war inna babylon
i've got a lil' back-page op-ed in the august issue of XLR8R magazine (on news stands now!). one of the ideas the editors threw at me was to write something about jamaica and the war on terror, which seemed like an interesting challenge. given my prolix tendencies (despite vigilant attempts at concision), i wrote something way too long and way more involved than they had space for. no problem: tomas scissorhands made some expert edits and there it is inside the back cover of the new issue, reading all breezy and shit. word.
i'm going to post my original draft here, though, as i think it brings up a lot of interesting issues--many more, apparently, than could fit in the magazine. do me and XLR8R and yourself a favor, though, and pick up the print version if you can. if nothing else, hop over to their newly re-vamped site and get yer download on.
without further ado, here are many more words than i was asked for...
War Ina Babylon
Jamaica and the War on Terror
I first traveled to Jamaica in the fall of 2001, shortly after 9/11. I remember the flight assistant's warning that undercover federal marshals may be among my fellow passengers. Tension filled the air in Chicago and Miami, but in Kingston, the airport exuded a decidedly different air: warm, thick, a little antiseptic. In many ways, it was business as usual in Jamaica. Customs officials pretended to give me a hard time. Taxi drivers vied to give me a ride. The newspapers focused on local violence and local politics. And soundsystems across town attempted to drown out everything but their own "big tunes." Having come to Jamaica in order to observe a remarkable rehabilitation effort in Kingston's prisons, my attentions were immediately drawn to local concerns: overcrowding, physical violence, corruption. Although the Jamaican mediascape, including the familiar faces of American cable television, projected plenty of fascination with the attacks, the general level of preoccupation with 9/11 was nothing like that in the U.S.--somewhat surprising, given the common understanding that if "America sneeze, Jamaica catch cold." Of course, we weren't at war yet.
The tenor was much different in Kingston the following summer while I was doing research for my dissertation. Now, we were at war, though only in Afghanistan. Jamaicans seemed to react to the War on Terror in a different way than many of my peers back in the "Homeland." I would spend the mornings with my host, a middle-aged Rastafarian woman, while she watched CNN and cussed out America for its contradictions. "Start from yard," she'd say, as yet another ugly suburban kidnapping temporarily grabbed the headlines from the War on Terror. When the video surfaced showing Al Qaeda's experimentation on dogs, she was indignant: "Who cares about dogs? Do you know how many dogs die every day on the street in Jamaica?" She didn’t have time for people who cried out for animal rights in the midst of such disregard for human rights. Her teenage son walked in the room, saw the dying dogs, and said, "Cool!"
When the U.S. invaded Iraq, I was living in Kingston. I appreciated the distance between my surroundings and the spectacle I was watching on television and the Internet. It was the spring of 2003 and seemingly every taxi driver wanted to know what I thought, as an American, of the War on Terror. "I don’t like it," I'd say. But it didn't matter what I thought, since I would have to represent the U.S. despite my best intentions. As I waited for a bus on Hope Road, a man biked past me and sneered, "Bloodclaat American!" Similarly stereotyped, people of Middle-Eastern descent in Jamaica became popularly referred to as "Taliban"—as in, "Look at the Taliban dem," or, in Elephant Man's matter-of-fact address, "whether you a baldhead or a Taliban." In the same song, "Genie Dance," Ele refers casually to the Iraq war as a metaphor for the battle-of-the-sexes, "Man bomb dem out just like Iraq base." Ele delivers the line over the Coolie Dance riddim, partaking in the same discourse about the Middle East projected by American media and reinforcing differences between the West and the rest.
The Coolie Dance is one of many "orientalist" riddims that have mashed up the dance in the last few years: Tabla, Diwali, Bollywood, Egyptian, Amharic, Sign, Baghdad, Allo Allo, Middle East. Partly inspired by a parallel trend in U.S. hip-hop ("Big Pimpin'," "Get Ur Freak On," "React," "Addictive"), partly from a longstanding tradition of Jamaica's own fascination with the East ("Eastern Standard Time," "East of the River Nile," "'Til I'm Laid To Rest") and with musical stereotypes (see Ele's "Mexican Girl" for an example that hilariously deconstructs itself), and partly enabled by the tabla-patches and "Indian Flutes" available on the studio-standard Korg Triton, Jamaican producers and DJs have been responding to the Bush Administration's War on Terror in myriad ways. This has included everything from explicit anti-war songs--Capleton's "Baghdad" and Luciano's "For the Leaders"--to tracks that incorporate references to the war in a more subtle manner. Vybz Kartel's compliment to a Jamaican woman in "Stress Free"--"Skin smooth, e? You a wha? Barbie Doll? / You nuh haffi hide your face like Bin Laden gal"--expresses a preference for a Western sense of beauty and a willingness to trade in stereotypes of Muslim women. Whether or not Kartel intends it, such sentiments reinforce neo-conservative ideologies of "freedom" and universal--which is to say, unilateral--rights. American ideologies circulate globally via American music, including music once considered oppositional, such as hip-hop. These ideologies are then partly reproduced, partly resisted, and newly articulated through the lens of Jamaican culture.
War occupies a prominent place in the Jamaican imagination, but when people talk of war, they more frequently refer to the ghetto-blasting gun-battles that routinely erupt in downtown Kingston. Since the 1970s, Jamaica has been in a state of perpetual war. The noxious combination of U.S. cold-war and drug-war policy, the American arms-industry, and "misguided" leadership has militarized the pork-barrel politics that splits the city into warring garrisons. War is a popular musical metaphor, and the "gun-hand" in the air remains the most common form of audience approval. If war can be found right down the road, why worry about some fanciful American crusade abroad? It's all Babylon anyway, where war is yet another symptom of the dehumanizing "shitstem." (Oddly, few seem to appreciate the irony that the U.S. has moved the theater of war to the actual historic site of Babylon. "U.S. Led Troops Have Damaged Babylon" read a headline in the New York Times this January, but, lest any Rastafarians get too excited, the article was speaking in very literal terms.) I remember a comedy routine at a Kingston club one night which featured an impersonation of a conversation between George W. Bush and the Jamaican Prime Minister, P.J. Patterson. With a thick, redneck accent G.W. asks P.J. if he can commit some troops to the "Coalition of the Willing." P.J. responds, in characteristically drawn-out tones, "We don't...have e...nough troops...to fight...a war...with......Tivoli." The crowd roared. For them, Jamaica's internal wars--the sectarian strife symbolized by the reference to Tivoli Gardens, longtime stronghold of the JLP, or the opposition party to Patterson's PNP--clearly present a more urgent and concrete problem than "bringing democracy to the Middle East."
At the same time, the effects of the War on Terror undoubtedly are felt in Jamaica, and reggae has registered much of this anxiety. The comedy routine included another topical impersonation: George W. invites a skeptical Elephant Man to perform his post-9/11 reflection, "The Bombing," at the White House (and to bring some high grade with him, capizzle?). Jokes aside, "The Bombing" is one of the more eloquent and witty songs to address 9/11 and its aftermath. Not only does Ele come up with a coup of a couplet, rhyming "Bin Laden" with "cannot be forgotten," but the chorus documents, with humor and pathos, the particular problems Jamaicans faced after the attacks: "Everybody 'fraid fi fly through the bombing / Bush nuh trust nuh guy through the bombing / So many innocent die through the bombing / Look like a World War Three 'bout fi happen / Now weed can't smuggle again through the bombing / Can't pass custom with a pen through the bombing / Everybody cry for men through the bombing / Dead bodies start talkin'."
Later he substitutes, "Visa a get deny through the bombing," thus calling attention to what was perhaps the most salient consequence of 9/11 for many Jamaicans: further restrictions on the already elusive goal of mobility. In the wake of 9/11, it became a lot more difficult to get a visa to England or the United States, the two traditional post-colonial "release valves" for Jamaicans in search of opportunities for personal and family advancement. The processes became even more bureaucratic, and the lines grew longer. Many Jamaicans at this point have grown weary of state "politricks" and are more concerned with the ways that the governments of the various nation-states they inhabit enable or restrict their pursuit of social, economic, and literal mobility. (At this point, almost as many Jamaicans live off the island as on it.) The War on Terror has created some peculiar pressure points for Jamaica: its borders have become more tightly policed in terms of non-elites' ability to travel abroad, while simultaneously the U.S. efforts to tighten the Mexican border have once again shifted the major drug-trafficking routes to the Caribbean. Weed can't smuggle again, but cocaine can.
When I returned to Kingston this spring, it was in order to participate in a music video shoot. Working with a couple young directors in Kingston, I was given DVDs containing a number of recent dancehall videos. Many of them sample newsreels from the Iraq war. Falluja gunfights, bombed-out buildings, and morbid scenes from Abu Ghraib easily fit alongside images of downtown Jamaica--perhaps too easily, again underscoring the more mundane meanings and realities of "war" for Jamaicans. Ghetto areas earn nicknames such as Afghanistan, and gangs adopt names such as Taliban even as they use the term to deride Jamaicans of Middle-Eastern descent. The Jamaican Street remains, paradoxically, as hostile toward and uninterested in the American government as ever. And the dancehall massive is "still jammin'," according to Elephant Man: "Down in Jamaica, yes, fun we still havin’ / all of we dancehall them keep on rammin' / gal a do hair, fingernail, and shopping...music lick on, champagne still popping." Capeesh?