the end is near

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. 41b33zhidrl-_sx326_bo1204203200_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.

#spreadtheword  #dontspreaddisease

 

 

sampling and sound’s effects

@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.”  c2kzdmzxeaaetvuWearing 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.  colonial-returnShe 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.

it’s even in the food

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.

donald-trump-pork
Photo credit: http://www.ibtimes.com,  Reuters photographer Jim Young, August 2015

 

 

Welcome (back) to Jamrock

On August 2, 2016 movers took the contents of my home and placed them into a shipping container. A few days later, on the 54th anniversary of Jamaica’s independence, with one-way airline tickets purchased, my family and I arrived via Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston, Jamaica to stay.

I had planned to document my return to Jamaica by writing about my experience at the Tax Administration Office where I completed paperwork, sat, and waited for my number to be called while the woman in front of me gathered all of her impolite judgment to question another patron about why her “baby so small.” I wanted to write about my experience at the Passport Immigration and Citizenship Agency where the guard attempted to bar me access because, in his paid opinion, my dress “favor one merino” 20160811_123815and merino shirts are not permitted in government buildings, despite the sweltering outside temperature, a topic that Rawle Ramjag takes up in a Trinidadian context here.  I had planned to write about my trip to the National Insurance Scheme where I watched the Olympics and we all sat at a large meeting table in a space that looked like it was adapted for Jamaica’s own version of the cult classic movie The Breakfast Club (1985), despite it being the year 2016.   I wanted to write about the time when I tried to move money between international bank accounts but was not allowed to because the Jamaican bank red-flagged the transaction because of my first name.  I thought I would surely write about the 9 AM to 12 PM installation window that FLOW Internet guaranteed but did not fulfill until after 10 PM and only after a few whistles were blown and a few favors were called in.  It seemed inevitable that I would write about my impossible attempts to gain information from a less-than-enthusiastic customs agent whose tone only softened after she asked and I told her my last name.  I expected that I would write pon di riddim of the colonial legacy at work at Hopefield Prep, but Kei Miller’s blog post and latest novel Augustown (2016) do such a marvelous job of it already. I considered offering my own take on Jamaican singer Etana and US presidential candidate Donald Trump as a way of demonstrating the downside to having an audience.

 On a more personal level, I thought I would write about the sweet voice linked above. It was just last week that my daughter began displaying linguistic absorption of Jamaica as signified by her abandonment of the soft “d” pronunciation of the letter “t” in such words as “beauty” and “creatively” and her adoption of the clearly articulated “t” sound spoken by life-long Jamaican residents.  And, for sure, as a Caribbean literary scholar hailing from and returning to Jamaica, I yearned to write about my first drive down Hope Road, through Barbican, over into Manor Park, and high up into the mountains of Stony Hill 20160925_154519croppedwhere I would stop the car, pull over as much as one can, and gaze down at that breathtaking sight of Kingston and of the Palisadoes view that Michelle Cliff captures in No Telephone to Heaven (1987), a book that helped to define my understanding of postcolonial studies.

I did not write these pieces… yet.  Everyday of my migration in reverse has had its challenges and rewards and everyday has allowed too few minutes for reflection. But somehow, in the calm before the storm, I am finding some footing.

As I wait for Hurricane Matthew to drench this land, I have been forced to consider what Matthew means to me, which means I have to confess that I do not like storms. They are wet and windy, and they are also viciously noisy.  They cause flooding that destroys property and they bring powerful winds that can result in fatalities. They uproot trees and they also uproot people.

Having left Jamaica in 1988 on the heels of Hurricane Gilbert, I face Matthew with some trepidation and some wonder. 2016-10-01_17-33-35I consider what might have been. I wonder what would be different if Gilbert had lost momentum and been downgraded from category five to category four or three…  I wonder how my life and the lives of others would have been different if Gilbert had changed course and taken a more easterly route…  I regain focus and think of what impact Matthew will have on the future as even outer-band gusts and rainfall amounts pose a significant threat to infrastructure… and identity.

It has been two months since I have returned to live in the land I love. Tonight I am waiting on a storm that “soon come” and I do not take any of this lightly.   I am here in Jamaica for a reason.  Like comedic Jamaican writer Anthony Winkler, I have come home to teach.  You can find me formally lecturing in literature at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus. But you can also find me offering free, unwanted lessons regarding efficiency at bookshops and furniture sellers. You may even find me providing the diligent bag-packers at any, if not all, of the supermarkets with very much unwanted information about environmental waste and the need to reduce the use of black “scandal” bags.

From Jamaica to the diaspora and back again, I am here.  Still decolonial, I shifted locations but sharpened my perspective.  Hurricane Matthew would have been new to this place, maybe he is too shy to arrive.  Not I.  So I’m taking this opportunity to welcome myself back to Jamrock.  Mi deh ya.

we say no, but do our bodies say yes?

boomshot.com lighterAs lovers of conscious reggae music we respond to the rhythm with our bodies.”
These are the words I wrote in my sx salon article to describe the way listeners show bodily agreement when experiencing the “layered messages” of a roots reggae band like Burning Spear.  With classic big chunes (tunes) like “Columbus,” Burning Spear’s lyrics speak to ancestral Africa, colonial abuse, and cultural upliftment.  From the horns to the bold lyrical content, yes, yes, and YES, Spear, “Christopher Columbus was a damn blasted liard”!

But, by this token, what ideas and beliefs might we be agreeing with when we nod along, two-step, flash a lighter, wave a rag, lick a shot, buss a wine, or wuk up to a classic big chune like this one heard here: Now before you think it, NO, I am not calling for a moratorium on another Jamaican dancehall anthem (read this Independent article or this Guardian article on how LGBTQ human rights have continued to be threatened by songs like “Boom Bye Bye” and “Chi Chi Man”). Carolyn Cooper, professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, has published widely on the why-it-is and why-it-is-not of Jamaican homophobia in music.  Similarly, Sonjah Stanley Niaah, cultural studies professor at the UWI, Mona Campus, also regularly critiques how we understand misogyny and body politics in Jamaican dancehall and reggae music. Taking a cue from them both at the always dangerous time that surrounds public discussions of women’s reproductive rights I urge all of us to be more active listeners. We must question the sounds that we hear.

“Murder She Wrote” hit Jamaica’s sound system speakers in 1992, about 25 years ago, but Chaka Demus and Pliers continue to peel club going wallflowers from their posts with what is arguably a staunchly conservative, anti-abortion, pro-life rhetoric that playfully rides over the pulsing bass line of Sly and Robbie’s production. Place and time, also known as the contemporary context, has greatly altered my hearing of the song.

[Chaka Demus DJs/chats] Yuh face is pretty, but your character dirty.
Gyal you just a act too flirty-flirty.
You run to Tom, Dick,
An’ also Harry.
An’ when you find yuh mistake
You talk ’bout yuh sorry,
Sorry, sorry…

[Pliers sings] Now every middle of di year dis girl have abortion,
Fi di coolie, di white man, and di Indian.
An jus’ di other day me see her 6 months pregnant

And now she pop a street wit’ not a baby inna pram…”

Calling into question a woman’s character as “dirty” and commenting on a woman’s sexual choices as “flirty-flirty” behavior is not veiled language, it’s damning. Suggesting that “Maxine”, the main character in this lyrical tale of shame, has annual abortions to correct her “mistakes” is wholly dismissive. It dismisses all circumstances — from socioeconomic to possible sexual violence — surrounding her pregnancies.  And to suggest that Maxine is not a fit partner or, as Chaka Demus says, “gyal yuh no ready if you cyaa cook fi me,” [girl you’re not ready if you cannot cook for me] further emphasizes patriarchal, masculine discourse that both damns and domesticates women.

Still, “‘Murder She Wrote’ is a must. Dem still a play it hard a club all over the world. When yu go inna de Yankee club, the white people club, dem still play it,” Pliers told poet-writer-journalist Mel Cooke in this 2007 Jamaica Gleaner article. And Pliers is right. The song is still a hit.  But, importantly, Cooke’s article notably reminds local and international consumers of dancehall that in Jamaica abortion is tantamount to murder.  Murder is what a woman commits every time she has an abortion. Dance to that damnation.

As this nation attempts to strip women of their reproductive rights on a state by state basis, it is no longer possible for me to hear this song as I once did.  The political climate of my diaspora-home in the United States has tuned my ears anew. Now I hear “Murder She Wrote” and simultaneously I hear Donald Trump’s recent statements that women need to be “punished” for having abortions, but men do not (see here.)   I now hear Chaka Demus in stereo with Governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker.  I hear Pliers and I hear Mike Pence, the governor of Indiana and Ted Cruz, a presidential candidate representing the GOP party and, presumably, millions of Americans who share his views on women.

As liberated women we say no to legislation that seeks to govern our reproductive rights; but, as we dance intently to lyrics that deny and sometimes demoralize us, it would be seemingly easy for a passerby to think that our bodies are saying yes.

This post is not to conflate Jamaica with the States. And it is not meant to conflate the DJ with the politician.  I happen to be a Jamaican in the States so this post is meant to raise awareness of the details that have always surrounded us and can influence or attack us.  In the end, I say dance on my fellow feminists and I will dance too.  But always remember — once you are woke, you stay woke.

repetition and repatriation

As the USA’s political passion heats up in response to Donald J. Trump, here is a reminder that we have been here before.  Undoubtedly, we have even been here before in the most literal sense.  So, if I may, let me preface my fact-and-fiction connections with two easy substitutions: 1) read “Anglo-Saxon Association of America” as “Conservative Republicans” and 2) read “Knights of Nordica” as “Ku Klux Klan.” Cue literature:

[The Anglo-Saxon Association of America] is a group of rich highbrows who can trace their ancestry back almost two hundred years. You see they believe in white supremacy the same as [the Knights of Nordica] but they claim that the Anglo-Saxons are the cream of the white race and should maintain the leadership in American social, economic and political life. […] This crowd thinks they’re too highbrow to come in with the Knights of Nordica. They say our bunch are morons. […] Well, what I’m trying to do now is to bring these two organizations together. We’ve got numbers but not enough money to win an election; they have the jack. If I can get them to see the light we’ll win the next Presidential election hands down. (p 100-1)

Scary stuff, huh?  Sounds a bit like the inner-workings of a particular candidate’s mind, eh? I know.  The good news, or at least the palatable news, is that this quote is from a marvelously funny satire about racism in America.

kkkpic
From my visit to the Sandy Spring Slave Museum

The quote is taken from Black No More, author George S. Schuyler’s laugh-out-loud novel published in 1931.  It’s available on Amazon and worth reading, particularly if you presently live in the United States of America and you are of African ancestry.  I do not want to give too much of the plot away — because jokes are best when you do not know the punchlines — but I will say that Black-No-More is a product and a process that makes black people black-no-more.  Genius, right!?  The fictional inventor of Black-No-More, Dr. Crookman, creates this product because there are only three possible ways for black people to solve their problems in America: “To either get out, get white or get along.” Since Dr. Crookman himself was not able to leave, and was only “getting along indifferently,” the only option was for him to “get white;” thus, Black-No-More is born (p 8).  Unselfishly, he decides to offer this race/ism “cure” to America.  The novel explores what if anything changes when racial diversity is taken out of the equation.  Are America’s problems erased?  Don’t worry, I won’t spoil your reading with an answer.

Via Dr. Crookman, George S. Schuyler raises some contemporaneously worthwhile questions.  As an African diasporan dwelling in these United States, what is one to do?  Get out? Get white? or Get along?  Racial passing has its issues and Vybz Kartel’s

Jamaican dancehall artist, Vybz Kartel

Black-No-More-like claims about his brand of cake soap is just plain shameful.  So I’m going to say that getting white is off the table. President Obama’s successful elections in 2008 and 2012 proves that gestures towards the idea that getting along has been working. But the inability of a divided system to pass progressive legislation, the necessity of the Black Lives Matter movement, the violence that once surrounded the Tea Party patriots and is now surrounding Trump’s events, suggests that getting along is not on the immediate horizon.  So, perhaps Marcus Garvey was on to something.  Is now the time for America’s dark others to seek alternate shores? Is now the time for diasporans to return to prior lands?  Is it time to get out of America?

In his memoir, Sand for Snow (2003), Robert Sandiford chronicled his move from the Canada of his birth to the Caribbean island of his parents’.  Even though Sandiford had “known for a long time [that] there are options available” to him in Barbados, as he prepared for departure to the island, he recognized that “this move will be a challenge, physically, mentally, culturally, socially, and, of course, financially. Setting up home and shop will not be easy” (p 17-8).  In his 1995 book Going Home to Teach, celebrated author Anthony Winkler wrote about the difficulties of his return to Jamaica in 1975 after living in the States for thirteen years. Jamaica’s political instability notwithstanding, Winkler writes, “Shock, disbelief greeted me when I said that I was on my way back. Back to Jamaica? I was clearly out of my mind. Some of these new arrivals [to the States] said so with looks; some said so plainly” (p 33). And in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah (2013) when her fictional protagonist Ifemelu, says that she has decided to leave Princeton, New Jersey to return to Nigeria, her favorite aunt replies, “will you be able to cope?” (p 20).  Like Ifemelu, I ask: cope with what?  Despite the mostly positive portrayals of their respective repatriations, these literary examples all point to the perceived greatness of America and the presumed less-than status of Barbados, Jamaica, and Nigeria, in comparison.  If Adichie, Winkler, or Sandiford had set their stories in a time like now, in a time of political intensity, in a time of racial hostility that is being goaded by a presidential candidate, would their protagonists still have encountered doubting naysayers?

Trump’s viable candidacy has done a lot for America. Most notably it has exposed the racism, the sexism, and the xenophobia that has always been a part of America. It also exposes America as hypocritical. Think about it.  Doesn’t America try to “save” developing nations from candidates like Trump?  Alas, as he marches closer to November’s election and if Hillary Clinton is there to meet him, he will also attract the votes of the most subtle “ism,” the one coded simply and publicly as “preference.”

Get out, get white, or get along, wrote Schuyler.  Dabbling in the speculative genre and a socialist himself, Schuyler used the space of his novel to satirically stick it to W.E. B. DuBois and DuBois’ powerful assertion that the problem of the 20th century was the problem of the color line.   And now, even though we are a quarter way into the year 2016, America’s problems remain rooted in racism.  DuBois was right. But so was Schuyler.  Capitalism is also to blame.  I mean, hey, history shows that the one has fueled the other.  So what do we do now?   We vote. We vote like our lives depend on it. And, in the meantime, we have a suitcase ready.

pon di riddim & inna di salon

This is less of a post and more of a plug…

My writing is featured in the latest installation of sx salon* (issue 21, February 2016).  Titled “Re-membering Our Caribbean through a Dub Aesthetic” my discussion article emphasizes the need for and benefits of  what I term a dub aesthetic methodology.  The article closely examines Burning Spear, dub music, and Edwidge Danticat’s Krik? Krak! (1996).  If you would like to read more, and I encourage you to read more, please click here to be re-directed to the sx salon site. And to supplement your reading experience, below I have posted the music that I reference in the article.  Click, read, listen, and journey with me into the analytical dubscape.

*sx salon is Small Axe’s digital platform for the convergence of expressions and discussions of the literary. Small Axe academic journal is a Caribbean platform of criticism.

 

finding the caribbean in rihanna’s jamaican work song

Published in 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Dominican-American novelist and activist Junot Diaz remains my top pick for masculine, contemporary, aggressive, historical, feminist, political, Caribbean, border fiction.  Yes, it lives up to all of those descriptors and more.  Early on in the novel the suspect narrator, Yunior, ventriloquizes the voice of protagonist Oscar to ask these rhetorical questions: “What more sci-fi than Santo Domingo? What more fantasy than the Antilles?” (6).  Well, after watching Rihanna’s latest music videos work titlefor her 2016 lead single “Work,” I am compelled to ask: what more Antilles (read Caribbean) than exploiting the black woman?  Taking this all the way, I ask what is more Caribbean than human exploitation that satisfies the distant, greedy voyeurs who cannot get enough of the sweet stuff that they crave?

I could be talking about slavery and the sugar plantation, à la Kara Walker’s 2014 installation “A Subtlety” (see video above), but this is not the 17th, 18th, or 19th century, nor is it 2014. It’s early 2016 and I’m talking, rather bluntly, about the bittersweet exotification of Caribbean women and sex. And alongside all of that, I am talking about the way that Bajan Rihanna harnesses her Caribbean-ness through Jamaican dancehall sexuality on “Work.”  I’m talking about how a Canadian rapper with no Caribbean roots continues to channel Jamaica with his contribution to “Work” where he even uses the Jamaicanism “forward” to coax Rihanna closer. (Sidenote- Do you recall last year’s “Hotline Bling”?  Do you recall Virginia rapper D.R.A.M.’s “Cha Cha” that came out in 2014? Well, Drake used a “sunnier” version of D.R.AM.’s production to build “Hotline Bling” and when The Fader asked about him about it a few months ago, Drake defended his choice by citing Jamaican musical culture:

drake and movado
Photo source: http://www.toflo.com

You know, like in Jamaica, you’ll have a riddim and it’s like, everyone has to do a song on that… Imagine that in rap, or imagine that in R&B…”  Moreover, The Fader also pointed out that the video for “Hotline Bling” visually paralleled music videos for Jamaican dancehall artists Sean Paul and Kardinal Offishall.  You can read more about that here.  For now, let’s get back to “Work.”)

Part one of the two part video for “Work” is brought to us by none other than Director X (the same director who directed Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” Mavado’s videos, Sean Paul’s videos, Kardinal Offishall’s videos, etc. mentioned parenthetically above).  The video is set in a well-known West Indian restaurant in Toronto called The Real Jerk where, according to the restaurant’s website, they specialize in “authentic Jamaican and Caribbean food.” Really? Both? What’s “Caribbean” food and why isn’t Jamaican food Caribbean too?  Sorry, back to “Work.”  Complementing Rihanna’s choice to hop on a twenty year old Jamaican dancehall riddim (Sail Away riddim, to be specific) and complementing her capacity to chat Jamaican patwa on the song, the Bajan singer wears a red, gold, and green mesh dress over a red, gold, and green bikini.  Jamaican Red Stripe bottles litter the floor and everyone in the video a gwan-bad-so.

work daggering

 

By and large, “Work” – like much of popular culture – substantiates the international belief that the Caribbean is a Jamaican archipelago. work dancingIt also substantiates popular deductions of Jamaicans as a lascivious, drunken, weed-smoking people that dance well and are hyper-sexual.  And these generalizations of Jamaica get assigned to the entire English speaking Caribbean, whereby negating the very diversity that defines the Caribbean and uniquely marks Anguilla, Barbados, St. Lucia, Grenada, Antigua, Dominica, St. Vincent, BVI, Guyana, St. Kitts, The Bahamas, Belize, Turks and Caicos, and Trinidad and Tobago as distinct nations with their own individual cultures.  Add to this the fact that the video for “Work” was released just after Trinidad Carnival and Director X’s own mother is from Trinidad!  All of this, yet an essentialized Jamaica is how one communicates “Caribbean” for a Barbadian global pop singer. Sigh.

While experiencing  “Work” the only visual cue that Rihanna is Bajan is in a bold but subtle flag (Kara Walker pun intended). rihanna bdos flag workIf you blinked you may have missed it. But with all the dancehall queen antics of women on head-top and men daggering, why would you blink?  With the positioning of Barbados’ flag around Rihanna’s thigh, gathered and suspended from a garter belt, why would you look away?  Sexy, isn’t it?  Exploitative, no?

Long before Rihanna’s “Work” song hit airwaves, Caribbean work songs were being sung in cane fields by enslaved Africans who stowed their West African rhythms deep in the bowels of their souls so that those melodies and connections would survive the Middle Passage.  As Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos said in their book Sugar Changed the World, “Every land where the Africans worked, where the cane grew, has its own form of beat, its own rhythms, its own songs and dances that can be traced back to sugar – and even to sources in Africa.”  The repetitive cadence of Rihanna’s “Work” echoes those Afro-Caribbean songs that survive in Puerto Rican bomba and plena music, Jamaican mentos, Trinidadian calypsos, and Haitian folk songs, to name a few.  The video for “Work” takes us back to those exploitative days when African and creolized women were commodified for what their bodies were believed to be able to do.  And, politically, the video and soundscape of “Work” take us into the complicated world of the Caribbean where big island/small island overshadowing is still very much worthy of our attention.

Despite the “Work” that she performs, Rihanna is not Jamaican.  Despite the beliefs of outsiders, Jamaica is not the Caribbean.  And despite 400 years in the New World, the Caribbean woman’s work is still bittersweet.  So, in a gesture that returns to and extends a quote from Junot Diaz’s Oscar Wao, I will close with the reality check that in some critical respects, the Caribbean woman is still “a broken girl, atop broken stalks of cane” (148). work head top

*For more on “Work” and Rihanna, I recommend reading “Anti-Everything: The Culture Of Resistance Behind Rihanna’s Latest Album” by Erin MacLeod (Caribbean literature professor).  Macleod’s article in NPR came out before the music video was released.

**For more on Director X’s vision for the “Work” video see yesterday’s (Feb. 23, 2016) interview in The Fader.  In the article titled “Director X on What People Are Getting Wrong about Rihanna’s ‘Work’ Video,” X discusses dance culture in the “West Indian” community versus in America.

beyonce, formation, & contemporary black activism

Super Bowl L will go down in history as the Super Bowl that Beyoncé “slayed.”

For the last several days the internet has belonged to the Queen Bey.  Twitter subscribers, magazine contributors, news outlets, academics, fans, ranters, and racists have all weighed in on the experience of “Formation,” Beyoncé Knowles’ newest single.

Starting with internet and radio, “Formation” was introduced on the afternoon of Saturday, February 6, 2016 and enthusiastic praise rained down.  The video was set in New Orleans, Louisiana and images of the singer atop a sinking police car called forth the natural and political disaster that was Hurricane Katrina.  Images of a hoodie wearing black teenager facing angry police mobs reminded viewers that Black Lives Matter far beyond the hashtag.  In various respects — from images of New Orleans’ infrastructure to the black church and contemporary black hair-dos — images of a black American experience were presented in startling ways.

For me, having a wide catalog of Caribbean literature always present in my mind, I was taken by Beyoncé’s use of colonial era clothing (read *literally* these historical fictions: Marlon James’ Book of Night Women, Nalo Hopkinson’ Salt Roads, and Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea).

Beyonce and her ladies, early 2016, New Orleans (Photo source: http://www.elleuk.com)
“Free woman of color with quadroon daughter,” Late 18th century, New Orleans (Photo source: wikipedia)

 

 

Then came the live Super Bowl Halftime show on Sunday night.  By all accounts it was powerful. Black berets and black leather clothing channeled the Black Panthers.  With a machine gun chain “X” on her chest, Beyoncé’s fashion triggered iconic images of the King of Pop and global humanitarian, Michael Jackson.

Bey (2016) and M.J. (1993) (Photo source: USMagazine.com, Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic; Getty Images)

And when Beyoncé’s dancers aligned in an “X” formation on the football field, the never-forgotten single letter surname of Brother Malcolm was evoked.  The recorded images in her music video coupled with the live performance at the Super Bowl have marked a notable shift in who Beyoncé is as a celebrity and how fans and audiences ought to read her. From Destiny’s Child to solo artist, Beyoncé Knowles has rebooted herself yet again.  Beyonce, her 2013 album which featured hits like “Partition” and “Flawless,” ushered in what many called a feminist Beyoncé.  And graduating once again, this black American woman singer is now being considered a celebrity activist (or at least she is thought to be moving in that direction as Arthur Chu of the Daily Beast suggests in this article).  All hate aside though, congratulations are certainly in order for Beyoncé on this achievement.  (And while I have a few seconds of your attention, let me throw a little necessary shade on rapper and non-activist Nicki Minaj.  Yes, I’m still talking about Minaj’s decision to perform in Angola last December at an event tied to the African nation’s corrupt dictator).

No doubt “Formation” has stirred up a lot of conversations.  “She killt the Super Bowl!” “Coldplay, who??” “Slay.” “Slay.” “SLAY!!”  But it seems that conversations about Beyoncé are also taking some of the attention away from the words and images that she used to speak to, speak for, and speak about the experience of being black in America today.  For example, black Princeton Professor Imani Perry’s (follow here @imaniperry) arrest over an unpaid parking ticket had far fewer tweets (#StandwithPerry) when her story broke during Beyoncé’s big media weekend. This could be for many reasons (racism, sexism, distractions, ignorance, fear, conspiracy, etc.). But the intense attention paid to Beyoncé’s visual performances (live and recorded) could also point to the coding in her lyricism.  While it is a far lyrical departure from “Bills, Bills, Bills” and “7/11,” is the trap element of “Formation” obscuring a message that all — not just those Americans who are black and/or trap-oriented — but a message that truly ALL Americans need to hear and understand about being black in America?  To put it another way, I cannot help but wonder how much of “Formation’s” message is communicated through its imagery and how much, perhaps, is lost in its lyrics.  Further still, I wonder whether or not the arguable lyrical limitations of the song are subversively emblematic of a contemporary society in which a black person’s words are not heard by all American ears (read: “Officer, I have done nothing illegal” and “Officer, please do not shoot”).

In 1968 James Brown’s activism was as clear as his lyrics: 

Re-delivering the words given by Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I before the United Nations in 1963, in 1976 Bob Marley’s activism was as clear as his lyrics: 

Exactly how much social investment (read: black activism) does “Formation” convey without the video or live performance as visual supplement?  I do not have a formal answer to this, but I will offer Gil Scott-Heron’s 1971 words as a reminder: “You will not be able to stay home, brother/ You will not be able to plug in, turn on, and cop out/You will not be able to lose yourself on skag/ and skip out for beer during commercials/ Because the revolution will not be televised… “

nuyorican fan support

Let the record show that I am a huge Jennifer Lopez fan.  And as a fan it brings me great pride to announce that Jennifer Lopez is having the best week ever.

In the last seven days Boricua-Bronxite-dancer-singer-actress-mom-designer J. Lo. has been very, very busy. She is headlining a 4-month Las Vegas residency titled “All I Have,” she premiered the new movie “Lila and Eve” on Lifetime co-starring none other than Viola Davis, she is once again inspiring and soothing contestants as the sympathetic judge on the final season of Fox’s American Idol, and she is pulling double duty as a dirty cop on her new primetime television show  “Shades of Blue” on NBC.  This is just in the last seven days!

So while conversations swirl about on-screen diversity for Latinas and black women, Jennifer Lopez has been quietly getting it done. By “quietly” I certainly am not referring to her social media outlets where she has done her own fearless and necessary self-promotion. Instead, what I mean by “quietly” is that the mainstream media, which is the same media that is always at the ready to hypersexualize Jennifer Lopez and broadcast her romantic partners as news, has paid very little attention to her professional accomplishments of late.  The media has silenced Jennifer Lopez’s deserved acclaim. I will not.

Image Source: Getty / David Hume Kennerly
Inaugural Ball 2009, Washington D.C. (Image Source: Getty / David Hume Kennerly)

We should all take a moment, whether we like her skills as an actress or not, to congratulate my celebrity friend-in-my-head and fellow Bronxite. But before anyone suggests that I am suggesting it, let me be clear: No, Jennifer Lopez’s access and success is not a sign that the serious problems of racial, ethnic, or cultural representation in the US are on the mend. I mean, honestly, if having President Barack Obama as the Leader of the Free World cannot move the US toward possibilities of being post-racial, post-racist, post-dangerousforblackpeopletowalkdownthestreet, wouldn’t it likewise be a stretch to say that Jennifer Lopez is the harbinger of equality in the performing arts arena? Exactly.  But, that does not disqualify her from having a very, very good week as a very, very successful actor, performer, and entertainer.