Reality check: Jamaica is not the world

It took only a few hours in another CARICOM country to realize that we’d been living in a bright bubble. I hit the shores of The Bahamas. Jamaicans are treated to a little social ostracism: planes coming laden with all manner of folk from Jamaica are given extra treatment as bags get the extreme check over. We get it traveling to the USA but it chafes when we get it within CARICOM. Even when the flight is at least half filled with Bahamian students headed home for Christmas.

The man dressed as a pirate covered all the bases with his greeting, seeking to hail all and upset none. I glared at his stubbly face. “Enjoy your visit!” He ordered.

On exiting the airport, I got a sense of distraction as the waiting greeters grinned and waved at arriving passengers. Clumps of American and Canadian tourists were wheeled away into cars and vans. The little chatter I could hear was about the weather: “No risk of snow here…”

Soon, I was in the bosom of my in-laws, and the focus was on birthday celebration. We admired how a new home was sprouting grass clumps and small fruit trees. No mango tree yet, but avocado and sea grapes. A little garden showed off beets, tomatoes, basil and peppers. A little bowl of baby jalapeño peppers was waved proudly. Three months can produce wonders in the sun.

We started to catch up on recent events. That’s when we got the bombshell. “I saw a lady on the plane reading a Jamaican paper and say ‘That’s my girl!'” said one of the just-returned children. “Who is this Tessanne Chin?” Well, you could knock me down with a feather. This was a true “Rahtid!” moment. We started babbling excitedly about our obsessive interest of the past few weeks. Faces were blank.
image

The Voice? You know: Adam, Christina, Blake, Cee Lo… Voting on iTunes… Phoning… Magic Jack… Vote early and often… More blank stares.

Could it really be that just a few hundred miles from us, people we thought had similar interests were unaware of what had been driving Jamaican daily life? Yes.

I felt the air ooze out of my bubble. I’d thought that a tidal wave of interest had overtaken the region, but signs were that it was a solely Jamaican thing? The massive that had started in the land of wood and water was barely a ripple.

All the yelling and pot beating seemed trivial. I didn’t like the feeling. I had no way to put the past few days in front of people as a huge hologram and say “Look! Listen! ‘Like a bridge over chubbled wata…’ Go, Tess!” Blasted CARICOM! Waste of time!

I know I have it in me to change, but for the moment, I have to regroup and ponder that ‘No man is an island unto himself’ thingy. We’re not all one global village, just a click away. We’re alone in the sea and our shore–even stretched by our migrants–is still just ours. Many rivers to cross? Try getting over an air bridge!

Christmas is here…well, nearly

“Rip van Winkle, wake up!”

The last few days of Tessannetasia have been like a 20-year sleep, allowing me to forget about the other Jamaica that was there before I looked the other way and tuned into The Voice for two straight nights. Now, I have to get back to what some would prefer us to focus on all the time–“serious news”, they call it. So, what did I let myself lost sight in Jamaica?

  • Crime, especially murders (some 1,100 and counting).
  • Road accidents (300 deaths for the year is quickly approaching).
  • Minimum wage increase (from $5,000 to $5,600 per 40-hour work week, as of Monday, January 6, 2014. Also, effective January 6, the minimum wage for industrial security guards, will be increased from $7,320.40 to $8,198.80 per 40-hour week–a 12 per cent increase, during a period when inflation has risen about 18 percent). IMF programme (US$30.8 million disbursed to Jamaica).
  • The PM’s travel schedule (with or without fatuous justifications from PNP politicians). I heard that she gave an interview to a local TV channel, so her relative silence with regard to the local media is no longer an issue: Jamaicans love nine-day wonders.
  • Vybz Kartel’s trial goes on. What’s new?
  • The Cuban light bulb scandal goes on. What’s newer?
  • Bad roads (Thank you Tessanne for making their “worst” condition an international issue :-)). Thank you Ministry of Works for taking the point.
  • Trinidad (Who’s still boycotting?). Their central bank just downgraded its growth forecast from 2.5 percent to 1.5 percent for 2013. Surely not because of you know what?
  • West Indies cricket (Can they win a match?).
  • Who is Clovis ridiculing?
  • The Jamaican dollar’s continuing decline.

And beyond our shores?

  • Santa “is white” (I heard it on FoxNews, so it must be true). I guess that means Megyn Kelly believes he’s real (he is a man?).
  • Screen Shot 2013-12-20 at 5.39.51 AMThe Chinese are on the Moon. What does that mean for its environment and possible development options. Intergalactic logistic hub up there?
  • The UK has been battered by “severe weather”, with wind gusting at over 70 miles per hour. So severe that football matches have had to be abandoned or suspended mid-kick for weird things like hailstorms. What’s the world coming to?

Some people have taken the whole Tessanne-winning thing and seen it as a glimmer of hope in an otherwise dark time. How could they be so crass? Of course, what we all need is more despair and signs of insensitivity towards each other. We all need a good dose of more grief. Who has time to smile at someone’s wonderful achievements when they could be poring over the obituaries of persons’ lives snubbed out callously?

Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat/Please do put a penny in the old man’s hat/If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do/If you haven’t got a ha’penny, then God bless you!

The votes are in: a Tessanne Chin win. Pass the Dutchy!

I wont detract from what is really most important: Tessanne Chin is now the winner of the latest series of NBC’s The Voice. Last night, we Jamaicans, at home or abroad, direct or by contact, anyway we wished, were able to celebrate madly. We jumped. We screamed. We told our friends who already knew. We told anyone who wanted to hear and those who did not. “Tessanne win!” I screamed out of my hotel window in Miami. My wife told me to behave.
Screen Shot 2013-12-18 at 7.04.19 AMI was behaving. She and my daughter then went to bed, after watching two nerve-filled hours and waiting for what we hoped and what we dared believe. I could hear the bed covers rustling, and the strains of “Jamaica, land we love”. Our anthem as a lullaby. I could cry.

We had no Dutch pot covers to bang together, so I found whatever I could to knock and yell. Just one last parting blast before I too went to sleep.

Awaking this morning, and due to head back to Jamaica, all I could think about were the images of manic people in Kingston’s Half Way Tree, jumping and yelling. It was like the Olympic Finals all over again. This is now THE way Jamaicans celebrate big events. We don’t do things halfway, except at Half Way Tree.

There will be interviews and hopes of contracts and tours and phone calls and many things to crush the energies of Jamaica’s latest songbird. But, the best moment to come will be when she returns to the island. I imagine a lot of people will turn out to welcome her back. She’s become our latest big celebrity. Her humility is infectious. Her genuine Jamaicaness is so heartwarming–that, I think took many by surprise. Bolt is brash–not rude, at all, though. Tessanne seems tender. I like it that we have offered the world this contrast in images of who we are.

I just went to the airport lounge to wait for my flight. I complimented the airline for providing food now: pastries, to go with coffee and juice. “If you want butter…” the assistant began. “Bread and butter?” I asked in a Jamaican accent. Her colleague immediately asked her coworker “Did you see The Voice?Job done, Tessanne. People have that phrase locked in their heads. Do they imagine Jamaica as easily as when they hear “Red Stripe” or “Yeah, man!” or “Chill, Winston,” or see Usain’s grin or Shelly-Ann’s hair? I think so.

All of the discussion about “likkle but tallawah” will rage on, and good. We need to build on that. Build on it! We need to bring the unifiying aspect of seeing one of our own do well for what it says about our country and our region. The bickering with our Caricom neighbors is sapping of more than patience. But, I think we understand that “Out of many, one people”, can be a phrase that stretches beyond our borders and beyond our own diaspora.

All our hopes. All our dreams. All our fears. Tessanne must win.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would do what I did last night. As all of Jamaica should have been doing. As all Jamaicans living and dead should have been doing. As all people who love to see people reach for their highest star should have been doing. I was doing it. I was in front of my television watching NBC’s The Voice. Tessanne Chin, from my beautiful island of Jamaica, was in the finals–down to the last three singers. We knew this from last week. Tonight was the night. I had no idea the day before that I would feel as I did now.

Up until a few weeks ago, all I knew about The Voice was what I read and heard from friends who had been following for some time. I heard about the Jamaican singer, who used to back Jimmy Cliff. I tuned in. I was transported into another world. Tessanne sang Pink’s ‘Try’. The world had a new star, right here on Earth, and she was Jamaican and proud of it. She wanted the world to know about “bred an butta”. No twang. No shame in how she spoke. We heard and saw the love from her father as he watched “My baby” sing. The roller coaster was on its way.

I wont go back over the weekly dramas that got us to last night. It was a thrilling ride that seemed to reach places farther in our emotions than singing usually can. It was goose pimples every time “Our Tess” reached and held a high note. Her eyes a little moist. Her coach stuttering; speechless again. Our eyes, filled with tears. We hope for so much. She did not disappoint. She sang difficult songs. Not difficult because of what they demanded from a singer, but difficult because of what many of the songs represented.

The one-time back-up singer for Jimmy Cliff paid him the ultimate tribute with her rendition of ‘Many rivers to cross’ and she crossed the many rivers with the first bars.

Tessanne did the very dangerous thing of singing one of the iconic songs from our national hero who is not a National Hero, our most unifying person over many decades: Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’ speaks to Jamaicans (and I hope the world) in ways that no other song can or does.

We were all emancipated from mental slavery.

Jamaicans cannot tire of saying “We likkle but we tallawah”. My little daughter and I are in Miami, with her mother (who’s attending a conference). We two walked around South Beach yesterday morning. It was unseasonably cold, in the mid-60s degrees fahrenheit. I was jabbering about ‘tallawah’. “What does that mean?” she asked. “Stong and sturdy,” I told her. I did not see in her the image of Tessanne, but I could have easily.

In the evening, she asked her mother if we could invite her colleagues to our room to watch The Voice together–about 40 people. I poo-poo-ed her idea and we discussed how it would not be practical. You know, being very adult and proper. We went to our room and started to put on pyjamas for bed. “You see. Imagine if we had 40 other people in here now. How could we cavort around comfortably?” She got the message. We turned on the two TVs in the hotel room. The Voice in real stereo, surrounding us with sound. We sang along with every performance that Tess put on. Our girl and we were proud of her. “We’re biased,” I said to my daughter as we critiqued what others sang and how other coaches performed. Tessanne and her coach, Adam Levine, were perfect in our eyes, in our minds.

Then, she sang her final song, Whitney Houston’s ‘I have nothing’. For us, she nailed it.

Simply, again, all the words had their intended meanings and more. If I don’t have you! Tessanne had us…had all of us.

We ran metaphorically as soon as the show ended and began voting–early and often. Proud to have many email accounts. Proudly pounding phone keys. “Thank you for voting for Tessanne Chin…” Only 10 votes each time? How could we vote more? We were like crazed and hungry people hunting for crumbs–all of the people we knew had to understand that they had to support our efforts. Messages went worldwide. Spread the word! Enough would not be enough, until it was more than enough. She had to win!

My daughter curled into her bed. “Have you voted, Daddy? I’ve sent in all of Mummy’s votes and I’m calling now on Skype.” I did not, this one time, tell her to put down ‘that device’. “Ring away, child!” I thought. She pulled the covers up and went to sleep quickly.

I followed messages from friends on Facebook and Twitter during the show and burst out laughing too often to count and they praised Tessanne and savaged her opponents and their coaches. I kept following messages into the late night. How as Tessanne doing? Very well, it seemed, as I was fading and needed to sleep.

But, now the hardest part of the journey is still before her and us. We want this result badly. I want it very badly. Our reputation needs this result. Small is beautiful. We are small and despite all of our flaws as a nation, we are beautiful people.

Tessanne wont save our economy. She wont stop us killing each other. She won’t save Goat Island. But, she will raise eyes to look at us anew. The same way the Jamaican singers whose songs she sang did. The same way that the very perfectly flawed Whitney Houston did: her soul, at rest, must have glowed as the notes reached higher.

Dawn is about to break and a few hours of voting remains. That’s the prosaic part. A Jamaican friend in Bulgaria whom I urged to vote replied “Have mi dutch pot right sida mi gettin ready fi celebraate!” We think Tessanne brought down the house. We want to know that everyone else thought so, too. Please win for yourself, Tessanne, and win back a little something for us.

The good, the bad, and the ugly (December 15)

Good

What else, but Tessanne ChinThe Voice - Season 5 making it through to the finals of The Voice? What would beat that is her winning the whole handcart.

Bad

The Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) defended itself against criticism about the pace at which it delivers rulings on corruption matters. The Sunday Gleaner had featured this failing, with no rulings in about 78 per cent of cases referred to it by The Commission for the Prevention of Corruption. The Office of the DPP admitted that the pace of delivery of rulings on such matters was slow. But, it said such “delay must be understood within the context of the non-delegable responsibilities and the realities and challenges of the Office”, which has responsibilities in several areas. The DPP says it is hampered by the heavy numerical and arithmetic content which sometimes spans years of examination of income versus expenditure. That’s why we have computers! It said the Commission had agreed to provide executive summaries to make the process easier, but has not followed through. I hear you, DPP, but take charge! People not following through is too easy to blame and it’s too often the case. Hold people accountable. Give people the incentives to do good work, like firing them for non-performance.

Ugly

How callous people saw the occasion of Nelson Mandela’s memorial service at FNB Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa, as their chance to be callous. Who was the fool who let the ‘fake’ sign language interpreter be selected for that role and ‘tell’ deaf people gibberish? Do I smell a little corruption? Surely not? I think–without sounding too morally outraged, and Michelle Obama seemed to have plenty of that–that Pres. Obama,Obama outrage the UK and Danish PMs, really ought to have another think about what seems like appropriate public behaviour for leaders of countries, who happen to not be teenagers. If they wanted a photo together, I’m sure it could have been arranged.

Redemption, unconditionally: What Tessanne Chin might have done for Jamaica

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.Section_Tessanne-Chin20130212C

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

Unconditional, unconditionally
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.

The good, the bad, and the ugly (September 29)

Good
Tessanne Chin and bread and butter 🙂 taking the world by storm on NBC’s The Voice.

Bad
The JPS Foundation will be investing approximately J$2 million (US$20,000) to provide York Town Basic School, in Clarendon, with electricity, as part of the Foundation’s model school initiative. A Jamaican school that has been in operation for 73 years, WITHOUT ELECTRICITY! This is an insult to everyone of the teachers and students who have had to function at that school. INEXCUSABLE in a country that has 12 hours of sunshine or daylight almost very day of the year, or good wind almost every day.

Ugly
No doubt, the horrific bus crash in Manchester, Jamaica, which took the lives of four students from Holmwood Technical High School. So many pieces of loose action or inaction underlie this tragedy.

Time for Chin music

Up until 7pm last night I had merely heard about the US TV programme, The Voice. But, over several weeks, I’d gathered from social media that Jamaicans had a big interest in the series. Last night, I understood why. My little daughter was curled on a sofa with some cousins, all were chewing on their hands as keenly as they tackled the chicken bones. We were not at home and I needed to get her home. We dashed off before the the show got too far, so that she could bathe and get ready for bed. Then we waited…and waited…and waited. The sensation we were hoping for came out as the last contestant.

The profile of Jamaican singer, Tessanne Chin, was short but very touching, with nice shots of Jamaica and a link up with Sir Jimmy Cliff, with whom Tessanne had sung as a backing artist. He said some kind words. “Mr Cliff, thank you,” said Tessanne to the tablet screen, while Sir Jimmy posed with fez-like bonnet by a black grand piano.

Then, Tessanne started her number, covering Pink’s ‘Try’. Within moments, judges were hitting buttons, spinning chairs, and starting the mad rush to bid for her talent on their team.

20130925-115631.jpgTessanne blew away the judges and the studio audience with her singing. Adam Levine won her over,perhaps with his professed love of reggae music.

She went stratospheric when she started talking afterwards, and gave the world another glimpse of the rich mixture that it is to be Jamaican. Many with close connections loved it when she talked about “bred an’ butta,” in that soft lilt that we know and love. We could have all whispered “Yea, man!”

Tessanne has set social media alight and Twitter trends may get rewritten soon; she was the number four trending topic soon after the NBC broadcast.

Let’s be like her father, Richard, and wish her well throughout the series and we’ll all be pushing hard for his “likkle baby”.

Jamaican icons have come in many shapes, sizes, and ethnic flavours. Remember, out of many, one people.