Free at last! As i write this the world is celebrating the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, held captive for 15 years by the ruthless military government of Myanmar/Burma. What a moment! There aren’t too many women–or men– like Suu Kyi, willing to sacrifice their freedom of movement in the name of moral principle, something completely lacking in politics today. Suu Kyi is an alumnus of my Alma Mater in Delhi, the venerable Lady Sri Ram College, whose initials, LSR, were said to be synonymous with Love, Sex and Romance for male students at Delhi University. Clearly besides being a source of girlfriend material, LSR has also produced stellar leaders with the moral fibre of the redoubtable Aung San Suu Kyi. I think of her as the Orchid of Steel.
Closer to home and the mundane, my daily trod was enlivened yesterday by a Skype interview with an Israeli journalist, Nirit Ben-Ari, who contacted me last week with the following request:
I will be honored and thankful if you interview with me for the article I am writing for Haaretz newspaper on dancehall culture in Jamaica. I am mainly interested in your interpretation of the term “Gaza” and its possible implication of awareness of global politics. Do you think that the choice of the name “Gaza” represents a political awareness and identification with the underdog? I am also interested in your view on the global “gaze” on dancehall culture and the dangers of misinterpreting and misunderstanding dancehall culture outside of Jamaica. What do you think about the dissemination of dancehall images globally?
In response i sent her the paper i had given at the Reggae Studies Conference earlier this year: Eyeless in Gaza (and Gully): ‘Mi deh pon di borderline'; essentially i was trying to document and comment on the effects of the feud between two of Jamaica’s top DJs, Vybz Kartel (Gaza) and Mavado (Gully) that resulted in the words ‘Gaza’ and ‘Gully’ being spraypainted or otherwise inscribed on surfaces all over Kingston, but also in places like Trinidad, Barbados as well as Brooklyn, London and the generalized Jamaican diaspora. I excerpt a relevant bit from my paper below:
Etymology of ‘Gaza’ in the Jamaican context
It is commonplace in Jamaica for impoverished urban areas to be informally named after locations known globally as war zones. Thus there are locales named ‘Angola’, ‘Tel Aviv’, ‘Vietnam’ and of course ‘Gaza’. In a widely publicized interview between Cliff Hughes, a prominent local journalist, and Vybz Kartel on TV Jamaica’s Impact which aired on November 12, 2009, Hughes asked Kartel why he had chosen the name Gaza for his area, and what the frequently uttered phrase ‘Gaza mi seh’ meant. Kartel who often refers to himself in the third person responded:
“’Gaza mi seh’ means ‘Fight for what you believe in against all odds, against all adversity.’ When I left the Alliance Vybz Kartel came under so much pressure, I said to Black Rhino and others we need to form a group. But we need a perfect name. The first war was just happening in Gaza, Israel was bombarding them but the people were fighting back regardless, and Vybz Kartel said to Laing (Isaiah Laing, prominent promoter associated with the annual Sting show), we’re going to use that name coz it means to me–dem people deh serious and dem nah back down.”
Indeed. Just like Aung San Suu Kyi. She nah back down needa. Interestingly, Kartel steered clear of the reason he felt obliged to look for a suitable name for the Portmore community associated with him, in the first place. The backstory is an interesting one umbilically connected to the complicated discourse around masculinity and sexuality in Jamaica. Yet the details of why the community of Borderline in Portmore came to be rechristened ‘Gaza’ is one the media had never considered noteworthy enough to mention let alone dwell on.
Those who wish to know more can read my blogpost on the subject where Gaza’s bizarre link to homosexuality in Jamaica is recorded.
But back to yesterday, I can’t tell you how cool it was to be sitting in my living room in Kingston talking directly to Nirit in Tel Aviv, complete with images of ourselves and the rooms we were in. Viva Skype!
Nirit explained that she had wanted to read Carolyn Cooper and Donna Hope’s books on dancehall culture but they weren’t available in Tel Aviv and she had ordered them on Amazon but hadn’t recieved them yet. In the meantime someone referred her to my blog which is why she asked me to help her with the background on the use of the word ‘Gaza’ in dancehall culture. Interestingly Nirit works for an NGO named Gisha “an Israeli not-for-profit organization, founded in 2005, whose goal is to protect the freedom of movement of Palestinians, especially Gaza residents.”
Like Aung San Suu Kyi the Palestinians have had their freedom of movement severely curtailed by the state of Israel. As the Gisha website explains:
Since the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel’s military has developed a complex system of rules and sanctions to control the movement of the 3.4 million Palestinians who live there. The restrictions violate the fundamental right of Palestinians to freedom of movement. As a result, additional basic rights are violated, including the right to life, the right to access medical care, the right to education, the right to livelihood, the right to family unity and the right to freedom of religion.
Gisha, whose name means both “access” and “approach,” uses legal assistance and public advocacy to protect the rights of Palestinian residents. Because freedom of movement is a precondition for exercising other basic rights, Gisha’s work has a multiplier effect in helping residents of the occupied territories access education, jobs, family members and medical care.
Funnily Nirit told me that a Palestinian friend of hers got a chance to spend two months in Jamaica and was exulting at the thought of getting away from it all to a tropical island far from the rigours of life in Gaza, only to arrive in Kingston and find the word ‘Gaza’ graffiti-ed all over the city. You can read the first person account of Lisa Hanania’s visit to Kingston here.
Vybz Kartel was certainly aware of and sympathetic to the Palestinian cause but sympathetic is actually too weak a word to describe the admiration he expressed for the people of Gaza in that interview with Cliff Hughes: “…dem people deh serious and dem nah back down” and “’Gaza mi seh’ means ‘Fight for what you believe in against all odds, against all adversity.’” On the other hand i’m not sure how widespread Kartel’s view of the Palestinians is. Could one say that most of Dancehall’s ‘core constituents’ (to use Ragashanti’s apt term) are sympathetic to those ‘trapped in Gaza’? I don’t know.
What i do know is that Jamaican dancehall’s focus on Gaza has had an interesting ripple effect. When i tweeted a few days ago about being contacted by an Israeli journalist about the name Gaza in the Jamaican context one of my tweeple, Sweden-based @johannakey said “I’ve done a story on the same subject. There’s a Swedish song about it here.” The song Real Gaza mi seh! is so addictive i can’t get it out of my head. It’s a beautiful song, in which connections are made between Gaza, the curtailment of Palestinian civil liberties and universal oppression, using the vehicle of dancehall and the refrain “If you kill one of us, you kill all of us…the whole world is Gaza mi seh”. Listen to it below:
Eyes of the world pon the Gaza mi seh…
Well dem say Gully, dem say Gaza
dem say Congo and Kinshasa
Everywhere i turn i see pure passa passa
I remember Kid Frost used to talk about La Raza
It’s all tribal war people can’t take it no longer
Hopefully one day the residents of Gaza will–like Aung San Suu Kyi–regain their freedom. Till then Gaza mi seh!