‘Nah mek dem win’: The rise of the Tambourine Army

The following is the unedited version of my March 15, 2017, column in the Gleaner

March 11, 2017. Tambourine Army’s emotionally charged, moving survivors’ march from the Moravian Church at 127 Molynes Road to Mandela Park in Half Way Tree Square was one of several held across the Caribbean that day. It was probably also the most heart-wrenching one, organized as it was mostly by survivors of rape and abuse, for many of whom this was a cathartic experience. Impressive also were the number of men who participated in this 700-strong march, a record number for non-political or religious public protests in Jamaica.

Heralded by dissension on social media and fallout with earlier generations of feminist activists the Tambourine Army nevertheless prevailed on March 11, their well-orchestrated, rootsy, Rasta drum- and pan-driven procession moving at a nimble pace through the streets of Kingston. Led by flag woman Taitu Heron, gloriously clad in Orisha-inspired white and expertly manipulating a large white flag in front of purple-clad marchers the procession packed quite a visual punch. Such a pity that neither of the two TV stations in Jamaica seemed to be there (recalling the famous words of Gil Scott-Heron “The revolution will not be televised…”) so that it fell on social media to disseminate the colourful images.

A truck with a sound system accompanied the procession, pumping out the doleful but mesmerizing song ‘Nah Mek Dem Win’ with lyrics telling an all too familiar Jamaican story. Young girl being abused by her father, tries in vain to bring it to the attention of her family, yet:

Mama neva listen
Aunty neva listen
Mi try tell mi sista but…. She neva listen
But this is healing time…
An you don’t have to do it on your own
Just Stan Firmm.

Nah mek dem win
Nah mek dem win…

Keisha Firmm, author and singer of ‘Nah mek dem win’ is the survivor of a horror story herself. After her mother’s death her relatives sent her to England to live with a man who claimed to be her father. The inevitable happened leaving young Keisha full of anger and pain with nowhere to turn for help. Questions kept swirling through her mind. Why had this happened to her? How could society leave children to the mercy of predators with no protection whatsoever? Would she ever be normal again?

I asked her how participating in the march had made her feel. Less empty, said Keisha, less alone. A student in UTECH’s USAID-funded Fi Wi Jamaica arts residency programme, sharing her story and turning it into song has been therapeutic for Keisha, who hopes that it will help other young women like herself. During the march the truck would stop along the way allowing different survivors to share their stories, the singer Tanya Stephens, among them.

Leading the march, right behind the flagwoman, was a row of black clad women, in armour-like. outfits. They were members of En Kompane, the dance troupe started by virtuoso dancer Neila Ebanks. When the procession reached Mandela Park to find that the generator had packed up and there was no sound, the rag tag live instrumental band struck up and Neila danced a powerful ‘cutting and clearing’ dance.

Cutting and clearing space for themselves was what this march was about for the women and men who participated in it. The unseemly pre-March kass kass between older feminists who should know better and younger activists whose zeal and passion at times made them hotheaded and confrontational was unfortunate. The public’s apathy made me realize that there’s no culture here of holding protest marches, or protests generally. The Immediate response of too many is—what is a protest going to achieve? They miss the point. For the victims of abuse who participated the march was part of the healing process. For others like artist Deborah Anzinger, who brought her 6-year old daughter, it

“…felt like a valuable step and exercise. As children we never learned of organized demonstrations/protesting as an option for us to show disapproval of any social problem. It felt good introducing this to our daughter and her friend. It was an opportunity to talk to them about how far we’ve come towards basic equality and human rights for all people and how much further there is to go.”

I’ll close by quoting Kashka Hemans whose Facebook status said it all:

“… Respect where respect is due. I’d like to congratulate the Tambourine Army on their fearless and, in many ways, peerless activism in the cause of ending gender-based violence in Jamaica. I am discomfited by some of their strategies and harbour doubts about the long term effectiveness of the contestational stance they have at times taken but, you know what? So what? I stand with them on the basis of what they stand for. I also stand with others who represent a more staid approach to activism. There is space and a need for many voices and approaches. But the present moment belongs to the Tambourine Army, they are giving a platform to many women to tell their stories, to vent, to ‘gwaan bad’ and cuss claat in a country where claat cussing is the only language many in officialdom seem to understand. More power to you sisters, may your movement grow in strength and impact.”

Tanya Stephens and her Tata Nano…

Jamaican singer Tanya Stephens sings the praises of her Tata Nano car.

Reggae artiste Tanya Stephens stands beside her 2013 Tata Nano motor car she nicknamed 'The Bubble'. - Contributed
Photo: The Gleaner
Reggae artiste Tanya Stephens takes a drive in her 2013 Tata Nano motor car she nicknamed 'The Bubble'. - Contributed
Photo: The Gleaner

India’s Tata Nano has a great brand ambassador in Tanya Stephens, one of Jamaica’s finest songwriters and singers, who is the proud owner of a silver Nano she calls the Bubble. In general Jamaicans go in for large, flashy SUVs and cars but Tanya didn’t see the point of parking expensive auto real estate for weeks when she tours. She also wanted something that wouldn’t guzzle gas, that was easy to park and a pleasure to drive. The Tata Nano has provided all three. “I LOVE the gas consumption (or lack thereof),” she said joking that the auto dealers were probably not amused considering they were trying to sell her a Land Rover. “Them so darn expensive and not getting me any more ‘there’! LOL” laughed the irrepressible Tanya.

In a Gleaner article today Stephens elaborated further:

“I’ve always loved small cars. I fell in love with them seeing them in Europe. Dem park so easy and drive so easy. It’s much more convenient than the type of car I usually go for, and I don’t really have any small kids anymore, and I have no crowd, and I have an allergy to high gas prices,” she joked.

Stephens has been acting as an ambassador of sorts for the Nano, as she offers test drives to close friends.

“The number of people who test drive my car, Tata need fi pay me. All of my friends. First of all, dem laugh. Dem say dem can’t picture you in this. Me in a small vehicle, it doesn’t detract anything because mi personality much bigger than any vehicle mi go inna anyway, so mi no need fi compensate because I lack nothing,” she said.

Tanya Stephens is set to release the album Guilty on December 20. The first release party is set for December 5 at Pier One in Montego Bay. The December 6 staging will be at White Bones Restaurant in St Andrew.

One eagerly awaits the appearance of Tanya’s beloved Bubble in one of her songs.

The Ghetto strikes back…and Satan Deconstructed…

An innovative video on class, race and other matters in Jamaica as well as a really acute quote from songwriter/singer Tanya Stephens…



When i got back to the rock from Trinidad last week the big news was a protest that had erupted on the University of the West Indies (UWI) campus. Students who owed fees were not allowed to sit final exams and a bangarang ensued. Public opinion was divided on the matter but the most creative, trenchant critique i came across was the video retort (above) to statements by a UWI student who had been interviewed on the matter. It brings to the fore many tensions simmering just a skin away from the surface regarding class, race, privilege and education. It’s well worth a watch.

And not at all related but equally provocative and nakedly intelligent was this Facebook post by singer Tanya Stephens…yes, she who wrote These streets don’t love you like i do…. Talk about Satanic verse…

I feel compelled to apologize to Satan on behalf of all humans this evening. For generations you who dont even exist have been criminalized, blamed for every thing we humans do and feel stupid about because we know it’s not in our best collective interest. I want to apologize especially on behalf of the clergy who earn so much off your name yet haven’t enough gratitude to say thanks. Let me also take this opportunity to thank you for taking the blame for the stupid shit i’ve done, and let you know it wasn’t in vain for I have learned from them and wont be needing your services anymore. I simply MUST apologize for you bearing the blame for wars and hunger, poverty. Ironically, the collective wealth of organized religion could solve these problems if redistributed with the love they profess, yet they who are righteous say you’re the bad guy… My humblest apologies!

Now if that doesn’t tell you why Tanya is one of the most innovative songwriters in Jamaica today i can’t imagine what will…she cuts to the heart of darkness at the centre of most religious belief and human endeavour…would love to know what you think….

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