Caribbean Artists, Globalization & Community

We MediaAfter attending the We Media Conference on media globalization and reading Stephen Bess (The African Spirit: Ring Shouting @Tuesday, February 06, 2007), I’ve been thinking about the role of the Caribbean artist and his/her audience. I’ve also been thinking about Caroline Neisha’s post at Caribbean Beat: Why is it that accomplished actresses like Thandie Newton take roles in commercial slap-stick comedies like Eddie Murphy's Norbit?

It all sounds like the Amos 'n Andy debate. If the roles aren’t there and the artist has to eat and has the desire to express his/her talents, then it's Steppin' n' Fetchin' or Norbit. There are those who stand on the sidelines and say, “I would never do that!” But we've all had times when we have been inauthentic, but we did some soul searching, recognized the reason, and made the decision that it would never happen again. Artists are our collective soul searchers, but we have to have the desire to know who we are, recognize that we have a problem, and then change. We have to change how we view artists and their role in a community. Basically, we have two views about artists.

One is that they should live cloistered lives locked away from everyone and everything. This, to a certain extent, is a European view of the artist and the metaphors of the walled garden and the hermetically sealed environment abound.

The other is of the artist as a working member of the community. This is an African view of the artist and the models of the griot and the call-and-response that I talked about on Stephen’s blog:” Call and response is an integral part of African worship and life and a perfect metaphor for the artist and community. Both are united in a common purpose in lifting the person/ community/Spirit to a higher level and this is only done with praise.”

Both models are true. An artist needs time and space to think through a creative problem, which means a certain amount of aesthetic distance, but also needs the support of the community to eat, drink, be a part of, in order to draw the images and sounds that are a necessary part of creation in order to make his/her work relevant to the community.

I think we should be moving closer to the African model. It’s most like us. It fits us. But sometimes, like the cuts on dresses that many of our sisters continue to wear because the dress comes from fashionable America (dresses that don’t take into account the ampleness of certain body parts of our sisters), we put up with being uncomfortable, sometimes in our own skins, because we don’t know who we are and put our own dressmakers out of business for the "foreign" skirt. We have no idea of our own beauty, and we ignore our artists who are always saying, “But you are beautiful!” To which they get the usual answer, “Me, you must be mad!”

Because of many historical and cultural factors in the Caribbean, the role of artists is underappreciated. Both Olivier Stephenson and I have talked at length about this, so I won’t go into the details here, but using the call-and-response analogy, it is clear why our artists continue to flounder.

We don’t expect much from our artists.

Part of that comes from mercantilist approach to life, which is understandable. Most societies are based on materialistic pursuits. Nothing’s wrong with that. We have to eat. It’s when you exclude the arts, and given the historical factors in the Caribbean, you begin to run into trouble. And especially since we are plagued with what Francis Wade has dubbed the “Likkle Man Syndrome” of low expectations.

This extends from commerce to the arts and is almost as cruel as Dave Chappelle’s jokes about “Keeping it real.” We are always preoccupied about our artists selling out--probably because we haven’t developed a collective identity or the identity we hold in our minds is a caricature: “weed smoking, arrogant, war-like, sex-loving, t’ree job holding Jamaican!”

It also reminds me of my trip to Super Perros. Right across the road from Super Perros was this brother's shop. Now I don’t know where in the cycle of development he is, but my instincts tell me that even when Super Perros has opened a new branch in Jacksonville, he will still be on the corner selling "authentic" Jamaican food. This is what we expect. For if he were to get any bigger, open a great place, then he would have "sold out." His place wouldn't be "roots." The owner and his patrons are locked in a vicious cycle of low expectations.

The same can be said of the arts. Many Jamaicans complained about Steven Segal’s Marked for Death and the caricatures that were supposed to be Jamaican. And they were right. But that’s all the American writers knew about Jamaicans: —“weed smoking, arrogant, war-like, sex-loving, t’ree job holding Jamaican!” But a more serious argument should be asked of those who complain, when was the last time you bought a book by a Jamaican/Caribbean writer? Some Hollywood movies are made when the book rights are first bought and then the movie is made. The optioning of a book is based on the popularity of the book, which is reflected in sales and the writer’s ability to get more money on his/her next book deal. Are we keeping our writers in a cycle of low expectations? In other words, one way that we can begin to probably see movies about ourselves is to buy books by our writers (hint, hint, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, look to your left--you know what I mean?)

We also continue to hold on to dangerous ideas such as “the starving artist.” It's a disservice. An artist will create whether s/he is well-fed or starving. Putting aside technical aspects that can be taught, the greatness of an artist is a matter of his/her perspective that can usually be copied, but can never be taken away. It’s permanently embedded in his/her DNA. Whether they choose to manifest the gift is another question. But you have to believe the gift is worth the time to develop the necessary skills.

Do we have the skills? Listening to our politicians, you'd think that we didn't have anything that the world wanted and they keep warning us about the "threat of globalization." Gobalization is only a threat if you don't have a talent nor an identity and then you stand at the mercy of the bullies of the world.

If you have something that the world wants and you believe in that product, then you gain the world. The problem is too often that we don't have the faith to build and when we do build, we build half-heartedly, and in hope of making a quick sale, we devalue what we have so that we can retire early and live large, never realizing that the value lies in the work itself. If you disbeileve me, look what's happened with Reggae and you'll realize what I'm talking about. We once had a music that was driven by the heart and that only Jamaicans could play or if a musician wanted to learn how to play reggae, he had to come to Jamaica to be schooled by the old musicians at Studio One.

But then we did all kinds of things to the music and we called it Reggae and now it can be played on a computer. I have nothing against computers, but the original reggae sound was a soul/ heart sound that was as authentic as a Jamaican accent--no matter how hard you try, you can't fake it. You're either a yardie, or you have to spend a whole heap a time a yard before you can sound like a yardie. Now we are giving up on that too.

The great thing about life is that as long as you are reasonably healthy, there is always hope. We can dig deep into ourselves again and find something that the world wants. It may even be right under our nose. Something like eco-tourism in the Cockpit Country --a place like nowhere else in the world. And there are many artists all around us. Don't let any of the living artists become another Amos & Andy. Those actors did what they did in that time because they did not have the power/money to produce their own material. With the advances in technology that I've seen (one of my friends, George Gabb, has recently been involved in the production of an interesting movie, The 7Swords), the means are present. The call has been made. What will be the response?




David McQueen said…
WOW! Amazing, erudite and to the point. You have a new fan.
Alice B. said…
Ditto to what david said. Loved your thoughts on globalization and thought they were spot on. But did you have to go there: "dresses that don’t take into account the ampleness of certain body parts of our sisters"? I was cracking up reading that!
Dear Alice,
I was cracking up as I wrote it! Nice to see you here!

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