The most important asset in any country is its people. The people is the culture and it is time we understand that an investment in the Jamaican people is an investment in our collective prosperity.
Last week there was an uproar over the amount of money spent on a celebration marking the achievements of the Jamaican Olympic team to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. One person on social media said: “We should have a more simple event and the Government should put that money into needed areas such as hospitals, schools, etc.”
This is a misguided principle that speaks to the bastard child treatment that arts and culture has received over the years. The Government spends approximately 0.4 per cent of its total annual budget on culture, gender, entertainment and sports, while it spends 10 per cent of the total budget on fighting crime, through the Ministry of National Security. Yet, most of the problems facing the country, including crime, are culturally based. Other problems such as wealth and gender inequality, littering, and the marginalisation of groups of people based on perceived differences or weaknesses are all culturally based.
If art and culture were fully integrated into homes and communities we could achieve more than just tolerance, but an all-embracing of people’s opinions and differences in the same way sporting activities sometimes bring about untapped unity. We can use creativity and the power of the arts to create better communities. We can also make space for diversity of the arts for the people who live here.
The questions of who we are and what we stand for as a people can be easily answered with the expressions of art and culture. Music, particularly dancehall, has the ability to send messages in a short space of time and it has always been a key ingredient in scoring political points. Political rallies use popular dancehall songs because Jamaica’s music has a history of coming from the grass roots culture — from people who, by and large, feel like they are not a part of the system for one reason or another. The artistes or music of the people should not just be used for scoring points and then dismissed when it is time for celebration and pageantry. It is part of our identity. Jamaica, being a relatively young country must develop and preserve its indigenous cultural forms, including dancehall, or else it runs the risk of losing its identity. A country without a sense of identity can hardly be prosperous.
Hence, the urgent need for the arts, artists and cultural development.
A false start
Some people are now using one unfortunate incident with the dancehall artiste Spice at the recent celebration of our athletes on Heroes’ weekend as a rationale for de-funding the celebratory programmes in the Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sports, or to avoid dancehall acts for such national events. What happened with Spice was a technical error that triggered an already rooted identity prejudice across social platforms.
I saw people tweeting: “Spice does not have a place at a formal event.” This is a grave error of thought. There are also fractions of people in Jamaica who refuse to believe that dancehall forms part of our collective identity until it achieves worldwide recognition. Spice, the artiste, indeed has a place on the stages of prestigious cultural events by the Government to celebrate excellence. We need to expose this identity crisis for what it is so we can correct it.
The events celebrating the athletes called for inspiring music in the same way the athletes inspired all Jamaicans when they performed in Rio, Brazil, last summer. It was the best of Jamaica’s art and culture in tribute to Jamaica’s best in sports. This message should have been clearly communicated to Spice and her team. Spice’s responsibility was to have a sense of occasion in her delivery upon entering the performance space. What she did was a false start at the Olympic Games celebratory event and her dismissal by members of the audience who were present, and those watching on the live broadcast, was justifiable. Even with the technical difficulties, she could have redeemed herself if she had a wider repository of songs or used her creativity to remix her lyrics for the occasion. Lyrics that objectifies women and/or marginalise any group of people should not have a place at national events. So, unless her “thing rouna back yah” lyrics were in reference to Usain Bolt leaving all his opponents behind then her lyrics were out of place.
That being said, Spice and her songs have a place representing Jamaica’s culture. We develop culture and cultural expressions by fostering creativity and imagination. When she represented her genre at the Red Bull Culture Clash against American rapper Wiz Khalifah she was well received by Jamaicans who watched. She did a freestyle at the Red Bull Culture Clash. She could have done the same at the athletes’ celebration event at the National Indoor Sports Centre in dedication to the athletes and to Jamaicans.
For Spice to say on her social media and on national television that the organisers shouldn’t have booked her because they knew what her brand represented speaks to her lack of awareness to her duty as an artiste. True artistes embrace the discipline of polarity. We all know that Jamaica is filled with talented and creative people, but not many disciplined people. Spice’s ‘predecessor’, formerly Lady Saw now turned gospel artiste Marion Hall, was fully capable of performing at Sting as Lady Saw one year and at the White House another year as Marion Hall. Spice, along with many other artistes in Jamaica, need some artistic development in order to develop their brand so that they may have the cultural impact they are capable of having nationally and internationally.
It is through facilitated dialogue that we grow, and I certainly hope the Jamaicans and the Government in this continued dialogue see the need for dancehall’s development and inclusion in national celebrations, as well as the need for more funding in the entertainment, arts and culture departments of the ministry. If the artistes, organisers, and community members come together and take responsibility for cultural development, the diversity of input can create a better nation. People begin to point fingers only when they feel left out, and when people feel left out the whole fabric of society is at the risk of undisciplined and antisocial behaviour.
To the people saying that the price tag on the event should have been less, I say to you: Transferring money from cultural celebrations to schools and hospitals is not the solution to nation-building. Arts and cultural development is part-performance, part-facilitated dialogue — and part-celebration. The transformative power of the arts can be fully integrated into all aspects of society if it is properly funded and developed. This development will happen through useful research, education and funding of projects that impact the entire nation and the world. We cannot remain in the primitive stages of cultural expression and expect to grow.
Jose Marti said: “It is only through culture that people can be free, without culture freedom is not possible.” Perhaps when the acculturation process begins, we might have a more harmonious society where the people’s art, artistes and disenfranchised citizens can be well represented as valued stakeholders in nation-building.