A prophet falls

Hard drugs won’t do
You’re just behaving like they want you to
Arrogance is much different from ignorance
And I know you feel the same way too
Many live this life without having a clue
No reason why they are so sad and blue
Places to go so much things to do
Not a moment to reflect on the cycle of life

—Hills and Valleys, Buju Banton

You remember where you were when you heard Buju Banton for the first time? You were probably about 10 or so and not really that conscious of the world around you. Michael Jackson was still the coolest man in the world but then there were these things called maxi-taxis. It was probably Boom Bye Bye that you heard first. Back when homophobia wasn’t something that made sense to you. Back then there was no Facebook, no BBM, no million and one radio stations playing more ads than music for a captive young audience and agencies hiring big stars to make ads for them so that soon you can’t tell the difference between the product and the music. But these days everything and everybody are for sale.

Back in those days there was just Chinese Laundry doing a legitimate piracy service to a nation of young people desperate for a new sound. And dancehall was it. It defined our generation and everyone else, except maybe Super Cat and Shabba, fades into the background in the shadow of Buju Banton. If no one else, Buju Banton was the one who helped us figure it out. He danced between social commentary and slackness. He transformed himself into a thoughtful prophet. All the time he made us dance. He made us feel beautiful. He made us sure that we were searching. For something more and something better. Even if it was just to be able to out-butterfly your best friends. Truth be told I always loved Buju more than Sizzla. Sizzla who started off over-zealous and earnest. Sizzla who had the talk but not the walk and who fell so far from grace that now it is hard to believe that anything he ever said was true.

We always knew who Buju was. Smart man, lover, badjohn, poet. He was everything without being preachy. He asked the questions we asked about our own ghettoes. You could feel the grit of Kingston garrisons in the gravelled edge of his voice, in the way he could find himself inside a riddim like it was his skin and you were the sweat on it. You could see cockpit country and imagine that Buju was being true to his Maroon roots. Bad for spite. An escape artist. An unchainable spirit. And then you see a picture of him in shackles. And you want to vomit. You convince yourself that it’s not really happening. You convince yourself that Buju of all people could not be so stupid. The trickster allowed himself to be tricked? It’s not possible.

You could forgive Buju anything. His sexism. His homophobia. His love of “brownin” in a time when the use of skin bleaching creams in Jamaica started to skyrocket. You could forgive him all these things. But not the colossal stupidity of falling into Babylon’s trap. You listen again to his lyrics and realise that like any good prophet he has sung of his own downfall. Seen it and put his bittersweet defeat into the music that you love so much. But you can’t hear it because you are dancing and like Bob says when music hits you feel no pain. Because you are dancing to forget the pain. You are imagining that you are really a butterfly and your body can transcend the prisons of racism and unloving, and self-loathing. You escape this mental slavery and Buju is the Maroon stealing you away to some hidden bush town.

But every prophet falls. The disappointment is deep. I really wasn’t looking for you there nah, Buju. I don’t think I will recover from this star tabanca, like I still can’t get over the death of Michael Jackson. Buju Banton gets ten years. Ten years in jail. The truth is I still can’t begin to process what he did. I try to convince myself that he didn’t do it. That he’s innocent. But the evidence is damning. The verdict is guilty and Buju is going to jail. And if he’s guilty he deserves to go to jail. Notwithstanding a more intelligent discussion about the drug trade and how the desire for something synthetic and illegal bears no connection to the value of a plant that for centuries was used by indigenous people to heal themselves. And now because we know better and we’re civilised, we use it to destroy ourselves.

Notwithstanding a more reasonable stance on the drug trade and how a war against it has been used to recolonise people. How somebody still letting the cocaine pass and sometimes you need someone to made an example of. Notwithstanding an understanding of good drugs and bad drugs and tobacco being okay and rum till all of us die. These days you can’t watch five minutes of television without being bombarded by an ad about some drug, for which the side effects are a long list of illnesses that sound far worse than what you’re suffering from. These days you can’t go anywhere without meeting someone who is addicted to some over-the-counter pain killer, knocking back boxes of their favourite NSAIDs.
But Buju is going to jail for 10 years and if you do the crime you do the time. In shackles now, real physical ones to match the ones on our minds. Real physical ones to remind us that we really aren’t free. What a nightmare when you wake up to realise that the one to offer a place for escape is in prison too.

I believe I can ride.

I mean, how did I go this long without this feeling? This flying feeling with the road just under, that is not like running but not like flying but not like anything else that makes sense. It’s Friday evening and after staring at a blank page for what seems like way longer than usual I still find myself struggling for things to say. The truth is that I’m still thinking about earlier in the day when I finally learned how to ride a bike. Scoff if you must, dear reader, if you’ve been doing wheelies all your life. But I know there are lots of other women out there who never learned to ride a bike and who think it’s too late for them now. And I can’t say that I’m not looking forward to the fabulous thighs I will now have thanks to cycling but really, cycling is a revolutionary kind of thing that more of us need to be doing, daily.

I can’t say that I’ve felt such a profound sense of achieving something since maybe I learned to walk or read, neither of which I really remember. I didn’t have much hope that it would happen. When you get to my ripe old age of thirty-something, you believe the hype that you’ve learned everything you’re going to learn and there’s not much left to do except fight a losing battle against gravity. And I’m not sure when it happened, maybe somewhere in-between me wanting to give up and wanting to cry because I suspect I am too stupid to train my body to balance on two wheels, but something shifted and whaps, next thing you know, I’m pedalling down the road and there is no hand on my back keeping me from veering into the pothole and I am doing this all by myself.

And when I stop trying to think myself into balance and start to feel it, it’s like the heavens open up and there are angels singing, but it’s actually the wind playing with the bells in my hair and I am not thinking anymore about pedalling and balance and brakes but just about enjoying the moment. I doubt myself about whether I should share this. Gushing all over the people’s newspaper about how anything is possible if you put your mind to it. But this is kind of the truth. Being a serious journalist is really starting to kill my buzz about learning to ride a bike and I wonder if I too have fallen into the morose media trap. It’s hard to be in the media and not like it very much. I find myself trying to avoid the news at all costs, too scared that the headlines will drag me back down into the general air of hopelessness that hangs over T&T along with the heat and the stench of unfulfilled dreams.

I start grasping for things to complain about: flaky labour movement or useless government? Pet peeves or nagging doubts? None of these things feel right today because I learned to ride a bike and I am terribly proud of myself and it’s my column and I’ll be happy if I want to dammit. Last weekend at Ganga Dhaaraa, Uncle Ravi Ji said to me that he sees me as a leader and I doubt myself enough to say in that typical Trini way, who, me? Not me, Papa. I don’t want that kind of headache. That kind of challenge. That kind of commitment. Like all good elders he is deliberately vague about what exactly he means. Good elders, like good cycling teachers, just give enough direction to help you come to the conclusion yourself. That leadership is not one thing all the time. That leaders are not the ones who talk the loudest or are the most charming.

Something about figuring out the riding thing helps me to make sense of so many other life things. How we hold ourselves back because of unfounded fears. How being a grown-up means forgetting to have a sense of wonder about everything. How getting big also means that you start to take yourself so seriously that you forget how to laugh and find innovative solutions to your problems. This is not a day for any of those things. I was so pleased I bought myself an overpriced mammy sapote. I’m so happy I taught myself how to use Final Cut bette. I’m so happy I start to feel like I can make a difference again, instead of just poking at the wounds and feeling powerless. I guess it’s all about perspective. You’ll never know unless you try it. Give yourself a chance. To be yourself and not being afraid to purge your life of the people who only ever want to remind you of your flaws, as if flaws always have to be tragic. The thought that stays with me after the initial thrill of my biking success is to lose the fear of letting yourself fly. And I wish we could all lose that fear, collectively. What amazing place this would be if we did.

Things I learned today while learning to ride a bike

Yeah so this about twenty years late, but better late than never, no? Well I figure if I really want to commit to this hippy life I should at least know how to ride a bike. This is a lot easier than it sounds, but to my surprise I didn’t suck as badly at it as I thought I would and I did manage to pedal a few times.  But it occurred to me as I wobbled along, picturing all the while that I was riding to Spitalfields Market (maybe this is why I was distracted and couldn’t steer straight) that life is a lot like learning to ride a bike. For the following reasons, in no particular order.

1. it hurts sometimes.

2. you need to find balance!

3. you will fall!

4. it really helps to have a boomsie (thank you, starch mango tree)

5. did I mention balance?

6. be patient with yourself, you will get it evenutally (I had a few Don Music moments)

7.  random men will think it’s okay to give you their (unsolicited) advice.

8. when you can’t make it up the hill, it’s always good to have a friend to push you, and steer you away from the potholes.

9. there are potholes and you seem to be attracted to them.

10. laughing helps.

11. everybody looks this stupid at least once in their lives.

12. brakes! don’t forget the brakes.

Anyway, my hands hurt from hours of over-zealous brake application so that’s about as much wisdom as I can impart for now.  all of which is to say that I’m glad that I got over my lameness and actually took the chance to try something new!

Scars on the inside and on the Outside

Been together like school children,
Then you hurt me just in vain.
Lord, I’m your weary child.
Happiness, come back awhile.
Cause if you don’t come, I’ve got to go
Lookin’ for happiness.
The road is dangerous.
Well, if you don’t come, I’ve got to go
Lookin’, Lord, for happiness, happiness.

—I’m Hurting Inside, Bob Marley

I know this man. Not terribly well. But in the way I know a lot of people. I talk to him every now and then. Depending on the route I take to go home. He always struck me as a gentle soul. Willing smile that lights up his eyes and you don’t notice that he’s missing teeth. He’s too young to be an elder but too old to be a contemporary. So I listen to his jokes when I stop at his van and crack a joke or two of my own and he’s nice enough to laugh at them. He is the coconut vendor who occasionally gives me advice on my love life and my work and whatever is on my mind that particular day. I guess I like him because he listens without prejudice. We give each other glimpses of our very different lives and I am usually thankful that I took the time and unplugged myself from my headphones long enough to share with someone who is not part of my immediate circle of loved ones and friends.

This day is the first I have seen him in a few months and it is so hot that I harbour soucouyant fantasies of escaping my skin that I swear is sizzling like I have already turned into a ball of fire. The asphalt is melty soft under my feet and Maracas is too far to be an achievable goal at this hour. He smiles when he sees me and I ask for my usual medium jelly. The jelly he has is firm and so he waits for me to drink the water and then patiently scoops the jelly out for me, more concerned about me breaking my nails than I ever could be. It’s then that I notice that his skin on his right arm is singed. Pink flesh peeps through burnt black patches. It looks like it’s healing well. I watch his arm as he separates the jelly from the husk and I wonder if to engage my Trini maco gene and work this obvious scar into the conversation. I am suddenly shy and wishing that I didn’t notice. I fear that I don’t really want to hear the story.

I don’t know if he has noticed me watching but he offers an explanation. He says he got into a rage and burnt his car and himself in the process too. I try to make light of the situation. Why you do dat, boy? I try to disguise the horror in my voice behind my Trini tone of trivialisation. He says, rum nah. Matter of fact like.
It’s obvious that this is the answer. He tells me about his wife again and I remember him telling me a few months ago that you can be with someone and still be all alone. He says now that he wishes she would leave him alone after he’s had a long day and not come and bother his head with her own failures. I don’t know what else to do. So I stuff my mouth full of jelly so I don’t have to come up with a more reasonable response. And I give a noncommittal nod. Like I understand the need to be left alone sometimes. Like I am secretly relieved that he only burned his car and himself.

Relatively speaking his behaviour is reasonable. Domestic violence headlines haunt us every day. I am disturbed that I am relieved at this man’s self-harm. I don’t ask any more questions. I am not a counsellor. I try to listen without prejudice but find myself wanting to plead with him to get help from some place that I fear does not exist. I don’t know where to tell this man to go and get help for his rum problem. Or his anger that he is now wearing as a scar on his right arm. I eat my firm jelly and he looks off into the setting sun. It is still unbearably hot but the coconut water soothes me a bit. The streets blare with police sirens, shuffling piper feet, the cursing of some inebriated hawk-and-spit regular.

When I am finished swallowing my jelly and the tears I want to cry for a man I hardly know, he is upbeat. He says he is going to get back the car he burnt. I ask what he’s putting on the arm. He says he is monitoring it. Testing his healing by his capacity to feel pain. The day he stops feeling, he says, is the day to get worried. I am more worried about healing the other scars. I manage to ask him, so you done with that rum ting, right? Nah! His response is swift and backed up by evidence of his continuing habit, a bottle of something held triumphantly in his hand before he puts in back in the barrel at his side. Rum till we all die, amen. I make a parting plea with him to give up the rum ting. He smiles and says okay, he will try. I smile and say take care of yourself.

Even the gentle souls here brush up against the face of violence. And some of us carry our scars outside but there are many more of us carrying our scars inside. And the rest of us look on powerless to intervene except to give whatever extra love we have to spare, even as we try to love ourselves into healing our own wounds. Shocked that the people we know. Our neighbors and friends. Our lovers and coconut vendors, all have the capacity for violence. It’s not just the monsters in the newspapers. It’s not just the disturbed teenagers beating up their school mates on tape. It’s not just the sicko police man brandishing a gun in the middle of cricket to stop the dutty wining antics of pitch stormers. Violence is closer than we like to admit and growing to be so common that soon scars outside will be national emblems.

He smiles his gappy smile and I go home, even more acutely aware of how powerless we all are to confront the growing diseases of violence, anger and how those problems are heavily medicated with alcohol. Who will save us from our scars? Who will be able to tell where the scar tissue ends for the healing to begin?