Rigidly upstanding citizens are quite upset with me because I’ve brought the uncomfortable issue of language into the conversation about dancehall culture and public morality. I’ve been accused of ‘anancyism’ for diverting attention from the ‘real’ issue: the need to clean up raw chaw dancehall lyrics on the public airwaves.
Because I choose to pay attention to the power play between languages in Jamaica this must mean I believe sound systems should terrorise innocent people who want to sleep at night. And nothing should be banned. That’s simply not true. I regularly call the police to lock off sounds that keep me awake after 2:00 a.m. It’s alright for Bob Marley to disturb his neighbour. But not when I want to sleep.
And some dancehall lyrics are undeniably offensive. I used to take dance classes at the Edna Manley College and I still remember some unsettling lyrics I first heard there: “limb by limb wi a go chop dem down.” The riddim was very sweet. But I couldn’t dance to that. Metaphorical or not, the lyrics were murderous.
Then I don’t mind being compared with Anansi, that wily folk figure of noble lineage. Anansi’s stock in trade is cunning, an essential tool for intellectual work. It allows you to weigh contradictory ideas and not lose your balance. It makes you see relationships that are not obvious. The root of the English word ‘cunning’ is Old Norse: ‘kunna’ to know or see.
Miss Lou inna di Rampin’ Shop
Upstanding citizens will get even more rigid when I draw Miss Lou into the Rampin’ Shop kas-kas. But I have to. Miss Lou made fun of our contempt for the Jamaican language and our disdain for the messages it conveys. In one of her witty dramatic monologues, “Jamaica Philosophy,” Miss Lou’s Aunty Roachy declares that Jamaican proverbs are a rich source of wisdom. This idea is immediately derided by a fool-fool girl who asks “how yuh coulda put a deestant wud like philosophy wid di ole jamma bad talkin proverbs-dem?”
That’s exactly the question indignant people are asking me: how yu coulda put a deestant wud like ‘poetry’ – not to mention ‘erotic’ – wid di dutty, bad-talkin Rampin’ Shop lyrics? It’s an easy slide from the ‘badness’ of the language to the ‘slackness’ of the content. Worse, when the content is sexual. Is slackness top a slackness. We constantly make moral judgements about language – ‘good’ English versus ‘bad’ patwa. And we keep drumming these sounds of self-contempt into our children. They are just as polluting as the indiscriminate night noises from irresponsible sound system operators who have no respect for other people’s rights: the right to life, liberty and a good night’s sleep.
In one of her wicked poems, “Bans a Killin” Miss Lou persuasively argues that Jamaican – which she calls ‘dialect’ – is not inferior to English. And she firmly puts in his place censorious Mas Charlie who, somewhat like the Broadcasting Commission these days, is trying to kill off verbal creativity in the slack local language. Here are the first two and the last two verses of Miss Lou’s poem:
So yuh a de man me hear bout!
Ah yuh dem seh dah teck
Whole heap a English oat seh da
Yuh gwine kill dialect!
Mek mi get it straight, Mas Charlie
For me no quite understand –
Yuh gwine kill all English dialec
Or jus Jamaica one?
When yuh done kill ‘wit’ an ‘humour’,
When yuh kill ‘variety’,
Yuh wi haffi fine a way fi kill
An mine how yuh dah read dem English
Book deh pon yuh shelf,
For ef yuh drop a ‘h’ yuh mighta
Haffi kill yuhself.
Bans a Bannin
I’ve adapted Miss Lou’s poem to take on the issue of sexual, not simply oral, slackness. And I’ve created a fictional character – Aunty Roachy reincarnated as a hotty-hotty dancehall diva? I’m sure literal-minded readers will assume she unequivocally speaks for me. Seet ya. It name “Bans a Bannin:”
So yu a di man me hear bout!
A yu dem seh dah tek
Whole heap a English oat seh dat
Yu gwine kill slackness!
Mek mi get it straight Misa Broadcast Commission
For mi no quite understand
Yuh gwine kill off all a di sexy song dem
Or ongle fi wi dancehall one?
If yu cyaan DJ bout daggerin
Yu cyaan sing no mento bout solderin
Yu cyaan stir it up inna no kinky reggae
Yu cyaan sing no calypso bout going fa cane
Yu cyaan sing no R & B bout ‘you send me’
For di whole dem a sing
Bout di said same ting
Fire fire in di wire wire
Sex a sex no matter what di tongue
Straight or hide-up, English or Jamaican
Is all bout tumbling down di hill
If is Jack an Jill or Spice an Kartel.
Jackass seh di worl no levl
Wat good fi goose no good fi gander
It look like old time farin slackness
No loose laka fi wi new style on ya
An Misa B. C. Broadcast Commission
Yu cyaan tap people from watch dem cable channel
Yu lost yu pass a force eena people house
A gwaan like seh a you one rule di waves
Yuh mussi tink seh yu a Britannia.
Massa day done, Misa Commissioner
Man an uman free fi tink
An wi don’t like wat yu telling wi
Fun is fun an joke is joke
But yu tekkin a joke too far.
Inna dem ya hard time
Yu a try kill off man an uman business?
Di ongle ting don’t gone up?
Yu can still hug up
Fi lickle or notn
Depending pon yu lyrics.
Misa Broadcast Commission
Yu no tink it better wi hold dance a street
Dan kip up demonstration
Cau wi no ha notn much fi eat?
An careful how yu romp wid slackness
For mi wi cut yu down to size
Mi wi show yu who a di mistress
When yu nature start fi rise.
That’s one of the poems I performed at Yasus Afari’s “Poetry in Motion” stage show which was reviewed by Paul Williams in the Gleaner of March 2. I’m not a real-real poet. I write occasional verse for fun. I dashed off the poem the morning of the show and though I liked the sexual double-speak, I wasn’t pleased with the rhythm and rhyme scheme of the last verse which is inaccurately quoted in Williams’ review: “An’ mind how yuh a tek set pon slackness, for if yuh nature start fi rise, yuh might have to kuum affa de DJ dem back and tek things inna fi yuh owna ‘an.” So I worked at it and came up with the tighter version above.
Incidentally, I question the common use of apostrophes to represent ‘missing’ English consonants – as in ‘an’ for hand. Apostrophes visually reinforce the backward argument that Jamaican is mangled English and not a distinct language with its own vocabulary, pronunciation system and grammar. Williams makes the grammatical error of substituting the English ‘to’ for the Jamaican ‘fi’ of my original lyrics.
I read three other poems from my safe sex series; first, an excerpt from “The Condom’s Complaint” which laments the fact that some men don’t like to use condoms:
A condom to herself did sigh
‘Why do men hate me so?
I snuggle up so close and try
To ease the way for them to go.’
“Uman Cyaan Gwaan Like Man” critiques the huge price difference between the male and female condoms:
Done quick quick quick
Di man cyaan done i
Di man done long before di condom done
In “Robin Hood Inna Sherwood Forest” I pun on the ‘share’ in Sherwood and use the popular Jamaican metaphor of wood as penis to warn against male promiscuity: “Sherwood Forest no ha no good wood/ Sharey-sharey wood a no good-good wood.”
In the professional judgement of the Gleaner reporter, my performance “made Vybz Kartel and Spice look like cherubs in heaven.” Should I take this as a compliment? These poems have been published in local newspapers: The Star and The Observer. I read “Robin Hood” on the Breakfast Club to the non-censorial amusement of the hosts and many listeners who kept asking for the lyrics.
But that was in the 1990s. In these repressive times, allusions to sex, even if fully clothed in metaphor, can now be subject to censure if the Broadcasting Commission has its way. First lyrics, then literature books. We better tek sleep an mark death.
Carolyn Cooper, Professor of Literary and Cultural Studies, University of the West Indies, Mona