Maybe it was because I had just watched Snow White and the Huntsman, but when I listened to ‘On A Mission’ the anthem for Jamaica 50, I felt as though someone was trying to rip my heart out and crush it. For the umpteenth time I understood what Edward Baugh meant in the phrase “this bruk spirit kiss mi heart place,” because once again Jamaica land I love left me heartbroken.
I’d been half-listening half reading the comments about the song, some in person, some on twitter and finally, with the twitter rants of @bigblackbarry I succumbed, stopped trying to avoid it and gave it a listen. From the opening, my heart began to sink. As much as I love Shaggy, beginning the song with a “Yo! Yo! Yo!” such an Americanism was a clear indication that on this mission, something had gone amiss or maybe the song is really a mere note on misdirection.
‘On a Mission’ isn’t a bad song as far as pop songs go anyway. Its lyrics are decent, offering a positive uplifting message. Given enough airplay, I’m sure that it will catch on. The truth is, that song popularity often has a lot to do with playing a song so much that it drowns out thought. I’ve caught myself singing more than a few Rihanna songs, and I’m no fan of hers.
However, it’s heartbreaking because it is set to a dance or house (honestly I don’t know the difference) soca rhythm with occasional sprinklings of dancehall and cadences of soca. This makes it a blatant insult to Jamaican culture, not because anything is intrinsically wrong with House or Soca, but by not using the music with which we have made the greatest meaning, the music through which we have bared our soul to the world, it suggests that 50 years after independence we are not good enough.
I’m on the last few pages of Rahul Bhattacharya’s The Sly Company of People Who Care, and I was constantly blown away by his definitions and descriptions of reggae. In one passage Bhattacharya described it thus “Reggae was the music of slavery. Its impulse was resistance, confrontation, a homeland severed so absolutely, seized back by force of imagination or ideology.” I don’t fully agree with Bhattacharya about this description as I believe that Reggae is the music of freedom not slavery. But where I must agree is that it captures our resistance, our confrontation, our imagined journeys to Africa, and an intense love for Jamaica even in the face of mind bending poverty and disillusion and violence. Reggae is filled with numerous praise songs of Jamaica and without touching on a single festival song (which are admittedly biased) we can produce a slew of songs from Josey Wales ‘Sweet Sweet Jamaica’ to Protoje’s ‘JA’.
And yet, in this our 50th year we are being asked to move and groove to a foreign beat, as though the fact that over 50 years ago we ingested and made imported beats anew was not enough. That birthing ska, rocksteady, reggae and dancehall was not enough. Still those responsible for leading us, those with the power in the society continue to believe that we must look beyond ourselves to find ourselves. If that is the mission, we must call it into question because it appears to be a path to forgetting ourselves.
It’s a clear sign that we do not understand the value of Reggae to Jamaica, whether economically or culturally. Jamaica 50 is a time to showcase, acknowledge, celebrate the best of ourselves, not merely paint a veneer of syrupy untruths. Reggae is an inalienable element of that. People invent music that speaks to and of their reality. Reggae is no different. It is who we are, it is how we have made meaning, it is a part of why we remain defiant, indefatigable even when good sense says we should all just give in and migrate.
But unable to fully express how this music makes meaning for us, I turn to the voice of a poet and invoke Mel Cooke’s ‘Creation’…
In the beginning was the word
And the word was with God and the word was God
In the beginning was the word – simple, pure, divine…
And then, there was a bassline
Rolling thunder from the soul
Grumbling under the control of Family Man’s
Fingers on a four string Fender
Into the amplifier
Out the speaker
In a groove
The people moved
And it was good
The poet said, that’s a nice part
But where’s the heart?
And behold, I heard Style Scott’s drums start
The hi-hat was crisp and clear
There was a one-drop on the snare
The echo on the rimshot sounded near
And the kick drum
The kick drum
The kick kick drum….
Then the poet said, let self take flight
And Ras Brass horns came in, nice and tight
Soaring above drum and bass
Up and up and up into head space
And just when it seem they going someplace
Human hearing can’t follow
They come down and down and down
Until them and drum and bass blend
You can’t tell where one start, the other end
You just know sey when music nice
It must play twice
So the poet said ‘lif’ it up again!’
And before the people could be bored
In came Ansell Collins’ keyboard
With an organ bubble
It no really clear
If you a hear double
But you still hear suppen
Like Beardsman Shuffle
And the waistline respond
And the poet said
Me a lef out suppen yu know star
Where is the guitar?
And behold, it came as if from afar
Cheng, cheng, cheng, chenge, chenge
And the poet said it was good, very good
Blessed it and called it reggae
String up Kilamanjaro and tested
On the stroke of midnight Ricky Trooper selected
We listened to rub a dub – and rested
by Mel Cooke