rockin' your prada or a mesh marina?
saw yet another kingston sunrise this morning, but this time from the other side. [note--i began this blog on sunday.] marvin knocked on my door at 5:30am with my requested wake-up call. outside it was cool and quiet. the sun was just coming up. the clouds had turned pink over the blue mountains, and the sky was gradually brightening all around. we were due in church at 6:30--my first anglican mass. it was marvin's grandparents' church and we both went along to show our support, as they were celebrating their 61st anniversary. i didn't find much that differed from the weekly catholic masses i attended for most of my young life. many of the prayers and creeds were the same. people stood up and sat down (several times), shook hands in the middle of the service to wish each other peace, and ate a waferish representation--i'm sorry, transubstantiation--of the body of christ towards the end. (i abstained, being at this point a rather strict, if open minded, sexy jesuit.)
on our way home from the church, we passed a guy wearing a mesh marina--the see-through (and more importantly, breathe through), netted tank-tops that are fairly popular among male jamaicans. well, male jamaicans of a certain class, to be precise. when i spotted the man, i mentioned to marvin that the mesh marina seems like a kind of national uniform--the quintessential undershirt of jamaica--and that i rarely saw one anywhere else. the latter point seemed odd to marvin, as he didn't think the marinas were produced in jamaica and so would be surprised if they were limited to the island. we then had a humorous exchange about where they might come from, with each of us making exaggerated claims. "nothing is produced in jamaica." "everything is produced in china." (of course, i can't recall seeing many chinese men rocking mesh marinas in my lifetime.) marvin also contested my first point--that the mesh marina is jamaica's national garment. he used himself as an example. he couldn't wear one, he said, without someone thinking he was "trying to identify" with jamaican ghetto people. when he mentioned that, i realized that i had never seen anyone rocking a mesh marina uptown, nor had i seen any "brownings" sporting the look. no, the mesh marina was a black thing, for sure. hence, the ghetto association, rooted in jamaica's correlation of race (or more properly, shade) and class.
i was struck by the terms that marvin had used to explain to me the significations of the mesh marina in jamaica. people would think he was "trying to identify" with a group to which he did not belong. for a while now, i have been much more enamored of the term "identification" than "identity." whereas "identification" seems to signify an ongoing and active (if at times subconscious) process, "identity" rings too much of stability, of essence, of a determined and irreversible march toward one's "natural" station. people too often mistake the sense of wholeness and unity that identity represents for some kind of kernal of character that is more innate and determined from without than contingent, malleable, and significantly self-determined. identity is achieved; it is not inborn. in step with the shifting contexts of one's life, it is imagined and re-imagined, negotiated and re-negotiated. if one is so fortunate as to achieve a sense of identity--i.e., uniting all of one's various selves/subjectivities, social and psychological--in these days of double consciousness, alienation, demographically-targeted and mass-media-projected marketing campaigns, and all sorts of competing influences and interests, it should be viewed as an accomplishment. it should also be viewed as ephemeral. shit happens, people change, alliances shift, and identifications with them. for these reasons, i prefer to think in terms of "identification" these days.
the title of this post comes from a song i wrote called boston jerk--a cheeky if rigorous demonstration of my engagement with jamaican language, music, food, people, and places. the line about mesh marinas refers to certain lines of identification in jamaica. allow me to place it in context: "mek me do a likkle something for the truth and the youth dem [note--"dem" is appended after nouns in jamaican english to signify the plural], my whole crew dem, but not the blue suit dem [i.e., the police] / then again it doesn't matter if you're either an otaheite apple or an etioti eater [i.e., two different ways of pronouncing the name of a common jamaican fruit and one that is, significantly, looked down upon as declasse, which is, incidentally, a word i learned from a good uptown/browning girl a couple years ago], red label wine or an 'ot guinness drinker [note--drinks served at room temperature in jamaica are called "hot" or "ot" as local pronunciation dictates], rockin' your prada or a mesh marina, / the primary aim is to reach ya." [read the rest here.] some of these binaries are not actually oppositions in any significant way. i chose them all for their local resonance in jamaica. as with the "otaheite/etioti" line, sometimes i choose rhymes because they sound good, so long as they still work in the context of the larger composition. i don't think there are significant camps on either side of that issue. nor on the red label wine vs. guinness dispute (though the former enjoys a more specialized [i.e., low-income] audience thanks to its low-price--back home, it would be called "bum juice"). the prada vs. mesh marina line, however, puts its finger on a substantial social gulf in jamaica: that between the haves, with their access to foreign (designer) goods and foreign places, and the have nots, who don mesh marinas in order to make the sweltering working and living conditions more bearable.
these days in jamaica, thanks in part to the advent and growing ubiquity of cable TV, many of the have-nots seem to have bought into the (bourgeois) (north) american myth of social status via conspicuous consumption. this is not to say that global exchange is having the homogenizing effect that people seem wary of. on the contrary, jamaican style asserts itself through a particular approach to the particular set of accessible resources available locally. that's what jamaican music has done all along, too. and jamaica takes an extrememly ecumenical approach to music. turn on the radio and you are as apt to hear reggae as rock, gospel, new age, hip-hop, oldies, obscure 80s-pop, soca, etc. similarly, jamaican tastes for clothing sway back and forth between the staunchly local (i.e., mesh marinas and batty riders) and foreign designer (i.e., diesel jeans and throwback jerseys). and even in an outfit seemingly identical to the dress of a boston teenager, the slant of a hat, the cuff of the pants, or even the movement beneath it evokes similarity with a signal difference. there usually remains an accent. which is why i found it terribly striking when i first came here and found jamaican kids rapping like brooklynites. and then chatting in patois. and despite the correlation between jamaican middle-class aspirations and the adoption of hip-hop style in kingston, there are many within this group who remain utterly devoted to reggae, and other things jamaican. they simply adopt a certain international (and yes, aspirational) style, aligning themselves with--indentifying with--african-americans who have transcended racially-based economic oppression and are free to move and enjoy the good life. (of course, i think perhaps jay-z's--and say, elephant man's--definition of the good life differs strongly from curtis mayfield's or bob marley's. the contemporary definition of the good life, at least for mainstream america [and thus the world], has become so tied to material wealth and so divorced from mental, spiritual, emotional, physical, and social health--similar to the way "development" today seems only to refer to bigger buildings, guns, and computers rather than, say, human development.) chanting down babylon can be done from behind the tinted windows in a beamer now, you-see-me?
can you identify with that?