I have not been watching endlessly the weekly offerings of NBC’s The Voice, even after it was clear that Jamaica had a very real interesting contestant in the show. I saw the episode when Tessanne Chin broke out into song the first time, and was mesmerised by her voice, her humility, her family’s adoration and support, and the way that the judges were agog at her very apparent singing talent. I then sat back and kept only half an eye on the proceedings, being kept abreast of all developments by friends who were deeply immersed into all things to do with “TeamTessanne”. As the contestants were being whittled down, I hoped that she would survive to the next round, and each time I wondered what songs she would sing to show off her talents. Then, last night, I was struck by a strong urge to watch the whole of a programme, in part because of a debate that was swirling about her choice of songs.
Tessanne is wholly Jamaican, and that aspect of her has been a good selling point to local audiences. But, how well does Jamaicanness really go down with an international–mainly American audience? Of course, a lot of stereotyping exists, but I did not think that was really a problem for Ms. Chin, not least because she does not typify Jamaicans in the eyes of most of the world. She is distinctively Asian in her features, and most of the world associates Jamaica with people of African descent. Her accent and mannerisms showed that she belonged to that country, but how did the audience really take that? Her accent was probably clear to us, Jamaicans. But, if I can hazard a guess, I suspect that it dissolved into something not-American to the average American ear. I say that because my experiences in the USA led me to recall how hard it was for Americans to figure out where I came from. I speak with a flat, very British accent. Most (non-American) English speakers I have met, positioned me in and around the UK. Americans I met positioned me in the English-speaking world, but often far from Europe: South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, were common guesses. I even had some Americans swear that I was French 🙂 So, while some of the judges drooled about Tessanne’s accent, I let that wash by me. I wondered instead about the image that they took of what a Jamaican looked like.
I think that almost every Jamaican of international renown has not looked like Ms. Chin. So, the world–Americans, in particular–needed to process that this person was from the land of: reggae, of sprint champions, of would-be bobsledders, of dreadlocks, of dark-skinned peoples, and more of that ilk. This lady of Chinese family origin was more like many Americans–hard to categorize based on how she looked. But, easier to define, by the way she spoke and acted. That, for me, has been the gift of Ms. Chin’s success. She’s another seeming exception that proves the rule, in this case, our national motto of ‘Out of many, one people’.
Tessanne chose to do a very hard thing last night: she sang a truly iconic song–Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song‘. It is a song that is deeply rooted in the slavery origins of many Jamaicans, but not necessarily seated truly in Mis. Chin’s origins:
Old pirates, yes, they rob I;
Sold I to the merchant ships,
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit.
Yet, she sought to own at least part of that heritage–embracing it like a true Jamaican should. She was also putting out the challenge to the watchers that is within the song, and has been put out many times:
Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery;
Look at me! I am not your view of a typical Jamaican. Can you deal with it?
That Tessanne chose to pair that song with Katy Perry’s ‘Unconditionally‘ struck me as bold and very declarative. When I think of its words, I had to think that the singer wanted to make a bold statement about herself, and challenge fully all who wanted to accept it:
Oh no, did I get too close oh?
Oh, did I almost see what’s really on the inside?
All your insecurities
All the dirty laundry
Never made me blink one time
I will love you unconditionally
There is no fear now
Let go and just be free
I will love you unconditionally
Maybe, I read too much into the song choices, but I will stand by my contention. It’s been something evident in the material that Ms. Chin has sung on the show. It’s not accidental and all about what her voice can carry.
She needs to convince enough people to vote for her and upload her song to keep her in the top five performers. I’ve no doubt that will happen. If it doesn’t she will not be shamed at all. She has had her rewards and will get more. She has truly been on a process of bringing some (maybe very little) redemption–making something better or more acceptable–to the image of Jamaica. That, I believe, unconditionally.