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.

Farewell to the King

Heartbreak enemy despise
Love shines in my eyes
So let love take us through the hours
I won’t be complaining
’Cause your love is alright, alright
—Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough Michael Jackson

The first man any of us were in love with, notwithstanding Amitabh Bachchan on a Sunday afternoon. And now that they say he is gone I remember the eighties and long for that innocence again. When my big sister Didi was the coolest person alive. Because she could do the moonwalk and to add insult to injury allowed me with my annoying six-year-old self to lime with her and all her cool friends, not least of all, the boyfriend whose name was, oh sweet Lord, Michael. When Thriller came out and we listened to that record for hours and staged concerts in our living room for a scandalised George Lamming who had, to our own disgust, not yet heard of this marvel called Michael Jackson.
Back then, before the pederasty, before the plastic surgery, before Jacko became wacko, we loved him like a brother. Like a part of the family. He sang for us, for every black child wanting to be great. Wanting to be more than just skin and hair and nose. When those things became tangible talent, superstardom to take to you to moon and back, to soar endlessly. I laughed til I cried years later when Didi was in London and sent me a letter detailing her fainting as he came onstage at Wembley. By then he was thinner and whiter and stranger but still a star. Still worthy of causing my otherwise sensible sister to faint from the sheer emotional exertion of being so close to greatness. He was too great for this Earth. And so he became the joke, the freak show that we all are desperate to avoid. The non-belonging artist on the moon, far out in orbit, trying to get his fans to take the trip with him. No one is that amazing we try to tell ourselves. No one can be so great.
He soars higher still, but we decline the journey preferring to lose ourselves in the driving sex-soaked bass of dancehall and the frustrated realism of hip hop. None can deny though, not Sizzla, not Public Enemy, not Method Man, that the King is the King. His time is gone now, a sacrifice at the feet of superstar gods who demand the ultimate price for such genius. Madness haunts any who dare to fly so high. His face melted like Icarus wings and none of us held out our hands to catch him. And it occurs to me that the thing we robbed him of is the thing he represents the most to all of us. He gave us the happy childhood he never had, haunted as he was by genius madness and demands for those less talented for him to reach never-before-seen heights of superstardom.
He gifted us a less difficult time. A less complicated time when you could be in love with a superstar. When you could dance away your troubles. Back then when you didn’t know every awful gory detail of his life, you couldn’t hear the pain in his wailing. You couldn’t hear the loneliness in his high fragile voice. You could just see the moonwalk as a dance and not a man retreating to some far far place where none of the people who exploited his immense talent could reach him. I mourn not just a singer. I mourn a symbol of my own struggle to know and love myself. How many black people wished they had that Jackson money to change their faces into something that might be more beautiful by someone else’s standards.
How many want to rub out their reflections so that the nightmares do not stare back when they look into the mirror. How many fight demons every day. His heart broke because we didn’t believe in him anymore and I am sure he stopped believing too. Part of me wants to believe that he is not dead. Because he was meant to be immortal. He was meant to transcend this physical place because the Earth was far too puny a place for him. The King is not mere flesh that withers on the bone. The King is pure electricity now. Existing in our nerve endings, infectious and divine. The King stops time and space to make people forget their troubles and dance. Forget their sorrows and dance. Like the first time you heard Billie Jean and wondered what manner of man could make their spirit want to jump out of their skins, just so?
It is the power of music. In that moment of moonwalk nothing else matters. He walks on the moon alone. He trods the superstar road alone. He dies alone. Unrecognisable by those who came to know themselves through his music. Far more than any of us have wished for ourselves. Far more than any of us could have dreamed for him.

Life after 30

This world is mine

For all the time

I can turn any stone

Call any place my home

I can do anything.

Use the Force, Jamiroquai

So I’ve been freaking out about turning 30 for at least a month now. All things considered, I don’t feel any different now than I did two days ago when I was still a twenty-something, but I find the finality of it a little hard to adjust to.

I can’t remember feeling so stressed out about turning 20. Actually, to be honest, I can’t remember turning 20. It wasn’t as significant as 18 and not as terrifying as 25.

But a decade is a lot of living to go through. It’s sped past in a haze of books and protests and flaky men and interesting fashion decisions.

And ten years later I don’t feel older but I do feel a lot wiser.

I still don’t consider myself a grown-up, possibly because people still refer to me as “the chile.” In truth, being a grown-up is a terribly overrated thing. Being a grown-up is really all about responsibilities and expectations and the disappointments that come when you refuse or fail to live up to these.

I have resisted most if not all attempts to make me a serious frowny lady who wears pumps, pantyhose and other instruments of female repression.

I’m not too sure why. I suppose my life would have been a lot easier if I’d gone down a less odd road.

It occurred to me in the midst of my pre-birthday funk when I was wondering how my life had turned out like it had and why another birthday was approaching and my bank account looking just as empty as it had in previous years.

When I was 25 I used to say every day that I didn’t want to turn 30 still engaged in the daily reporter grind, locked into the wage slavery of a full-time job and conspicuous consumption of house, car and fetes.

I look back and see how the universe opened the way and here I am five years later, a full-time professional protester of no fixed abode and neither chick nor child to show for it.

And if I didn’t have the pictures to prove it, I would think that my life for the past five years was a dream, with a few nightmarish bits put in for good measure. How I managed to climb the Great Wall, trod through Babylon-don, cruise the Adriatic, scale the Swiss Alps, march in Chatham, and generally have a fabulously detached existence is beyond me.

This time around I think I’m going to be a little more clear to the universe and try not to doubt so much that nothing in my life happens by accident.

That said, the best plan for me, it seems, is to make no plan at all. To see what turns up and go with the flow.

Sometimes I wish that what turns up is a big pile of dirty capitalist cash that I can use to fund all my subversive little revolutionary projects.

In the dark and frequent hours when self-doubt grips me by the throat and threatens to snuff out any positive thought, I wonder if I can manage to balance my life between being someone that cares and someone that earns a livable wage. I wonder if I can really open myself to the abundant blessings rather than cursing the poverty and the loneliness that come with rejecting social norms.

I guess at some point I’ll have to suppress that Aquarian predisposition to be out in mental orbit most of the time. Or use the orbit time to plot a course that really leads me where I want to go, wherever that is.

I’m going to focus on the positives of being a dread hippy and not second guess my interesting fashion decisions. I’m going to embrace the flaky men and understand that they’ve taught me some interesting lessons about how I see love and how much I love myself.

The challenge for the next year, five years, the rest of my life is to just enjoy being me. A human woman feminist writer tree hugger activist meggie artist drama queen fashion outcast photographer traveller lover friend sister daughter auntie perhaps one day mother dancer deejay…the list gets longer everyday. The possibilities of me are endless.