Dancing for Dawn

There I go again, talking about the only thing I love more than starch mangoes…

The glorious morning has come, and I don’t know if to laugh or cry. Because I’ll have to wait another 364 days to feel this way again. J’Ouvert is what happens when someone opens the prison gates. J’Ouvert is the moment of truth in lives of endless fiction.

Check out the full piece in this month’s issue of Caribbean Beat Magazine.

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Case of the Man called Boy

I done tell mih friends and mih family
Not to worry
Anyone of them interfere with me
It eh easy
Don’t worry to beg the jury
Save the lawyer fee
And if yuh have any mail
Send it to me in the Royal Gaol
Royal Gaol, Mighty Sparrow

It’s the most serious question of the year. More serious than Section 34. More serious than the highway. More serious than whether we are going to hell in a handbasket called corruption. The question is: are they going to send the man called Boy to jail?

The first surprise is that he was found guilty in the first place. That was about as shocking as the fact that Ish and Steve escaped extradition.

Town say, it good for him. They start to wonder who the Golden Grove Soca Monarch will be. If you do the crime and you guilty, you have every right to do the time. All of these law-abiding citizens who have the moral rectitude to cast the first stone. Who never drive drunk and never pay for sex and never smoked a spliff and never got in a fight in a club and never pelt bottle in the Oval.

They glad that he get what coming to him. Because locking up Boy will make up for all the other cases, like Brad Boyce and others, where those who had the power to be above the law escaped the justice that should have been served. Meanwhile, the jokes jook like the waists of these same people who wine their way through endless Carnivals, play mas and dingolay as if there is no tomorrow. The fete will continue whether the Boy is in or out of jail.

The derision flows on social media and the radio stations. Trinis doing what they do best. Disguising their guilt in laughter and relief that they never got caught in whatever ratchifee they were doing. Not understanding that if the Boy is a monster, he is one of our own making. So desirous are we of someone to worship. In this place soca stars and politicians are equally untouchable by the long, selective arm of the law.

In this place soca stars and politicians have a long history of being of questionable moral standing. Pimps and thieves. Gun men and treasury looters. They do it all and then smile sweetly at us. And we like it so. Like we love the husbands who beat us. And the women who horn us. And the children who sell drugs and then build us nice houses.

We turn a blind eye to their sins when it suits us. While we wine. We dismiss the stories of what beasts they can be. We put them up on pedestals until we are ready to kick them down. Because the truth is that we love a messiah but we also love the part where we get to crucify them. We love to make fun of one of our own. Doing like the Boy is said to have done and kicking a man when he is down.

Well, he not that down. Because if you are wealthy or a public figure then you have extra buffer to take jamming. The middle classes who are above reproach and never do anything wrong are particularly pleased with themselves now.

For those of us who follow instructions from everyone, police and politicians and soca artists demanding that we move left, right down to the ground and everywhere else, we are particularly gleeful. We want them to know what it feels like to have their freedom taken away.

I’m not sure how I feel about the man called Boy being found guilty. The prettiest people do the ugliest things, so Kanye says. The prettiest people disappoint us the most. Because they give us so much beauty we don’t want to believe that they are capable of such ugliness.

We want men to be manly. But only to a point. We are ruled by badjohnism but when our best and brightest act like the animals we tell them they must be, we can’t stand it. We want to lose them in jail so that we don’t have to confront our own guilt. We don’t want to confront the way we treat our own women. The way we want to get away with our everyday corruptions and criminalities that if they were ever identified as such we would gasp in horror.

We’re nice people really. Too nice for jail. Jail is for little black boys. Jail is for murderers and picky-head bandits. Jail is not for jacketmen who kill the spirit of the country every day with their absolute contempt for people. The question is not whether the man called Boy will end up in jail. The question is how we begin to rethink what justice means and who we allow to have access to it.

On becoming a stickfighter

Had my first kalinda training session with the Bois Academy on Sunday. Really steep learning curve, given that I’ve always considered myself a pacifist and the least graceful person on the planet. But demystifying this martial tradition from the point of view of a player of stick for me is crucial as is the grounding that taking part in something so physical gives you. My shoulders still hurt and my left little finger is cramped from the terror I felt gripping that bois to protect my head, but here are the two most important things I learned:

1. Stickfighting is a beautifully deadly art that requires technical skill and a heightened consciousness of yourself in your body.

2. I am not a pacifist.

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.

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.

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.

Advantage Never Done

We so amazed

We get back de stage

So give we a wave

We taking advantage

On the stage

Dem gyal on de stage

For two days

We head for the stage

To turn a new page

We cannot behave

Stage or the grave

We taking advantage

Advantage

Start to jump on the stage and leh we make front page

Advantage, Machel Montano HD

It’s their privilege, not ours, to take advantage.  They don’t need to apologize.  They don’t even need to tell the truth.  They could get vex and self righteous.  That is their privilege.

On the Trinidad and Tobago stage they could behave how the hell they want.  They could put on what kind of mas they like, while we jump and ray on the sidelines.  Spectators in this masquerade that is governance.

Advantage.  They really taking advantage.  Of a young girl called Reshmi.  I mean really in a country where macoing is a national pastime, isn’t everyone qualified to head a spy agency?

And all the people who have the qualifications on paper but sit in their offices collecting their nice fat three times what a local person would get salary, is anybody going to take advantage of them?

Meanwhile Ministers falling all over themselves to tell their version, as if there was some kind of lying competition they had entered and there was a big prize for the best explanation for why they are qualified to hire and fire and then play bess liar.

Well you couldn’t say that they were being untrue to our culture.  I never hear so much Pierrot-esque explanation in my life.

Advantage when they get on the stage in truth yes, Machel boy.  Like the sweetest seer man of soca, the Boy sings the thing that hurts us the most right now.

And makes us love it because we love this kind of pain.

Advantage all round.  From the banks to the bandits.  Everybody taking advantage on us poor Trinbagonians.  And we must be like it so.

In fact, I think we love it.  We love it more than we love ourselves.

Advantage on the stage.  Advantage in the Parliament.  Advantage from King Louis and his band of council imps.

For 363 days out of the year we allow the government to take advantage of us. The government has a good time bending us over and putting it on us with some emphatic vim and vigour they could give the Boy a run for his chooking money.

Stamp on it, Andy Johnson. Stamp on the free press. Trample it until we’re all a bunch of yes men, doing no more than covering the endless, tiresome, mind numbingly boring effluent coming from these so-called leaders.

Oh oh oh oh advantage, yeah.  Sing it like this is Carnival Tuesday and you’re already on the Savannah stage.

Advantage is the road march that price gouging business owners and useless opposition and surly public servants have been singing for years.

I wonder how we would be if we didn’t have those two days? I wonder if we would be taking advantage too.

Trampling on the rights of our workers. Stamping on our children.  Ramfling our environment.

Is we privilege to take advantage. It’s a historical position really. A self-fulfillment of prophecy.  Those who are the most oppressed then become the worst oppressors.

Hear what, if I had the power, I would make Machel Montano more than just the Road March winner.  I would use my considerable influence to make him some kind of Minister of the Pulse of the Nation.

The Boy is more than a soca artist.  He is a seer man, a healer.  He is qualified to be a leader of public thought.

He wouldn’t need a certificate for that.  His credentials are undeniable.

Machel boy, the advantage will never end. It will continue until all of us will become advantage takers in our own right.

The stage is in front of us.  Time to get advantageous.

For two days I wonder if we will take the opportunity to take advantage?

In all the song and dance about multiculturalism I wonder if these advantage takers and the rest of us understand that Carnival is the time when we used to wage our wars?

Who needs civil war when you have mas and pan?  Who needs Ministers’ platitudes when you have soca’s bare essential truths?

I wonder if we will really take the opportunity to advantage our leaders the way they advantage us.  If we will create new motifs and songs and actions to send the message to these advantageous winers that we won’t always be willing to take their instructions.

We won’t always jump and wave and be entertained at their pappyshow leadership.