linkthink re: hip-hop, reggae, the US, jamaica, and anything else wayne wants to wax on


last night in kingston

it's quarter past three and we just got home. marvin, his bredren marcus, and i went out to devon house in search of some excitement. renaissance was at the 1s and 2s (on CDJ, that is). but although tomorrow, emancipation day, is a national holiday, the place was nearly empty. not quite so easy to do the tundaclap with no one else on the dancefloor. i spotted a couple of jamaica's finest dozing in a corner. the sight was made funnier by its evocation of the jamaican term for speed-bumps: sleeping policemen. as we walked out, i was greeted by a similarly striking scene: two private security guards, in vests and holsters and all, waving imaginary guns in the air and enthusiastically crooning along with eamon on that "i don't want you back" song (which always reminds me of sinead o'connor's classic version of prince's "nothing compares 2 u"; they share a chord progression, and little else). it was good to have a couple red stripes, though, and take in some chunes.

we spent the day out at lime cay, which remains one of the most amazing little beach spots i've ever been to. just a short boatride from kingston, lime cay--which many simply call "the beach"--retains a certain robinson-crusoe-like charm. it is a very small island. one could walk its circumference in under a half hour, perhaps less. its sands are white, comprised largely of tiny shell fragments, accumulating around the reef that surrounds the key. the water is all shades of blue and green. from the beach, which covers 2/3 of the island, one can see the mountains, the city, the open sea. on sundays, kingston's mobile class flocks to lime cay to strut, eat, drink, and swim. some come in their own boats, docking ten yards offshore and swimming in to grab some fry fish and cold beer. (large boats--such as the one with the VP banner, full soundsystem, and helicopter i saw today--dock a bit further away.) the boatless head to the y-knot in port royal, pay a reasonable fee for a boatride (JA$350/US$6 on weekends), and enjoy a sometimes choppy but always fun ride out to the cay. i browned up some more, had some nice fry fish and some wicked conch soup, and played in the water with marvin's son, jared. it was a fine way to spend my final day.

the last week was a positive one, too. the final "build yuh riddim" class turned out to be perhaps the strongest of the month. all of the students were focused and engaged, and they turned out some tuff riddims, which i will share here soon, along with some commentary. (soon as i get back home and can upload over some real bandwith.)

one of my students remained remarkably focused despite experiencing a family tragedy over the course of the week. last tuesday night his brother was shot five times. when i last asked, he was in critical condition. the student missed class for a day and then more-or-less shrugged it off. "i'm meditating on it," he would say, "but that's life in jamaica. that's ghetto life." he told me he often hails people up on the street knowing that it may be the last time he sees them. caught in a gang war, his brother was shot in tivoli gardens, near rema--a notoriously violent area of the city. the next day a JLP "caretaker" (read: lawyer) came to visit my student. apparently, his brother was under police watch in the hospital--wanted for something or other--and the JLP were going to contest the charges. so the cycle continues. protection for allegiance for pork-from-the-barrel for votes. although inter-garrison strife has, to some extent, become divorced from political sponsorship (ever since drug money made politicians superfluous), the parties remain major players in the lives of kingston's urban poor.

my student reminded me that death can seem so near in jamaica, at least for a lot of people. sometimes i think that is what gives the place so much vitality. the acceptance of death as a commonplace fact of life gives people license and reason to embrace and affirm their aliveness much more frequently. still, i'm not sure life has to be so hard. but things sure are a mess in some ways. as my student pointed out, one doesn't go hungry out a country like one goes hungry in town. in the ghetto, when there's nothing to eat, there's nothing to eat. in the country, there's always a fruit tree somewhere near. the crowding in kingston's slums is a grave but familiar social problem in all countries, but especially in "developing" (read: underdeveloped) ones. rural folk flock to urban centers for access to international capital, however trickle-down. naive expectations of success meet exploitation, inequality, and a rigidly enforced race/class system. the government does little to control the population flow or handle the problems it creates. "developed" countries--a la louise bennett's "colonization in reverse"--provide some outlet for the overcrowding, but international borders remain hard to cross for many. labor exploitation practices being what they are, there is not work for everybody and there is rarely work that pays a living wage. a lot of people are just plain hungry--and angry--as a result.

when bounty killer yells "cross! angry! miser-rebel!" he's articulating a pretty simple and shared sentiment. people yell along with him and pepper their everyday speech with the phrase. they know what it's like to be cross, mad, bex. they're "young and uptempered," as a young DJ told me last week. no work, no money, no credit, no food--the young, black, and hopeless grow explicitly rude, spiteful, "bad-minded"--looking for a whiff of justice in others' misery. the pronunciation of "miser-rebel" makes resonant the connection to rude-bwoy defiance, to social deviance as social protest. apparently, the poor people's governor--as bounty once crowned himself--gives voice to the sufferahs' vexation. still, some would beg to differ. chatting last week with an uptown brown, i was told that bounty's song that goes something like--look into my eyes, see my nine, it's 'cause i'm hungry--lost the artist a fan. this guy had to work hard to earn his current position, he told me, so why shouldn't everyone? why should he be more likely to be robbed as he drives through the ghetto on the way to work? and while i saw his point, i feel like he's wearing blinders when it comes down to it. doesn't he realize that he benefited from so much more opportunity and tacit privilege? doesn't he realize that such inequality cannot exist in such proximity? that great wealth cannot stand alongside great poverty without social unrest. but then again, it has, for hundreds of years, so why should the system change? i refuse to identify with the camp that has decided we're all headed to hell in a handbasket so we should just be stingy bastards during our short time here. the system will change, but it need not be a violent transition. a lil' cooperation would go a long way.

in another uptown conversation, i was told that jamaica's labor problem stems from the fact that there are too many unions here. (the two major political parties, incidentally, began as labor unions.) "people would rather not work than work," she said, expressing surprise that people would prefer no wage (and some dignity) to the low wages they are offered. "i think that that's one of the legacies of slavery," i proposed, noting that east indian laborers were imported to fill the labor vacuum after emancipated blacks showed little interest in continuing to work under slave-labor conditions. "that was what?--three, four hundred years ago?" she said. i thought to myself, actually slavery was abolished in jamaica only 166 years ago, but thought better of saying it aloud. this was, after all, the same person that thinks smoking ganja is as (inherently) declasse as black skin, so i decided not to bother climbing such a mountain of ignorance. funny thing is, this person would be undeniably black in the US and, depending where she went, would be subject to similarly degrading assumptions about her character. ah, the relativity of privilege.

a friend of mine who teaches literature at the university here asked me if i thought jamaica was a racist place. yes and no, i said. on the one hand, almost everyone here is black, so it would seem inherently paradoxical to say that racism exists here. of course it does though, and sometimes in an even more insidious way, operating largely under the surface. one does find rich, dark-skinned folk here, though they are the exception rather than the rule. on the other hand, you rarely see poor, light-skinned folk. that's one reason i had such a terribly difficult time while living here last year. i tried to get around without a car--an unthinkable way to travel for someone as white as i. and people would tax me for it. if i was so white and yet not rich, the assumption goes, i must be a miserable failure. ("grad student" doesn't quite translate here.) i don't think many people i came into contact with ever conceived that i could be less than wealthy. even my close friends--at least those below the middle of the middle-class--would tax me, without regard for my hints and occasional comments about lacking funds, asking me regularly to pay for their travel, their food, etc. it was a taxing experience, literally and figuratively--despite my attempts not to take it personally. i attempted to be myself when i was living here last year and i felt punished for it. i felt forced to withdraw, to conceal, to wear a screwface when i prefer a smile. (i saw a man walking down the beach today with a downright sneer on his face. it was the most ridiculous thing i saw today. he looked like he was mugging for a g-unit photo shoot.) i feel fortunate when i can give away my privilege, and i hate feeling driven into it. the whole experience makes me wonder to what i extent i can ever really give it away. sometimes it seems that people who want my privilege, even if it is ultimately inaccessible to them, want me to retain it in order to maintain their own dream of possessing such power. raas-claat, what a mess.

whether i would have liked to or not, this month i have retreated somewhat into privilege. having a car to drive around in (or be driven, as was the case), made my road experience considerably easier on the nerves. moreover, living up in the hills, with no car of my own, made for a good excuse when i felt too taxed by my bredren down in town. still, it's an uneasy arrangement overall, and i would prefer it if we could all agree to be honest with and respectful of each other. i'm happy to share, but on my own terms, according to what i decide i can share. don't get me wrong: sometimes i like how upfront jamaicans are about inequality here. people who determine that you have (much) more than they do will simply ask you to "let some off," and why shouldn't they? and why shouldn't you? of course, i'd prefer it if i could contribute in some more organized fashion but, in a hand-to-mouth kind of place, such seems like a bit much to ask for. i don't want to imagine the bureaucratic nightmare that jamaica's social welfare program must be. for many, it is surely nonexistent. kind of like police-protection. or laws against marijuana.

actually, laws against marijuana remain on the books and remain (unevenly) enforced. every time a shipment is seized at mo'bay, it's clear that someone didn't pay someone like they were supposed to, or that the gov't really, really wanted that helicopter that the DEA was offering as a carrot-on-a-stick. as far as the police are concerned, ganja is still one of the best pretexts for arresting someone in jamaica. you can pick up a whole lot of folks, especially poor people, with that one. it is one of the strange myths about jamaica in the outside world that marijuana is legal here. another one holds that dreadlocks are cool here. i mean, sure, for many--especially rastafarians and the younger generations. but the predominant association with dreadlocks in jamaica is that of the "dutty [i.e., dirty] rasta." for all of jamaica's dreadlocked self-marketing, for all of the high-profile, 'locksed entertainers, and for all of the rastitutes helping stellas get their groove back, dreadlocks remain a social stigma in jamaica, and wearers of locks are made constantly aware of this, especially when they come from respectable middle- and upper-class families. it's funny how jamaica represents itself to the outside world and how it behaves back a yard. sometimes the only difference between the two is perception.

take for instance, a review in the village voice last week of beenie man's new album, back to basics. apparently, after releasing two albums that disappointed fans with too many misguided, pandering attempts at crossover success, beenie has returned with an album that better represents his popular dancehall singles, featuring riddims by jamaican producers (rather than the neptunes) and no guest-spots by trendy rappers or r&b singers. arguing that beenie has followed sean paul's trail by releasing a collection of "undiluted" dancehall tracks, baz dreisinger apparently takes the record label's promotional bait--hook, line, and sinker. i can see the onesheet now: jamaica's last next-big-thing keeps it real! and what is realer than jamaica, mystical island of musical authenticity? it is definitely in the reggae music industry's best interest to corner the market on dancehall, lest the US simply absorb it as another third-world flourish. of course, dreisinger--and this manner of marketing jamaican music--fail to acknowledge the subtle but profound ways that dancehall style is, at this point, a real amalgam of international influences, especially the very same hip-hop and r&b that beenie has been attacked for embracing and supposedly refrains from on this effort. yet what is the "real" sound of the dancehall if not usher, jay-z, and lloyd banks? at every event i've been to this month--from high society to passa passa to quad--these tracks exist side-by-side with the latest dancehall hits, and their production quality and stylistic features remain major points of interest and influence for jamaican artists.

dreisinger's celebratory review, and the music marketing it echoes, reproduce (jamaican) nationalism as something for us all to buy into. (and jamaican nationalism, as any nationalism, by definition enforces other nationalisms, such as that of the US.) here the nation as brand asserts itself, appealing to the cosmo consumer, creating work for jamaican/reggae artists, generating exchange for the jamaican music industry (and its moguls in new york and london), and ultimately obscuring the deep links between jamaican and american society. in addition to the lack of recognition of relationality, of shared social bonds and cultural practices, the review--and the perspective that it represents--neglect any serious critique of the sounds or of the content. instead we get the onesheet highlights. there need be no "gasp" about dancehall standing alone. insofar as it can stand alone, dancehall has done so since its advent, as a musical style, in the early 80s. my point, however, is that dancehall does not stand alone. nor does hip-hop. but a more complex conception about their relationship is perhaps difficult to boil down to talkpoints for tower records. dreisinger would have us believe that beenie's music is all about girls and dancing. but almost as frequently his music is about killing gays. just tonight i heard beenie's newest sinisterly-catchy refrain (which happens to be a shameless co-optation of desmond dekker's "the israelites"): "oh, oh, oh / battyman fi dead." another common topic is how he will never perform oral sex on a woman. i'm just not sure how critics can let this stuff pass under the surface. this music is full of meaning, but that meaning is--like the meaning of dreadlocks, ganja, and black skin--rather dependent on context. at the least, the work of the critic should be to explicate some of the connections between (social/cultural) contexts and the creation of meaning. what does it mean that beenie man's album is considered/labeled an "undiluted" dancehall album? what's it mean to call it that in a hipster newspaper? why celebrate but not interrogate? why uphold a notion of nation incommensurate with actual runnings? usually, it's to preserve power, as some of my friends who are dying to transcend nation and run with the rest of them, will tell you. so let off some road money, star. and take a more careful listen to that promotional CD.

all right. enough of that. i have to go to bed. (two hours after beginning this blog, the sun has started coming up.) i'm off tomorrow. back to boston just in time to miss the DNC. i'll be back here with more before long, though. plenty to unpack from this trip.

soon come back. y'ear?

(one more kingston sunrise for the road.)


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