Buju Banton: “Set the captive free…”

On the eve of the verdict in the Buju Banton trial in Tampa, FL, Jamaicans wait with bated breath for their beloved singer to be released.

Tears from my eyes could not hold anymore
Cry like a child who has lost his way home
longing to go to that place where I’m from
I’m in bondage, so much bondage…

The above lines are from ‘Bondage’ from Before the Dawn, the album that won Buju the Reggae Grammy last week.

Jamaican reggae artiste Buju Banton, flanked by his lawyer David Oscar Markus (right), waves to journalists as he leaves the Sam M Gibbons Federal Court in Tampa, Florida yesterday afternoon after the adjournment of day 2 of his retrial on drug and gun charges. Banton is pushing a stroller occupied by the baby of his manager, Traci McGregor (2nd right). See court report on Page 4. (Photo: Paul Henry) Read more: http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/news/I-m-fighting--says-Buju-after-tough-2nd-day_8378295#ixzz1EW2y2cUn

Once again the Jamaican nation is on Buju watch. Buju Banton, also sometimes referred to as the Voice of Jamaica has been on trial in the United States on purported charges of intent to distribute drugs there. After an abortive first trial Banton who was put in prison in Tampa, FL in  December 2009 was tried again last week. The jury is expected to come to a verdict on Tue, Feb 22nd. Jamaicans are taking this very personally, it is as if the nation itself is on trial. To get a sense of the import of this moment read Marcia Forbes’s post on this blog about the lengths Jamaicans went to to tune in to Buju’s concert some weeks ago, the first since his incarceration. Andrea Shaw who was actually at the event produced an excellent write up:

Buju, the beleaguered reggae star, was arrested in Florida on drug charges in the fall of 2009. After being denied bail he endured prolonged delays in his trial while languishing in a Florida jail for a year before finally being released on bail after a mistrial. His high-profile case has dominated the reggae world since his arrest and has elicited an extraordinary outpouring of support and sympathy from fans all over the world, particularly from the Jamaican Diaspora.

The extent of this support has been extraordinary. I’ve even surprised myself by the intensity of my heartfelt concern and fervent prayers for the star whose music I’ve always loved. But even among Buju non-believers, folks like my mother who have not been seduced by his throaty voice and who can’t name even one of his songs, the wish for his safe and speedy release has been widespread. And here’s the kicker: so many of us are not concerned with whether he is guilty or not. We just want him home.

Sunday’s concert struck me as a performance of Buju’s personal prayers for his release as well as the demonstration of a collective desire for his safety and protection while he prepares for the resumption of his trial and to face newly added gun charges. “Before the Dawn” was a performance of faith and hope, both on stage and amongst the audience, and in many ways it was also a ritualized anointing— a communal laying on of hands on Buju’s besieged shoulders by the screaming, 10,000-plus live audience as well as the thousands more who tuned in via live streams and Facebook updates.

This time round Jamaicans are optimistic that Buju will finally walk free. Television images of him–tall, strapping, healthy and handsome, inexplicably pushing a baby’s pram on his way to court with his lawyer have boosted the nation’s morale. As one tweet, which memorably captures the national mood said: RT @ProdigalJa: Push di pram Buju! Push di pram to victory!

Active Voice is happy to host Sarah Manley who has appeared on this blog before, writing on the subject of Buju Banton, as she shoots off an impassioned message to ‘America’ in which she cogently pleads his case:

Buju Banton is not one of the world’s dangerous drug lords. I say that without hesitation, I state it as a fact, that cannot be disputed. It is not true. It is a fallacy and a falsehood to present him as such. You know, I do not like lawyers. I find them dishonest. They seem to think that because a thing cannot be proven or disproven, it is not true. They have an elastic definition of truth. But! There are things that are true regardless of what loopholes you can conjure up to prove or disprove them. Like Buju is not a drug lord. This is just true.

Inventing new charges against him in some maniacal witch hunt isn’t gonna make him any more guilty.

We are not stupid out here in the world. We know that cocaine is made in Columbia from the leaves of the cocoa tree, grown there, harvested there, processed there, and exported from there up through the poor and tired caribbean to be consumed on a massive and devastating scale in North America and around the world. We know that there are many many hands complicit in its travels throughout the world. We know that on any given day, in almost any city on earth, you can find a coke dealer who will sell you, for usually an exorbitant price, a tiny package of white powder, or some tiny rocks. I have been offered cocaine from total strangers in New York, in London, in Paris, in night clubs, in bars, on the streets. Buju had nothing to do with any of this. Shipping magnates, customs workers, random pilots and corrupt politicians, and drug lords, from the don on top, to the starving little runner, these are the people involved in the drug trade. It’s a multli billion dollar industry that the entire world is complicit in allowing to continue.

To single out Buju Banton, who is Reggae Royalty in his country, to decide to frame him, not even catch him red handed, but frame him with some two bit, low life informant, and then, to add insult to injury having not secured a conviction, to throw more charges at him, well… that’s just pathetic and only something stupid America would come up with. It’s not ok. I object! I protest!

You wanna bring down the coke trade America? Go focus your God forsaken missiles and war mongering army on Columbia. Go blow up the cocoa farms, the drug lord mansions. Putting Buju Banton in prison is not going to even put a tiny dent in the coke trade. It will not affect it one iota. All you will succeed in doing is enraging a people already so pissed off with poverty and injustice we are ready to explode.

And don’t you dare, don’t you dare bring up homosexuality as a justification for this victimization and persecution. I do not agree with Buju’s stance on homosexuality, but i defend his right to have that stance. And to voice it if he feels he must. So if IF this framing of Buju has its roots in some gay rights agenda, well that would be the most pathetic of all. So because a man has openly criticized  the gay lifestyle, you have him imprisoned on some trumped up charges of drug dealing. That’s just too crazy to be allowed.

America, why don’t you go fight some real enemies on earth? Starvation? Disease? Poverty? What level of idleness leads you to single out and attack, of all the people on earth, Jamaica’s Buju Banton? Our Poet? Our Artist? Are you jealous because we likkle but we talawah? Because we can out run, out dance, out sing, out vibe, out swagga you on any given stage on any given day in any given arena?

Well I bun dat! Babylon System IS the vampire. We refuse to be what you wanted us to be! We are what we are and that’s the way it’s going to be! Oonu vote One Love as the song of the last millenium, Oonu tink seh One Love is all Bob was talking about? You missed the point. Bob said Get up and stand up for your rights… Reggae music is protest music… Protest… not some pot smoking love in like your Woodstock. And Buju is one of a string of Jamaicans who have voiced that protest in song… protest against poverty, injustice, victimization, imperialism, racism… and this is the final irony of this trial of Buju Banton.

You hear mi sah… I could go on and on… the full has never been told!

Calabash wheels…and promises to come again…

Calabash International Literary Festival Comes to an End

Wole Soyinka being interviewed by Paul Holdengräber at Calabash International Literary Festival

Well, the news of the moment is that Jamaica’s beloved Calabash International Literary Festival is no more. At a press conference this evening Calabash Programme Director, Kwame Dawes, announced the demise of the festival saying that Calabash, in its ‘present incarnation’ had come to an end and would not be held this year.

The plan is to regroup and return in a new avatar in 2012, Dawes said. 2012 is also the fiftieth anniversary of Jamaica’s independence and the new event will focus on celebrating fifty years of literary production in Jamaica.

Colin Channer, the leonine writer who has been the motive force behind the festival, is also no longer part of the core group. No reasons were given for his departure, with Dawes merely remarking that Channer’s decision was ‘mysterious’. Channer had been the artistic director of Calabash since its inception.

A valued Twitter source sent a message offering Channer’s perspective: Just talk to Channer, Man seh 10 year as the head is enough& anything longer would be a sign that something is wrong that it can’t grow beyond him

Calabash Literary Festival 2007
Colin Channer (l) posing with the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (First Book) finalists in 2007. Photo: Georgia Popplewell

The constant challenge of raising funding each year and drawing on personal resources has also taken its toll of the three principals behind the festival.

This is a brief post to give you the breaking news…a more detailed post will follow in the next few days. See my posts on earlier Calabashes below:

Calabash Ho! (single entendre please–)

Walcott on Naipaul

‘Bad Words’ at Calabash 09

Post-Calabash Glow: Vintage 10

Cake Soap and Creole: The Bleaching of the Nation…

The problem of skin bleaching in Jamaica is discussed and linked to the problem of language, and the privileging of English over Creole.

Khani LTD Edition # 1_21inx21in_ mixed mediaonpaper_2008 by Ebony G. Patterson

All of a sudden the problem of skin bleaching is in the spotlight and we have top DJ Vybz Kartel to thank for it. As I mentioned in an earlier post my favourite Christmas present was a pack of his infamous ‘cake soap’ I received, complete with personal autograph. VK as we’ll call him for short, has recently attracted attention with his complexion suddenly appearing several shades lighter than it used to be, the better he says, to show off his numerous tattoos. The melanin reduction is attributed to the said cake soap which is normally used to whiten clothes in the wash.

It just goes to show you how influential popular music is; young Ebony Patterson has been highlighting the skin bleaching problem here for years with her series of innovative artworks but hardly anyone outside the artworld paid much attention. Then along comes VK, the Darth Vader of Jamaican music (except that he doesn’t want to be dark any longer), with his cake soap and no one can talk of anything else.

Jamaica’s voluble moral majority has rushed to condemn VK claiming that he is encouraging impressionable youngsters to imitate him. What has upset many is that the DJ is unrepentant and even playful about lightening his skin colour, refusing to take the matter seriously and countering that it’s no different from white people wanting to tan themselves. Numerous musicians have rushed forth with anti-bleaching, love-my black-skin-songs but in a way all these knee-jerk responses are just as superficial as the act of bleaching itself, which only changes what is visible without attacking the underlying structural problems that make people bleach in the first place. Historian Elsa Goveia put her finger on it several decades ago when she said the structuring principle of Caribbean societies is “the belief that the blacker you are the more inferior you are and the whiter you are the more superior you are.”

Until this reality changes people are going to think that the best way to advance in such societies is to lighten your skin colour. People can fulminate all they want and express litres of outrage, it will make no difference.

To me bleaching your skin is fundamentally no different from deciding that Creole /Patwa , if that is your mother tongue, is so lowly and contemptible linguistically that it is not worthy of being spoken or allowed in schools.  Edouard Glissant described how in Martinique it was common to see “In beautiful rounded white letters on a clean blackboard at the reopening of school: it is forbidden to speak Creole in class or on the playground.” And Jamaica is no different.

The logic is the same: English/French/Spanish is the language of universal currency so our children must only learn English and must actively be discouraged from speaking Jamaican or Patwa, the versatile, volatile language of the streets here that for many is their native tongue. Similarly skin bleachers reason that since white/light skin is almost universally valued higher than darker skin tones, they must use any means necessary to acquire it.

I find this kind of logic depressing. It’s as if to say that if your mother happens to be a poor, barely literate ghetto-dweller you must abandon her and cleave to the English missionary with her glowing white skin and impeccable English. Surely it’s not an either/ or game. Most people would agree that this was outrageous yet many of the same people would find nothing wrong with denigrating Patwa and banning it from official spaces as if it’s impossible to know and love Jamaican and also become fluent in English! The worst part is that for many children for whom Patwa is the only language available literacy becomes inaccessible because you have to know English to study any subject at school.  In fact the way some people react to the idea that Patwa ought to be recognized as a language and used as a medium of instruction in schools you’d think that to promote or accept Creole is to diss English!

And if you think that’s bad read Carolyn Cooper’s blogpost where she describes the absurd system of ‘justice’ in Jamaica which is dispensed in impeccable English to Patwa-speakers regardless of whether they understand the language or not!

One morning, as I waited for my case to be heard, I listened in amazement as the judge explained in quite sophisticated English how she was proposing to handle a dispute about unpaid rent.

The defendant was told that the case was going to be sent to a mediator who would discuss exactly how much rent the defendant would have to pay.  The distressed defendant kept on insisting in Jamaican that she didn’t owe as much rent as the landlord claimed.  The judge continued speaking in English, simply repeating her proposal.  This back-and-forth went on for a good few minutes.

At the risk of being deemed in contempt of court, I jumped up and asked the judge if she would allow me to translate her comments for the defendant.  She agreed.  As soon as the woman understood the proposal, she accepted it.  What angered me was the smug question the judge then asked: “Is that what I should have said?”  To which I disdainfully replied, “Yes, Your Honour.”

To come back to skin bleaching I had to laugh when I heard someone curling their lip in disdain at Kartel because this person happens to be someone with straightened hair and a very white affect, who never speaks Patwa or genuflects to the African origins proclaimed by her skin colour. What else is that but bleaching? And not just bleaching the superficial skin you were born with but the very culture that is also part of your heritage.

It’s pointless to get our knickers in a knot over Kartel’s latest antics. As a tweeter I know said “People are going to have to be mature enough to think for themselves. If the likes of Kartel can lead them astray then they already lost.”

I think Vybz Kartel is the very embodiment of the contradictions that bedevil Jamaican society and we should be grateful to him for foregrounding this disfiguring practice. But we need to go beyond that and deal with the fundamental problem that causes people to bleach their skins to begin with: the social value placed on lighter skin colour. Until that is addressed the bleaching agent industry will continue to flourish here and everywhere else that puts a premium on ‘fair’ skin (In the country of my birth pale skin is so prized that someone of my complexion could never play a starring role in Bollywood) .

It’s not a moment too soon for The International Conference on Language Rights and Policy in the Creole-Speaking Caribbean taking place in Kingston tomorrow and day after. Below is a disturbing video on a family of skin bleachers in downtown Kingston.

Diana McCaulay and the Palisadoes Highway

I find myself torn between Diana McCaulay, who heads the Jamaica Environmental Trust (JET) and Greg Christie, Contractor-General of Jamaica as candidates for my Man of the Year award.

After the devastating rains we’ve had recently and yesterday’s minor earthquake (could this be the minor before the major as @Marxshields asked on Twitter) we should be even more conscious of the environment we live in and how fragile it really is. Yet how many of us are willing to be activists in ensuring that Jamaica’s delicate ecosystem isn’t eviscerated by ambitious ‘development’ plans with little consideration for preserving the country’s coastal integrity?

Diana McCaulay has almost singlehandedly been taking the fight to the authorities on the matter of the proposed transformation of the Palisadoes spit leading to the airport into a mega highway. We all know the kind of disruption and destruction of the environment this invariably entails. And in case we don’t McCaulay explains it eloquently in her post The Destruction of the Palisadoes Spit:

An environmental victory is in some ways an absence – a road not built, a mine averted, a hotel relocated, a golf course avoided. We are used to the presence of a natural resource – while it persists, it’s unremarkable. An environmental victory is always temporary – no matter how solid the case, how overwhelming the public support – at some point in the future, an attempt will be made to reverse it. The plans for the mine will be dusted off, there will be a new investor for the hotel that wasn’t built and a case will be made for the golf course.

Environmental defeats, though, are glaring – forests razed, rivers “trained,” sand dunes destroyed, beaches scraped clean, wetlands laid waste. And despite the promise of the relatively new science of restoration ecology, such defeats are mostly permanent.

On the doorstep to the city of Kingston in September 2010, you can see an environmental defeat. The Palisadoes spit, that jointed arm that holds Kingston Harbour in loose embrace, has been bulldozed by the National Works Agency (NWA), via their Chinese contractors and/or Jamaican sub contractors, led by the Minister of Transport and Works, with the willing and enthusiastic support of the National and Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA). At this point, it appears that the entire spit will be denuded of all vegetation, its beaches compacted, sand dunes destroyed, the few struggling strands of mangroves obliterated in order to construct or expand (it’s not entirely clear which) an utterly unnecessary road.


Palisadoes removal of vegetation 14 Sep 10-1


It seems that NEPA whose role is to safeguard the interests of the country in matters involving large scale developments which impact on the environment is often toothless when it comes to laying down the law. At a public meeting called on Oct 4 with one day’s notice to stakeholders such as JET, McCaulay delivered a small coffin with the assets of Palisadoes inside it and an RIP sign to Peter Knight, head of NEPA. It was an expression of her frustration with what now seems to be a done deal–the razing of the Palisadoes strip to accommodate a major highway to the airport.

There are plans to also create a boardwalk along the new roadway, which would really be a lovely thing. I visited Barbados in 2009 and enjoyed the beautiful wooden boardwalk the government there had put up along one of the most popular coastal strips there. Why couldn’t we have one like that i remember thinking, so i’m not at all averse to the idea. It’s just that the concerns being raised by the environmentalists here seem not to be gaining any traction and if the price tag is too high, in ecological terms, might we not be exposing ourselves to more violent storm surges and coastal erosion in the future?

It takes balls for a single woman to go up against the state in the way Diana McCaulay has which is why she’s my candidate for Man of the Year.  Below is a video she created to document the proposed changes to the spit, a link to a JET statement about the proposed highway and below that is a link of a University of the West Indies study of the Palisadoes spit done in 1994.


Click to access PALISADOES.pdf

Inclement Times: Tropical Storm Nicole

Tropical Storm Nicole ravages Jamaica

Well, the trials and tribulations of Buju Banton have abruptly been ejected from the Jamaican imagination by a raging storm which brazenly breezed its way across the island when no one was looking. While we were all on Buju watch Tropical Storm Nicole crept up on us in the guise of a tropical depression, dumping gallons of rain accompanied by some of the scariest thunder and lightning i’ve ever heard. As @MsTrendsettas exclaimed: Bruce’s lying has spread! The met office is now lying to us. This is a hurricane, dem cant trick me!

Up to 14 lives are believed to have been lost, which should give you some idea of the magnitude of the disaster. Hurricane Gilbert, back in 1988, the worst hurricane to hit us in recent times, only claimed 18 victims in total. So many roads and bridges have collapsed all over the country leaving large numbers of people stranded, it makes the vicissitudes of India’s much maligned Commonwealth Village look like a joke. These roads were clearly never built to last though millions of dollars were allegedly spent constructing them.

Damaged Harbour View Bridge, Jamaica

My heart goes out to the family in Liguanea whose house was washed into the gully while they slept. A gully which swiftly bore them away; only one body has been found. Rescue crews didn’t dare search for them because of the electricity poles that had also fallen into the gully with live wires gushing lethal voltage into the raging water. Two adults and five children, missing, presumed dead.

Meanwhile newscasters on radio and TV alike abused the term ‘inclement’ as if there was no other phrase available to describe the weather. Every single school and place of business whose closure was announced blamed the ‘inclement weather’ for doing so. The pompous phrase was bandied about 30 or 40 times leading @HarleeQuinn to tweet: Newscasters; here are some synonyms for “inclement”: foul, harsh, intemperate, rigorous, rough, severe, stormy, tempestuous, violent.

Not to mention the simple ‘bad’ or the stark ‘hostile’, either of which would have been adequate. But no, the weather is ‘inclement’. Such a pompous relic of Victorian English, i bet its rarely used in contemporary Britain, but like a fly in amber remains trapped for eternity in its supposedly anticolonial former colonies.

Patty Bandits in Paradise…#ironymuch

Robbery at Juici Patties in Kingston, Jamaica, hostage situation defused, how it was discussed on Twitter

Juici sent patties to Haiti after the earthquake

What an irony that the very day after Playboy magazine asked me to expand on my statement “In Jamaica farce, intrigue and tragedy remain inextricably intertwined” (Don’t worry–re Playboy–ALL will be revealed in due course) another farcical scenario played itself out in downtown Kingston when armed men took over the Juici Patty outlet on West Street.

@pd_rickards was tickled. lol who would rob a patty shop? <Pattybandits he tweeted. When I was a kid they used to call me Patty Bandit..and seet deh now it come to pass. 8:48 PM Sep 4th. they would bring box of patty home and bam..3 gone..ppl seh..’Is peter dean dweet uno..him is the patty bandit. 9:03 PM Sep 4th.

Meanwhile @JustSherman joined in the commentary: Hostage situation at A Patty Shop, Sounds like something written by @PD_Rickards but sadly true, Lord deliver us.

Details are still sketchy; it was only last night that what rapidly became known as “the hostage situation” developed like a hurriedly-formed hurricane which huffed and puffed but ultimately kept from blowing the house down. I was up in Stony Hill listening to Kate Bush sing Wuthering Heights over and over when i saw the first tweet about hostages being released in downtown Kingston.

I blinked. Had i fallen asleep and woken up in a Bollywood film? Or was this a nightmare in which life was trying to invade the reality show we’ve become? In response to my query as to whether this might be a b-grade Bollywood flick @ drewonline said: that would involve a dance routine on king street ma’am so no it’s not a Bollywood movie it’s a Jamaican farce–:-(

Turn on the TV, turn on the TV, everyone yelled when i announced that my Twitter feed was indicating that people were being held hostage at Juici Patty on West Street. Of course once again real life was quick to intrude. We were in Kingston, Jamaica, not some place with real television stations that report what’s occurring AS it’s occurring around us. Both major local stations were replaying American TV series and there was no live coverage of the potentially deadly drama. As @ArnoldKer said in disbelief: #nowwatching Gossip Girl on TVJ while hostages are being held downtown. How awesome is this!

The inevitable reference to the erstwhile reign of Dudus was made: Likkle bwoy cyan manage bigman work. Now dem know how Presi work did hard and Dem waan do Don work and cyan manage it. They should have tried to co-op the System into regular governance and then use an diffuse it. The latter makes eminent sense for as the same tweeter pointed out: Tivoli was the only “ghetto” with Moneygram, Claro, Digicel, Lime and numerous small and large businesses that were profitable and safe.

Hopefully the international media won’t get hold of this, someone said. I thought events in Barbados where six people were killed in the process of a robbery in Bridgetown were likely to distract attention away from Kingston, where nobody has been killed after all. The farce continued to unfurl; after a tense standoff police orchestrated an invasion of the building only to find the armed men long gone by the time they broke in. Said @DLee876: Welcome to #Jamaica, where police surround a building and yet ALL the criminals inside escape. hahahahah #sadbutfunny.

So the gunmen freed themselves under the guise of being hostages? asked @cucumberjuice.

That was when @drewonline memorably declared: Sometimes i believe we are all hostages inna patty shop (that has a beach, a soundtrack and people who run really fast) #ironymuch

Interestingly it was only a few days ago that there was a situation at another patty shop, Sugar & Spice, in Liguanea. I don’t think it even made the local news because i never did hear the details of it tho’ my twitter feed showed photos of police cars blocking one of the Liguanea plazas and there were rumours of bullets being fired. It is said that a woman who had gone to the bank next door before deciding on a patty for lunch was robbed of J$800,000. But honestly who knows for sure? In the information age crucial information is frequently withheld in Jamaica; its like wading through a perpetual smog.

The hashtag in front of words means that the tweet in question will be filed under those terms in the global twitter feed. For example #nowwatching is usually appended to tweets announcing what movie, TV show or video the person is watching at the time. #sadbutfunny had one quite poignant tweet: hard enough being the slow kid but needing a reminder for drivers not to run you over is just #sadbutfunny http://twitpic.com/2lf035. Another example, this one from Sept 1 @rpugh Discovery Channel gunman James Jay Lee called 4 TV shows promoting war be removed. Holding hostages at gunpoint. #ironymuch

Alas it’s true, we’re all hostages in a patty shop. There’s no escaping it. Jamaica 2010. #ironymuch