‘Uptown’ Crimes: “Messado–weh mi money deh?”

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Real Estate Attorney Jennifer Messado

If you were to go by the social status of criminals languishing in Jamaica’s jails you’d have to conclude that crime here is an occupation exclusively reserved for the have-nots. At least 95% of those convicted by Jamaican courts fall neatly into the lowest social classes in this society.

For the first time however, things appear to be changing. In the last few days news broke that prominent uptown real estate lawyer Jennifer Messado and an accomplice, had been arrested and charged with fraud among other things. In Messado’s case the charges ranged from property deals to forgery and money laundering.

In a separate case another prominent uptown lawyer Patrick Bailey was again questioned about the September 30, 2016 death of Jermaine Junior, a 51-year-old construction worker whose body was found with several stab wounds in Bailey’s living room. Rumour has it that Junior was a returning resident who had paid the attorney to buy property for him with nothing to show for it in the end. In June 2017 in another case Bailey was accused of defrauding St. Catherine businessman and land developer Stafford Dixon in a land deal.

It seems land theft and property fraud is rife amongst the legal fraternity in Jamaica although you wouldn’t know it judging by the cases brought to court and convictions. What is finally causing the police to take action in these new cases? While we ponder that question let’s look at some interesting tidbits from Jennifer Messado’s background.

Born Jennifer FitzRitsen, Messado went to a prominent high school in Kingston but was suspended in third form and sent to finish her studies in England, according to a classmate who claimed to have taught Messado her first bad word. The classmate couldn’t remember the reason for the suspension but recalled that Messado’s brother, also a lawyer, was murdered in a high profile case in the 70s.

That case was written up in the Jamaica Observer in 2013 (“Paul FitzRitson knew that he was marked for death” by Sybil E Hibbert) and the details are fascinating. On March 16, 1974 Paul FitzRitson, then executive chairman of National Sports Ltd  (now INSPORT the Jamaica institute of Sports ) and a popular Kingston lawyer, was killed by two armed robbers in the Norwood area of Montego Bay, St James.

FitzRitson’s murder followed other prominent killings in an unprecedented crime wave in 1974 that resulted in then Prime Minister Michael Manley instituting the infamous Gun Court. According to the Observer:

“The nation during this period was in turmoil. Especially after it was reported that the hard-working and dedicated FitzRitson — who resided at the time in Copacabana near Bull Bay, St Andrew, a quiet, middle-class community overlooking the blue waters of the Caribbean Sea — had reportedly left Kingston for Montego Bay the previous Friday in order to finalise plans for the telecast of the March 26 heavyweight fight between George Foreman and Ken Norton. This was scheduled to take place at the Palladium Theatre in the western city.

“And that very afternoon, prior to the fatal shooting, FitzRitson was reported to have dined at Ironshore with his good friend, the then Minister of Industry, Commerce and Tourism P J Patterson (later prime minister of Jamaica); the late executive chairman of the JIDC, Wesley Wainwright and Hopeton Caven, his colleague of the TUC, of which he (FitzRitson) was the legal advisor.”

But why was FitzRitsen killed? The case remains unsolved. According to the Observer:

“Speculation turned to the fact that quite two years prior, Paul FitzRitson had been the person — along with well-known producer Buddy Pouyatt and Beverley Anderson — who had proposed to then Opposition Leader Michael Manley that a Bandwagon show of Jamaican entertainers including the late Bob Marley and Peter Tosh; Alton Ellis, Judy Mowatt, Clancy Eccles, Delroy Morgan, Hopeton Lewis and Max Romeo, be used by campaign manager, Patterson, in mounting the programme for the 1972 general election on behalf of the PNP.

“By the following year, FitzRitson had been active in bringing to Jamaica, the still talked-about championship bout between boxing legend George Foreman and Joe Fraser o/c “Smoking Joe.” He was indeed a community organiser, with a particular interest in music and sports promotion, heavy accent on boxing.”

To return to the present it would be interesting to find out what has led to Messado’s arrest. Nationwide News’s Abka Fitz-Henley who was present in court when charges were pressed tweeted that ‘when #JenniferMessado was handcuffed & was being led out of the dock, an Attorney, Tamika Harris, said to her – “Messado a want mi money – weh mi money deh!?”. Messado had a wry smile but didn’t comment. She was then led away by Police to await bail processing.’

Apparently Harris was told to join the line, as the number of people with similar claims is growing by the minute. The charges against Messado appear to have been carefully constructed, down to a video released on social media less than a month ago showing the lawyer turned bailiff gleefully turfing tenants off their property.

The video below, capturing a situation rarely associated with uptown or with light-skinned people in Jamaica, already had tongues wagging. But Messado’s arrest a mere few weeks later has created a sensation that has Jamaicans agog. What can we expect next?

Lessons from #Sandz

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Man trudging along Palisadoes with suitcase on head trying to get to the airport on time…

Gleaner column of 10/1/18

There was something cruelly symbolic about the gridlock that shut the country down on New Year’s Day. Did it portend an unhappy future where everything slowly ground to a halt and the last person to leave the country couldn’t even reach the airport let alone turn out the lights behind them? What about the key components involved? The spanking new, recently widened  airport road, a new year’s beach party, a police force on go-slow one or two of whose members were principals in the company hosting the beach party, the ‘unruly patrons’ who parked their vehicles along the thoroughfare rather than park at the party location, Gunboat Beach or Seventh Harbour where the parking was ample.

Then there was the incredibly resonant name of the party—#Sandz (Kindly leave the em dash alone). The #Sandz of time wait for no man. Could the country be likened unto a castle built on #sandz? A #sandzcastle? Or was it just a patty shop after all?  Ladies and gents get your outfits ready and pack your coolers we are going to #Sandz  ALL White on January 1…Get a lil #Sandz between your toes on New Years Day at Sandz Caribbean Music… Walk into New Years 2018 with #SandZ the promotional tweets had said. 

Meanwhile “#NIGHTECONOMY TIES UP NM INT’L AIRPORT“ read the headline on Diana McCaulay’s new blog, Inroads, on January 2nd. One of the earliest reports on the fiasco, it described the nightmare scenario succinctly. People going to the airport to collect travelers on incoming flights were unable to get there, leaving friends and family stranded for hours. Flight crews and therefore flights were delayed. People missed their flights completely. Others had to walk or pay exorbitant sums to bike men to transport them to the airport with their luggage. And some got there only to find out their flight  had been cancelled because the flight crew was stranded somewhere on Palisadoes road.

Talk radio and social media were abuzz with discussions about the likely causes of the Palisadoes gridlock. @Jherane tweeted “Jamaican news is starting to mimic CNN. Hours upon hours of discussing #Sandz. No actual investigation happens, just opinions, “he said, she said”, and I’m left wondering if nothing else is happening in Jamaica.” @TeeOPatra_  captured the absurdity of the situation: “They started to threaten to tow the cars illegally parked at #Sandz but the wrecker was stuck in traffic.”

“Billions of dollars spent to upgrade the Palisadoes road to prevent the airport becoming inaccessible due to a hurricane. But what a hurricane now can’t do, poor governance can,” tweeted the irascible @DamienWKing. Tweeted another: “Am done after this. #Sandz is a mole hill, not a mountain. Plus Mr. Quallo have nuff tings to do other than this. We not like the Japanese police weh a twiddle them thumbs cause crime gone down. Stop it man. Cho!” Police Commissioner Quallo certainly does have more serious things on his plate post-Palisadoes with rumors of his impending departure being bandied about. If only our police had the luxury of twiddling their thumbs.

Meanwhile, the blame game was on in earnest. It was ‘indiscipline at its finest’ and ‘Errant, indisciplined motorists’ and ‘#Sandz unruly patrons’ who were responsible. Others thought the blame lay squarely at the feet of the traffic police who were missing in action. The party promoters it turned out had got all the necessary permits (how is another matter, but do keep in mind that one of them was a policeman himself) so where does the blame lie?

“Sometimes I think the only rules we’re serious about are the ones governing the bare arms of women,” quipped Diana McCaulay pinpointing lack of enforcement of rules as one of the primary culprits in the Palisadoes matter.

It was Deborah Hickling-Gordon who put her finger on the problem in my opinion. According to her policy and operational oversight for elements of the creative economy are dispersed among twelve ministries! Imagine if that were the case with tourism or the financial sector. At what point are Jamaican government and business interests going to wake up to the fact that the new goose laying golden eggs in Jamaica and elsewhere is the entertainment industry and its concomitant creative sector?

Shaggy demonstrates this year after year, yet even now, in 2018, according to Hickling-Gordon, the sector is not a focal point in the Growth Strategy and continues to be treated as incidental. I completely agree with Hickling-Gordon that it is clear that the Gunboat affair was due to regulation gone wrong, or just insufficient governance at many levels. We need to stop scapegoating the Entertainment industry for the failure of regulation to keep up with its growth. What is needed is a drastic revision and rearrangement of the countries’ priorities. That should be the takeaway lesson from the #Sandz fiasco.

From Nation to Abattoir?

Chubby

 

My column of September 6, 2017. The funeral for Leonard Collins “(Chubby”) is this Saturday at Church of Christ, Mona. I still shed tears at the wantonness of his killing.

I didn’t know his given name. On campus he was known as Chubby, a dread with a bicycle and a green thumb, who worked in the Maintenance Department for many years. Involved in a job-related accident some years ago, Chubby was waiting to collect some long overdue compensation monies.

On Friday, the 25th of last month, the money finally arrived in his credit union account and Chubby went and collected it. The first thing he wanted to do was buy a cake for his two-year old son. He sat down outside his August Town home with some friends idly discussing where to buy the cake. Some said Megamart, others said he should get a Cherry Berry cake from Sugar and Spice in Liguanea.

I remember when the ‘yout’, as Chubby called him, was born. The proud father came to my office to see if I could help in any way, as there were complications. I gave him some money. What Chubby really wanted was for me to visit his son in hospital because he said ‘they’ would treat him and his family better if someone like me visited. It haunts me to this day that I allowed my fear and dislike of hospitals to dissuade me from going.

Two years later Chubby did not get to buy his son a cake. The same night he got the money, someone pushed their way into his house and robbed him, viciously shooting and killing him in the process. I don’t think his death made the news. Sometimes I wonder if murders in August Town are under-reported to protect the much vaunted but fragile ‘peace treaty’. I know that not all murders are reported to the media by the Police in time for them to carry the news.

It’s heartbreaking when from he that hath not, even that which he hath not is taken. A good, hard-working man has been struck down, separated from the one thing he could call his own—his life. What lies ahead for Chubby’s son now, joining the legion of fatherless children?

There was a series of gruesome murders in Clarendon during the same period but  it’s human nature to mourn those closest to us, especially if they lived in physical proximity and you knew them. Someone from one’s own family, country, class or caste takes precedence over nameless strangers halfway across the world. The media too spends more column space or airtime on individuals who were prominent because of talent, brains, money or beauty. Thus the murder of designer Dexter Pottinger last week has dominated social media, where shell-shocked Jamaicans have been expressing sorrow, outrage, anger and bewilderment at his killing by a person or persons unknown.

The usual arguments are making the rounds. As Pottinger was openly gay there are those who suspect he was killed directly or indirectly because of his social orientation. Others counter this by saying he was likely killed by a lover in a crime of passion, so this can’t be classified as a homophobic murder. I find the latter a strange claim the fallacy of which is illustrated by looking at women who are murdered by their partners, ex husbands or boyfriends. Does the fact that this might be a crime of passion negate the fact that beneath the casual slaughter of women lies a deep-seated patriarchal belief that they are inferior and therefore expendable? Does it negate the widespread misogyny that permeates such societies and drives violence against women?

“Please don’t make it about the fact that he was gay” implored someone on my Facebook timeline. And I get that people don’t want Jamaica to get bad press again, especially if this was a straight robbery and murder, so to speak. But the fact is if a black man is killed in a racist country, the first thing you’re going to wonder is whether the color of his skin was a contributing factor. If racists view black people as an alien species endangering the public, in much the same way as homosexuals are viewed as dangerous threats to society here, it makes them more vulnerable to violence by those who feel justified in ridding society of the ‘menace’ by killing them.

Thus some men feel justified in killing men who make advances towards them instead of politely brushing them off in the way women do 365 days of the year when men make unwanted passes at them. Imagine what the world would look like if women killed every man who made a pass at them! I’ve never understood the “I killed him because he made an indecent proposal” defence that seems to find such currency here.

We might never know the reason Dexter was killed but in the meantime how about building a nation where people are as concerned to eliminate unwarranted prejudice as they are to protect their country’s reputation?

Routes and Culture

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Cutting a cake for Marcus Garvey at the launch of Cinema Paradiso

Below is my Gleaner column of August 16.

Last weekend I found myself repeatedly being reminded of something the eminent social and cultural theorist Stuart Hall was fond of saying about identity and culture: “If you think of culture always as a return to roots — R-O-O-T-S — you’re missing the point. I think of culture as routes — R-O-U-T-E-S — the various routes by which people travel, culture travels, culture moves, culture develops, and culture changes, cultures migrate, etc.”

I found myself thinking this as I watched Rasta: A Soul’s Journey, a film starring Donisha Prendergast, that kicked off Cinema Paradise, the Portie film festival put on by Portland-based Great Huts Resort. Produced by Patricia Scarlett whose brainchild it was, Rasta tracked the routes taken by Rastafari as it traveled across the world, reincarnating itself in various locations from Ethiopia to South Africa to Canada to England.

Cultural identity, Hall said, is what you make with what you find. Thus Donisha Prendergast, found herself born in Jamaica into the family of Bob Marley, her maternal grandmother being Rita Marley, whose first child Sharon, Donisha’s mother, was adopted by the famous singer. Though not connected to Bob by blood, Donisha grew up identifying with him as her grandfather and Rastafari as her cultural heritage.

The film followed her travel to eight countries linking with those espousing the tenets of Rastafari far from the Caribbean island where it was born. Thus Prendergast was following the routes taken by the culture of Rastafari as it rooted itself in different parts of the world. The second film in the Portie Film Festival, screened the following night at Great Huts, was Shashamane by Giulia Amati, an in-depth look at Jamaican and Caribbean migrants to Ethiopia, who went there in enactment of the Back to Africa ideology so integral to Rastafari.

Theirs was an attempt to return to their roots, to the legendary promised land, “We’re leaving Babylon, We’re going to our Fatherland” as Bob Marley sang in Exodus. But it was a bittersweet experience for the few who survived and remained in Shashamane, especially after Emperor Haile Selassie who had donated the 500 acres of land in 1948 for descendants of the enslaved to repatriate to, was deposed in 1974. The communist government that followed reclaimed most of the land leaving just a little for the Rastafari who had been living there since the early 60s, to call their own.

As Ras Mweya Masimba, the protagonist of the film said: “After being so long in the Western world, it’s a joy to be back in Africa. But it’s a very great challenge. We are coming back here now as foreigners. People don’t remember who we are, or forget that they sold us into slavery, or how we left here. It is a hard task of re-integration with the people on all levels.”

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Dr. Paul Rhodes introducing the film Shashamane at Africana House

The film Shashamane captures exactly why thinking of culture exclusively in terms of one’s biological and ancestral roots is insufficient. The routes Masimba and his ancestors took or were taken on, from Western Africa to Jamaica to the UK, where he lived before migrating to Shashamane, defined his identity and made him who he is just as much as his ancestral origins. What comes across clearly in the film is how Jamaican/Caribbean and Rastafarian the culture of most of those who migrated from this region to Shashamane, has remained.

“I’ve got to go back home, This couldn’t be my home, It must be somewhere else…”, plaintively sang another Jamaican singer, Bob Andy, in his contribution to the back to Africa discourse. But going back is easier to sing about than to accomplish. In the words of Bro Trika, another resident of Shashamane, “It was a complete challenge to make it here to Ethiopia. And a lot of people couldn’t do it. So whenever you see people come from outside to Africa, you have to respect them. Because there are so many people who don′t have the guts to leave the developed countries to come here.”

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A chair by Gilbert Nicely

There was something poetic about viewing Shashamane at Great Huts in Boston Bay, an Afrocentric resort created by an American medical doctor, Paul Rhodes, who first visited Jamaica in 1973 as a medical student. In Brooklyn where he studied, his landlord, Edward Gentles, was a Jamaican. It was a Caribbean neighborhood and Rhodes, a secular Jew, felt a kinship with Rastafari, because of the common histories of persecution and longing for a promised land to call one’s own. “Many Jews would look upon the Rastafari as their brethren,” explained Dr. Paul, the name by which he’s popularly known.

With its ingenious architecture and design, furniture by master carver Gilbert Nicely, statuary by master potter Sylvester Stephens, artworks by Mazola, Alicia Brown and others, Great Huts occupies the land with a lightness of being that’s bracing. If you’re ever in the area you should check it out, it’s a serious hat tip to African roots/routes and culture right here in Jamaica.

A new cadre of investigative journalists

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Zahra Burton of 18 Degrees North

Have been forgetting to update Active Voice with my Gleaner columns. This one is from August 9.

Jamaica consistently ranks highly in global press freedom rankings, yet seems to exploit that freedom too little. There’s a burning need for hard-hitting, in-depth journalism exposing and stemming the rampant white collar crime and corruption we live with yet it’s something our media houses don’t focus on enough, a state of affairs in itself worthy of serious investigation.

So it gladdened my heart when freelance journalist and writer Kate Chappell recently brought a community journalism training program titled Building a Journalist With Integrity and Impact to my attention. Chappell, along with Zahra Burton of Global Reporters for the Caribbean, has been working with Omar Lewis, Civil Society Coordinator at National Integrity Action (NIA) and Ian McKnight, Chief of Party USAID COMET II, to train about 30 community members in investigative journalism and will be publishing 10 pieces (in print, radio and television outlets such as ROOTS FM, MORE FM, The Gleaner and POWER 106) produced by the novice journalists in the next few weeks. The aim of the program is to cultivate investigative skills as well as to hold authorities accountable by using tools such as the Access to Information Act (ATI).

Zahra Burton as many of us know is the star reporter of 18 Degrees North, a TV news magazine inspired by shows such as CBS’s 60 Minutes and ABC’s Nightline. With Zahra’s rigorous approach to journalism and Chappell’s organizational and empathic skills, and the help of mentors such as Dennis Brooks and Kalilah Reynolds, fourteen women and 13 men with a mix of educational levels, mostly in their 20s and 30s, were trained at the end of April and have spent the last three months researching, interviewing, writing and putting together pieces to air or be published in media outlets.

The project coordinators were interested in training community members to report on what happens in their communities with a particular interest in good stories that hold people to account, instead of the standard media fare of “Everybody a tief and rape and kill each other”. One story involved churches and noise pollution. One day Burton received a call from the veteran dub poet Oku Onoura in Portmore saying “18 degrees North I have a story for you…” The story involved a church near Onoura’s house making intolerable noise that he wanted help in curbing. The group investigated the situation and produced a story with a clever lead in: “Oku Onuora has been attending church every Sunday morning, though not by choice. He goes up to four times a week depending on when his neighbour, Harvest Temple Apostolic, chooses to meet.”

“So we’re trying to do the kinds of stories that maybe people do want to tell, but that maybe another outlet may not be interested in because it’s too small an issue, it’s too big an issue, it’s too rural an issue,” said Burton who also arranged for a screening of the film Spotlight, some months ago in Kingston, which focused on the Boston Globe’s exposure of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

I spoke to two participants from the training program, Sharlene Hendricks and Jamaila Maitland, both of whom had studied at CARIMAC. Sharlene described the investigative journalism training as exceptional, especially learning to use the ATI Act to pry out information from tight-lipped government ministries and agencies. A resident of Rae Town in downtown Kingston, Sharlene focused on the adverse effects of the dredging of Kingston Harbor on fishermen who were being insufficiently compensated for the reduction in their fish catch by Kingston Freeport Terminal Limited (KFTL), the entity doing the dredging.

Sharlene’s team started by finding out the process by which fishermen would be compensated, under what legislation the dredging was being undertaken and the terms of the beach license granted. Some of this was obtained from NEPA but the ATI request to KFTL revealed that the company was private, not government-owned which meant that they had to be persuaded to release information. Charlene and her team were eventually successful in getting the information they wanted.

Another aspect of the Rae Town story was environmental as it seemed KFTL was dumping what it was dredging up, in the community, silting up archaeological sites in the process, but doing so legally with NEPA’s permission. An examination of the weekly reports KFTL was required to make showed that complaints were being registered but NEPA advised KPTL to ignore these and proceed, as the beach license granted them leeway to dump there! While NEPA’s ATI officer was forthcoming, Sharlene was unable to get a comment from someone senior at NEPA in charge of monitoring KFTL, a problem Chappell said many of the trainees had when attempting to get interviews with those in charge.

Jamila Maitland and her team’s TV report stemmed from a budget speech made by PM Holness in 2016 after a number of women were brutally murdered by their partners, in which he promised there would be a domestic violence coordinator in every police station in the country. Calls made to 40 police stations a year later revealed only one domestic violence coordinator in place.

Kudos to all concerned for this much-needed fillip to local journalism.

Reggae inna India

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I’ve been enjoying the month of July off from my column, so much that I’ve even forgotten to post the last few columns from June. This is my Gleaner column from June 9. Taru and Samara have received much publicity recently with a really good Guardian article about them last week. 

With all the angst about two Japanese performers supposedly taking over the Jamaican music scene by entering local competitions and dominating them (Japanese sound system Yard Beat beating Jamaica’s Bass Odyssey in the Boom Sound Clash finals, and Japanese reggae/dancehall artiste Rankin Pumpkin, nearly winning Magnum Kings and Queens) I thought I might highlight a happier story about the export of Jamaican music and culture.

Last month Al Jazeera aired a half hour documentary called India’s Reggae Resistance: Defending Dissent Under Modi. The film featured a musician named Taru Dalmia aka Delhi Sultanate and his partner, singer Samara Chopra aka Begum X. Principals in a band named the Ska Vengers, bringing classic Reggae to the masses of India is their mission.

After current Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi was elected the Ska Vengers produced a confrontational video called A Message to You, Modi, with lyrics that went”Stop your fooling around / Messing up our future / Time to straighten right out / You should have wound up in jail.” Like many other artists, writers and musicians they were worried about what the new regime might mean for freedom of speech. The bold song earned the band a lot of attention attracting filmmaker Vikram Singh, who made the Al Jazeera documentary.

I met Delhi Sultanate and Begum X about three years ago when they visited Jamaica. For them it was a pilgrimage, a much cherished visit to the holy land so to speak. For Taru in particular the trip was like living a dream because of the close emotional and psychic connection he feels with Jamaican music. He first encountered Reggae as a young teenager living in Germany where his mother taught Hindi. The bond was immediate and his love for the music followed him to Berkeley in California where his family moved next.

In California Taru hung out with youngsters whose parents had been members of the Black Panthers and continued to nourish his radical roots with Reggae. Fast forward to today and Delhi where he now lives. The documentary showed Taru and Samara in the process of getting a large sound system built called Bass Foundations Roots – BFR Sound System. Their plan is to tour the country with it, visiting sites of environmental and human rights protests bringing Reggae, which they see as the quintessential protest music, to protesters.

An earlier project called World Sound Power, tried to meld Indian folk resistance music with Jamaican sounds, with lyrics focusing on caste violence, state abuse of power and crony capitalism. With the BFR Sound System their intention is quite simple and revolutionary. As Taru explained in an interview on criticallegalthinking.com:

“We can make people dance. Our sound system is powerful and can create a sense of physical well-being and connectedness in listeners. At present, this is one thing that we can contribute to political spaces and gatherings. There is a time for speeches, for critical discourse for discussion, for slogans, but dancing and singing together is also very important. We will only get through these times if we find joy in each other and build strong relationships of trust and care, with each other as well as with the larger community. It’s the only way I find myself being able to not get depressed and to despair.”

Begum X who has a yoga therapy show on TV also sings over the sound. She’s a small woman with a big voice, when you hear her you look around expecting to see someone like Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan only to see a petite pixie like figure dancing Jamaican stylee in between belting out lyrics. She designs all the graphics and organizes the shows.

Both Taru and Samara sing in Patwa which the former fluently raps and DJs in, something people are surprised by. According to him if you sing in American English or perform on a theatre stage in India with a British accent it is considered normal, but “speak in English from another colony and people start raising questions at once. JA to my knowledge is the only colony that has managed to export its form of English globally.”

In the criticallegalthinking.com interview Taru elaborated on his unusual identity formation: “I consider the heritage that made Reggae to be part of my heritage, and my work aims to bring this into the Indian context. For me there are also clear links between the forces that underpin Reggae music and things that are happening in India today. The colours red, gold and green have concrete meaning here, incidentally the first national flag of India or the flag of the revolutionary Gaddar party also featured Red, Gold and Green. Red stands for the blood of the martyrs, green stands for natural abundance, and gold stands for the wealth that is inside the earth.”

So what do you say? Are Delhi Sultanate and Begum X not the most unlikely but inspiring Reggae Ambassadors ever? So what if the Japanese are invading Jamaican culture? The groundwork is being laid for access to the second-largest market in the world. Run wid it producers!

Kingston: Creative City Not?

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Kingston on the Edge (KOTE), an urban art festival held every June, will not celebrate its tenth anniversary this year due mainly to dwindling support from corporate Jamaica. The email press release from the organizers of the festival said simply:
“The staging of KOTE is a large undertaking and can be difficult given that it is a 10 day studio and performing art festival held at over 26 venues throughout Kingston with hundreds of artists participating.”

“This year KOTE Milestones would have been our 10th anniversary however unfortunately given a combination of factors and unforeseen circumstances including not least of all the financial strain of the festival, we have been forced to cancel KOTE 2017.”

The cancelling of KOTE is a blow to Kingston’s cultural calendar as it was a showcase for artists, writers, musicians, poets, dancers and others involved in the expressive arts. Typically KOTE events catered to aficionados of alternative music (alternative to Reggae and Dancehall that is), modern dance, poetry, theatre, architecture, pottery and visual art, bringing a wide range of patrons, young and old, out of their closets for this rich cultural immersion.

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David Marchand (photo: Chloe Walters-Wallace)

For example at KOTE 2015, David Marchand, the fantastically eccentric and reclusive visual artist found dead in his Runaway Bay home last week, had his first solo exhibition in 23 years featuring 55 of his art works. Titled “Tsunami Scarecrow: A David Marchand Retrospective” the launch of the exhibition featured opening words by Maxine Walters, a dedicated patron of his work, jazz compositions by Seretse Small and a preview of a documentary on Marchand by Chloe Walters Wallace. Marchand liked to think of himself as “a visual Bob Marley”, but I think Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry offers a better comparison.

Another year the highlight of KOTE was a guided bus trip starting at Wolmer’s Boys’ School, the site of the 1891 World Fair and stopping at different locations in Kingston that once were tourist sites. Conducted by architect Evon Williams, the tour extended from the site of the now defunct Myrtle Bank Hotel downtown to Immaculate Conception Convent in uptown Kingston once better known as the Constant Spring Hotel. To visit its beautiful lobby and environs is to take a step back in time, for the nuns have changed the buildings very little and done a good job of maintaining its serene ambiance.

KOTE also pioneered what has become a regular feature of the National Gallery of Jamaica, its Last Sundays programme, when the Gallery is open to the public for free with performative offerings in addition to the art exhibtions. Hard to believe that sponsors were not forthcoming for such a beautifully curated series of events showcasing Kingston as the creative hub it is.

Trinidad and Tobago, on the other hand, even with a depressed economy due to plummeting oil prices was able to find the resources to continue hosting their excellent little literary showcase, the NGC Bocas Lit Fest. Aside from their title sponsor, the Trinidad and Tobago Gas Company, Bocas has 30 or more other sponsors including One Caribbean Media willing to support and celebrate Caribbean talent.

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Ishion Hutchinson (2nd from left), Safiya Sinclair at Bocas Lit Fest. At mike Nicholas Laughlin

Jamaica dominated the festival this year, leading people to refer to it as the Jamaican Bocas, which culminated in Kei Miller winning the overall Bocas Award for his consummate novel, Augustown. Also in the running was another Jamaican, Safiya Sinclair, for her book of poetry, Cannibal. Safiya was the Bocas winner for poetry this year and is the latest wunderkid of Jamaican poetry to hit the international circuits, winning several mainstream fellowships and awards.

Another headliner at Bocas Lit Fest this year was Ishion Hutchinson, the Portland prodigy, the shearing of whose locks as a schoolboy inspired Kei Miller’s novel, Augustown. Hutchinson’s many honors include the American National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, a Whiting Writers Award and the Larry Levis Prize from the Academy of American Poets; he is also a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize in poetry. Like Sinclair, Ishion grew up in a Rasta household, she in Montego Bay and he in Port Antonio.

Festivals such as KOTE and Bocas are also about developing a ground for home-grown talent to thrive in…for how much longer can we expect our best and brightest to live in their heads? Safiya Sinclair pinpoints the sense of ‘unbelonging’ quite eloquently:

“Home was not my island, which never belonged to us Jamaicans, though it’s all we’ve known, and home was not my family’s house, which we’ve always rented, all of us acutely aware of the fact that we were living in borrowed space, that we could never truly be ourselves there. Home was not the body. Never the body—grown too tall and gangly too quickly, grown toward womanhood too late. Like a city built for myself, home was a place I carved out in my head, where the words were always the right words, where I could speak in English or patois, could formulate a song or a self. Home for me has always been poetry.”