PLAYING POLITICS IN JAMAICA: STILL NOT A GAME
by Reza Corinne Clifton
Posted online with permission from Black Notes, a publication of The Providence Black Repertory Company. This article appeared in Volume 4, Fall 2007; for more information visit BLACKREP.ORG.”
(Popular, International reggae artist, Queen Ifrica, pictured here in the foreground, is involved in social activism and community empowerment back home in Jamaica. She says she is driven by “a sense of hopelessness and unrealized baggage taken from generation to generation,” and by the pattern of political problem-solving going “back to square one” following elections.)
“Jamaica is in for a little bit of a rough time, which can only be soothed by the political leaders taking a responsible and mature position as to what is quite clearly a crisis.”
For those familiar with Jamaican politics, this statement could have been made with respect to most of the election seasons the country has seen since the middle of the last century. But this quote was printed in a September 4, 2007 Miami Herald article entitled “Close election could toss Jamaica into turmoil.” It was in reference to the results of the country’s September third day at the polls, which were initially being questioned, according to the Herald’s story, by the country’s incumbent leader, Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller. It was later clarified in the article that very little violence had in fact erupted.
Two days later, on September 6, international media organization Reuters reported that the now-former PM, Simpson-Miller, was accepting the preliminary results. Five days after that, the Jamaica Observer was reporting that Simpson-Miller had congratulated the new PM, O. Bruce Golding. A Jamaica Gleaner article stated that she was to be in attendance at his swearing-in ceremony.
In hindsight, with Simpson-Miller’s departure as dignified as it was, the alarm forecasted in the Miami Herald article appears unfounded and presumptuous. But as “Two Can Play” – the inaugural production for the Black Rep’s 2007- 2008 theater season – demonstrates, politics-driven factionalism and violence have been regular problems for the Jamaican electorate and citizenry.
This past July, during Sound Session 2007, Reggae singer and community activist Queen Ifrica noted similar negative qualities with regard to the climate of the then-current election season in Jamaica; the island’s pre-Hurricane Dean date for elections was August 27. Queen Ifrica described deep divisions between the island’s main political parties, the People’s National Party (Simpson-Miller) and the Jamaican Labor Party (Golding). She observed a “cult” of “thousands” against another.
Despite the 30-year span between this year’s election and that underscoring “Two Can Play,” Queen Ifrica’s description is not wholly unlike the social and political undercurrents flowing through Trevor Rhone’s play. The setting for the story is Kingston, Jamaica during the late 1970’s / early in 1980, and it is in an area “ravaged by the effects of political warfare” – between the same two parties that competed in this just-passed election season. Campaigning at the time as leader of the PNP was Michael Manley; leading the JLP campaign was Edward Seaga.
Some will remember, some have heard of, or, thanks to YouTube, some have very recently seen footage from the One Love Concert of April 1978. It is famous for the performance given by Bob Marley and the Wailers, and for the moment during it in which the iconic lead singer invited rival leaders Manley and Seaga to join him on stage. He eclipsed this gesture by grasping one of each man’s hands in a powerful plea for the parties to issue a ceasefire and seek unity.
The concert took place, like the play does, during what author and University of Sussex professor Richard D. E. Burton calls the “height of Jamaican interparty violence,” during the campaign season of 1980. Burton, in his book “Afro-Creole: Power, Opposition and Play in the Caribbean” says that over 500 people were killed during this period. In his 1994 book, “Rastafari: Roots and Ideology, ” activist, scholar and lecturer Barry Chevannes puts the figure at more than 900.
Bob Marley and the Wailers was not the first band to participate in Jamaican politics. As a matter of fact, as Burton points out, Manley of the PNP had enlisted a “whole galaxy of sympathetic Reggae stars” – including Marley as well as big names like Peter Tosh and Max Romeo – during his 1972 electoral campaign against the JLP.
This point is not lost on Rhone, who wrote the play with Reggae music in mind – and in his stage notes. Reggae listeners who subscribe to the older, roots form of the music will surely make the connections too, as many fans of the genre, new and old alike, look forward to, prefer, or expect to hear songs filled with social, racial, global, dietary or spiritual politics.
Artists and performers that are musically in-sync with the plight, worries, or values of some in Jamaican society are more popular than ever. Take Marley’s son, Damian, and his hit, “Welcome to Jamrock,” or even dancehall king, Elephant Man, who released a track soon after the September 11 American terrorist attacks in which he discussed the falling of the Twin Towers’s global implications. Queen Ifrica says that it is “a sense of hopelessness and unrealized baggage taken from generation to generation” that influences her to produce empowering political and socially-responsive music.
But for some artists, action and activism isn’t limited just to song; it can’t be. Today, youth violence in Jamaica resembles the gang or inter-neighborhood violence seen in American streets. According to Queen Ifrica, both parties were trying to be responsive to it, focusing on getting young people to vote. She also predicts that, “as soon as the elections are over and when they find out who [wins], it basically goes back to square one.”
As a way to change things, Ifrica, along with artists Tony Rebel, Luciano, and others, has formed the Committee for Community, a group that has mediated gang disputes, provides free concerts and raises money to send youth to school. With the problems of unemployment, lack of educational access, and food security still afflicting many in Jamaica, these artists, like Gloria (in ‘Two Can Play’), can’t help thinking, “One day it muss be over. It can’t go on forever.”
For more on history, politics, and spirituality in Jamaica pick up “Afro-Creole: Power, Opposition and Play in the Caribbean” by Richard Burton or “Rastafari: Roots and Ideology” by Barry Chevannes. For contemporary news on Jamaica, visit www.jamaica-gleaner.com or www.jamaicaobserver.com.
Additional sources for this article included “Alertnet, a service of the Reuters (news) foundation (www.altertet.org),” The Miami Herald online, www.miamiherald.com.
For more about Queen Ifrica’s visit to Rhode Island, check out the article, Love for Humanity and Self-Awareness Takes Female Reggae Artist to the Top, or check out the Podcasts page to listen to “Top Female Reggae Artist Talks Race, Rastas, and Revolutions: A Conversation with Queen Ifrica, Part 1” and “Black History Month should not only Celebrate the Past: A conversation with Queen Ifrica Part 2”
Reza Corinne Clifton is a freelance journalist with six years of experience through multiple platforms including radio, print, and online. Her articles have been published in places like Blackenterprise.com, Urban Influence Magazine, She Shines magazine, RIFuture.org, Motif Magazine, and The Providence American. She is also an online publisher and a 2007 recipient of the Metcalf Award for Diversity in the Media for her website, RezaRitesRi.com. In radio, she has production and on-air experience in music and news programming from WRIU and WRNI.
reza | Women in RI, Leaders/Organizations/Businesses in RI, Art, Music, Human/Civil Rights, National and International Women - NEW, National and International Organizations - NEW, National and International Leadership - NEW