It would be hypocritical to say, “I hope when these few lines reach, you will be in good health.” Your passing is untimely. Whether we are fans of yours or not, you came to represent the child in us: the yearning to be forever young. This is especially so for those of us who grew up with you. As long as you maintained media attention with your music and your antics, you seemed ageless and that kept us from having aged.
You certainly had your impact on us in the Caribbean and in Jamaica in particular. Well it started with you and your brothers. You all burst on the scene just when we were as a people trying to sort out who we really were – something you seem to have pursued your entire life. The black power and civil rights movements were at their height in your country and we, while we had had been independent from Britain for seven years, did not feel as if we really had political power.
People of African descent with dark skin were in the majority and we had a man with woolly hair as our prime minister but most of us were still viewed as strangers within the gates – at least that’s how it seemed when you visited most offices in Kingston.
That situation stirred social and intellectual foment that impacted all aspects of our life and culture. Although there was a general discontent, there was no unified response. We grouped into different social political and religious camps. The political camps were left wing and right wing but the right was more unified.
We had Marxist socialists and democratic socialists on the left and hovering in a sort of no-man’s-land we had the Rastafari which started in the 1930s as a poor man’s self empowering reaction to African disenfranchisement and by 1968 was gaining acceptance across all classes. The common banner for our agitation was ‘consciousness’.
Those of us in high school in 1969/70/71 were groping for an identity. We embraced the American Soul movement. We were saddened by the slaying of Martin Luther King Jr; our girls were wearing unprocessed hair in the style first known as the Makeba and then we all, boys and girls, tried to outdo Angela Davis’s huge Afro, which itself came to be personified as soul.
The big Afros of you and your brothers qualified you as part of the Soul movement that shared space with Carlos Santana, Exuma the Obeah Man, Last Poets, the Wailers, the Abyssinians, Hugh Roy… But at some point, Soul lost its radical edge and was excluded from the Conscious movement. The Soul boys (girls) with their big bell bottom pants, platform shoes, and funky music came to be seen as an American plastic, bubblegum subculture with folks like you and your brothers as their leader.
A soul bwoy (girl) would be regarded derisively by those of us conscious brethren (sistren) with our gun mouth pants (sisters in long skirts), bushy hair and Clarke’s booties.
We lost touch as soul boys went off moon walking, crotch grabbing, Jheri curling, skin lightening and coke snorting. We were locks growing, vegetable eating, reggae skanking chanting down Babylon. We were glad to see that you were making millions and hailed by your loyal subjects as the king of pop, even if it were a self awarded title. But we were more saddened by the news of your court cases related to the abuse of little boys, your admitting to and seeing nothing wrong with sleeping with them and the continuous loss of your African features. $20 million was a lot to settle a case in which you maintained your innocence. At least you admitted to deliberately changing your broad nose but you insisted and guess would still do that your loss of pigmentation was caused by vitiligo.
It’s not hard to imagine how devastating it might have been to reach the realization that not withstanding your millions from music and entertainment and your adoration across races around the world, there was still rejection of your native humanity within the borders of the country in which you were born.
It’s tough. Even Barack Obama with 50 per cent white blood (half human?) must live looking over his shoulder, wondering if the man in the pew behind him has a Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine gun hidden under his long coat, or if someone is planning the first ever US coup d’etat to get rid of the new king of cool in the White House.
Today, like you, we in the Caribbean still don’t know who we are. The rich still identify with anywhere but Jamaica. Like you, the poor in the slums, who have multiplied like flies, use bleaching creams and hair straighteners to become light skinned ‘brownings’. Reggae has lost its cutting edge and been overcome by a version of dance-hall where only sex and violence are celebrated; Rastafari has become a reformist movement where it still exists; the Marxists and democratic socialists evaporated and morphed with the misty right into a wishy-washy political movement committed only to corruption and self enrichment.
If you wake up in heaven or hell, you’ll likely be your old black kinky hair self and if you see the king and crown prince of reggae, Marley and Brown, please tell them their successors are yet to be named. So if it’s any comfort, your title will be available for some while yet – and that may keep some of us waiting in line forever young.