Soundtrack of Survival: Dr. Carolyn Cooper Discusses Global Reggae & Jamaican Feminism Wednesday 20 March, 2013

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Maps lie; if they told the truth, the drawings would reflect Jamaica’s greatness. Noted Jamaican poet and cultural activist, Louise Bennett, called out the problem of Western cartography when she wrote: “Worl-map fi stop draw Jamaica small!…For de lickle speck cyaan show we independantness at all!” Building on Bennett’s critique, Dr. Carolyn Cooper‘s most recent […]

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Maps lie; if they told the truth, the drawings would reflect Jamaica’s greatness. Noted Jamaican poet and cultural activist, Louise Bennett, called out the problem of Western cartography when she wrote: “Worl-map fi stop draw Jamaica small!…For de lickle speck cyaan show we independantness at all!” Building on Bennett’s critique, Dr. Carolyn Cooper‘s most recent book, Global Reggae, an edited collection of essays, traces and explains the international reach and impact of reggae and dancehall on technology, philosophy and culture around the world.

A self-proclaimed “bald-headed rasta,” Dr. Cooper shares her insightful take on Jamaican politics, history and contributing writer to The Jamaica Gleaner as well as a TED lecturer and Professor of Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona, where she founded the International Reggae Studies Center. Dr. Cooper is also the author of Sound Clash: Jamaican Dancehall Culture at Large and Noises in the Blood: Orality, Gender and the “Vulgar” Body of Jamaican Popular Culture.

I believe Dr. Cooper’s work has resonated with so many people because it is sincerely informed by love and political commitment. As she puts it: “I know that the fearless warrior spirit of the Maroons is my heritage, which I honor in seemingly ordinary acts of courage.” In her  New York Times article, “Who is Jamaica?” she explains:

“African Jamaican culture has long deployed music as a therapeutic weapon of resistance. The Maroons used the abeng, a wind instrument of West African origin, to sound the alarm when the British attacked… But even on the plantations, Maroon traditions of resistance took root. Enslaved Africans perfected weapons of war from within. Silent poisoning of their supposed masters was a deadly tool. And music, the drumbeat of resistance, was a potent language of empowerment. That beat lived on in the rhythms of reggae.

Dr. Cooper helped me see that it’s too simple to say that reggae reaches people around the world. Rather, people across the globe reach to Jamaica because they crave and need what reggae is: a music, energy and consciousness that speaks the complicated truth (about matters like love, self-knowledge, corruption, colonialism and God) to people’s hearts. The collection of essays in Global Reggae, shows, in fact, reggae is the heart of Jamaica.

In this interview we discuss Dr. Cooper’s vision for Global Reggae, her sponsorship of the 2nd Annual International Reggae Poster contest and her take on the legacy of violence in Jamaica as captured in Storm Saulter’s Better Mus’ ComeWe also discuss the importance of feminism in Jamaica and why, as Dr. Cooper explains, “sometimes we have to be undercover feminists, especially if we want to get under the covers with men.”

Dr. Carolyn Cooper

You’ve referred to yourself as a “bald-headed rasta.” What does the rasta faith mean to you?

For me, Rasta is a livity, not a faith. It’s an everyday practice of positive rituals: exercising the mind, body and spirit in total health. It’s not about hair, clothes and visible symbols.

What was the inspiration for your new book Global Reggae?

Having initiated the International Reggae Studies Center at the University of the West Indies in 1992, I knew it was essential to host a major conference that would document the global reach of reggae. It took a while. It was not until I was appointed as the Director of the Institute of Caribbean Studies in 2005  that I was empowered to mobilize support for the conference which was convened in 2008.

The book comprises the keynote lectures from that historic conference which traces the migration of reggae first to the UK and then to the rest of the world.

Global Reggae, Cover Design by Michael “Freestyle” Thompson

How do you define Reggae? Is it more than music?

The best definition of reggae I’ve come across is Toots Hibbert’s: “Reggae means comin’ from the people, y’know? Like a everyday thing. Like from the ghetto. From majority. Everyday thing that people use like food, we just put music to it and make a dance out of it. Reggae means regular people who are suffering, and don’t have what they want.” Reggae is more than music; it’s therapy. For me, reggae is the soundtrack of survival in Jamaica.

What do you want readers to take away from Global Reggae?

The complexity of cross-cultural communication. I am amazed by the way in which reggae has been adapted in a variety of contexts. I went to Papua New Guinea in the 1990s and heard local reggae.

What I think some people might find surprising is the extent to which non-Jamaicans have claimed the music and made it their own, as with the Maori in Aotearoa (New Zealand).

Global Reggae, Layout Design by Maria Papaefstathiou

How important would you say women have been to Reggae? Who are some women in Reggae you think we should know?

Women have a lot to say but many times they are in the background of the music business.  Many women with the talent to be lead singers often start their careers as back-up singers for men. Women have stories to tell that document their distinctively gendered experiences.  More and more these, women are claiming center stage.

Three young women in reggae we should listen to are Queen Ifrika, Etana and Jah9. Once you hear what they say, you’ll know why I selected them.

You’re also a feminist. Can you tell us about your journey into feminism?

Well, it really wasn’t a journey. It’s been an acknowledgement of lineage, a recognition of the extraordinary women like Nanny of the Maroons who showed us how to claim power and agency. My great-grandmother was an Accompong Maroon and I know that the fearless warrior spirit of the Maroons is my heritage, which I honor in seemingly ordinary acts of courage.
Do you think it’s important that Jamaican women embrace feminism?

Absolutely. We have to affirm our right to define our own path and challenge men who try to get in our way. But, these days, Jamaican men are often overwhelmed by the accomplishments of women. So, sometimes we have to be undercover feminists, especially if we want to get under the covers with men.

In your TED talk I like your mini lessons in patois. Can you share some of your favorite sayings or phrases unique to the island?

‘One one coco full basket.’ (One coco at a time, the basket it filled).  Slow, steady effort produces satisfying rewards.

‘Woman luck deh a dungle heap.’ (Woman’s fortune is found in the dump).  Good luck for women can appear in surprising circumstances.

‘Walk fi notn betta dan sit down fi notn.’ (Walking for nothing is better than sitting down for nothing).  Even if you don’t achieve anything, it’s better to make an effort rather than do nothing.

How did you get involved with the International Reggae Poster Contest?

I got involved in the contest quite by accident. I was looking for a funky image for the cover of the Global Reggae book and went roaming on the Internet. There I found Michael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson’s work in a feature in Riddim Magazine. Michael readily agreed to let me use one of his magnificent posters for the cover. And, he introduced me to the work of Maria Papaefstathiou, a brilliant graphic artist from Greece, who co-organized the poster contest. Maria is a professional book designer and I was able to persuade the University of the West Indies press to let her design the Global Reggae book. It’s simply elegant.

Then, I heard about the contest and the exhibition of the top 100 posters that was to take place at the National Gallery in Kingston. I immediately got involved and was able to negotiate support from the government of Israel to bring Alon Braier, the winner of the contest to Jamaica. I ended up speaking at the opening of the exhibition!

I don’t know how the judges even managed to select the winners. The talent is phenomenal.

Storm Saulter’s film, “Better Mus Come” made its United States debut earlier this month. The film begins in ’77 and ends the first couple days of ’78 during the Green Bay Massacre, when rival gangs were enlisted by warring political factions to disrupt the democratic process. How far do you think the nation has come in addressing gang violence?

Not far enough! The desperate social inequalities at the root of gang violence persist. And we have to confront the cause, not just the consequence, of systemic deprivation.

Finally, what does living unchained mean to you?

It means celebrating the power to choose how I want to live, despite all of the pressures to conform.

Live Unchained joins brands like MTV, ARC Magazine, United Reggae and more, as a proud media sponsor of the International Reggae Poster Contest. The deadline to submit poster designs has been extended to April 21st. Prizes include an iPad, Wacom Bambo, Global Reggae edited by Carolyn Cooper among other great rewards. Learn more at www.reggaepostercontest.com.

Written by Kathryn Buford

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