death and shaming would be their fate if they chose to rebel. In 2017, circulating the image of the victimized deceased has become spectacle and an opportunity to shock and frighten the onlooker. We stare at these women’s tortured bodies telling ourselves that we are grieving them. But are we? Why are the majority of these broadcasts, messages, and social media posts images of the innocent? And, no, circulating images of these savage criminals is not the answer either as that will likely just precipitate the kind of vigilante justice that Jamaica needs less of. Rather, the message that needs to be communicated to our communities, to our women, to our girls is a necessary message about caution, protection, empowerment, and self-defense.
This is not how we mourn. Making a spectacle of the victim is not how we ought to warn our citizens that rapists and murderers are among us. This is abuse. We must do better by Ms. Gray and Ms. Brown and all of the unnamed, lost, and forgotten women and girls who have been assaulted, raped, silenced, and senselessly killed.
Rest in peace to all who have suffered not once but twice because of the spectator’s gaze. We can do better. We must do better.
Yes woman yes cry.
The protest continues.
@Escofrass just released “Up Like Trump” last night (January 20, 2017) and I need to be very clear when I say that I do not rate this song.
While the rest of the forward-thinking world was mourning the inauguration of Donald Trump, Jamaican dancehall artist Esco Frass Don Dada was timing the release of his 2017 ride on Rae Sremmurd’s 2014 trap tune “Up Like Trump.” Please forgive me for posting as this song needs a parental advisory and a warning to all feminist and progressive members of humanity.
Esco Frass’ song was teased on Twitter on Thursday and posted last night. It begs our attention not because of its lyrical genius or societal upliftment (it lacks both). What it does is highlight the dangerous ripple effects that Trump’s presidency has put into action outside of the United States. As a woman living in the Caribbean, more specifically, a woman living in Kingston, Jamaica, I am a part of a culture that can, on the one hand, elect a woman to the highest government position; but, on the other hand, still suffer from such a crippling fear of emasculation that violent sexual aggression remains a common, arguably, acceptable course for subjugating women.
Hearing Donald Trump’s hot mic recording loop over and over again throughout this “Don Dada’s” (read: ladies’ man) tune is a sign of just how tragically pervasive the disregard for women’s bodies is globally. I watched the video and was immediately transported back to early October when the “Access Hollywood” story first broke the internet but, notably, did not break Trump’s campaign. In Esco Frass’ defense, (insert me shuddering as I write that phrase) the release of that 2005 recording did not stop Trump from getting elected, so why should it stop a dancehall artist from capitalizing on a now “popular” Trump phrase? The tragedy is that Jamaica seemed poised to adopt the phrase. This is Jamaica, land I love, land that birthed me, and land of daggering. Jamaican popular culture, particularly Jamaica’s musical heritage, has anchored my existence yet I find this song to be particularly dangerous. As I blogged last year with regard to Chaka Demus and Pliers’ “Murder She Wrote,” while our bodies may respond to the vibes, we must stop and consider what the lyrics are saying.
It was only twelve years ago that the very newly minted president of the United States of America was caught boastfully saying: “And when you’re a star [women] let you do it. You can do anything…Grab them by the p*ssy… Some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her… I’m automatically attracted to beautiful – I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait…” Trump’s now infamous but not un-electable message of “Grab them by the p*ssy” are carefully translated by Esco Frass into Jamaican language when he says: “Up like Trump/ Dem gyal a get f*ck/ […] Me no talk, just reach, and feel fi di clump.” The song even references the seedy details of the hot mic transcript when Frass says that he “buy yuh furniture/ buy yuh house/ mi pop off yuh skirt/ den pop off yuh blouse.” Wearing a red tie like the one that Trump donned during the pomp and circumstance of yesterday, Esco Frass also put on white-face, a pout, and a terrible blonde wig to perform Trump-ed up levels of misogyny as he layered the now POTUS’s hot mic words with his own all while riding on a trap track that was versed by a rap clique that values “money, hos, and clothes,” to quote the late Brooklyn philosopher, Notorious B.I.G.
What does it signal when on Inauguration Day a practitioner of dancehall (which is already a misogynistic musical genre) releases a video tune that directly samples Trump’s brand of sexual assault? In my estimation, Esco Frass Don Dada’s choices signal the importance of how Trump’s language of inflammatory rhetoric is going to problematize and endanger all manners of communication and relationships from both the personal to the international level. Specifically, this exposes just how Trump’s very public sexualization of women is being read outside of the U.S. This emphasizes the importance of the end-of-2016 hashtag and movement that gave hundreds of violated Caribbean women the courage to publicly voice their truths about sexual assault. Thank you #lifeinleggings. To some degree, “Up Like Trump” demystifies why there were 10,000 cases of child abuse reported to authorities in Jamaica in 2013 (the majority of those cases were about girls and their trafficking). This video-song may also shed light on why in my island nation of Jamaica there were more than 20 women killed by their domestic partners last year.
Just yesterday I was re-reading Jamaican writer Michelle Cliff’s 1982 essay “If I Could Write This In Fire, I Would Write This in Fire.” The recently and dearly departed Cliff wrote about the destructive rage of having to remain silent about one’s life’s truths. (Thank you again #lifeinleggings.) In one of the sections of the essay she discussed Jamaica of the 1970s, the Michael Manley years. Cliff noted that by 1980 such a significant segment of Jamaica’s educated population had migrated to the US and Canada that the nation had to rally a new campaign to bring in any tourist dollars that it could. “Make it Jamaica again” was the campaign and YouTube makes viewing it possible.
How eerie it is to see that commercial today. Just what “Jamaica” is the commercial asking for as it sings out “Come back to Jamaica/ … What’s old is what’s new.” As the one minute message concludes, a scarved woman dances with vested black men in what looks to be a great house. She wears not the festive bandana plaid that is our national fabric, but rather a type of colonial costume as she looks directly into the camera and says: “come back to the way things used to be.” To when exactly is she referring and what is meant by “the way things used to be”? During this 1982 campaign did Jamaica seek to make itself the “Jamaica” of its colonial past? The questions that this commercial raises are very similar to the questions that Trump’s slogans have raised in the States.
Esco Frass should not be categorized as parodying Trump. He seems to be performing, yes; but, the misogynist intersections are too problematic to be regarded as carrying a humorous intent. Honestly, we lovers of dancehall artistry should find it disconcerting just how at-home Trump’s “p*ssy” grabbing words are on this grimy song.
Rappers and dancehall deejays have too much creative talent to be sampling Trump in these ways. Sampling Trump’s rhetoric of misogyny is not what Jamaican men and women need. With this new and unruly leader at the helm, perhaps now is the time for Jamaica to abandon looking to the United States as a model of how to be in this world. _____ist words are never worth sampling. For the sake of our girls and women in Jamaica and all over the world, better must come.
The period of disbelief is behind us and it is officially Inauguration Day. Last night, after watching a few painful minutes of Donald J. Trump speak about his “huge” wins this past November, I gave up and tuned the television to a local music video channel. “Chip Chop” by Sanjay and Shelly Belly was the perfect distraction. But now it is today. I seek to distract myself some more and I click on the cable box and tune in to the Food Network. Surely there will be nothing there to bring me back to this political reality. Wrong. “The Pioneer Woman” is on.
Self-taught home cook and food blogger Ree Drummond is the star of Food Network’s “The Pioneer Woman.” According to the channel guide, today she is preparing “apple fritters with bacon and sausage for breakfast” and for lunch “pulled pork, classic coleslaw, and quick-and-easy baked beans.” Ree is an American “country girl,” a “ranch-wife,” and mother of four. Her show is filmed at her home in Oklahoma, which she affectionately calls “the middle of nowhere.” (Click here for images of the open fields that are her back and front yard.) And if you go to her personal website she features recipes, food photography tips, and bible verses. Ree’s home is referred to as her frontier and, while I know nothing of Ree’s political affiliations, her show seems to tap into a certain Trump-like American “greatness.”
Unlike the Food Network’s other very popular shows – like Giada de Laurentiis’ Italian dishes, “The Kitchen’s” diverse American and global dishes (importantly, I’ll note that this is a panel show that features both a black woman and a Chicana), Ina Garten’s European and American meals, or Bobby Flay’s Tex-Mex and Latin flavors – Ree Drummond’s show always leaves me feeling a bit … alienated. When Ree invites friends over for scripted meals, there is no racial diversity present. When her children have scripted celebrations or when Ree attends a scripted church function, there is no racial diversity. When Ree heads to the supermarket to shop or to a sporting event to cheer, I search the passers-by and see no diversity. Whose America is that? Certainly it was not my Bronx, USA. Certainly that was not my Philadelphia, USA, or my suburban Washington, D.C., USA.
Admittedly, as a champion baker and home chef myself, I watch a lot of food shows and I have seen more of “The Pioneer Woman” than anyone should. I suppose it might seem that I am belaboring a critique of a thirty minute program, but as the clock winds down to the start of Donald Trump’s America, I am reminded that the America that some of us fear will begin at noon, has actually been here all along, dormant at times and violently raucous at others. American pioneers have been pushing west since 1492. American pioneers have been trampling, pillaging, and taking sacred and hallowed grounds for centuries. American pioneers have been making America great, “huge” even, since its inception.
In these misogynistic Trump times I do not want us to forget that the American west was first to offer women the right to vote. In 1869 the Wyoming Territory granted (white) women suffrage as a way of luring more (white) women to the male-dominated frontier. And in these racist socio-political times we should not forget that it was not until 1917 that (white) women of New York had the right to vote. No, we will not forget that black women did not gain voting rights until 1920 and as late as the 1960s in parts of the American south.
Thinking a bit more about this, the Food Network perhaps thought that it had solved its “race problem” when it cancelled Paula Deen’s shows following her use of the N-word in 2013 and her posting social media pictures of her son in brown-face in 2011. But people have long been critical of the Food Network’s lack of diversity and the whiteness of its hosts as compared to the black and brown, ethnic, and globally diverse culture that is presented on Food Network’s (half?) sister network, the Cooking Channel with chef-hosts like Roger Mooking, Ali Khan, Judy Joo, and our favorite Sister Sister twin, Tia Mowry.
So what does America’s dinner table tell us about America? And what do America’s cooking shows tell us? What does it mean that Ree Drummond has a show and blog called “Pioneer Woman” and her show and blog are popular? It means that Ree is capturing an important segment of the nation. It means that Ree Drummond is making more people feel included than excluded. It means that Americans feel at home in her kitchen. It means that Americans identify with and aspire to live the life that Ree projects. After all, she is just a “country girl,” a “rancher’s wife,” and a mom. She lives in the middle of nowhere and has everything she needs: family, nation, house, land. Her America seems quite great while my America, the America that I have known remains wrapped in uncertainty.
Though I write this from my home in Jamaica, I feel a deep and troubled concern. Tuning into the Food Network did not alleviate my stress. There are, at least, four arduous years ahead. As Donald Trump is sworn-in some of us will will be making our own quiet pledges to ourselves, our families, and to our communities. As the Trump train drives on to make America great again, we will swear on our faiths to make America better. We will be ambassadors of openness and emblems of understanding. We will be pledging to honor the America that represents hope and change.
In the time spent writing this post I have changed the channel. In just under ten minutes a new head of state will emerge to rule the tenuously united states that are America. In just under ten minutes a new leader of the free world will be in command. As I look to the clock and try to make sense of this pinching sadness, I know that trouble has been in the water for centuries. Today I recognize that the trouble was also in the food. Let us not choke on it.