That Jamaica Film Festival…

A critical look at the inaugural Jamaica Film Festival

Celebratory cake designed for Jamaica Film Festival
Celebratory cake designed for Jamaica Film Festival

In the weeks leading up to it JAMPRO (a government agency whose role it is to promote trade and investment), promised that Kingston would come alive with the Jamaica Film Festival (JaFF) (July 7 – 11, 2015), “a dynamic cinematic and cultural event, featuring both local and international movies” and showcasing “the talents of the best and brightest in the Jamaican film industry.” Instead the highly hyped film festival, though occasionally (and quite erratically) hitting the mark, was largely a damp squib of an event, marred by shoddy programming, less than ideal venues and a complete failure to keep to schedule.

Just as with the JCDC’s Independence Gala of Galas (which according to the media failed to live up to its billing though JCDC’s Director and the Minister of Culture both deemed them more than satisfactory) JAMPRO and the Film Commissioner have declared the film festival a great success. Of course organizers of events (much like fond mothers) are notoriously, perhaps even wilfully, blind to the faults and shortcomings of their progeny but when public money and time are involved it becomes imperative that we demand not only accountability but best practices from those responsible for spending both. While the media raised questions about the quality of the Grand Gala it completely failed to do so regarding the inaugural Jamaica Film Festival, even lending itself to the myth of  the event’s success. This needs explanation.

The Gala is reputed to have cost $47 million dollars to mount and though exact figures are unavailable the sum of $39 million was being bandied about as the sum needed to mount the Film Festival. It is unclear how much of this was to come from JAMPRO and how much from private sector sources or even how much of the desired total was raised. I’m sure some of the glitches experienced during JaFF may be attributable to funding that failed to materialize but others could have been avoided had a different mindset been adopted. Not everything is dependent on money–good planning, innovative programming, keeping to schedule, targeting audiences to ensure attendance–these are things that can be done even on a shoestring budget.

Films an afterthought at inaugural Jamaica Film Festival

For starters, even though Jamaica is officially entering the film festival circuit rather late (Trinidad celebrates its 10th edition next week) Festival planners failed to make use of the many templates for successful film festivals that already exist. Not only that, the organizers failed to grasp the basic fact that a film festival is about films–that films, actual films or movies—are, and should be, at its epicentre.

Regrettably films were an afterthought at the Jamaica Film Festival. One searched the JIS press releases in vain for any mention of the films to be screened. If you went to the festival website and clicked on ‘Schedule’ what you got is the programme of industry workshops and seminars that usually are a subsidiary offering at film festivals (while the workshop schedule was well laid out and readable the film schedule when you finally found it was poorly designed and impossible to read on any device even a desktop). Maybe JAMPRO was trying to break the established mold and come up with its own path breaking product on its maiden venture into film festival land but what JaFF turned out to be, was actually a series of how-to talks, workshops and panel discussions on film and TV production with a random selection of–mostly short–films thrown in for good measure.

But workshops, seminars and discussions do not a film festival make. The financing of films, scriptwriting, new technologies, distribution and marketing –the nuts and bolts of film-making–are all important but as one regional veteran in the film business said, “You can’t make good films unless you watch good films. The key to any good film festival is the quality of the films they show.”

Thus most reputable film festivals put films at the front and centre of their annual events using the opportunity to showcase new and innovative offerings particularly ones that have some connection to the location of the festival. A film such as Destiny which had already played in the theatres here (and which was  panned by critics) would not have been included in the programming which would have been reserved for new films or outstanding films that had not yet been shown in local theatres. TTFF follows the standard format for film festivals showcasing new material and a choice selection of older classics chosen for their outstanding qualities. “There is enough good work from the entire Caribbean and the Diaspora to ensure a quality lineup of films every year,” said a spokesperson for the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival (TTFF).

The Jamaica Film Festival seems to have relied exclusively on submissions to its competition, designed mainly for new and upcoming film-makers, for its programme. The lack of a filmic intelligence at work to curate a compelling lineup was palpable, for in addition to submissions by aspiring filmmakers, there are films by established, even celebrated directors, that must be curated into the mix as examples of filmmaking taken to its acme, its most creative. If such films in addition to being excellent also happen to have a local connection, why then the stars are all aligned for the work to not only be included in the offerings but to have top billing.

The Stuart Hall Project

In 2013, a year or so before Stuart Hall died (please see my earlier posts on who Hall was and his connection to Jamaica), a film was produced called The Stuart Hall Project. Directed by acclaimed film-maker John Akomfrah the film skillfully captured Hall and the worlds he lived in and influenced. A review in the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound magazine described the film in glowing terms:

…the overriding impression left by The Stuart Hall Project is of a sparkling meeting of minds and creative disciplines orchestrated by one of our most gifted non-fiction filmmakers.

So outstanding is John Akomfrah’s work as a film director (He was also Governor of the Board of the British Film Institute for several years and is generally considered a stalwart of Black British Cinema) that the TTFF headlined him as a special guest in its 2013 edition.

The festival events come to a close with a retrospective of the films of John Akomfrah hosted by Dr Gabrielle Hezekiah. Several of the acclaimed director’s works will be screened, including his newest film The Stuart Hall Project.  Akomfrah himself will attend the retrospective and will discuss his career and films with Dr Hezekiah.

You would have thought that a film featuring the most distinguished intellectual Jamaica has produced (that even Trinidad considered important enough to feature. Storm Saulter, one of Jamaica’s best young directors who was conspicuous by his absence from the JaFF told me he was astonished to learn of Stuart Hall at the TTFF which he attended as a representative of New Caribbean Cinema), itself the creation of one of the most creative directors would have been high on the list of the artistic or programming director of the inaugural JaFF. But alas my most fervent efforts to interest the JaFF in premiering The Stuart Hall Project in Jamaica came to naught. Although the Film Commissioner, Carole Beckford, agreed to include the film in the JaFF line up, even featuring it on its programme, she only contacted the producer of the film on June 23rd, a mere two weeks before JaFF to make arrangements to acquire the necessary permissions and a copy to be shown at the Festival.

Needless to say this did not go down well with the makers of The Stuart Hall Project. Responding to the belated effort to include the film in JaFF, Lina Gopaul, the producer and a Jamaican citizen, wrote:

…it’s been a hard slog, five years of our lives trying to get this film made, trying to raise money to make a film on a Jamaican intellectual/cultural theorist is not easy by any stretch of the imagination, we did  it out of our respect for him and wanting to place Jamaicans on the map in this vital and import arena and it’s baffling when we are treated in this manner, especially for me as a person of Jamaican heritage.

When belatedly contacted by the film commissioner the makers of The Stuart Hall Project insisted that the organizers of JaFF follow the normal protocols for acquiring a copy and rights to show the film at the festival, something JAMPRO was either unwilling or unable to do. I heard once again from the producer Lina Gopaul:

After much discussion here we will give permission for the screening as long as it’s not screened on dvd!   I am waiting for screening formats – I do not think they realise just how much damage they have done by doing things in this manner- The Stuart Hall Project has agents, distributors – all of which I will have to smooth over – anyway let’s see what happens from here on… it saddens me that this has happened this way — but we have agreed only because of Stuart and a wish he made for it to been seen there.

Despite the express wishes of the film-makers that DVD was not an acceptable format the organizers were scrambling to find a DVD copy the evening before the film was to be screened (I even received a call the night before from the Film Commissioner asking if I had a copy) which needless to say did not materialize. No explanation or apology was offered for the non-showing nor was any announcement made to let attendees know that the film, although on the schedule, was not actually going to be screened. I had to personally inform parties who were asking for details on Twitter and Facebook, about the no-show.

Jamaican director Perry Henzell, who famously made The Harder They Come, on left
Jamaican director Perry Henzell, who famously made The Harder They Come, on left

Similarly Perry Henzell: A Filmmaker’s Odyssey, a biographical film about the father of Jamaica’s film industry, was listed in the schedule, but not shown for somewhat similar reasons; my understanding is that the JaFF failed to buy a copy designed for festival viewing (Needless to say the documentary has been invited to be an official selection, in competition for People’s Choice Award, at the 2015 Trinidad + Tobago International Film Festival which seems to be way ahead of Jamaica in recognizing outstanding films on Jamaican subjects). The non-observance of normal protocols and payment of required fees to show films in their optimal format make a mockery of JaFF’s much touted slogan: Where art meets business. It betrays a surprising lack of knowledge about how the film business works, about the fees that need to be paid to agents and distributors, about royalties and appropriate formats for festival showings. This is shocking especially considering utterances in the media from no less than the president of Jamaica Promotions Corporation (JAMPRO), Diane Edwards, in the lead-up to the inaugural Jamaica Film Festival:

“Film is a business. Players must understand the business behind the creativity, and that is why we have organised a really serious film festival. The creative side is not enough, what must happen is a full understanding of the industry to create long-term businesses,” she told the Jamaica Observer.

She said stakeholders must make themselves professional in order to create world-class standards. She further said an understanding of distribution, copyright, and intellectual property issues are also critical in moving the industry forward.

Yes, an understanding of distribution, copyright, and intellectual property issues are indeed critical but there was little evidence of this in the manner in which films were programmed and shown at the JaFF.

No Programming Director?

What JaFF badly needed was a programming director or someone with a deep knowledge of film and film culture to curate a compelling selection of films and ensure that industry protocols were followed in acquiring them. To have spurned or dropped through sheer carelessness, two films such as The Stuart Hall Project and Perry Henzell: A Filmmaker’s Odyssey, the latter about the pioneer of film in Jamaica, which would have anchored the inaugural edition of JaFF most memorably, is baffling to say the least.

Film Commissioner Carole Beckford with Hollywood film and TV professionals
Film Commissioner Carole Beckford with Hollywood film and TV professionals

For reasons best known to itself JAMPRO seems to have left the planning and execution of this important festival up to one individual—the film commissioner– who with the best will in the world was not equipped to deliver a high quality film festival on her own. Any successful festival whether film or literary or musical requires teamwork. The point of having a competent team, including a programming director or committee, is precisely to avoid limiting a festival to the conceptual map or limited resources of any one individual.

Carole Beckford, the film commissioner, is not known to have a background in film. Her specialty is public relations—most famously she was for a time Usain Bolt’s publicist. The appointment of an outsider to the industry, and one with so little experience or knowledge of film as film commissioner was a move that JAMPRO should be asked to explain. Predictably it offended the Jamaican film-making community who turned their backs on the Commissioner and her film festival.

Thus even though Beckford managed to pull together quite an impressive array of workshops and seminars, tapping Black Hollywood (such a pity Black British Cinema wasn’t also seen as a resource) for industry professionals, some of whom delivered good sessions, the turnout was sparse and the effort somewhat wasted because the film industry by and large stayed away and the students who could afford the steep ticket prices were few and far between. Sessions often started more than an hour late while organizers waited in vain for crowds to turn up. In some instances JAMPRO staff were asked to fill the seats so that the Courtleigh Auditorium could give an appearance of decent attendance.

Interestingly JAMPRO and the film commissioner did borrow certain features of  standard film festival templates (although you might argue these were much less crucial or necessary components than the basic one of putting films at the centre of the film festival). So for instance there was a very large media launch, a grand invitiation-only opening ceremony, a glitzy after-party and a uniformly high price of entry to attend workshops and films of variable quality, with unpredictable timing and location. These are all elements that would have made sense if the festival was a top class, streamlined, beautifully executed one but a little ‘previous’ for a brand new festival stumbling its way into being.

The Prohibitive Price of Entry

As it was, University of the West Indies Film Studies lecturer Rachel Mosely-Wood had to buy a season ticket and share it with some of her students, none of whom would have been able to afford to attend otherwise. I spoke with two of Rachel’s students. Demi Walker, an enthusiastic young visual arts major with a minor in film  studies, who attended seven of the workshops said she found the festival “extremely informative and entertaining once you got past the high cost”:

But this… might not have been the general consensus. I was mostly grateful for the new experience. The prices, like the staircase leading to the screening area, were noticeably steep. The theatre itself, from what I was able to observe, had many vacant seats during the workshops. Perhaps some more university/film students could have benefited from the gathering if there was a special offer in place for them.

So eager was Demi for film-related information that she was willing to overlook the numerous repetitions during the workshops she attended that had many others exclaiming in annoyance. “I didn’t exactly mind the repetition because I was eager for opportunities to commit as much as possible to my memory. I got the impression that others wanted the most for their money & repetition of questions directed at the panel (though structured differently and often arising in separate sessions) was seeming to take up their valuable time.”

Another student, Cornel Bogle, a Literatures in English (Major) and Film Studies (Minor), missed most of the workshops but attended a screening on July 9th. He said the only reason he decided to go that day was that:

I had been eagerly anticipating the Derek Walcott film by Ida Does, and The Stuart Hall Project by John Akomfrah. However, to the best of my knowledge, neither of these films were screened at their scheduled times.

Note: I say, ‘to the best of my knowledge’, because according to the schedule The Stuart Hall Project was scheduled to be screened at the JAMPRO Business Auditorium.To be honest, after the realization that the Derek Walcott film would not have been screened for the time that it was scheduled for, I was far too despondent to make the trek to JAMPRO to see if The Stuart Hall Project was being shown. (Apparently the Derek Walcott film was shown after I left, which was quite late and not the scheduled time.)

I actually believe that screening The Stuart Hall Project would’ve been an amazing act considering the ignorance of many Jamaicans of Stuart Hall’s very existence. I actually came to know of him by means of your blog. I then went on to read his work, and watched and listened countless video and audio of him. My personal favorite is his interview with the BBC’s Desert Island Discs…Anyway, my point is that this was a great opportunity that was missed.

Cornel was particularly disappointed not to see two of the films he wanted that evening because this time he had paid for his own ticket:

As for the cost, I believe Demi’s quip about the staircase is the best way to characterize it. If it were not for Dr. Wood’s offer to share her tickets, I would not have decided to attend. Moreover, Demi and I both purchased tickets for the Thursday screenings (we couldn’t share the tickets that night because Dr. Wood was in attendance), and as I mentioned, the only reason I chose that night was because of the two aforementioned films.

Do I feel as though it was a waste of money? Not at all. It gave me an opportunity to enjoy a night of Jamaican films and enjoy the company of friends. My only regret is that more friends who were equally interested in attending were unable to because of the cost. A film festival, especially in a region that does not have a strong market, should be aimed at creating and expanding a community of individuals interested in filmmaking as opposed to creating added barriers.

Inadequate venues and overblown promises

Another sign that the JaFF and JAMPRO had lost the plot was in choice of venues. Two sports bars were pressed into use as screening locations despite their obvious unsuitability for such events. This was another instance when it became clear that JAMPRO and the film commissioner were making it up as they went along instead of sticking to tried and true festival best practice. Predictably the directors of films shown in these noisy settings were not happy with such  conditions. One of them expressed his ire on Facebook:

My film was shown in a sports bar with patrons sitting at tables eating, some watching sports on other screens, the lights were not dimmed, there was talking and eating going on, you could hear the blenders mixing drinks, the sound was atrocious so that people couldn’t hear part of it.

All in all it was an insult to filmmakers. I had suspected things were not all right from up front, when there was a level of disorganization about the preparations. Established Jamaican filmmakers were ignorant about what was going on, and the organizers preferred to pay for foreigners to come down to hold workshops rather than use those more experienced Jamaicans who helped out in the preparation.

It seems to have been just another exercise in the worst of Jamaica, which is croneyism and nationalistic and class bigotry….Come on Jamaica. You have a rich tradition in film, tremendous talent and experience residing in your country, which you have turned your back on. Come on, you can do better than that.

If only the ignominy ended there. In a textbook case of over-reaching the JaFF had grandly announced in February 2015:

Thirteen top Jamaican Directors/Writers have been selected by The Jamaica Promotions Corporation (JAMPRO) to screen their films at the Jamaica Film Festival 2015, scheduled to take place July 7-11 in Kingston.

The list of filmmakers include well-known music video and film director, Gerald ‘RasKassa’ Hynes; award-winning writer/producer/director, Chris Browne; Theatre writers/directors/actors, Dahlia Harris and Aston Cooke; educator and producer Franklyn St Juste; make-up artist extraordinaire/director, Cecile Burrowes. The list also includes talented newcomers, Kyle Chin, Donovan Watkis, Sabrena McDonald, Audrey Williams, Kevin Jackson and Alison Harrison. Jamaican & Hollywood actress, Shauna Chin, who made her recent debut on CBS’ Criminal Minds, has also made the short list.

The festival will include 15 pieces that will need a collective investment of US$200,000. Both private and public investment is welcomed for the 15 pieces. The project will create some 300 temporary jobs and will include Jamaican actors.

All entries will make their first appearance at the Jamaica Film Festival and will be a part of the international circuit from as early as September 2015.”

Four months to raise funds for film-makers to produce films in time to be shown at the Festival? Really? Surely JAMPRO was jesting. Anyone could have told them that this was a completely unrealistic timeline. Instead eager young film professionals were strung along with promises of funding which partially materialized for some a week before the Festival, far too late for them to produce anything. Is this any way to encourage and foster film production in Jamaica, one of the stated goals of JaFF? What message are you sending young Jamaican film professionals with this kind of bungling?

Film industry benefits from film festival” trumpeted yet another JIS release portraying JaFF as the success it wasn’t. Reading the release reveals that the so-called benefit is “an opportunity for Jamaican practitioners to participate in FOX Audience Strategy Group’s  Writers and Directors Intensive Programme”. This is laughable. This merely allows Jamaicans to compete with about 400 others for a place in the Fox programme. It would have been far better if JaFF had asked the Fox Audience Strategy Group to help them boost their workshop audiences if this is the kind of pitiful drop in the ocean JAMPRO is claiming as an achievement of their inaugural film festival.

Anything but world-class…

So in conclusion, one or two hiccups in a festival’s maiden edition are only to be expected, but there is no way a seemingly endless series of miscalculations and hubristic over-reaching should be overlooked or given a bligh by the public. In the wake of the recently concluded World Championships in Beijing, the outstanding performance of Jamaica’s golden athletes aroused a much needed discussion at home: why can’t the country replicate the successes of its atheletic team? How can the excellent example set by the athletes be applied in every sphere of life in Jamaica? Alas the discussions were all too brief, lasting no more than a day or two but in my opinion the JaFF is an excellent case study or illustration of why there is such a divergence in performance between our athletes and some of our national endeavours.

Jamaican athletic success is predicated on raising the bar of human speed globally whereas national institutions such as JAMPRO are allowed to get away with setting the bar low enough to accomodate their own lack of expertise, knowledge and competence in the area concerned. The inevitably shambolic  product that ensues is then declared a success and the mess covered up with the assistance of a compliant media that seems disinterested in asking the right questions or offering the necessary critiques.

Jamaican athletes got to where they are today by following international best practice and then setting it. They perfected something they were already good at by working extra hard, competing against the best and responding to critiques of their performance. But you can’t excel at what you don’t know and what you’re not willing to invest the time and effort in learning. This is an elementary rule that is ubiquitous. When you blatantly and systematically flout that simple fact you’re not going to achieve even a millionth of what Jamaican athletes do–the inaugural JaFF could have been launched with a lot less fanfare and a lot more substance, and that is just the plain and simple truth of the matter.

No room for Stuart Hall in Brand Jamaica?

Why is Stuart Hall seemingly persona non grata in Jamaica? Can there be a Brand Jamaica that excludes him? Why and for what?

There is a curious affinity in Jamaica for the idea of branding and a certain obsession with the notion of ‘nation branding’ (as noted in my previous post To Brand or Not to Brand Jamaica). In 2012 the country was startled by a release from the Jamaica Information Service announcing that a ‘national branding programme’ was to be implemented “to effectively communicate and reinforce the true essence of what it means to be Jamaican.” No one was quite sure what this meant.

Also in 2012 Jamaica’s participation in the London Olympics and the superb performance of its athletes there spurred much talk of ‘rebranding’ the country. Earlier that year the PNP, having recently won the last general election, looked forward to enjoying a spectacular track and field season at the Olympics with Jamaican athletes set to sweep the sprint events (the team won 12 medals in all, 4 gold, 4 silver and 4 bronze, Usain Bolt alone winning 3 of the gold medals).

In 2012 the nation was also celebrating its 50th year of Independence and a new Director, Robert Bryan, was appointed to head the Jamaica 50 secretariat. The song commissioned by the previous government for the jubilee celebrations ‘Find the flag in your heart and wave it’ by veteran music producer Mikie Bennett was scrapped and a new one ‘Nation on a mission’ created. Branding seemed to be a central aspect of this ‘mission’.

IMG_1214

A grandiose project to celebrate the nation’s 50th anniversary at the 02 Arena in London during the Olympics was launched. According to Bryan “the plans would be a platform to rebrand Jamaica globally and it would be done in a way to capture world attention, delivering maximum impact of the brand worldwide and to attract international television coverage. Ultimately, he said, Jamaica hoped to convert the exposure to financial gains, including more visitors and greater publicity for Jamaica’s products.”

Three years later, sitting in IMF-straitened Jamaica progressively tightening our belts, its hard to see that the exorbitant ‘rebranding’ of 2012 achieved anything at all. Yet here we are talking about branding once again à la the Brand Jamaica symposium. See my previous post for more detail on this.

A recurrent view expressed at the Brand Jamaica conference was that the country urgently needed to move beyond the cliched image the Jamaica Tourist Board had managed to fix of the island being a fun destiNATION (my terminology) and little more.  As the Executive Director of the Broadcasting Commission, Cordel Green said in his paper:

Every person in the world who thinks Jamaica–must be disabused of the notion that outside the walls of all inclusives and tourist enclaves lie shacks and derlection. They must also know that we are considerably more than beaches, sun, rum and fun.

Our cultural heritage, history and intellectual pedigree are world class and this country has made an international footprint that bears no relation to her size, age and global ranking.

Hume Johnson, one of the main organizers of the conference also succinctly summed up the redemptive objective of the exercise:

Our aim is to advocate for a re-imagining and repositioning of the Jamaican brand, the creation of a more complex narrative beyond sun, sand and sea, one that projects a more positive and complete image of the country centred on its people, culture and heritage.”

The question at the heart of the Re-imagine Jamaica conference was how to produce this more nuanced, complex narrative about the country. After her presentation, keynote speaker Samantha North asked the audience what they would like to see included in Jamaican identity that might help shift or alter global perception of the country as a tourist playground with a violent, homophobic population. What were some of the assets Jamaica possessed that were little known by outsiders? That could be enlisted in the reconstituting and recuperation of its image?

The audience advanced a number of suggestions–Jamaica’s cuisine, its beauty queens, its intellectuals, its footballers dwelling in foreign climes such as Raheem Stirling. In terms of intellectuals Rex Nettleford was mentioned more than once and I brought up Stuart Hall, arguably the MOST outstanding intellectual Jamaica has produced whose influence globally, and on Britain in particular, easily puts him in any list of the top ten public intellectuals worldwide in the last four decades.

Stuart Hall wrote the textbook on representation and identity, how stereotypes are formed and how to dismantle them (see video above), his work is so highly cited (citation factor being the metric used in academia to measure scholarly worth) that on any given day a Google Scholar advanced search for his name returns approximately 54,000 results per 0.03 seconds to Rex Nettleford’s 2,000 (the highest of any locally based academic).  For comparison Orlando Patterson, another Jamaican intellectual superstar located in the diaspora, returns 51,000 results; Frantz Fanon about 36,600 results and Derek Walcott a measly 12,900 results.

Patterson and Hall are in a category with other global intellectual giants such as Amartya Sen, Edward Said, Richard Rorty and Slavoj Zizek, the latter lower at 44,000 than either Patterson or Hall. While Patterson is known to Jamaicans Stuart Hall is so unheard of that the main newspaper here  wrote an editorial after his death in February 2014 lamenting the lack of awareness in Jamaica of who this towering intellectual was.

Isn’t it time to end this abysmal ignorance and claim Hall once and for all for Brand Jamaica? The point of mentioning citation rates is merely to say that Stuart Hall has far more name recognition globally than any local intellectual and in any national reputation-building exercise his name would go much further than many others. People pay top dollar to have outstanding, well-known individuals associated with their ‘brands’, just look at the companies lining up to enlist Usain Bolt. My point is Jamaica could benefit from associating itself with a figure such as Stuart Hall. And he comes free because in a sense having been born and brought up here he belongs to Jamaica and the country can rightfully lay claim to him. Who better than Hall to complexify Jamaica’s identity/image along with the many other stellar intellectuals who live in the diaspora? He’s not the only one. How many know about Sylvia Wynter, another remarkable intellectual globally recognized and celebrated and one of the few female intellectuals from Jamaica/Caribbean operating at the level she does?

There’s a curious territoriality that comes into play when it comes to academia and intellection. An idea that to acknowledge Jamaican intellectuals who live abroad somehow implies disloyalty to the ones who ‘paid their dues’ by staying at home. This is a myopic view in my opinion. To claim Stuart Hall as the son of Jamaica that he was and the world-class intellectual that he became is hardly to disregard Rex Nettleford or his peers. It isn’t an either-or situation. Let’s suppose for a moment that Jamaica was putting together a team for an intellectual tournament–a world cup of groundbreaking scholarship–wouldn’t it be silly not to reach, in addition to Nettleford and company, for a Hall, a Patterson and a Wynter, whose experience abroad has forced them to be more competitive and therefore more exceptional and unbeatable than those who stayed at home and didn’t have the same opportunities?

Why is it ok for the national football team, the Reggae Boyz, to be composed of diaspora-based players who barely know the national anthem but not the intellectual equivalent of that team? Why should an intellectual team representing Jamaica be represented only by those ‘born and bred in Jamaica’?

For make no mistake, just as in football, there is a cost to restricting oneself to local or regional boundaries in the name of ‘paying dues’. Scholars and intellectuals whose work circulates globally and  internationally such as those mentioned above are Jamaican/Caribbean by birth but their ambit is global–that is they think and write as if addressing the world not merely the region or the nation they happen to come from. Most or all of them are/were oppositional voices who confronted the establishment when necessary but crucially such was Hall’s genius, his gift for communicating, that “his ideas traveled seamlessly to a broader world”.

Scholars such as Rex Nettleford, Norman Girvan, Barry Chevannes and many others (who are favoured as what I term ‘fi wi intellectuals’ or ‘our intellectuals’) were more committed to solving national and regional problems and in declaring epistemic independence by founding indigenous modes of scholarship. Unfortunately this obsession with battling ‘epistemological colonialism’ has led to a situation described as a crisis-of-mission for social sciences at the University of the West Indies, one where ‘theory’ was demonized as being Eurocentric and practically expelled from the academy while indigenous knowledge-building became paramount though increasingly this became restricted to statistical data-gathering and report writing.

These two groups are not at all mutually exclusive. There were moments when the national and regional scholars’ work addressed wider audiences but in general some of the most promising scholarly minds fell prey to what has been described as “the politicization of the social sciences in Latin America” where “Social science is part of public and political life in close relationship to power and to power struggles.” Many became advisers to Prime Ministers, or served as cabinet ministers and members of parliament while teaching at the University. Others were seduced by ‘the twilight world of consultancy’– contract research–for large agencies such as the Ford Foundation. These conditions fostered conformism and accommodation with the needs of the establishment rather than confrontation or dissent.

Acknowledging the immense pressure on public universities to solve national and regional problems Don Marshall (head of the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies, Cave Hill) warned some years ago about the inherent danger in such a capitulation: “It can lead to academics abrogating their intellectual responsibilities by giving identity to the immediate realms of the policy process. The consequence is one that not so much brings an appropriate education to public affairs as infiltrates the academy with the unreflective imperatives of state bureaucracies.”

Marshall identified a second but related problem: the entrenchment of a liberal-positivist leftwing intellectual tradition in the Caribbean unwilling to question, or perhaps unaware of, its own ontological assumptions in an increasingly conservative and pragmatic social environment. This has led inevitably to “a virtual discouragement of dissenting approaches.”

Stuart Hall whose name is synonymous with the groundbreaking field of cultural studies was never part of the nation-building processes in Jamaica having migrated at the age of 19 to attend Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. But can Jamaica afford to avert its gaze from such a distinguished son? Should it? In so many ways Hall was the very model of the kind of scholar you would have expected the Caribbean academy to produce in the fullness of its postcolonial moment. Rather than detain Hall and other outward-looking, globally-minded thinkers in the diaspora, surely it’s equally important to cultivate an academic community capable of communicating with scholars abroad and bringing up-to-date knowledge to bear on local problems? Surely epistemic diversity is just as important as epistemic sovereignty?

Before I digress too far from the subject of this post–that is Stuart Hall and Brand Jamaica–let me rein in the argument I’m trying to make by invoking what acclaimed film director John Akomfrah said about the British-Jamaican cultural theorist. “Stuart Hall was kind of a rock star for us. For many of my generation in the 70s…he was one of the few people of colour we saw on television who wasn’t crooning, dancing or running. His very iconic presence on this most public of platforms suggested all manner of ‘impossible possibilities’.”

In Britain Stuart was integrally involved in combating the stereotyping of black migrants by the lily white English establishment, literally inserting the black in the Union Jack. He did so most of all by vigorously amplifying the narrative of what it means to be Jamaican/Caribbean by embodying the black public intellectual par excellence. Let’s claim him–for he would burnish Jamaica’s image and identity no less brightly than Usain Bolt does every time he runs a race.

Of course before we can do so we have to get to know Stuart Hall. I post two clips from his memorial service last November–one immediately above from the documentary he made on the Caribbean in the 70s–Redemption Song–and the second Jamaican theorist David Scott’s tribute to him. Scott’s remarks are interesting also for his discussion of ‘Brown’ Jamaica. The third (at the top of this post) is a clip of Hall talking about representation and the media in a lecture given at the University of Westminster in London in the 70s (it ends abruptly but continues in Part 2 of 4 available freely on YouTube). His ideas animated the world, radicalized the study of the humanities and social sciences globally and continue to be relevant today.

Still, as another Jamaican intellectual in the diaspora, Columbia University’s David Scott, noted at the memorial service held in Hall’s honour in London last November (for the full text please see video):

…Jamaica scarcely recognized Stuart, maybe no one should be surprised by this. He certainly wasn’t. Because he understood that part of what makes Jamaica enviably, unsettlingly Jamaica, part of what draws from us a grudging admiration, is precisely its scornfully prideful soul, its insouciant  indifference even to its own, its willful, sometimes self-destructive, don’t care attitude… its proverbial ethic of not begging anyone a glass of ice water. Stuart i think would have been the first to salute the defiant principle of this moral posture as an invaluable inheritance from the bitter past, it was in a very special way his inheritance too, in fact in that instinct for independent-mindedness, for finding his own way, his own idiom of dissent and refusal, in his way of being done, finished with exhausted phases of his life, we recognize something familiar, something that made him, to paraphrase CLR James, of Jamaica, Jamaican.

One thing I do know is that the Jamaica Scott describes here–the scornfully prideful, insouciantly indifferent, self-destructive country–is one that no amount of shallow ‘rebranding’ can redeem. It would be a hard sell. Part of the exercise of building a new identity for Jamaica will have to involve a radical shift in attitude and world-view. There is no one more equipped to help with this than Stuart Hall–he may be gone but he has left behind archives of new knowledge that students all over the world eagerly consume. We should too. His work on representation, the power of the image, stereotypes and how to dismantle them are directly related to the discussions on branding. But the most important thing about Stuart Hall as a symbol of what Jamaican intellection can and should be is the example he sets for Caribbean youth of a  Jamaican operating at the top of his game not in athletics, not in music but in the virtually impenetrable world of high theory.

“The Last Conjuncture”–David Scott’s moving tribute to Stuart Hall

Stuart Hall, the world-famous cultural theorist, remains little known in the land of his birth. This post excerpts a moving posthumous conversation with him by David Scott.

 

 

studavid copy
David Scott with Stuart Hall in New Kingston, 1996

It’s about six months since the world-renowned intellectual Stuart Hall passed away in London after years of ill health. In Jamaica where he was born and brought up Hall remains largely unknown so that it took local media a few days to register the fact of his passing. It was scandalous then and remains scandalous today that the highly acclaimed film about his life and work, The Stuart Hall Project, has yet to be shown in Jamaica. A friend who attended the recent Global Art Forum at Art Dubai 2014 remarked that she had seen busloads of people going to view the film which was a highlight of the programming there. I excerpt below a question Ibraaz Editor-in-Chief Anthony Downey asked the director of the film, John Akomfrah, at the forum.  It will give a sense of how the film and its subject, so little valued in Jamaica, are viewed by the rest of the world:

AD: …You mentioned Stuart Hall and the pivotal, seminal importance of Stuart Hall for your generation. Certainly for my generation, coming to England in the late 80s, Stuart Hall’s work opened my eyes to the potentiality not only of theory but of thinking, clear thinking; how you could assess a situation in a manner in which it had never been considered before.

I’m thinking now as well of your most recent film The Unfinished Conversation (2012), also known as The Stuart Hall Project. I’m wondering – this must have been a labour of love, this could not have been an easy film for anyone to make, because, in effect, one is dealing with the father figure; one is dealing with the person who made a lot of what we do today possible. He is, effectively, the father of multicultural studies, but equally he transcends that.

Could you talk a little bit about how that film came into being, and what you see it as? Because it’s taking on a life of its own now; it’s transcending you. It’s being shown worldwide, it has garnered awards, and it will be shown tomorrow here in Sharjah. Can you talk a little bit about how it came into being and the importance of that, and where you see it going, or indeed, if you can?

For the full interview go here.

Stuart Hall at Good Hope Estate, Trelawny, Jamaica, 2004
Stuart Hall at Good Hope Estate, Trelawny, Jamaica, 2004

Perhaps the most moving elegy to Hall was written by Columbia University-based David Scott, also Jamaican, editor and founder of the journal Small Axe, who is working, among other things, on a biography of the acclaimed cultural theorist. I excerpt below from his posthumous letter to Stuart and ask that we reflect on how and why a country that takes such pride in its triumphal culture is incapable of celebrating a son–widely acknowledged as having put culture on the curricula globally as an object of study–who was as much a trailblazer as Usain Bolt.

So here then is Scott’s letter:

Dear Stuart,

There remains, as you may well imagine, a lot to say. That is why I have, once more, taken refuge in writing you a letter, selfishly perhaps, foolishly, yes, but it is for the sake of my own belated clarification, and to sustain the dialogue (henceforth, alas, a fictive one) we have been engaged in these past many years—and all without heed, I apologize in advance, of your undoubted desire to be done with the bother and burden of all this.

But there are now so many conversations left stranded in the middle, Stuart, by your lamented departure, cut off without ending, without prospect of an ending. Death does that, though, doesn’t it, in an uncanny, unforgiving sort of way. Death is the sharp knife-edge of our finitude, the moment (however it comes, timely or untimely) when we are overtaken by the irreversible—and the ineluctable—fact of our mortal being. It is the last conjuncture, isn’t it? As you once said to me, somewhat gravely, ruefully, apropos of what I can’t now remember: Life unfolds in one direction only. It does. I take that to be an existential truth, with tragic implications. Whatever the Augustinian distensions of temporality we are inclined to imagine, whatever our hermeneutic desire to refute or refuse the linearity of time’s arrow, we all round the corner on this particular crossroads—Papa Legba’s—where we find ourselves summoned to render up what is owed for what we have spent. The one thing we are guaranteed: death is simply the price we pay for time. As we made our way behind you through Highgate Cemetery that bright and private Friday morning this past February, with strains of Marley’s great elegy, “Redemption Song,” still plaintively resonant, we all, I think, noticed Marx pause his ruminations and nod his fraternal welcome, and, just next to him, our own Claudia Jones whispered a dread chant of greeting; and as I watched you being lowered caringly into the ground’s reluctant embrace, I almost cried out with Derek Walcott, “O earth, the number of friends you keep / exceeds those left to be loved.”1

But it is finitude, Stuart, about which I want to talk to you on this occasion, the strange, haunting sense of a last conjuncture. Because this is something we talked about a good deal in the last years—sometimes directly, mostly obliquely—as talk about your life and your work (an admitted obsession on my part) came to be shadowed by talk about the immediacy of pain, the permanence of discomfort, the long, difficult nights without sleep, the creeping anxieties, the dispiriting experience of a body less and less under your command. We spoke, too, occasionally, about death—not only its frank imminence but also its peculiar immanence, how it comes from within as much as from without. And yet, even so, Stuart, finitude is not exactly a word many would readily associate with your name. Too lugubriously Heideggerian in feel, maybe; too complicit in a fatalistic sense of limits, constraints; too redolent of a realm of necessity. So much of your life was committed to the construction of new possibilities out of seeming dead ends, new times and new identities out of old, beleaguered, frozen ones, that there is undoubtedly something perversely paradoxical in this image of you face to face with your finitude, not a philosophic abstraction now, but face to face with what you might have called, with a slow, sardonic smile, the final play of contingency. So, I wonder whether finitude isn’t precisely a word that bears reflection in relation to you because of what it illuminates about the tension between what you are given and what you can make.

I want to talk specifically about finitude and writing, more specifically, about my impression that the growing awareness of the coming end increasingly shaped the exercise of writing, especially the uncertain, or anyway not-so-straightforward, exercise of composing your memoirs—the last, definitive, story of yourself. What do I mean? I know you would have asked me that, Stuart, leaning slightly forward in your chair and regarding me with a resigned but skeptical air, trying to discern whether on this occasion our conceptual languages were overlapping, or at odds. I don’t mean anything very mysterious, of course. You already know that it has always seemed to me that for you writing was a way of moving on, of not standing still; it was a way of not being the same, of occasionally changing yourself, of saying the next thing rather than the last thing. Indeed, there was never for you a plausible “last” thing to say. This was deeply a matter of the politics as well as the poetics of writing. For you, therefore, writing was always to have an orientation toward futurity. I don’t think that the past as such ever much enchanted you; you certainly never reified it. The challenge of writing, then, was to subject the present to a form of redescription—what you famously called “reading the conjuncture”—that aimed to loosen its bondage to the past, to release it from its congealed assumptions so as to make possible a contingent practice of reinvention.

This is why, as I keep repeating, the essay-form so appealed to you as a genre of writing. The thing about the essay-form, it seems to me, is its embodiment of a mobile temporality so conducive to your temperament and the general ethos of your style. The essay is always, precisely, moving on. It has, in this sense, an active more so than a contemplative character; or rather, however meditative it may be, it always suffers an internal restlessness, an agitation of spirit that drives it in one direction or another—or in one direction after another. This is what enables the essay to evade closure and to defer its rendezvous with finitude. The essay is a thinking form—thinking that is inherently situational, occasional, embodied. One might say that the essay-form is a mode of presencing, of being present, of voicing presence, within writing. In this sense it is as close as nonfictive writing can get to the uneven grain of an audibly speaking voice.

Scott’s poetic tone and the probing register of his elegiacal missive are not ones we often come across in intellectual work here where public debate and discussion seem frozen at certain basic levels. Building Brand Jamaica. Attaining sustainable growth. Poverty alleviation. Reducing risk perceptions. The buzzwords trip off our tongue and down the drain. Gleaner columnist and Nationwide broadcaster George Davis rightly questions the quality of education available to Jamaican youth lamenting the fact that “An essay in university is like honour in the Jamaican Parliament; it’s almost disappeared.”

For the rest of Scott’s letter go here.

 

 

“I want to disturb my neighbour”: Stuart Hall and the role of the public intellectual

Stuart Hall at Good Hope Estate, Trelawny, Jamaica, 2004
Stuart Hall at Good Hope Estate, Trelawny, Jamaica, 2004

Thought precedes action, and Jamaica in its obliviousness to who Stuart Hall was, to his extraordinary work and life, to his globally mourned death, demonstrates the perils of a society in which the most complex levels of thinking are considered expendable, an unnecessary luxury, something that need not detain the nation. It’s a symptom of the weakness of its intellectual elite that they have shunned serious engagement with the ideas of a thinker who influenced thought all over the world, moreover one who was born and brought up in Jamaica, who left at the age of 19 to embark on a lifetime that would change the world. That it hasn’t changed Jamaica, that there is no room in the oft-cited “Brand Jamaica” for the great thinkers this country has produced (many of whom toil in foreign vineyards), is an indictment of the state of intellectual life here for young Jamaicans deserve to know that their countrymen excel not only in sprinting and music but also in the much less visible arena of intellectual production.

The indifference to the passing of this intellectual colossus (the New York Times referred to him as UK’s Du Bois) in the country of his birth was noted by its leading newspaper, the Gleaner, which went to the lengths of editorializing on it: “…our ignorance of Stuart Hall, at all levels of society, perhaps says more of national inattention to ideas and the people who generate them – especially the big ones. For as a thinker, Professor Hall would, in our view, be the equivalent to the likes of Usain Bolt.”

Members of the University of the West Indies were quick to point out that the University had not been ignorant of Stuart Hall, bestowing an honorary doctorate on him in 1998 and holding a conference in his honour in 2004. The conference which was the most successful of several such colloquia mounted by the now inactive Centre for Caribbean Thought also demonstrated through the overflowing, standing room only auditorium in which Hall gave his public lecture, that there WAS appreciation on the part of the public for the man and his ideas. Nevertheless a mere 10 years later when Hall died, it took the media a couple of days to react and it was the next day before the University of the West Indies managed to get out a tribute, one that would be revised and updated several times over the next couple of days as the starchy institution tried to come to grips with its own lacunae regarding the work of this great thinker.

An early version of the University’s tribute described Stuart Hall as a ‘communications specialist’, which is rather like describing a race horse as a ‘galloping machine’. What this reflects is the restrictive mindset within which tertiary education has been trapped in Jamaica. Ours but to produce ‘experts‘ and ‘specialists’, not thinkers or theorists.

But maybe that’s in the past. I was heartened to receive this tribute written by three of the younger members of the Faculty of Social Sciences, Doreen Gordon, Orville Beckford and Moji Anderson, which they tried to get published in the Gleaner. Alas the old lady of North Street wasn’t interested. I offer it here as a guest blog post because it simply and succinctly sums up who Stuart Hall was and why he was globally valued in the way he was even if not in the country of his birth. We ought to use the moment of his passing and the local apathy to it as an opportunity to do some serious soul-searching about the stifling levels of anti-intellectualism in this country, and for that matter, the world.

Stuart Hall at Aggrey Brown's home
Stuart Hall at Aggrey Brown’s home, Golden Spring, Jamaica, 1998

 “I want to disturb my neighbour”: Stuart Hall and the role of the public intellectual

by Doreen Gordon, Orville Beckford and Moji Anderson

There have been many tributes to the Jamaican born thinker, Stuart Hall – a testimony to his influence across political, academic, artistic and media spheres.  Hall was remarkable for his ability to move between the worlds of the academy, politics and popular media with both elegance and authority, be it in his political writings, television and radio appearances, or guest lecturers. In reflecting on Stuart Hall’s life, one cannot help but think about the role of the intellectual in society. An intellectual often stands outside of society and its institutions, actively disturbing the status quo. However, at the same time, an intellectual is a part of society and should strive to address his/her concerns to as wide a public as possible. Stuart Hall may be described as a “public intellectual”: actively involved in the politics and issues of his day, critiquing the society around him, and disseminating new insights through various media to a wider public. He was also deeply concerned with making education more widely accessible.

Arriving in post-war Britain as a young Rhodes Scholar, Hall did not return to Jamaica to live. Colonial society and the Euro-centric middle class environment in which he grew up seemed too constricting. His socialisation, early colonial education and the culture shock of migrating to race-strained Britain in 1951 no doubt shaped his particular concerns. He once said in a debate with a conservative political figure in London, “You cannot have at the back of your head what I have in mine. You once owned me on a plantation.” He remained on the side of the oppressed, the marginalized and the exploited – a perspective shaped by his Caribbean roots. This was clearly his role as a public intellectual: to make room for the voice of the powerless.

Hall’s broader recognition in Britain came when, along with a handful of intellectuals, he helped to form the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in 1964 at the University of Birmingham, eventually becoming its Director. Emerging as one of the country’s leading cultural theorists, he helped to define some of the major changes and cultural shifts occurring in twentieth century Britain.  It was a relatively new idea at the time to take the study of popular culture seriously and in particular, to analyse its relationship to politics and power.  The new academic discipline of cultural studies spread from Britain to the United States, to Latin America and the Caribbean, and even to Australia and East and Southeast Asia. Although some might argue that cultural studies is on the decline, the discipline has generated a wealth of significant work and set the stage for an entire line of theory, critique and political action which is still very influential, especially in the anti-globalization movement.

Hall’s writings linking racial prejudice and the media became key works, making him an inspirational figure for young black artists and film makers from Britain. His studies on post-colonialism asked the question of how a modern, multicultural British society could be created that respected cultural differences among people – thus he is often referred to as “the godfather of multiculturalism.” He observed that increased diversity within nations and the need to accommodate different sets of demands by various cultural groups posed challenging questions about the meaning of equality.

When Hall later moved to the Open University as Professor of Sociology, he continued his engagement with major issues of the day relating to British politics, culture and race. Indeed, he is often credited with the phrase “Thatcherism”: a term used to describe the politics, policies and political style of Margaret Thatcher, Conservative Party Leader from 1975 to 1990. Yet his views were never extreme. He urged his comrades not to dismiss Thatcherism: that they should try to understand it and its popular appeal. For Hall, Thatcherism was a new phenomenon, an authoritarian populism that needed to be understood before it could be contested.

Hall was a political actor: he was involved in protests, the campaign for nuclear disarmament, and political writing. He insisted on linking intellectual and cultural work to political struggles rather than pretending that the former is an end in itself. He maintained strong ties to Marxist thinking and to radicalism in general, but he also critiqued Marxism, especially its Stalinist versions. While he insisted on the connection between theory and political practice, he wanted it to be a flexible one that provided space for intellectual, cultural and political creativity. This search for ideological flexibility and freedom within Marxism is the well-spring of his work and impact.

Key to Stuart Hall’s thinking was his refusal to reject completely the impact of economics in peoples’ daily lives, something lacking in many contemporary cultural theories. Yet, he was not an economic determinist – in other words, our consciousness, ideas, and cultural creations have a degree of independence and agency outside of economic realities. However, some critics have suggested that the confinement of the economic factor in Hall’s writings to “the first instance,” meant that serious economic analysis was sometimes missing from his writings. For example, Hall did not consider the material basis of Margaret Thatcher’s political power, nor was he able to articulate convincing alternatives to the present global capitalist order. However, he rightly understood that we could not grasp contemporary realities without studying the workings of capitalism.

Hall’s contribution to issues of race, ethnicity and identity are well respected and far-reaching. Given the genealogy of Stuart Hall – his parents’ ancestors were English, African and Indian – his take on race and race relations was influenced by this cosmopolitan, consanguineal mix. His view was that race, ethnicity and identity are social constructions. If they can be constructed by human beings, they can also be challenged and torn down. Hall argued that race had more in common with language than with biology. In other words, ‘race’ is a moving, shifting conundrum defined by the environment, social structure and the people involved in the social relations of production and speech. Thus the concept of race for Hall was never a fixed but a moving target, with different dialectics attached to each representation and perception. Hall was not afraid to express his dialogic about race in his writings. He acknowledged the power of race and ethnicity to shape social interaction and the ways in which particular objects are viewed – for example, how works of art are read. His deep and independent post-colonial thoughts will surely be missed. However, may they carry on, in the words of Bob Marley, to “disturb my neighbour.”

The Stuart Hall I knew

Excerpted from my new blog on EPW’s website…this inaugural post shares memories of Stuart Hall along with some photos.

Stuart Hall at INiva (Institute of International Visual Art) with Annie Paul and artist Steve Ouditt from Trinidad and Tobago
Stuart Hall at INiva (Institute of International Visual Art) with Annie Paul and artist Steve Ouditt from Trinidad and Tobago, 2000

This post was written for the Indian magazine EPW (Economic and Political Weekly), it’s website to be specific, where I’ve been invited to blog.  They asked if I would share some of my personal memories and photographs of Stuart Hall in the wake of his passing on Feb 10. The post follows.

RIP Stuart Hall, doyen of cultural theory (1932-2014). “The cultural dimension is not a secondary, but a constitutive dimension of society.”

I found Ranjit Hoskote’s tweet quoted above, worth retailing, because it encapsulates Hall’s vastly influential work most admirably and serves as a suitable introduction to the Jamaican-born thinker the world has been mourning since Feb. 10, 2014.

I first heard about Stuart Hall from Tejaswini Niranjana, an Indian scholar who visited Jamaica for three months in 1994. She was a Homi Bhabha Fellow (named after the Physicist not the theorist of hybridity) and had come to the University of the West Indies to familiarize herself with Caribbean culture. Teju was interested in and fascinated by the Indian diaspora in the Caribbean but equally by Jamaican popular culture which is predominantly Afro-Caribbean.

I credit Teju with awakening my now abiding interest in Caribbean, and in particular Jamaican, popular culture by introducing me to the relatively new field then, of Cultural Studies. Having studied English Honours at Lady Shri Ram College and Sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University in the 70s followed by Journalism at the University of Kansas, and even a foray into visual art, I had found myself rudderless. Neither English Literature nor Sociology really enthused me; it wasn’t until that fortuitous encounter with Cultural Studies that I began to feel an interest in matters intellectual again.

Having wandered through several different ‘disciplines’ as I had, I was excited to find new ways of thinking and writing that synthesized my different areas of knowledge. Of course this was something that JNU’s multi-disciplinary approach to scholarship had also prepared me for. In 1995 I started writing a weekly column in a Jamaican newspaper while working at the University of the West Indies in scholarly publishing.

I named my column ‘Hyphen’ to signal my lifelong feeling of ‘in-betweenity’, of being formed between cultures in an India that was rapidly modernizing, producing tectonic cultural shifts not always easy to navigate. Born and brought up a Syrian Christian, albeit by liberal parents, I always felt envious of my Hindu friends, especially the numerous rituals and festivals they could lay claim to. There was also a sense of feeling illegitimate, especially since I grew up in Ahmedabad, not Kerala, where I wouldn’t have been as out of place.

There is something profoundly destabilizing about watching your mother carefully crow-proof fishbones and other scraps of our non-vegetarian meals in secure little packets before consigning them to the garbage can in case rapacious birds outed us in front of our finicky vegetarian Gujarati neighbours, forcing us to leave the community in disgrace. There is also a deep discomfort in feeling disconnected from the vernacular culture around you because your father thought English was the only language you needed to know. Not being allowed to go to Hindi movies like all my friends did produced yet more alienation; by the time I reached my teens I felt like a classic misfit, like someone looking at the world through an impervious bubble.

It wasn’t till I came to Jamaica in 1988, after sojourns in the United States and Brazil that I started to feel at home, leading me to settle down here. Here was a vibrant, vernacular culture I could be part of. Jamaica is also the most welcoming society I’ve ever come across.

For more go here.

A Stuart Hall-shaped hole in the universe…

A few photos of Stuart Hall along with a 2004 interview done in Jamaica

Stuart Hall, North Coast, Jamaica
Stuart Hall, North Coast, Jamaica

When I saw Stuart at his home in London on December 14, 2013, I knew he wouldn’t last much longer. He had been ill for years and his health had deteriorated considerably since the previous year when we celebrated his 80th birthday at Rivington Place, the art centre born of his inspiration and hard work. All the same his departure comes as a blow. It’s too early for me to come to terms with this loss, for Stuart has been a close friend and mentor since 1996 when he came to the University of the West Indies to speak at the Rex Nettleford Conference.

For what it’s worth I publish a few photos taken over the years along with a substantive interview I did with Stuart in 2004. Stuart Hall was such an extraordinary thinker that his work ranged over a broad field of interests including visual art which was the one thing we truly bonded over. It was a preoccupation that didn’t get much coverage in other interviews which tend to focus more on his activism, his Marxism, and his political interventions. Here’s a link also to the post I wrote on the John Akomfrah film about him, a must see, which I hope will be shown on Jamaican TV soon.

Stuart when I first met him in 1996.
Stuart when I first met him in 1996.
David Scott and Stuart Hall, 1996
David Scott (editor, Small Axe) and Stuart Hall, 1996
Stuart Hall outside Rivington Place, under construction.
Stuart Hall outside Rivington Place, under construction.
stuartaggreyhse
1998

Stuart Hall at Aggrey Brown's home
Stuart Hall at Aggrey Brown’s home, Golden Spring, Jamaica, 1998
Stuart Hall at Good Hope Estate, Trelawny, Jamaica, 2004
Stuart Hall at Good Hope Estate, Trelawny, Jamaica, 2004
Stuart Hall (R) reading a copy of The Caribbean Review of Books at at Hellshire Beach, Jamaica; June 2004.  Photo by Annie Paul.
Stuart Hall (R) and Catherine Hall reading a copy of The Caribbean Review of Books at Hellshire Beach, Jamaica; June 2004
with Stuart Hall at a bar in Edgeware, London
with Stuart Hall at a bar on Edgeware Road, London, 2008. Photo by Dilia Montes-Richardson
stuetmoi2
Photo by Dilia Montes-Richardson

and one of my treasures–a letter Stuart wrote to the Librarian at Birmingham U so that I could gain access to their inner sanctum:

birminghamletter

Reviewing The Stuart Hall Project…

Revelling in having delivered my review of the Stuart Hall Project I rue the fact that he’s so little known in Jamaica…

stuart1

Deadlines…what would I do without them? They hem my life into productive segments and I feel slightly lost when I’ve just slain a big one. Like now. I was asked to review The Stuart Hall Project, for the Caribbean Review of Books–in case you don’t know that’s the new John Akomfrah film about one of the major intellectuals of the 20th century–the deadline dogged me all through my recent trip to New York and back. I finally delivered it today and now feel light as air, positively giddy at the thought that for the rest of the week, i can read what i want, watch what I want and basically lounge about as much as I want.

stuart2

One of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century, Stuart Hall, was born and brought up here, made his career in Britain, become an intellectual powerhouse there, and is virtually unknown in the land of his birth.  So true what Jesus said: A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country. Ah well.

stuart3

Here’s a handful of links to articles in case you want to know more about him:

Jazz fan, hipster and a leftwing hero; the remarkable journey of Stuart Hall

From 50s migrant to 80s Thatcher critic, the cultural theorist has long led the debate on race and politics. A new film charts his life and his decades-long influence on the culture of modern Britain (UK Guardian)

Stuart Hall: “We need to talk about Englishness”

Born in Jamaica, Stuart Hall is the éminence grise of the British intellectual left and one of the founders of cultural studies. He coined the word “Thatcherism” and, aged 80, he remains one of our leading thinkers. (New Statesman)

And from Caryl Phillips’ 1997 interview with Hall in Bomb magazine:

Stuart Hall was born in Jamaica in 1932 and came to England to study at Oxford in 1951, as a Rhodes Scholar. His curriculum vitae is an awe-inspiring document. The list of publications, honorary degrees, awards, and teaching positions span 24 pages. A sociologist, writer, film critic and political activist, his achievements are an extension of the work of a man he greatly admired, the Trinidadian intellectual, C.L.R. James.

I remember back in 1979, during my final year as a student at Oxford, contemplating whether to take the low road toward a career as a writer, or stay on the academic high road and attempt to put some more initials after my name. Stuart Hall, at that time Director of the Centre for Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, was the only person that I wanted to study with. I applied to his Centre and then, at the last minute, changed my mind and opted for the low road.

Just thought I’d share this so that young people here realize that Jamaicans excel not only in track and field and music but also in the intellectual arena…