Western News

Jamaica's first female dub poet honoured by the Brits

BY MARK CUMMINGS Editor-at-Large, Western Bureau cummingsm@jamaicaobserver.com

Thursday, July 19, 2012    

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SANDY BAY, Hanover — JEAN Binta Breeze, the first Jamaican female to write and perform dub poetry, has received many accolades for her contribution to literature over the years.

But being made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the Queen's Birthday Honour List, June 16, for Service to Literature last month, has perhaps been the most significant for the 56-year-old.

"I am delighted. I think it is really nice; I believe I deserve it. I have been doing literature in England since 1995," said Breeze, who is presently vacationing in her home town of Sandy Bay in Hanover.

Breeze had thought in the past that, if offered, she would not accept an honour from the Queen because she is not in favour of the "British Empire thing". However, when she was advised of the MBE offer, she gladly accept.

"I have always said that I was not going to accept such an award if it was offered to me, but when it was offered, I felt a certain amount of delight. I thought 'how lovely'. [In addition], I have always had a kind of soft spot for the Queen because I see her as a mother figure in a big family trying her best to keep the kids in line and I said to myself 'there goes my mother'. So I said on that basis, I will accept," she told the Observer West.

Born in Patty Hill, also in Hanover, Breeze, along with her mother and siblings, moved to the seaside town of Sandy Bay when she was seven years old.

She later attended Sandy Bay Primary and Rusea's High schools where she became involved in music and drama.

After graduating from Rusea's, Breeze taught Spanish, geography, English, and physical education at her alma mater before landing other teaching jobs at Green Island High, also in Hanover, and Little London Secondary in Westmoreland.

She was later appointed as a cultural officer for the parish of Westmoreland.

In the 1970s, Breeze became involved with the then socialist People's National Party (PNP) and played an active role in the party's youth group. She recalled that at PNP rallies held across the country, she would perform dub poetry, much to the delight of her captive audiences.

Breeze later caught the eyes of dub poet Mutabaruka during a rehearsal session for a stage show, which was to be held in Montego Bay to mark Emperor Haile Selassie's 90th birthday.

"When I went to the rehearsal, which was held in Mount Salem, Mutabaruka was the guest artist. While I was there chanting my poetry, Mutabaruka was very impressed and he asked me to come with him to Kingston to do some recording. I later recorded Slip, yuh fool, you never go to an African School and that was given a lot of air play; so that is how I became the first female dub poet," she recalled.

A year later, Breeze enrolled at the Jamaica School of Drama where she continued to write dub poetry.

In 1985, the talented Breeze, who is the mother of former Jamaica and West Indies cricketer Gareth Breese, migrated to England after accepting an invitation from renown dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson.

While in England, Breeze worked as a poet, scriptwriter, choreographer, dancer, actor, and teacher. She has also performed in Africa, North American, south-east Asia, and the Caribbean.

So far, she has written eight books, including: Answers; Riddym Ravings; Spring Cleaning; On the edge of the island; The Arrival of Bright Eye; as well as produced five albums and wrote the script for the British Film Festival in 1990, Hallelujah Anyhow.

In 2003, Breeze was also awarded the National Endowment for Science, Technology, and the Arts (NESTA) Fellowship for two years.

Last year, she was appointed the first Honorary Creative Writing Fellow at the University of Leicester's School of English.

Now back on the island -- at least for a while -- Breeze has been booked to perform at a number of events islandwide, as part of the Jamaica 50 celebrations.

Yesterday, former Minister of Youth, Sports and Culture Olivia 'Babsy' Grange commended Breeze for her achievements.

"I welcome the announcement that Jamaican poet Jean Binta Breeze was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire in the Queen's Birthday Honour List, June 16, for Service to Literature," Grange said. "This Jamaican-born poet and storyteller has been a pioneer among Jamaican dub poets in Europe, particularly in Britain, since she went to London in 1986 at the invitation of another Jamaican pioneer, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and became absorbed in the art of the Jamaican Diaspora in Britain."

She added that Breeze has been dubbed "one of the most important, influential performance poets of recent years".

"I am proud of the fact that she was born and raised in rural Jamaica, and studied at the Jamaican School of Drama in Kingston with other local poets like Michael Smith and Oku Onuora. Her first book of poetry, Ryddim Ravings, published in 1988, her screenplay for Hallelujah Anyhow, a co-production of the British Film Institute and her albums, are still regarded as important factors in winning international recognition for Jamaican art in the Diaspora," Grange noted.

The former Minister of Culture told the Observer West that she has worked with Breeze and has found her to be most professional, adding that she was confident that Breeze's success will inspire more Jamaican women to make their presence felt across the Diaspora, as artists, as well as achievers in every other field of endeavour.

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