[Day 2 of my week of reggae blogging]
Elephant Man’s 2001 hit ‘Log On’ has always seemed to me to contain contradictory instructions. On the one hand he encourages us to ‘log on’ – to actively participate in the new virtual world of the internet, and perhaps more broadly, to sign up to the future (quite literally, for the act of logging on often requires a name and a password). On the other hand he asks that we ‘step pon chi-chi man’ – that we continue in a posture of virulent homophobia, a regressive attitude which most will agree is incompatible with this other idea of progress.
Unsurprisingly, the song drew the ire of international human rights activists. Yes yes – that again! If you’ve begun to roll your eyes, I can forgive you, because it truly is a tiresome issue. About this, I have always been conflicted. On the one hand I support the idea that basic human rights should be extended to each and every citizen, and wherever this is culturally ambiguous, the law should be made to underline these rights clearly.
On the other hand I feel that a lot of the international human rights campaigns have been compromised by a deep contempt for the societies on whose behalf they campaign.
Look – people are not idiots. There is what a man says, and then again, there is what he actually means. Most people are fully capable of hearing beyond the noise of the first, to the subtlety of the second. So when an activist, in London for instance, says, ‘Oh this is outrageous! Jamaica really ought to protect the rights of its most vulnerable citizens, especially members of the glbt community!’ … what Jamaicans actually hear (and they are usually right) is: ‘Oh Jamaica, how I pity you! You primitive, savage and barbaric people! Also, I would like you to know that I am better than you!’
You know, it really is contemptuous that a country that took a few hundred years to ‘progress’ in its own attitudes should feel that the rest of the world (very often her former colonies saddled with her discarded laws and her old ideas of morality) should be ‘up to de time’ as soon as she is. And it is a very hard thing for the people of a former colony to accept lessons in human rights from people who for centuries had denied them theirs.
But more on that tiresome issue shortly.
Elephant Man’s Log On was his first big ‘dance’ tune. He found a formula and stuck with it. What is surprising is how long the formula has been working, though it kinda seems the ‘Energy God’ (as he is known) has a little less energy these days. His last activity on twitter was last year November! Ele’s dance songs over the years have included Pon Di River, Nuh Linger, Gully Greeper (made popular by Usain Bolt), Blasé, Dutty Wine, Gangsta Rock, Egyptian Dance, Dance and Sweep, Fan Dem Off, Head Gone, Jook Gyal, Signal de Plane, Willie Bounce …. you get the picture. A wholeap o dance song, most of which are on my ipod.
But ‘Log On’ was where it started. The music video, a woefully cheap and almost comical production heavily referenced Michael Jackson’s Thriller. It starts in a cemetery with ghoulish figures beginning to dance the Log On. There is another story line however; Elephant Man is logging on in the middle of the road and is then arrested. He spends some time in jail but is rescued by a group of dancers who come and show po-po how they too can ‘log on’. Everyone is united and together they do the new dance out of jail and back into the streets.
You can see a very poor quality of the original music video here:
And you can see a better quality instructional video of how to do the Log On here:
Anyway, the final shot of unity from the music video typifies what I have always admired about Elephant Man. He advocates dance as a space of unity, and as an alternative to the battlefield. I know this may precious, but in Jamaica where conflicts are so often resolved in fatal rather than healthy ways, I find his message necessary. And it hasn’t just been empty words either. The dancing craze that Elephant Man spawned led to the creation of Hot Mondays, Weddy-Weddy Tuesdays, Passa-Passa Wednesdays, Bembe Thursdays, and so forth – a weekly calendar of dance spaces where both uptown and downtown could finally meet.
You must understand, Jamaica is not like Trinidad. In Trinidad, both rich and poor people can meet on equal footing in the space of the Trini language. As well, they can meet physically (and again, equally) in the space of the Savannah. Jamaica is much more segregated. Our very language is policed and is not a space in which everyone is equally welcome. If you come from uptown and you try to speak ‘patwa’ you are accused of being condescending; if you are from downtown and you try to speak ‘proper’ they make patronizing music videos of you and laugh you to scorn on television (Just see the case of Clifton ‘Canna Cross It’ Brown!). And neither has there been an actual spot where all classes can feel welcome and safe. Well, not until the dance days were created.
Passa Passa Wednesdays held on Spanish Town Road in the heart Jamaica’s reputedly most violent ghetto, is the most spectacular of these dance spaces. Last year when the hunt was on for Dudus, the drug lord was barricaded in this very community. The news eventually emerged that Passa Passa was not going to be held on that Wednesday. My friend Paula exclaimed to me, ‘Kei, ah suh mi know di ting really serious yu nuh!! No Passa Passa!!?? Lawd god!’
It was not the barrage of international news or the helicopters overhead or the US army ship off the coast that made her worry. It was the cancelling of Passa-Passa! For just as that dance represented a space of unity, its postponement that week signalled a time of profound disunity. It signalled an impending civil war that would soon see over seventy young men killed. If only the soldiers and the young men loyal to Dudus had listened to Elephant Man who in another song had encouraged them to ‘just put down de glock and do Gangsta Rock now.’
Still, it hasn’t always peace and love with Ele and perhaps it is just a little unfortunate that his first big dance song had encouraged us to be unified in the mutual downpressing of a minority – to step pon chi-chi man, to literally keep them under our feet.
But you know what? Ele got it so wrong that it doesn’t even seem worth it to beat up our gums. Jamaicans have logged on, but something very different has been happening. My friend, Annie Paul, might have more to say about this movement – this extension of Jamaica into cyberspace – because that’s what it is, an extension. I know some people worry (and not without reason) that the internet ultimately threatens small places like Jamaica by homogenizing us all into a single culture, but there is also a way in which it gives us a whole new platform to engage in a national discourse, to talk about the things that are important to us, about who we are, and to also productively contest some of these things.
To close then – an example of this new online performance of Jamaican-ness:
In that same civil war that broke out last year, the one that caused the cancelling of Passa Passa and which saw people retreating into their houses instead of coming out to dance, a facebook news media group called ‘On The Ground News Report’ suddenly became very popular.
Jamaicans from everywhere were logging on to keep up with what was happening. What’s more, they have stayed logged on. The name ‘On the Ground’ is wonderful in its own way – for though it insists on a kind of terrestrial presence, its work is transmitted in a virtual environment. Everyone participating claims the physical ground of Jamaica, but Jamaica is more of a spiritual grounding, oxymoronic as that may sound.
But poor OGNR has had the pressure of coming up with minute-by-minute news to satisfy those Jamaicans who have logged on. They too must experience what other media houses in Jamaica have called ‘Tamarind Season’ – a dry time when nothing happens. OGNR has thus learnt what some pastors have and some sound selectors, and some tabloids in Jamaica have long learnt: that whenever there is a lull, the best way to get Jamaicans agitated and excited again is to say something about the long stepped on ‘chi chi man’.
Whenever a ‘chi-chi man’ story runs on OGNR, it is interesting what happens. First there is a predictable wave of vitriolic hate. I’ve collected some of these:
xxxxxx Brown All batty bwoy n Sadomite gyal fi dead a thousand death, fire pon unnuh bungo cart……..Kaboom!!!!!!! (or) xxxxxx Murray bullet bullet bullet…guh suk unu madda wid dat str888…dis is JAMAICA
(I’ve decided not to quote the more extreme and disturbing forms of violence occasionally advocated)
But after the first explosion of the same-old same-old, there comes a second wave of Jamaicans who protest these excesses – linguistic excesses which have often moved beyond mere rhetoric and into murder. This movement from metaphor into actual practice is a fact so well documented that it is strange that many well-thinking Jamaicans have continued to insist: ‘no man, is dem battyman who a kill off them own self’ (which of course is true in some cases, but is a whole other issue) or else they insist: ‘no man, is dem battyman decide to hype up and call the violence pon themself’ (right – because violence is always the fault of the victim, like all those bad, bad women who get themselves raped??!).
The second round of protests on OGNR is always interesting because of the language it comes housed in. Consider the young woman who despaired, ‘Come on Jamaica, we need fi step outa di dark ages fi real!’
That this criticism is written in the vernacular is important, because this is no longer the self-righteous interfering of an international lobby. Rather, it is Jamaicans talking amongst themselves, contesting their own values. The criticism is no longer coming from a place of contempt, but from a place of love and respect. It seems obvious to me that this is the only way criticism can be effective, when the critic has true respect for the culture which he or she is critiquing.
Also, because this is facebook, people don’t need to add their own comments. Sometimes they can just add their support by ‘liking’ a previous comment. In what might seem a passive way, Jamaicans are able to have their input in a whole new level of discourse and counter discourse.
You see – poor Elephant Man could not have predicted it – but as Jamaicans have logged on (as he encouraged them to) it seems they have also begun the slow process of stepping not on, but OFF of chi-chi men.