“As Jamaican as Ackee and Saltfish”: Soul Rebel Cindy Breakspeare Part 1

Excerpts from my 2007 article for Riddim magazine on Cindy Breakspeare…

Photo: Source unknown

Ever since Cindy Breakspeare gave the annual Bob Marley lecture last week interest in her story has heightened. I had interviewed her in 2007 for Riddim magazine. The article appeared in German in Riddim and it just occurred to me that I could publish segments of the English original here on Active Voice. Enjoy!

When asked in a radio interview about her origins Cindy Breakspeare once said “I’m as Jamaican as ackee and saltfish”. The comparison to the national dish was particularly apt as the codfish used in it is often imported from Newfoundland, Canada. Ackee of course is a strange fruit considered inedible in many places because of the potent alkaloid toxins it contains. Jamaicans however eat it with gusto. Apt too because Cindy is the product of a Canadian mother and a Jamaican father; coupled with her white skin her bi-cultural heritage is what often subjects her to questions about her eligibility to be considered Jamaican.

I started thinking about this article after listening to numerous radio interviews with Cindy Breakspeare over the last five or six years. Who was this extraordinary woman? I was struck by her voice and the down-to-earth sincerity it radiated, her healthy sense of humour, her refusal at a certain level to wield the celebrity that is her entitlement or even to take it too seriously. This was in stark contrast to the social columns of Jamaica’s newspapers–filled with the affected poses of individuals whose lives are completely banal and vapid, their only claim to fame being their  disproportionate control of the resources of this small postcolonial nation.

Cindy on the other hand had not only been the favoured consort of the first (and to date the only) global musical superstar from the third world—Bob Marley—shortly after meeting him  she had become a celebrity in her own right by winning the Miss World competition in 1976. In those days this was an even rarer achievement for an unknown from a small developing country than it is today. As for Cindy’s Marley connection, many of us would have given our eyeteeth just to have heard Bob Marley in concert live, let alone to have enjoyed an intimate relationship with this extraordinary musician whose fame and influence have grown exponentially since his untimely death almost thirty years ago.

Cindy actually bore Marley a son, Damian, or Junior Gong as his father called him, who has turned out to be an outstanding singer and songwriter in his own right. Damian, more than any of his half brothers and sisters, has seemed the reincarnation of his father–the champion of poor people’s rights, the shamanic performer chanting down Babylon. Some Jamaicans, however, criticize Damian Marley as an example of an “uptown browning,” suggesting that he lacks street cred, something essential to good Reggae.

The success of Damian’s 2005 hit ‘Welcome to Jamrock’ silenced most critics. In any case this sort of criticism rarely originated in the streets where people appreciated the younger Marley shining a spotlight on their plight. The question is where did he get this social conscience from? From where did he get his unflinching penchant for reality and plain speaking?

Without a doubt this was partly a legacy of his legendary father who had died when Damian was only 2 years old. But having the same legendary father had not led the other Marley siblings to produce music of this caliber. What if some of Damian Marley’s outspoken lyricism actually came from his famous mother, the beautiful Cindy Breakspeare?

Judging by the interviews I had heard with Cindy I began to suspect that far from being a pampered member of any VIP club the young Marley had actually benefited from a double dose of radicalism: Not only was he his father’s son he also had a mother who had flouted the values of Jamaican society, turning her back on the wealth and privilege that could have been hers and embracing a countercultural lifestyle that was far from glamorous then no matter its currency today.

Who was Cindy Breakspeare exactly? Born in the fifties to a Canadian mother and Jamaican father Cindy was brought up in Jamaica and went to school at Immaculate Conception, a local convent school, as a boarder. Having to be a boarder at such an early age while difficult and challenging taught Cindy independence and self-sufficiency.

I went to Immaculate at the age of 7. I think when you’re separated from your family at that age you have to make a lot of decisions for yourself at a very early age–so you learn to trust your instincts, your own instincts, at a very early age; you develop your own value system, your own sense of what’s right and wrong for you. You tend to move away from being a sheep and doing what every one else wants because you don’t have that safe cocoon; you have to follow your own feelings a lot more. Yes, this feels right for me and no that doesn’t and yes I like this and no, I don’t like that and maybe because there is no family constantly directing and supervising and saying no, you can’t do this and no you can’t do that you just tend to wend your own path and after a while you just kinda don’t know any other way to be–you just dance to the beat of your own drum.

While going to a convent school gave her the foundation of a good middle class upbringing her own family life was fractured and unstable so that when she finished school she was on her own, fending for herself and looking for any opportunity that might come her way. At 19 Cindy had been out of school for a while and done many different jobs. There was no money for further studies; her parents were separated, her father now in Canada and she had to get out there and hustle for a living. “I worked at a furniture store for a while, I worked at a jewellery store, I ran a nightclub, I worked at the front desk of what was then the Sheraton, now the Hilton, so I did many different things and eventually found myself at this restaurant …Café D’Attic.”

Café d’Attic was Jamaica’s first health food restaurant specializing in “fruit platters and salad plates and very healthy sandwiches…It was very health-oriented and attracted those who were looking for something other than your greasy spoon, your fast food”. It was during this period that Cindy met Bob whose own preoccupation with healthy food and ital living brought him to the restaurant. This was also what brought Mickey Haughton-James, the owner of a fitness club called Spartan there, a momentous connection that ultimately led to Cindy becoming Miss World in 1976.  “So Mickey came and began talking to me about leaving there and coming to be involved in Spartan. He had not opened it yet but he was looking for someone he felt embodied health and beauty. “I was looking for opportunity, always, always looking for opportunity. Whatever looked like the next good step to take, take, let’s roll with it. So I went to Spartan.”

Damian ‘Junior Gong’ Marley at UWI

A report with photos of Damian Marley’s talk at the University of the West Indies

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Carolyn Cooper who teaches a Reggae Poetry course invited Damian to give a public talk at UWI, sort of along the lines of the Vybz Kartel talk some time back. It was a quickly put together event that was only confirmed the evening before, and took some swift and skillful dribbling of the ball between herself and the Campus Prinicipal, Gordon Shirley to pull off. So dear @SharzzF who tweeted: It’s soo amazing when Vybz Kartel was invited to lecture, it was well advertised, but the same wasn’t done for Junior Gong, it really wasn’t a conspiracy, it was just contingency.

Perhaps because of the suddenness of it and the resulting impossibility of advertising the talk widely enough there was nowhere near the kind of audience that turned up for Kartel; still it was an energetic session with young Damian fielding 40-50 questions from UWI students after a very brief talk in which he highlighted the importance of talent. Asked about being a Marley and having everything he needed at his disposal he said he still had to make songs people wanted to hear coz they certainly weren’t listening to him only because he was Bob’s son…

Here’s a selection of tweets to give you a flavour of the evening…

RT @UWIMonaGuild: Damian ‘Junior Gong’ Marley will speak about his career as a Grammy-winning dancehall artist on Tonight at 7:30 p.m. in the Assembly Hall.

RT @mushroomi: Anyone going Junior Gong lecture?

RT @anniepaul: BIG UP if your pumpum tight like mosquito coffin! Poet Tanya Shirley prefacing Junior Gong. Audience roaring.

RT @CultureDoctor: ‘This is my beloved son in whom I’m well pleased’ Cindy Breakspeare of Jnr Gong #MonaRock

RT @Dre5IVE: A style u a style the Gong RT @Gordonswaby: Well, Junior Gong reads. Just mentioned Gladwell’s Outliers book.

RT @LIMEJamaica: Yes, Damian ‘Jr. Gong’ Marley is our newest brand ambassador. RT @Dre5IVE: Junior Gong is a LIME Ambassador?!!!!

RT @stannyha: Why isn’t LIME streaming the Junior Gong’s lecture? Since they signed him on as Ambassador? #MonaRock

RT @Savageinsight: “It’s not about being a Marley, it’s about being a human being” #DamianMarley

RT @anniepaul: I got into music because I’m a fan of music. I would put on my Dads music and pretend I was him. Junior Gong at UWI.

RT @lyn4d: I think he’s brilliant. I think he’s very smart. Fan of his music but not some of his moral choices. – Junior Gong’s view on Vybz Kartel

RT @Savageinsight: Only in Ja does a man wait in the line to say “mi no really have a big big question, mi did just waan hail yu”

At one point the stream of questions seemed never-ending. When asked if Junior Gong actively participated in any Rastafarian group, he said that he had attended meetings of the Rastafari Council; rather than simply donating money he would like to help the Rastafari community by tapping his networks, by ‘networking’ for them, for instance in building projects where professional services or architects, contractors and the like might be required. When asked if he had advice, considering his paternal family background, for others who might be considering buiding empires…he looked stumped for a moment, then said chortling, no, just tell them not to rise against MY empire…

I had been given a list of questions to put to Damian as soon as he finished, for the TVJ programme Entertainment Report, and was quite relieved when @GordonSwaby basically asked the first one on my list: Bob’s still a legend but it seems the music’s been overtaken by the merchandising…would Bob have approved of the commercializing of his name? Gordon used different words but the question was very similar. Thing is I don’t quite remember how Damian answered it…but I happily deleted it from my list. It’s not a question i would’ve chosen to ask the young lion myself, though Rohan Marley’s promotion of the House of Marley and its products does raise ethical questions…Besides as @GordonSwaby pointed out the Marley name is “…a valuable brand. That’s why they have to be careful what they do with it.”