To the World from Jamaica! Patwa Power Bolts the Stables


Yes, we can…be worldbeaters! That’s the message from Jamaica’s relentlessly resilient and resourceful underclass who have proven yet again their ability to dominate global competition in the arenas where their lack of English doesn’t hold them back. This is Patwa power (patois or creole, the much reviled and disdained oral language spoken by the majority of Jamaicans) at its most potent: a lithe and flexible force–honed by adversity–flaunting its mastery of the universe of athletics.

To underscore its point Patwa hurled its most powerful lightning bolt at distant Beijing. Named Usain, this young and irrepressible son of Jamaican soil then re-inscribed forever the significance of the word Bolt. Both English-speaking and Patwa-speaking Jamaicans united in celebrating Usain Bolt’s extraordinary exploits (Gold and world records in Men’s 100m, 200m and the 4×100) and those of the nimble, determined young Jamaican team accompanying him. Over the two weeks of the 29th Olympiad they enthralled global audiences over and over again with their worldbeating skills.

Portia Simpson-Miller, considered by many patwa-speakers to be their spokesperson, nailed it when she said on radio that the achievements of Jamaican athletes at Beijing made her proud because “what people call ‘ordinary people’ have produced such extraordinary results”. Prime Minister of Jamaica briefly from 2006 to 2007 Simpson-Miller has faced enormous hostility from the English-speaking elites here who would like to continue their hegemonic rule over this small island state in the Caribbean. President of the Opposition People’s National Party she is currently being challenged for leadership by Dr. Peter Phillips, seen by many as representing the highly educated but numerically small middle class and a state of mind known as Drumblair, the equivalent in Jamaica of WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) culture or status in the United States.

Watching the athletic meet at the Olympics unfold from the vantage point of Kingston, Jamaica was an incredible experience. Raw, naked nationalism at its very best: First we rallied around Samantha Albert, Jamaica’s only entrant in the equestrienne events. Samantha is a white Englishwoman with a Jamaican mother who was born and lived here in her early years. She didn’t stand a chance of medaling, merely hoping to make it to the top 25, yet Jamaicans cheered her on, proud to see their flag in this never before contested event.

Then there was the first big race, the men’s 100 metres, in which both Bolt and Asafa Powell were gold medal contenders. Alas Powell disintegrated under the pressure; he still came in fifth but his fans were inconsolable. Bolt’s sensational streak to victory helped but by and large Jamaicans were grieving for Powell. He holds a special place in their hearts. It is as if they identify with him. Whereas in the past they used to cuss off Merlene Ottey when she only managed a bronze medal this time the public concern shown for Powell’s morale and well-being in the aftermath of his disastrous run was quite remarkable. When he finally anchored the 4×100 team to victory in fine form, thundering down the closing stretch like Nemesis herself, he had completely redeemed the favoured son spot he had never really lost.

If Jamaican success at the men’s 100m was tempered with disappointment at not pulling off a trifecta (or even a bifecta) the female athletes delivered perfection by winning gold, silver and silver at the women’s 100 metres. This was an unexpected bonanza. Till now no one had really focused on the female runners or races other than the women’s 200m where Veronica Campbell-Brown was expected to deliver gold. Now the women had successfully grabbed the spotlight and kept it on themselves winning gold or silver in most of their events. In the end, of Jamaica’s 11 medals (six of which were gold) 8 were from women as TVJ’s commentator Bruce James usefully pointed out. One of the sweetest was Melaine Walker’s virtually effortless 400m hurdles gold medal.

Shelley Ann Fraser (women’s 100m winner), the pocket rocket who shot out of the starting blocks and into our hearts wasn’t even considered a medal contender to begin with. Earlier in the year when Veronica, the defending Olympic 200m winner didn’t qualify for the Jamaican 100m team because she came fourth in the qualifying trials (this shows you how competitive athletics is in Jamaica) there were many who thought one of the unknowns who had beaten her should have stepped down in favour of Campbell-Brown out of deference to her seniority and past distinctions. Fraser was the one many thought should have been eliminated from the Jamaican team to make way for Veronica.

Maybe that’s what made her run like a cheetah and spring like a moko jumbie but from now on everytime anyone in the world wants to illustrate the concept of delight they should simply replay Fraser’s girlish leaps and bounds when she realized she had won Olympic gold. If the whole world fell in love with that ecstatic brace-filled smile and the spontaneous, unadulterated joy Shelley-Ann Fraser expressed on the track you can imagine how we in Jamdown felt.

What was hard to imagine even down so (admittedly from uptown down so) was how the parents of these individuals must have felt. Especially when the TV cameras took you to the homes of Shelley-Ann and Sherieka Williams and Sherone Simpson and Melaine Walker and you realized with shock how very poor these people who had produced such champions were. Most of them had watched their sons and daughters winning Olympic silver and gold on very small TV screens, in very humble living quarters, in this ghetto or that one.

Waterhouse. Slaughterhouse. Powerhouse. That’s what young Shelley-Ann from Waterhouse has reiterated for us in case we didn’t know this already from the abnormal number of successful musicians her community has produced. Virtually 80% of Jamaica’s biggest names in music have come from Waterhouse, one of the poorest ghettoes in Kingston, including the young singer I mentioned in my last blog, Terry Lynn. The area should be declared some sort of national patrimony or Talent Park with free education up to any level for all.

When asked if she herself had ever displayed any running talent Shelley Ann’s mother said that indeed she had quite a bit of experience sprinting from the police, with the goods she tried to sell as an unlicensed street vendor. She was an experienced runner she said so her daughter’s performance was not that surprising.

The Ministry of Transport hastened to announce that it was going to upgrade the roadways in all the communities whose athletes had produced Olympic gold. Why? Not so much to elevate these depressed communities as to give them an instant facelift so that when the international media arrived their impoverishment would be less apparent and less of a blight on the brand name of Jamaica! The politics of sports in Jamaica! Or just the politics of politics…

On a more amusing note page two of the Observer, the social page, suddenly underwent a population transfusion, the beige and white socialites who normally monopolize it abruptly displaced by the almost uniformly dark-skinned athletes. Sigh! If only Jamaica’s business and social elite were one hundredth as nimble and competitive as the country’s athletes! If only they too were worldbeaters!

Personally I think that the phenomenal performance of Jamaican athletes is also due to the cultural self-confidence they feel; a confidence expressed by Usain Bolt in Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium when he spontaneously broke into the Nuh Linga and the Gully Creeper, the latest dance moves innovative Jamaican dancehall music has produced (actually Usain’s trademark gesture of pulling back an imaginary bow and arrow like Orion is now the latest dancehall move here).

This is not a confidence manufactured by the abjectly self-conscious, respectability-seeking, hymn-singing English-speaking middle classes but one bred out of the flamboyant, boisterous, in-your-face Patwa-speaking population. In the forty years since Jamaica’s independence it is the latter who have proved both through their athletic and musical prowess that they are ready to take on the world. The Beijing Olympics have shown that the world is more than ready for them (minus the prissy IOC head Jacques Rogge who sounds for all the world as if he had been formed in the bowels of Upper St. Andrew). To the World Ja!

Photo credits, captions
(L-R) Asafa Powell, Nesta Carter, Usain Bolt and Michael Frater of Jamaica celebrate the gold medal after the Men’s 4 x 100m Relay Final at the National Stadium on Day 14 of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August 22, 2008 in Beijing, China.
(Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images AsiaPac)

(L-R) Joint silver medalist Sherone Simpson of Jamaica, gold medalist Shelly-Ann Fraser of Jamaica and Joint silver medalist Kerron Stewart of Jamaica stand on the podium during the medal ceremony for the Women’s 100m Final at the National Stadium on Day 10 of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August 18, 2008 in Beijing, China.
(Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images AsiaPac)

Masters of the Universe?

Remember how former Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller was chided and ridiculed for wanting to hold elections on July 7 last year? 7-7-7 I did try and point out at the time that in countries like India and China it’s quite normal to schedule things on auspicious dates at auspicious times. Numbers are nothing after all if not symbolic!

Like many others I ritualistically seated myself in front of my TV screen at 8.08 pm Chinese time on August 8, 2008 to catch the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. What a stupendous show! To have pulled off such a stunning feat live, with the entire world watching, without a glitch or stutter—hats, tams and solar topees off to the mighty Chinese!

I gushed about it to all and sundry for two whole days till my cousin Susan sent me a tart email from Delhi saying: Dear Annie, I’ve been supporting the Tibet group in India, so the Beijing opening seemed stylistic and opaque, also 95,000 people were evacuated from Eastern China because of flash floods same day as the opening…and I’m not even a political person really, so Tiananmen square is always dedicated in my mind to those students.

Stick a pin.

For me it was the East showing the West what the marriage of technology, art and people can do. A show of power but one far more sophisticated than the nationalistic military parades normally on offer. With this synthesis of China’s penchant for the military, their mastery of technology and ancient flair for the artistic the mightiest nation of the east was signaling that it has reached; it has arrived. China has dramatically proven its prowess, displaying complete mastery over the universe on the very terms that capitalism uses to assess success.

At the same time the spectacular display was premised on teamwork, on large numbers of people working together, not on individual idiosyncracy so highly prized in the West. There were of course cameo concessions to the valued place of the modern individual for instance when two singers stood on top of a globe, looking like for all the world like one of those plastic couples used to decorate wedding cakes; dressed in Western clothes they theatrically lip-synched the haunting theme song You and Me, ingeniously combining Western pop and Chinese song (someone I read somewhere dismissed this as kitschy tripe).

Is this the same China that impassively stood by and allowed Tiananman Square to happen? I’m not sure but this Olympics also signals China’s opening up to the values of the West, including the notion of individual human rights I would imagine. Yet in this opening ceremony it was showing the splendour and vastness of imagination its people are capable of; the achievements of its civilization from the invention of paper and gunpowder to outer space exploration; its ability to command the heights of tradition as well as the most contemporary technology. There was something extraordinary in that display ( It’s cyberfeudalism growled Melinda Brown as we watched thousands of elegantly begowned, bewigged Mandarins juggling neon laserbeams).

Having so memorably flexed its creative muscles will China now be more willing to negotiate with the rest of the world? Will it feel more gracious toward the demands made on it by Tibet- and Darfur-watchers? We’ll find out in the sweet by and by, won’t we?

Meanwhile back home the excitement is building as Jamaica’s cassava-fed athletes get ready to hit their stride when the Olympic Track and Field events kick off tomorrow. Will Asafa finally deliver? Or will there be a repeat of the World Championships some years back when both Asafa and Usain Bolt were pipped by Tyson Gay; the best excuse I heard after that debacle was a radio announcer claiming that this was because “Jamaican men nah like Gay running after dem so dem just a let him pass”.

Some of the funniest commentary on the impending Olympic events is to be heard on my all-time favourite radio programme, Left, Right and Centre (LRC), part of the Nationwide Radio network here (Digital AM 770). For weeks now they’ve been carrying spoof ads on The Farcical News Network for products such as ‘ANDRALONE’. Here’s an example–

Intro: Bob Marley’s song “You’re running and you’re running and you’re running away…” Music fades.

Brooks: “Are you coming last in every race you run? Do you have dreams of placing 6th or 7th but can’t afford the high end drugs your friends are using? Well boost your performance with ANDRALONE, the fast-acting, low-end, generic drug designed especially for athletes who can’t seem to dig themselves out of obscurity. Build those muscles! Grow that chest hair! Get out of the blocks faster than you ever have before with ANDRALONE!

Last night the show lampooned Jamaican athletes in Beijing, imagining them upsetting Olympic Village officials by nonchalantly (Ja-style) calling all of them Mr. Chin. Missa Chin beg yu two slice a bread! Missa Chin which part di pattyshop deh? I tell you the hosts of LRC, Messrs Dennis Brooks and Damion Blake, rank right up there with Bill Maher and Stephen Colbert. Unfortunately Damion is leaving to do his PhD at Virginia Tech; he’ll be badly missed . Virginia’s gain, Ja’s loss.

Well, it’s been an intense few weeks for me lurching from deadline to deadline and trying to find a moment in between to blog when not being terrorized by my good friend Peter Dean Rickards. PD has been assaulting me at regular intervals with outtakes from his maiden music video, The System, featuring an amazing new female singer called Terry Lyn. I’m still traumatized by the first cut (trust me this is the most appropriate metaphor to use here) he sent me which involved a gory sequence of a pig being slaughtered to an unbearably cheery rendition of Fire of Eternal Glory (in her song, The System, Terry Lyn rhymes Waterhouse with Slaughterhouse).

“But I identify with the pig!” I squealed via sms.

“Pig nah die in vain! Him get videolight!” PD texted back callously.

Obviously all of this is a little premature considering that what PD refers to as the Pig Opera has yet to be released. But when it is trust me it’s going to create a sensation. Remember you heard o’ it here first!

Jamaica’s most successful products: Athletes and music. Both occupied the mainstream media in New York this past week first with Baz Dreisinger’s thought-provoking article in the Village Voice How Jamaica’s Volatile Dancehall Scene Can Avoid a Biggie vs. Tupac Tragedy; featured in this sharp critique which should be required reading for all the pontificating pundits in Jamaica who love to chant down dancehall is an in-depth profile of and interview with top DJ Mavado. With epigrammatic precision Mavado sums up the situation: “They are trying to blame a problem that they put we in on us. They are turning dancehall into a scapegoat.”

And weighing in on Jamaica’s runners, in the Wall Street Journal no less, was Colin Channer with the memorable line “Jamaica’s love of speed seems at odds with its hard-nosed commitment to nonchalance”: See ‘Cool Runnings’ Are Heating Up.

Meanwhile fingers crossed that both Asafa and Bolt prove on the global stage once and for all that they ARE, like the Chinese, masters of the universe.