Vybz Kartel – the new face of freedom

See me, want me, give me, trust me
Feed me, —- me, love me, touch me
This whole world is cold and ugly
What we are is low and lovely
I am the most beautiful boogie man
The most beautiful boogie man
Let me be your favourite nightmare
Close your eyes and I’ll be right there

—The Boogie Man Song, Mos Def

It’s no accident that Vybz Kartel is in T&T to perform this weekend. Of all the weekends in the year, Emancipation weekend. When we allegedly celebrate freedom. When we dress up like Carnival time in costumes that we do not understand, that may or may not reflect who we are. When one group separates itself from the rest and the rest look on, unmoved. Feeling no sense of solidarity or understanding that freedom is a collective investment. I can’t say I’m terribly fond of Kartel. He’s not my generation of music, but I guess I understand why young people would like him. He appears to be the antithesis of everything that the rest of society stands for while not so subtly reinforcing age-old capitalist, sexist, racist notions on irresistible dancehall beats. But this is what freedom is about. The freedom to choose who you are and what you look like. Vybz Kartel is probably the world’s first post-black star, bending our notions of who we are or how we want to look. Because freedom was never only about getting rid of the chains. Freedom was never about one day when somebody else told you you could do whatever you wanted with the life you hadn’t known while you were busy making someone else rich.

Not much has changed and these days most people are still engaged in the act of making other people rich off their endless labour. Thinking that money can buy them freedom engages them more in their enslavement. To clothes, to Courts, to Forres Park, to sex. Kartel is the new face of freedom. Free to bleach. Free to mask himself and I wonder what Franz Fanon would make of him. And I wonder if his ancestors are glad that they worked themselves to death so that he could feel good about making himself look like a permanent minstrel. The truth is, though, that women of Africa, south-Asia, the Caribbean have been lightening their skin for centuries, but women are usually the ones prone to self-mutilation in the quest for acceptance. Kartel represents a kind of new black man. Who is no longer simply confident in the privilege of being both absolutely feared and desired at the same time. This is equal opportunity self-transformation into something more visually appealing. Because if they change the way they look maybe then the rest of the society might change the way they see black people.

The girls love off his bleach-out face, he boasts. With relief that he is finally on equal footing with the red men that run the region. Thank Jah for emancipation. If not we wouldn’t be free to be what we want to be. And at the opening of the Emancipation Village the Minister of Arts and Multiculturalism fumbles over the word decimation. Not remembering perhaps that he sang about this same thing years ago.
Decimation. Decimation. It’s a hard word to say and swallow. It’s what is happening every day to little black boys that Gypsy and his government and the Emancipation Support Committee and anyone else who expresses any interest in saving must face. But Vybz Kartel, who has in the past year become the face of post-Dudus dancehall, part gangsta, part vampire, is a challenge to those of us who think emancipation is just about one kind of freedom. These days with every other cable station carrying its own vampire show and Americans coming to make our folklore real with heat-seeking cameras and white girls boldface enough to ask Count Lopinot why he still jum-bieing the people’s lives, the cult of the undead lives in dancehall. In vocals they kill each other for fun, while their Gaza and Gully neighbours kill each other for real.

Like a ghoul out of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video that used to give me nightmares back in the 80s, Kartel haunts my mind, and I try to resist the desire to dance, because I can hear his words and they are far more terrible than what he has done to his face. It’s kind of funny when you really think about it. Vybz Kartel, the voice of emancipation for young people. In keeping with the level of hilarity that exists in this country. Because if you don’t laugh, the likelihood is that you might spend all your days weeping. Or hiding. Or hiding and weeping. If nothing else Vybz Kartel with his cake soap and his tattoos and his unfathomably banal lyrics represents either the failure or the success of past generations to pass on a sense of what a diaspora African identity is supposed to be. But this is what freedom is about I guess. To be so confident in your blackness that you attempt to erase every trace of it. To be so sure of yourself that you feel no qualms about moving from disguise to disguise. Until there is no difference between you and the mask. The mask is you. The mask is real. The mask is permanent. But that’s okay because it’s white and white’s alright. That is true freedom. That is true emancipation. Because blackness is the prison that black people fear the most.

Foil Vedanta, Shakti revolution and other Wednesday morning thoughts.


Wake up, Murderer

“At 8am this morning Anil Agarwal was woken up at his £20 million Mayfair apartment by seven demonstrators with pots and pans and whistles. They shouted ‘blood on your hands’, ‘murderer’ and ‘Vedanta ka anta ho!’ meaning Vedanta should cease to exist, and held placards. One placard cited the communities in Zambia, Australia and India who are affected by pollution and ill health from Vedanta’s mines and industry. Another named two tribal activists – Sukru Majhi and Arsi Majhi – allegedly killed by Vedanta at their Niyamgiri mine project.”

Last summer in Babylon-don I had an amazing opportunity to take part in this protest in central London.  The occasion was the Annual General Meeting of Vedanta Resources PLC.

After my own adventures with the local anti-smelter movement, it was another chance for me to get involved in the global struggle against the aluminium monster, which is well documented in Out of this Earth written by Samarendra Das and Felix Padel.

All the Villains

I spent the day before with Sarbjit, part of the Foil Vedanta crew making posters.  It was also a chance for us to share stories of struggles and I was reminded once again of how important women are to protest movements around the world.

Sarbjit for all intents and purposes was a typically quiet Indian woman. She made me amazing chapatis in her kitchen while we talked about revolution and traditional expectations and love and other things that women like us talk about.

The next day, Sarbjit’s voice rang out clear and unrelenting ‘Arrest Anil Agarwal, criminal, criminal.’ She called out for hours, her voice vibrating along the street. I imagined her refrain making the people in the AGM upstairs increasingly agitated.

For murders and environmental crimes

The other person who stood out in this protest for me was Miriam a young English woman I met in Iceland in 2007 when Saving Iceland held their Summer Protest camp.  I consider that trip one of the significant events in my life for a number of reasons but mainly because I got to experience firsthand and with people from very diverse backgrounds that multi-nationals like to play the same dirty tricks wherever they are in the world.  And so the stories described to me from Orissa or Brazil or South Africa rang true to what I had experienced right here in Trinidad.

Without a doubt there are some amazing men involved in these global struggles for the environment, for people, for communities.

But women bring a truth to activism that is undeniable and pretty much uncelebrated.  If women aren’t involved as more than the back-up, then the movement will fail. This is why our labour movement is so weak and lacking credibility. Because it is not rooted to anything. To real people or real issues. All I can see is a bunch of men fighting over who can piss further.

More women need to understand their role in making a difference.  Beyond environmental struggles, activism among women needs to happen in terms of social interventions and taking back our communities from anything and everything that threatens to destroy them.

If we cannot change the notion of women as nurturers, life-givers, the primary source of life and living. Then we have to change the notion that women are somehow incapable of defending that which is closest and dearest to them.

All of which is to say, I’m missing my friends and sisters and brothers in London today.   And wondering how to cause a Shakti revolution up in this place.


The bruised one

Sometimes it seems that the going is just too rough

And things go wrong no matter what I do

Now and then it seems that life is just too much

But you’ve got the love I need to see me through

When food is gone you are my daily meal

When friends are gone I know my saviour’s love is real

Your love is real

You’ve Got the Love – Florence and the Machine

Starch for breakfast again. This one was a little worse for wear. Apparently it had a hard fall and was the proud owner of two big bruises. No big thing. I’m not a picker of mangoes really, I like to see what the tree gives me on a morning and I am thankful for any offerings or none at all. But I’m not averse to chasing off those wasteful kiskidees that pick a few morsels and then leave a lovely mango to be fly food. You could learn a lot about life from eating a mango for breakfast. For the obvious reasons of health, yes. And a starch is just a really delicious way to eat the sun. A mango is a thing of beauty, even, or maybe especially, when it is bruised. A mango is a prayer and a mango is also the answer. So you ask for wholeness and you get fragments that need to be put together. You ask for perfection and you get a bruised mango.

But if you cut out the bruise, pull the skin past the wound on the skin there is sweetness under there.
Waiting for you to find it. Asking not to be ignored because of a couple of bruises. On Tuesday night I ended up at a nightclub in the ridiculous hours of the morning when people who have real jobs should be asleep.  But up in this club where women rule, women who are beautiful and comfortable in their bodies in a way I know that I have too much middle class self-consciousness to ever be. Women with baby stretch marks and bodies that bear marks of their far from easy lives. They are powerful in this space, they own it like I can only ever own my words.   They make men hold their heads, even the nice uptown ones who know they can’t handle so much Shakti. And I don’t know if they think this is all the power that they have but in this moment that doesn’t matter and the beauty of simple is overwhelming. Mangoes with bruises these women are. Unashamed of the licks they get from life. They wear their bruises because these are a reality of life in this country. Where women are bruised and have to struggle to hold on to a sense of themselves, find the sweetness still underneath the bruise.

They dance for all the young ones who never make it. Who are home minding fatherless babies. Who take their lives because they confuse love with acceptance. Whose lives are taken away by men who confuse love with possession. They dance to remember that they are alive in a society that kills them every day simply by making them invisible. More and more the West is telling women they have to be some version of perfect. Thanks to pornography, thanks to the fashion industry, thanks to abnormalities that are now cultural norms, women are being convinced even more these days that something is wrong with their bodies. That they need to be bruise-free and blemish-free and wrinkle-free and cellulite-free and doll-like and perfect. The skin bruises are airbrushed away but the desire for approval from everyone else becomes that kind of cancerous engagement with self-loathing and terror at imperfection.

Part of coming to terms with yourself is acknowledging your imperfections, being thankful for the flaws and finding a way to use them to your advantage. A lifelong engagement to last many mango seasons until one day you are as okay with your bruises as you are with the ones on your breakfast starch. You know that every scar is a sign that you are alive. That you live in spite of wind and stones and wasteful kiskidees that peck at you for a few morsels then leave you to rot alone. These are things I discover from eating a mango in the morning. That even the bruised ones have their value. That even the bruised ones are sweet and beautiful and good for you. That a bruised mango is not a rotten apple. And that we need to find a way to understand that we are different and find ways to create our own ways to love ourselves and heal ourselves, to celebrate who we are, bruises and all.

No one who can fly, No one who transforms

Just dragonflies

Flying to the side

No one gets hurt

You’re doing nothing wrong

Slide your hand

Jump off the end

The water’s clear and innocent

The water’s clear and innocent

Codex, Radiohead

They scream for Optimus Prime in Globe. In a way that I have never heard screaming before for a superhero. As if he being a machine means they can feel unbridled love for him. He has no human flaws. He is not prone to moments of doubt like the rest of us. There is a cautionary tale hidden away in this Transformers 3, past the pyromaniac porn and the distracting beauty of that pointless heroine who miraculously manages to make it through the entire film with flawless make-up and unbroken heels.
Can you transform yourself? Or are you stuck in a cinema wishing that you could? Oh the noise is deafening in Globe. The joy of people who are easily entertained. And while I am a non-believer and take a dim view to this kind of cinematic lack of script and weak soundtrack, even I find myself making tanka-lanks at the screen. For Optimus Prime. For Bumblebee. The humans are unnecessary. The machines are the real stars. In that willing suspension of disbelief there is something to save us from ourselves. From all the self-fulfilling prophesies of being young and black in Trini-dad. We love those moments of transformation. We love his sleek big truck and trailer. Bumblebee is the real scenes, all black and yellow and sexy one minute and big and powerful and menacing the next.

Meanwhile in Chaguaramas, Trinis can’t seem to fly. Their crafts fail, fall into the sea, cannot soar above the bay for more than 30 feet. Sinking like the body of Nicho-las Simmons into Yemoja’s deep blue embrace. We cannot transform it seems, from our wining selves into beings who can fly. We spend a lot of time on the performance but not on the actual mechanics of flight. This is no Mr Uncle Minsh studying the physics of the Bat man to make Callaloo dance tic tac toe down the river. Oh no, this is shiny mas with feathers that do not, cannot fly. We. Us here in these islands seem to have one way of being. Even the Carnival is no longer a point of transformation for us anymore. So now we need new superheroes to do it for us. To do the transformations so that we can sit back and watch. You have to be brave to transform yourself. You have to know yourself to be able to transform yourself. Flying is for others. We will never learn to fly here. And in Globe men scream for Bumblebee transforming himself, to save America, land we love. The air is electric with the stench of their own inability to transform. Into Trinis who can fly. Who can rise above class and race para-digms. But this has been bred out of us. We are machines of parties. We, like Optimus Prime , believe in a race of beings that will not save us.

I wonder why Optimus Prime chose to fight for the humans? In a way Sentinel Prime is right. Humans are an ignorant stupid race. We are naturally predisposed to notions of colonisation, enslavement, oppression of races of people based on who has the per- ceived powe. So we can do it to each other but it’s not acceptable when it’s someone from another planet. Like it’s okay for PNM to disenfranchise African people but the People’s Partnership is somehow far less justified, because they’re mostly Indians. In this non-movie realm, only politicians have the power to transform. From being for the people to doing their best work against them. From working for the greater good to ensuring the security of the wealthy few. The rest of us hiss and boo from the audience, screaming our anguish at the screen. But they   can’t hear us and we can’t get to them. Balcony vibrates and I am for a minute concerned that if something happens I will be trapped up here. There is no emergency evacuation plan. No one to save me from drowning in a sea of bodies. But I chose this. You can’t play mas and fraid powder.

Enjoy it. This feeling of insecurity. Like a whole-day fete in the traffic. To see people who do not, cannot fly.
The good side always wins in the end. In the movies anyway. I wonder who the good side is on this side of the silver screen. Good people are dying. Good people are stuck in traffic jams for hours. Good people get their homes flooded. Good people are robbed and raped and killed everyday. Good people’s children drown. Sentinel Prime is the badjohn police profiling your son. Sentinel Prime is the Ministry of National Security always coming up with some next scheme to save this country from crime. Sentinel Prime is a show called Crime Watch wallowing in the tragedies of families to make one man feel like a hero. Sentinel Prime is a state-run organisation charging you for a security service when the police don’t have enough resources. No one transforms for the greater good. No one transforms to save this place. All we have is Decepticons for leaders. And people who do not, cannot fly.

How Anansi Bring the Drum

Last Saturday at the UNESCO offices in St. Clair I watched the mother for the ten millionth time, mesmerize a group of young people with her stories.  I guess I took her story-telling skills for granted, like I take my mango trees and guava tree and zaboca tree for granted. It’s there, right.  It is expected.

The truth is that not everybody has a mother like Eintou. It’s a matter of privilege really, to grow up in a house where you are routinely, almost ritualistically informed about who you are.  I watch these young people their eyes opening wide at the information being offered to them.  There are immediately noticeable changes.

This is the kind of work that we used to do in at risk schools in Morvant and Laventille. Schools that are allegedly the breeding grounds of future (and some present) criminals.  The work of cultural transformation is no joke. It’s been proven for years

These programmes were stopped by the new Minister of Education Dr. Tim Gopeesingh, pending a review of so-called extra-curricular activities at all schools across the country.  At the launch of a new book on Leroi Clarke last week at NALIS, Dr. Gopeesingh claimed that he was willing to work with people like Eintou to transform the education system.  I hope he calls soon. I really do.  In light of recent developments – Movie Towne, Flugtag, Vybz Kartel – all of which I suppose have their purpose, I hope that cultural workers and community activists get a chance to do the work they need to do.

The forty or so young people who are involved in How Anansi Bring the Drum are a lucky bunch. They get to learn history that is not part of their curriculum.  They get to learn cultural forms that are not part of their curriculum.  And they get to interact with Eintou who, and I’m not even being biased here, is a real national treasure.

Best you cover your head

All ah we got we own set ah little drama
Some drink ah rum, some seek a saviour
Some run down fun, some never quench thirst for power
And some seek love in the most desperate hour
Stand firm and don’t let self-doubt devour
Yuh got to be the dread at your controls in this iwah
Cah sit and hope for a break in the rain or is we tuh ketch again

—Rain, Kin Sound System

The rain falls. Doing her thing. Getting on with the business  of being in season. The sky is almost as deep grey these mornings as it is deep blue in a cloudless dawn. You smile into your pillow because the sweetness of sleep with a rain lullaby is like no other. Rain on the galvanize that you miss when you are in far-away places that do not know the joys of this kind of percussion. It is a soundtrack that slows your racing thoughts, silences the voices of unhad conversations, unachieved goals, unresolved disagreements. The rain gives dreams a gentle soundtrack. Somewhere else someone is not so happy that it is raining. So you give thanks for rain on the outside of the galvanize and not inside, dripping slow and steady onto your bed, onto your sleeping child, onto your damp clothes.

Rain is not joyous for everyone on these islands. Rain is headache. Rain is flood. Rain could mean successful crops or failed crops. Rain is hours of waiting for public transport that takes its sweet time to come. But in this dawn moment you smile into the cool side of your pillow and arch your feet into the warm corners of your blanket.  Enjoy the benevolent sound before you have to wake up and face the reality of this music and all the good and bad things the rain brings. Rain to wash your dishevelled soul. Rain to mingle with your tears. Rain to bring zaboca. And rain to bring cool evenings. The rain brings flies. Of all descriptions. Fat flies that dance their diseased dance on your mangoes. And mosquitoes that sing off-key for spite in your ears. And rain flies to dance to their deaths in your fever grass tea.

Rain brings mixed emotions and the delightful confusion of love you feel for a place that is a most sometime-ish lover. The rain washes away Sasha’s sins. And you who have not sinned are righteously indignant. Not understanding that in this time of any number could play, of mysteries and signs and amazing wonders, Sasha’s sins can be washed as easily as Uncle Jack’s. The rain doesn’t judge the crimes of those she falls on. The rain doh business with who is washed away or who is left standing.
The rain brings a reshuffled Cabinet. And tears of happiness and sadness for Aunty Verna. Wishing that this is an opportunity for children to get the protection they need. Fearing it is an opportunity for politicians to destroy the dreams of another community worker trying to do good for the people.

But Shango sends lightning bolts of warning and Osun washes Aunty Verna in her tears. SEA results come with the rain. And the rain mingles with tears. For children who are taught from young that the only way to succeed is to work hard and work long so that you can go and work for someone else and realise their dreams. For children who are good at passing exams but not necessarily at thinking for themselves. For children who get relegated to the schools where they are taught to believe they are stupid. For parents who are not sure if they can find the money to put their children through school because they fear for what will become of their children at the hands of schools that breed the brightest idlers whose skills that may not come in a book become the skills that lead them to the dark side of the force.

The rain falls and we run for shelter in MovieTowne. While up the road Woodbrook floods. Because who cares about the mangrove when there’s such a desperate need to be entertained out of the mind-numbing boringness of our island lives. And when you’re finished watching the movie you can have your own high-speed chase and your own near-death moment of stardom. We’re all ready for lights, camera, action on the most popular reality show every night that is called the news, although it really should be called the Haven’t we seen and heard this all before? And if you want to live in a crime-free place, I mean you could just move to Switzerland. But the rain doesn’t fall on galvanized roofs in Switzerland.

The rain falls like our tears for Norris Deonarine. Whose departure is still too much to consider. Whose departure remains unmarked by a so-called caring government. The rain falls and the prices of fruits and vegetables begin the high and low dance. And talk of food crisis and climate crisis and land crisis from other parts of the world are lost in the din of rain. The rain falls. Doing her thing. Oblivious to her impact on us. Or our impact on her. Thunder is rolling in the distance. Thunders is rolling like a literary device and you try to decide whether you will wake up and face the rain and whatever good and bad it brings.  Or stay here a little longer enjoying the sound of it. The way those dreams may never become real and the possibilities of all the beauty and the horror that is just outside waiting to consume you with equal intensity.