Musings of a 50-year-old Jamaican

Chris Dehring

Wednesday, August 01, 2012    

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So, Jamaica and I are now 50. It does feel kind of special to be the same age as independent Jamaica. And I do feel extremely proud as I drive around and see all the buildings adorned in our national colours.

You might recall last year on the anniversary of Bob Marley's 66th birthday, I reminisced in this newspaper on his impact on my generation, heavily influenced by his music, black consciousness and truly mystical persona. Reflecting on Jamaica and our 50 years together, and looking more seriously on the importance of this great man to both our histories, I've decided that a trip down memory lane is simply not enough. Not for 'The Gong'.

No matter what some of our politicians and sections of Jamaican society might say or believe, I believe that to most Jamaicans Bob Marley was, is, and forever will be a National Hero. And it is time we were bold and brave enough to formalise his already achieved 'unofficial' status.

I met Bustamante only once. As the budding "rock star" of my prep school choir, I sang for him in honour of one of his birthdays. There at his Irish Town home in the cool hills below Newcastle, my falsetto solo rendition of Ave Maria, neatly coiffed in my crisp, regal white gown and red string-bow tie, combined devastatingly with Busta's failing eyesight to render indignity of calamitous proportions to an otherwise eager eight-year-old.

As I beamed proudly and a little conceitedly before my fellow "back-up" crooners, and all the proud parents, he attempted to thank me for my special tribute by declaring for all to hear: "You're such a pretty little girl with a pretty little voice".

It took me nearly two weeks to muster the courage to return to school to face the inevitable and unrelenting teasing. Because of Bustamante I promptly quit the choir, focused on playing football and cricket, and began my lifelong aversion to politics!

But I can't dispute Busta's deserved status as a National Hero — not just for his judgement as a music critic and despite his poor eyesight in latter years. Like his cousin Norman Manley — whom I never met at all — Busta's herculean contribution to nation building and Independence is well documented and there are still at least three generations of Jamaicans who can vouch for the impact both esteemed gentlemen had on our national progress.

Equally, I respect and readily acknowledge the enormous contribution of Marcus Garvey and the historical evidence of his fight for racial equality, both in Jamaica and abroad.

Frankly, though, and with the greatest of respect, I have always been slightly uncomfortable with the bodies of work of Paul Bogle, George William Gordon, Nanny and Sam Sharpe. They seemed to have done some really great work or specific acts, but did we have enough evidence to properly judge whether those acts truly rose to the level of National Hero?

Notwithstanding, I trust the judgement of those who made them national heroes and will always continue to honour and respect their legacy and credentials. The fact that the exploits of this group were all pre-Independent Jamaica, undoubtedly helped in qualifying their ascension.

But as an Independent nation, we are now 50 years old. And only Busta and Manley made any contribution during those 50 years, and only very briefly. Surely it's time to recognise the historical significance and great body of work of someone that actively contributed to defining our little nation during the half-century of actual nationhood.

I say 'little', because indeed we are very small, economically and geographically. But as a "brand", we proudly play well above our weight in a world of over 200 nations. Of course, we owe a collective debt of gratitude to our many athletes and musical artistes over the years. But mainly, in my opinion, we owe a huge debt to Bob.

It is time for like-minded Jamaicans to loudly call for Bob Marley to be designated the official status of National Hero. I believe it could be demonstrated with hard, empirical evidence how deserving Bob is and the undeniable impact this great Jamaican has had on the building of our nation during our 50 years of Independence.

Yes, I turned 50 years old too this year — a proposition I had faced with a fair amount of angst. But having reached there, I believe it is up to my generation, those of us who grew up under his enormous influence, and before our memories fade and time erodes the imperative, to make every effort to see that justice is done.

We watched and admired a black, dreadlocked revolutionary challenge the establishment, deliver a message of change and by simply being Jamaican, conquer the world's imagination — taking our culture and our brand to every corner of the earth. Some will say he was just a musician, undeserving of being seated alongside our politicians and other freedom fighters. But to even refer to Bob as "a musician" is akin to calling Ché Guevara a doctor, Muhammad Ali a boxer or Martin Luther King a preacher.

They all transcended their professions to become pivotal figures in history... men, all with basic human fallibilities, who grew to become icons representing something far greater than themselves. Men who will positively influence millions, long after their departure from this world. That is, after all, a litmus test for a hero.

I won't attempt to list here all the many justifications for Bob to be officially accorded National Hero status. These can be documented with empirical studies in the months to come before the next National Heroes Day and submitted to the Chancery of the Orders of the Societies of Honour in the Office of the Prime Minister. But among them would be:

(i) The economic impact:

a.) 30 years after his passing, Bob is still arguably the most recognisable, distinctly Jamaican product in the world (current 'Bolt-mania' notwithstanding). His immortal plea for world peace and TIME magazine's song of the century, One Love, remain the heart and soul of brand "Jamaica" and perhaps we don't truly appreciate the value Bob contributes to our US$2 billion per annum in tourism revenues over the decades we have used his genius to promote, differentiate and position our fair isle.

b.) Jamaican music — mainly thanks to Bob — has become one of only three forms that is played as popular music in every country in the world, other than the home music of that country (American and British being the other two) — a startling realisation that Chris Blackwell advises even the Grammys have acknowledged.

c.) Incredibly, Bob still consistently outsells and his earnings outstrip every other Jamaican artiste annually;

(ii) The social impact:

a.) Bob illuminated for a legion of young, Afro-original and underprivileged Jamaicans that you can forge success on your own terms and using your own authentically Jamaican culture. He taught us to not be afraid or ashamed of believing in who you are or what you stand for. Certainly, to be a Jamaican 'Rastaman' in those early days won him precious little support, corporate, Government, or otherwise; but he persevered with his authenticity and it became a fundamental pillar of his ultimate success.

b.) Bob challenged the establishment and the cultural norms, giving inner-city Jamaican culture, national and international exposure, credibility and acceptance. His popularisation of 'dreadlocks' as an accepted and internationally popular hairstyle might be dismissed by the ignorant as being trivial or even worse, detrimental to our national image. But those who understand the herculean difficulty of influencing any mass consumer behaviour in a small village, let alone an entire planet — an inexact and often illusive discipline called marketing, should comprehend and appreciate the magnitude of such an achievement.

c.) Bob's face is one of only two human images found in every T-shirt stand in every corner of the globe, the other being Ché Guevara. And like Ché, he remains an everlasting symbol of youthful revolution and the fight against injustice and oppression.

(iii) The psychological and inspirational impact:

a.) Bob showed immense and awe-inspiring bravery in the face of personal, life-threatening danger. "... ambush in the night, they open fire on me now ..."

He wasn't intimidated by the violent and politically charged atmosphere of the day, not even after a failed attempt on his life left him suffering from a gunshot wound. A few days later, he performed live, unprotected and vulnerable to thousands in the heart of downtown Kingston, in open defiance of the cowards who shot him -- presumably in retaliation for his agreeing to perform at that very concert for one of the political parties... "... No bullet can stop me now, we neither beg nor we won't bow, neither can be bought nor sold ...". Now there walked, in every sense of the word, a man. There indeed walked a hero.

b.) With his music and his message, Bob uplifted and inspired a nation, and millions of poor, exploited and impoverished people in Jamaica and around the world. "...Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds..." His melody imbibed and enthused weary freedom fighters around the world, significantly in the often violent battles against unjust racial oppression in both Zimbabwe and South Africa, confirmed by none other than the great Nelson Mandela.

In a few days, Londoners and foreigners alike will witness Jamaica's further greatness. And, of course, Messrs Bolt, Blake and Powell, and Shelly-Ann and the rest of our superb female athletes will light up the world stage once more, illuminating our often tarnished brand.

I'll be there to bask and proudly strut in the glow of that special brand of sunshine we will be exporting to London. And my black, green and gold shirt will identify me as part of that special nationhood, and will be a cherished item. But I bet you that more than its fair share of Bob Marley shirts are worn as a badge of honour as we "Jamaicanise" the London Olympics.

So, on the 50th anniversary of our Independence, I nominate for National Hero, Robert Nesta Marley. While I'm sure many will agree with my nomination, I'm also sure there will be many who will object vociferously and probably with legitimate reasons. After all, despite his good works, Marcus Garvey was in fact a convicted felon, and I'm sure some argued against his nomination on that basis.

That's the beauty of our now 50-year-old democracy, and I can respect those opinions. But, we are now 50 years old... surely a Jamaican has performed heroically during those 50 years.

I say 'The Gong'.



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