salt or pepper, it’s (all)spice

* Following recent provocative conversations, I have added some updates to this post since the original publishing date. They are indicated in green. ~Riddim Writer~

Just when I thought that football in France was the only way reggae’s girls were going to get some new critical attention on the island, Grace “Spice” Hamilton teased a “perfectly” bleached out image of herself on her social media accounts yesterday (see left) and released the music video for her new single “Black Hypocrisy” today.  spice october 22It is important to note that Spice did not actually bleach her skin but the fact that so many viewers thought she did (still think that she did and want to know what magic she used to get such quick, even, and outstanding results) proves that the issue of bleaching is bigger than we want to admit in the African diaspora.  Having once worked for a makeup conglomerate, I know that there are any number of professional-grade body foundations (like Dermablend, for example) that Spice could have used for the photo and video shoot, but that is not the point here. Or is it? So many people have been preoccupied with the possibility that Spice bleached her skin. Why? So many became convinced that Spice used potions and lotions to lighten her color as a symptom or response to living in the United States. Why? Well, the answer is as simple as it is complicated.  To believe that Spice showing drastically lightened skin on IG was proof of her bleaching, is to admit that you believe that Spice needed to bleach her skin to achieve greater attention and success.  To believe that the images of Spice showing dramatically lighter skin on IG was proof of her bleaching, is to confess that you believe that Spice believed that she needed to bleach in order to ascend in her personal and/or professional life.  I hope my argument is clear.  If not, let me try again. How the viewer responded to the initial images of Spice that were posted by the artiste on her own social media accounts prior to the release of her music video, is a testament to the very subject that Spice was tackling: a to-the-core belief in brown and white skin privilege, a to-the-core belief that darker skin is a stumbling block in life, and a to-the-core lack of awareness about black hypocrisy regarding colorism.  

When we get over thee shock-value of the visuals we hear our girl Spice stepping into the reggae ring to drop “Black Hypocrisy.”  And what a drop this is!

In my estimation, there hasn’t been a razor-sharp critique of a serious problem afflicting Jamaican society like this since Protoje’s 2017 tell-it-like-it-is anti-corruption single “Blood Money.”  And, at the risk of hyperbole, there hasn’t been a proper disavowal of colorism since… since… Hmm?  Is it since Bob Marley sang the words of Selassie I on “War” (1976): “Until the color of a man’s skin/ is of no more significance/ than the color of his eyes”?  But forty years ago, Marley was not offering a specific examination of colorism in black communities, nor was Marley providing a critique of how it is that black people can shame black people who bleach their skin on the one hand, yet they can hypocritically uphold and praise white standards of beauty for themselves, on the other.  This is what “Black Hypocrisy” does via sound and sight. And in this age of visual consumption, it is the coupling of audio and video that allows Spice to make her point crystal clear.

Spice rides a reggae riddim to deliver a timely message on skin bleaching, self-hate, and the legacy of colonialism that is imprinted on the minds and skins of too many in Jamaica. Screenshot_2018-10-23-18-36-54 If you are unfamiliar with this color-coded hypocrisy, see this article from the Jamaica Observer (September 2018) where contributor Tony Robinson writes on the value of being brown (not white or black, but a highly desirable light brown complexion) in Jamaica:

…the browning effect is still pervasive. Brownings are sometimes held in higher esteem than people of different hues. And it’s not a race thing either, for men who prefer brown women would never choose a Caucasian, Chinese, Indian or any other woman to be in a relationship with. “Strickly browning me a defend, nutten else.”

Now, take in Spice’s message via her video below.

Scorn dem, Spice!  Watch the lyrics of the second verse!

Dem seh mi black til mi shine, til mi look dirty
And it’s the only line in life that will ever hurt me
Cause it never come from a Caucasian, trust mi
Dis ya black colorism be hypocrisy
So if I wake up tomorrow look like a browning, oh!
Automatically mi would a carry di swing
Nuff a unnu nah go like di song yah mi sing
Cause nuff a unnu guilty fi di same damn thing
What’s your perception of a pretty woman?
Is it straight nose with her hair well long?
Black girls lose self confidence
Cause dey attatch the word “ugly” to our complexion.

Well, since yuh seh that I’m too black for you
I’ll please yuh, do I look how you want me to?
Now I’m gonna see if you gonna say I’m too brown for you
Or do I look pretty to you?

Ring the alarm! The reigning Queen of Dancehall has taken a sharp turn for the socio-political.  And there is no doubt that “Black Hypocrisy” is and isn’t the Spice that we are used to.

Spice gained local, regional, diasporic fame after stirring up all-kinds of controversy for her “Romping Shop” duet with Vybz Kartel in 2009.  But even before that Kartel boost, Spice, “a gyal who nuh fight ova man,” used to “scorn dem” with her sexually explosive lyrics.  And in all the years that have followed, Spice has been recording and touring the world, showing the globe how she can shift her “bumpa” like a car indicator and she’s been letting fans know that she “smell good between di sheet.” Spice even became the first living Jamaican musical artiste to reach and surpass 1 million followers on Instagram.  Indeed her dancehall look, her dancehall sound, and the culture of dancehall that she represents, are what landed her a role on the seventh season of VH1’s Love and Hip Hop: Atlanta.  And now with a bigger, wider, increasingly more black American audience in tow, a more global audience in tow, Spice releases this new single about colorism.  Yassss! But is it dancehall or is it reggae?

Maybe it’s both?  Black racial uplift and reggae have always gone hand in hand.  Social consciousness and reggae still go hand and hand.  But when Spice calls out, “Black people hyprocisy/ leave the girls dem with low self-esteem/ I’m black and beautiful, I know I’m pretty/ Fuck the whole of dem dirty inequity,” she has a deliberate cadence and tone that is as much a reminder of one of the baddest lyricists ever — Tanya Stephens — as it is a rhythmic shift into the lane of reggae song-bird Etana.  With “Black Hypocrisy,” Spice unexpectedly bridges reggae and dancehall . She seems to slow down her lyrics in order to give local and global black listeners time to digest her weighty, innuendo-free content.  I mean, hey, it’s going to take time to undo all these centuries of self-hate, all these decades of believing that brownin is the only beautiful, and all these years of applying skin bleachers as a solution. Screenshot_2018-10-23-18-35-09 Just as Spice changed her appearance for the visuals of this song — from pepper to salt, or whichever seasoning Jamaican Twitter has most recently and humorously gathered from the internet (see left) —  Spice mixed up her vocal stylee, but still hits hard, bold, and distinctly Jamaican.  However she looks, however she sounds, she is all Spice. Run the track again and again because the message is critical.

 

No more long talk. Let me close this post where it began: with the Reggae Girlz.  In the video below, the Reggae Girlz celebrate securing a spot in the World Cup.  We see green, gold, and black happiness upon a variety of complexions and hair textures.  These young women carry a variety of given names and surnames that identify both ancestral pride and colonial spirits.  So I beg you Jamaica, mind your tongues and think of Spice’s “Black Hypocrisy” when you cheer for them next year.  I beg you Jamaica; all our girls are listening.  All of our girls’ self-esteem is riding on it; so don’t be a hypocrite.

musical triggers, issa thing

I’ve been wanting to write about this new Protoje album, A Matter of Time, for a little while now. Every time I sat down to do so, I stopped myself and said, just wait for the full project.  Well, the album drops on Friday, June 29th, and I can’t wait any longer.  As Jadakiss famously said, “I’m running outta my patience” (“Knock Yourself Out” 2001).

With four singles released ahead of the album, there’s ample material to mine for triggers, specifically musical triggers.  But what are musical triggers? Well, as a very condensed definition, musical triggers are the ways that music (lyrics, rhythms, tones, melodies) trigger emotion and memory in the listener.  You can read more in this summary article published in The Cut and within you can click on links to the 2017 scientific study by Signy Sheldon and Julia Donahue (or click here).  So what does Protoje’s most recent work trigger?

protoje2

Well, the first single was released last year (Feb 2017) and “Blood Money” hit the ears and mind like a missile.  Protoje’s weapons, of course, are the most deadly ones available to us: bullets of truth.  I mean, honestly, what hurts more than pulling back the curtain on this island’s corrupt reality with lyrics like these: “How much dead baby deh over Jubilee?/  How much youths did 10 when them run inna Tivoli/ Now them 16, heart fry, head fricassee.”  Negative feelings and negative memories of news about Riverton landfill and the air pollution that is killing the surrounding communities, the people as well as the plants.  Painful memories that date back to colonial rule and linger in the selective blindness of the police, surface as one listens to “Blood Money.” Traumatic memories of local news reports about the suspicious spike in infant mortality at Victoria Jubilee Hospital and the shallowly buried memories of international news reports about the Tivoli Incursion are unearthed as this lead single plays on.  Protoje’s lyrics are potent and this first release was intentionally and specifically triggering for the Jamaican listener.

Mortimer assisted on the second single “Truths and Rights” (Sept 2017) where he and Protoje remind listeners that they are about activism.  This reminder is important in a pop music world that continues to pump out consumerist songs about buying more and spending more and rappers like Big Sean and Drake feign humbleness to sing about being blessed to be “here for a good time, not a long time” (“Blessings” 2015).  In the face of this, “Truths and Rights” proudly states:

“Cause Jah Jah bless I with the brightest lightr-455689-1127250169-jpeg
And I ah shine it pon di yout dem plight
Cah we deh ya so fi truths and rights
Deh ya so fi truths an rights
And until the day that my soul takes flight
Babylon will hear my voice…”

For me, this single triggers reggae memories of Johnny Osbourne’s 1979 classic of the same title and similar content.

Then, this February (2018), “Bout Noon,” the third single, was released.  This single had a different tone and a different affect. Triggering still, but personal instead of national.  96ab32eb5d88f36897c610a8b6c08b6f-1000x1000x1“Bout Noon” paused discussion of the nation’s politics to sing a praise-song.  For me, “Bout Noon” triggered positive memories of Black Star’s ode to the black woman “Brown Skin Lady” (Talib Kweli and Mos Def — now Yasiin Bey, photo below) and recalled Sade’s 2010 album cut “The Moon and the Sky” (which I think producer Phillip ‘Winta’ James’ is riffing on to build the beat for “Bout Noon” and there may be a hint in the music video — see the video still below).  Known for their Pan-African worldview and broad musical influence, in 1998 Black Star img_8857rapped a silky love poem to the black woman whose beauty of mind and body could make a man “ride a Coltrane to A Love Supreme“.   In 2018, Protoje’s “Bout Noon”, though sharing themes of Starland Vocal Band’s 1976 classic soft rock tune, “Afternoon Delight”, I’d argue that “Bout Noon” places itself in critical conversation with the soulful, moody jazz of Thelonious Monk.  Quite personally, “Bout Noon” triggers memories of my wedding day when I walked down a New York City aisle to Miles Davis’ rendition of “Round Midnight” (1955) and together my husband and I walked out to “Dipset Anthem” (2003),  a yet-to-be-duplicated musical hybrid of reggae crooner Sanchez and Harlem’s unique brand of hustle rap.  But back to “Round Midnight.”  As the most recorded jazz standard EVER, Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” (1944) is set twelve hours before (or after) Protoje’s “Bout Noon.”  Even observing the visuals of the “Bout Noon” single (above), Protoje is seen looking out on a Kingston night sky, not a sunny city noon-scape.  Of course, the video is partially set during daylight hours and in the Tweet and screen-grab featured just below, Protoje’s fictional lover is lying on the bed clothed in a sweatshirt depicting Sade’s face  (a nod to the song’s production?). Screenshot_2018-06-26-11-48-12  Protoje is an uncommon reggae artist. He is a student of music. What I mean is that he listens and learns and works with producers and musicians who are also listening and learning.  How else do you create a song like “Bout Noon” that triggers the sentimentality of Sade, the romantic longing of Thelonious and Davis’ style of jazz, while still delivering dancehall-influenced poetry like: “mi catch a prophecy/ fi kotch yuh pon top ah me/ … one call and mi deh pon yuh bass like oddesey”?  “Bout Noon” straddles genres, blurs musical spaces, and complicates the potential of Jamaica’s music/ians to consider what is creatively possible when the music pushes beyond the new popularity of the trap sound or the tradition of the one drop bass line, when the music educates listeners about romance and not just Rastafari, and when the music seeks a shelf-life longer than a hashtag  and consumer trends.

The final single that dropped was “No Guarantee” (May 2018), which brings Protoje back together with his “Who Knows” (2015) collaborator, Chronixx.  “People got expectations/ Will they love you?/ No guarantee,” sings Chronixx in his familiar falsetto voice.  But it is Protoje who declares his frustrations with the jealous types and those who grudge-fully limit and criticize others when he sings out: “Some will say you no Ras/ cause you jump in a Benz/ like me never see Selassie/ in a couple ah them.”  On this track, as it is with the other singles, Winta James grinds out a classically disruptive rhythm to match the content and the triggers are there.  Who doesn’t have negative memories of being falsely judged? How many times have we been assumed or presumed to be someone or something we are not, all because “people got expectations”?

So, what about the rest of the album? Well, Friday I’ll know and will update this post accordingly.  For now, I’ll just restate that this album is triggering, issa thing.

**If you are unfamiliar with the Protoje, you can learn more at his website or his Wikipedia entry.

#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.

“forward ever, a backward never”

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.”

 

black pop, black hair, black fear?

**Updated 3/17/16** See video addendum below.

Admittedly, I still listen to the radio. I am just not willing to relinquish the FM dial.  I find worth in the way that radio gives a sense of what is popular and what is propaganda. And as I think about my preset hip hop stations and the slippages between the music played on the hip hop stations and the music played on the pop stations, I cannot help but think of how far hip hop has come from its roots, its core, and its early audiences. Musical genres like blues, reggae, hip hop, rap, and dancehall connected listeners by articulating struggle. Today, much of hip hop, rap, and dancehall may be better categorized as contemporary “black pop” as they are short on conscious content and long on “catchy vocal hooks” and “funky rhythmic grooves” (I am borrowing words from this thorough bullet-point breakdown on black pop). For an answer as at why this shift towards sex, violence, racks, stacks, and cake have been the mainstays of rap and hip hop since the mid 1990s I deflect to a Hip Hop DX interview with the “Freaky Tales” king himself, Too Short.  As a conspiracy theorist Too Short points the finger at record executives. Fair enough. But as I considered the music that I am hearing on the radio presently, the fact that popular hip hop’s content shift took place during the mid 1990s raised more questions than answers for me. Here’s why.

In 2014 Robin S.’s “Show Me Love” (1993) came back in a big way when DJ Mustard sampled it and reworked that track into the ground with “Show Me” going platinum and “Main Chick” being met with much sales success as well.  Both songs were by Kid Ink and featured Chris Brown.  To me, they were redundant, but I will try to reserve judgment.  We also saw the return of the 1992 mega dance smash “Rhythm is a Dancer“, by German Eurodance group Snap!, in the form of Jeremih’s “Don’t Tell ‘Em” 2014 single, which was also produced by DJ Mustard.  In 2012 Kendrick Lamar’s single “Poetic Justice” sampled Janet Jackson’s “Any Time, Any Place” (1993). And listening to the radio this week my memory continues to be struck by the ’90s samples present in today’s black pop.  From Brownstone’s “If You Love Me” (1994) sampled on Tory Lanez’s “Say It” (2015) to Shai’s a capella version of “If I Ever Fall In Love” sampled on Jeremih’s “Oui” (2015) it seems that the melodies of twenty-odd years ago are back. But the flashbacks do not stop there.

It might seem in step with the musical sampling that black women and black men today are donning the hairstyles that were popular during the early to mid-1990s.  What was captured in popular movies like 1993’s Poetic Justice or any of the House Party franchise films we now see everywhere. Hello, box braids and box cuts!  From Iman Shumpert on the basketball court to the everyday kid at the mall, from Gabrielle Union and Taraji P. Henson to the girls and women in school and in the office, big black hair is everywhere. Yes, the 1990s are back.

Casual popular references aside now, with the uptick in violent attacks on black bodies, I am inclined to question whether or not there are navigable links between black hair and black fear. As more black hair styles are seen in the public domain do they serve as a reminder of black pride? Do they serve as a reminder of a pride that can induce fear of blackness in a social/racial/political environment that has historically read the black body with suspicion? Is black hair contributing, inadvertently, to black fear?  Maybe I should say fear of black instead of black fear.  Whichever the order of the words, I am talking about the kind of fear that leads to gunfire. The kind of fear that leads to murder.  The kind of fear that led to #TamirRice, #MichaelBrown, #EricGarner, #TrayvonMartin, #EricHarris, #SandraBland, #FreddieGray, #SamuelDuBose, #WalterScott, #JonathanFerrell, #AmadouDiallo, #EmmettTill, and the broader reminder that #BlackLivesMatter.

Malcolm X said that chemical straightening or a conk was a black person’s attempt at whitening himself.  In his autobiography he said that the conk was evidence of black “self-degradation” (91). Indeed the 1960s Black Power Movement that began in the US and spread across the hemisphere and globe was captured in hair. In Jamaica, reggae artist Linval Thompson spoke directly to this on his classic 1976 record “Don’t Cut Off Your Dreadlocks.” Natural hair like the afro, like dreadlocks were ways for black people to express their self-pride.  So today, as black women trade in relaxers and Yaki weaves for kinky braids and closely cropped afros, their blackness is visibly essentialized.  As black men forgo cuts in favor of growing their hair taller and taller, their blackness is visibly essentialized.  Essentialized, for better or for worse, by hair choices that undeniably identify black people as black during a time when blackness continues to evoke hostile fear. And so I ask, how much is this style shift also a black pride shift?  And if it is a black pride shift, what a powerful way and a critical time to make this pride known.

Once upon a time for-us-by-us music was made with a sense of purpose-concern-awareness of realities pertaining to being black in the ghetto, being black in America, being black in the Caribbean, being black in this world.  Maybe the connections between black hair and black fear will soon be recorded using a catchy melody and set over a heavy bass line.  When that happens, and especially if it happens on the radio, I will certainly listen in.

*UPDATE*

I came across this video post (March 16, 2016) on Facebook by Black Girl with Long Hair and thought it was a relevant video to share within this post.

Indeed we need to pay attention to all of the historical and cultural signs that we encounter today.  From hairstyle to clothing style, its all worth reading.

a relationship of so much more

[M]ove on from that painful legacy,” encouraged British Prime Minister David Cameron on September 25, 2015  as he spoke not just to a joint sitting of Jamaica’s Parliament, but to Jamaicans locally and remotely who walk with the memory of slavery. Cameron’s words entered into the ears and deep into the cultural memories of those attending at Gordon House, Jamaica’s parliamentary building.  By asking Jamaicans to “move on,” the PM effectively denied the Jamaican ex-colony reparations for slavery and refused to apologize for the British Empire’s colonial role in that peculiar institution.

In the days following, social media, academics, politicians, and mainstream news outlets weighed in on the speech, none more eloquently than Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller’s predecessor, P.J. Patterson via an open letter to David Cameron.  Patterson responded by reminding the British PM and the wider webbed world that history is never in the past:

The 180 years of slavery in Jamaica remain fresh in living memory. There are people alive in Jamaica today whose great grandparents were a part of the slavery system and the memory of slavery still lingers in these households and communities. Those 180 years were followed by another 100 years of imposed racial apartheid in which these families were racially oppressed by British armies and colonial machinery. The scars of this oppression are still alive in the minds and hearts of millions of Jamaicans.  To speak of slavery as something from the Middle Ages is insufficient. For our communities its legacies are still present in their memory and emotions. To reject this living experience is to repudiate the very meaning and existence of these people’s lives.

Patterson’s words were firm and, for me, they rang clear with reverberations of iconic reggae band Burning Spear’s “Slavery Days.”  What Patterson describes as “living memory” is also what Burning Spear queries with a haunting refrain: the unsettling experience of past meeting present.  And surely it is Babylon’s voice that was ventriloquized through Cameron as he spoke those provocative words “…[M]ove on from that painful legacy.”

In these reflective weeks since Cameron first delivered his speech I have considered his editorial choices (or those of his speech writers).  Yes, Cameron ultimately employed the mute switch regarding a conversation about slavery, but he was very careful to maintain the melody of a longstanding relationship of influence between the nations, and he was very, very careful not to imply that that relationship was ever hierarchical. Instead Cameron leaned on his memory as he began his speech: “This place feels instantly familiar, […] this familiarity [between England and Jamaica] is about much more than just bricks and mortar.”  Indeed by “mov[ing] on” and muting some of the more brutal details of history in favor of a more idyllic narrative Cameron continues the colonial tradition of historicizing.  So, in many ways Prime Minister Cameron is right. England’s relationship with Jamaica is about “much more” and that unspoken “more” is transcribed into and infused into the Caribbean’s artistry.

The kind of revisionist nostalgia that Cameron put forth in his speech at Gordon House is precisely what Jamaica’s literary and musical artists are critically working against.  And for a hundred plus years writers from across the Caribbean have been providing an alternate response to the old African proverb: until the lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.

Politics will always be politics, but how we as a community make sense of politics ought to be balanced by our region’s various modes of story telling.  From Burning Spear to Marlon James, Joe Arroyo to Julia Alvarez, Stuart Hall to Aime Cesaire, to name just a few, the artists and critics of the Caribbean are and have been the proverbial lions.  So, to build on Cameron’s words, I affirm that the relationship between art and politics is about much more.