kinda like a mesh marina

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?  Screenshot_2017-11-20-22-16-04

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.

Mesh Marina Collage
Left, dancehall artist Terry Ganzie wearing a mesh marina on a 1992 album cover (largeup.com). Top right, a crass Scottish meme featuring a 1980s Rab C. Nesbitt in his mesh marina “uniform” (imgur.com). Bottom right, dancehall superstar Shabba Ranks wearing a mesh marina alongside Donald Trump at a 1992, NYC Grammy Awards party (dre1allianceent.com)

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 cultureReggae 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. 20160811_123815 (1)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.

#dearjamaicans, we’re better than we know

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.  Screenshot_2017-11-14-21-48-21Every 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.

Screenshot_2017-10-24-10-19-08

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.  Screenshot_2017-10-24-10-33-01To 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)? Screenshot_2017-11-03-13-43-56 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.  losing patience logoThe 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.