SINCE the day she became a student, Sonjah Stanley Niaah has never wanted to leave school. It surprised no one in her family that Sonjah, who dreadfully (if a bit oddly) hated weekends and summer holidays because she was not at school, grew to become one of the Caribbean's most prominent scholars. As the first PhD Cultural Studies graduate from The University of the West Indies (UWI), Dr Stanley Niaah is also a cultural activist, writer, blogger and international speaker.
“I used to leave school and go back home to play school in the backyard with the hibiscus bush,” Dr Stanley Niaah laughed. “I remember doing this from when I was nine years old. I'd beat the imaginary children and call out their names and give them homework.”
Her love for school was not the only thing that kept the country girl grounded. Growing up in Sandy Bay, Hanover with her two siblings and both parents, and frequently visiting her merchant grandparents, engendered in her a deep sense of belonging, security and adventure. This, she said, laid the foundation for her to become 'a cosmopolitan and a country girl'.
“The level of security I grew up with is very much founded on the legacy of my maternal grandparents, and the legacy of my father being a policeman,” she noted. “Security, because I grew up in a house where there was a man who was so conscious of security in real terms, but also security in the confidence I grew up with, based on the stability of my parents and my parents' parents.”
Dr Stanley Niaah also learned early the value of healthy competition, and the drive to compete is what led her to discovering the first love in the academic disciplines — geography.
After graduating from Mount Alvernia High School, she went to Montego Bay Community College, and then to The UWI where she read for an undergraduate degree in geography and geology.
“And all of the work that I've done subsequently — at the master's level, and certainly at the PhD level in cultural studies — is very much cultural geography. Geography is my disciplinary home,” Dr Stanley Niaah said.
Dr Stanley Niaah worked in urban planning after graduation, then environmental conservation with Jamaica Conservation and Development Trust. There she nurtured her love for research and decided that she wanted to better equip herself to do more.
“I left Jamaica very shortly after that and spent two years abroad volunteering in environmental conservation organisations, then I returned to Jamaica to go right back into school at UWI. By then I had developed an interest in psychology, so I did social psychology at the graduate level,” she shared.
Even while travelling and working, Dr Stanley Niaah was still a student. She did courses at George Mason University in the United States, and encountered people in other countries with fascinating cultures and histories.
“I had become interested in the politics of being human,” she said thoughtfully. “Geography and culture, they became so intertwined in my consciousness, because you are always looking at people and their cultural reality in space and across time.”
When a Nigerian friend in academia asked her, 'Who is looking at the ecology of dancehall?' Dr Stanley Niaah knew that it was time to begin her doctoral work.
“So I returned to Jamaica with an interest in blending social psychology with geography and with cultural studies, and that's what I ended up doing,” she said. Before long she became one of the strongest new academic voices in Caribbean culture.
Dr Stanley Niaah has authored and edited numerous publications, including her 2010 book Dancehall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto and Dancehall: A Reader on Jamaican Music and Culture (2020), which is the first compilation of seminal and current writings on dancehall. She is planning to publish another milestone body of work, Reggae Pilgrims: Festivals and the Movement of Jah People, later this year.
But even after reaching the pinnacle of learning, Dr Stanley Niaah did not want to leave school. She became the first person to be appointed lecturer, and later senior lecturer in cultural studies at UWI. Since 2015 she has been the director of the Institute of Caribbean Studies (ICS) and the Reggae Studies Unit at The UWI.
“The vision that I've held for the ICS is to make it an internationally competitive and recognised institute for Caribbean studies with a focus on cultural studies,” the inaugural Rhodes Trust Rex Nettleford Fellow in Cultural Studies said. “The biggest challenge has been to position the institute in the eyes of the university administration, but the biggest achievement has been the position of the institute internationally.
Tomorrow she will celebrate 21 years of marriage with Dr Jalani Niaah, who is also a scholar and educator in Caribbean cultural studies. Their two sons, both university students, will turn 23 and 20 this year.
“It's been an exciting journey to watch them grow into humans that are connected to their parents but completely distinct in their personalities and interests,” she said, beaming.
“It's been a really interesting experience watching them grow into men who are sensitive about gender equity, and emotional intelligence. I take my role as a mother extremely seriously. I constantly affirm and present ways in which my sons can become allies in the fight for gender justice.”