REGGAE – Carolyn Cooper
In addition the to the music and design oriented interviews I wanted to also provide a deeper understanding of West Indian and or Jamaican culture.
My initial idea was to research for a language expert and interview them about patois but after Jef Tate (albums used for REGGAE) put me onto Dr. Carolyn Cooper I decided I needed to expand my base of questions.
Dr. Cooper is a Jamaican born professor of literary and cultural studies in the Department of Literature in English (Dept. head 2000-2003) at the University of the West Indies, Mona Jamaica. Dr. Cooper, whose approach is grounded in critical theory, is also a very accomplished author who penned the notable book, Sound Clash: Jamaican Culture at Large (“Sound and Fury”, May 2005 CRB).
Check out the read below:
Growing up, what and or who were some of the situations and people that shaped your personality and worldview?
It sounds corny but my mother was the major person who shaped my character. She was a primary school teacher and she would bring her strap home from school. In those days (the 1950s), Jamaican teachers and parents believed that they shouldn’t spare the rod and spoil the child. My mother taught me discipline and how to make sacrifices to achieve long-term goals. But she never stifled my development. I was an unruly child who always got into creative trouble. My mother nurtured that creativity even as she tried to make sure that my disobedience wasn’t destructive. Church was also very important. It was an institution that provided opportunities to develop leadership skills. I was one of the church organists and got involved in a lot of social activities.
When you were younger, who were some of your favorite Jamaican artists/groups?
I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home and my parents tried their best to ‘protect’ me from ‘devil’ music. All the same, living in Jamaica, it was impossible to not hear the sounds of ska, rock steady and reggae. I listened to the music of Jimmy Cliff, Millie Small, the Wailers, Bob Andy, Burning Spear, for example.
Beyond the music, what were some of the characteristics that drew you to them?
As a teenager, I found Jamaican popular music exciting. It was the gateway to a forbidden world of sensuality
Can you break down the actual idea of the “dancehall” as a party and why, beyond the traditional reasons, they were significant in terms of being forums for cultural exchange?
Music and dance have always been vital forms of cultural exchange for Africans at home and abroad. So the Jamaican dancehall – which was rarely a hall – is, essentially, a place of freedom in which supposedly impoverished working-class people can express a wide range of emotions and ideas.
There are many forms of Caribbean music that have achieved worldwide success but to what would you attribute the mass success and longevity of both reggae music and dancehall music?
People like to talk about Jamaican ‘exceptionalism.’ But I’m not sure how to account for the extraordinary global impact of Jamaican culture. I really don’t have any easy answers. I think the culture of maroonage was very important in establishing an ideology of sustained resistance to the brutality of plantation slavery. We just claimed the right to be free even when we didn’t physically leave the plantation. Religion remains a very powerful source of sustenance for people who refuse to be dehumanized by oppressive social and political institutions. Similarly, music is a potent source of strength. Our popular music is about dancing and enjoying the pleasures of the body; but it is also very political, very ideological. That’s an essential aspect of its durability.
Image-wise, during the 80s-90s, why do you think many dancehall artists appropriated the idea of “gangster” to their overall aesthetic?
The role of Hollywood in shaping images of masculinity cannot be underestimated. The gangster pose gave reggae artists as well as DJs a sense of sexual potency. The bad man hero is a well-established type as in the case of Rhygin in the movie The Harder They Come.
Most indigenous music have cultural signifiers such as language and patois, in my opinion, is probably both more readily identifiable and the coolest. Briefly, what are the origins of patois? How was it born?
I prefer the term ‘Jamaican’ which signifies the specificity of the language that Jamaicans have created. It’s a fusion of grammatical elements from various West African languages and words that mostly come from English.
Do you think patois has played a role in the development of West Indian music? If so, in what ways?
English was the language that was mostly used by reggae artists. By contrast, Jamaican is the language of the DJs. Jamaican is the mother tongue of most Jamaicans so, naturally, it’s the language of free expression
Do you think the geography/landscape of Jamaica has helped to shape its history and or culture? If so, how?
The mountainous interior of Jamaica enabled the culture of maroonage to thrive. The relatively large landmass – in comparison to the smaller islands of the Lesser Antilles – also contributed to a sense of psychological freedom and openness.
I feel like Jamaica is a place that has a certain energy, vibe, or soul that people draw inspiration from. Do you agree? If so, why?
The physical landscape is magnificent and there is much diversity. Unfortunately, some Jamaicans never get the opportunity to explore the land. I’ve taught students at the University of the West Indies who haven’t visited most of the 14 parishes. So size really is relative. The energy, vibe and soul don’t necessarily come from the land. It’s the fighting spirit of the people that sustains creativity. As proverbial wisdom puts it, we know ‘how fi tun wi hand mek fashion’ – that is, to fashion what we need out of the raw materials at hand.
There’s an omnipresent pride that Jamaicans (from everyday people to musicians, etc…) evoke when talking about Jamaica. It’s a tone or energy that’s expressed even when they say the word or talk about their home. Where does that passion come from?
It is summed up in the popular expression, ‘nowhere no better than yard’ – there’s no better place than home. Even when we are suffering all kinds of trauma a yard, Jamaicans still make this claim. It’s psychological insurance – valuing the place where you live.
How would you define West Indian Culture?
I wouldn’t. As Rastafari would say, it’s a livity. It’s not a concept to be defined. It’s a way of being in the world – creating a magnificent musical instrument out of discarded steel drums. That’s quintessential West Indian culture.