Celebrate Big Up Jamaica the gift of speed and music

Great Britain is celebrating this year.  As it showcases itself in a return to prominence, that nation has been energized with the Queens Diamond Jubilee while also hosting the XXX Summer Olympiad in London.  Few nations are like Great Britain, who has sustained a monarchy and a voting public longer than any nation on earth.  Still, the glitter of London eludes the fact that most of Britain remains, like most of the industrialized world, in rusting recession.

The ethos of empire may be fraught with hubris and the abuse of the humans and land it engulfs in its quest for superiority.  In the case of the British, the litany of human abuse once stretched round the globe, rarely encumbered by land or sea.  From neighboring Wales, Scotland and Ireland to Hong Kong, Cape Town and Bermuda, the British Empire enriched itself with material and manpower while planting the seed of the British mind everywhere.

Usain Bolt celebrates at London Olympics 2012. (Screen shot)

The true zenith of the British Empire was yet to come.  While the greater battle over human slavery would be fought here in the nation that held slaves within its borders, the right of individual freedom was formally cast to the water by the British.  That line has since been cast by thousands, if not millions more.

The remains of that once vast empire are still visible today.  Like the mineral remains of the last ice age and despite the destruction incurred, Britain has left a footprint that has proven difficult to extract from the land or people.  For this, in part we may be thankful.  In government, language and hence, the press, the British footprint remains in Asia, India and the Caribbean.

London, in 1977, was not the glittering city it is today.  Jobs and hope were scarce all over Britain and London was a city whose bones lay bare and abandoned.  The English were no longer sure of themselves, having lost so much of the empire that once made living standards in Britain so much better than the rest of the world.  Even so, the music of that time still resonates today.

In Birmingham, Manchester and especially London rose the sounds of the immigrant Jamaicans’ reggae music, whose heavy bass and drum echoed through the hollowed out buildings and high streets of Harlseden, Notting Hill and Brixton.  Mixed with the native young white kids who came to embody the Punk movement and saw no future for themselves, they together went ahead and created one anyway.

Today, Jamaica celebrates it 50th year of independence from Great Britain.  At home and across the immigrant diaspora, Jamaicans will raise a fist for the winners of the 100 meter sprints in London.  Shelley-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Usain Bolt will be taking home the gold to Kingston as the fastest humans on earth.  I hope that across Britain, people will join together in Big Up Jamaica.  Celebrate the gift of speed and the gift of music that small nation has given back to the old empire and the rest of us too.

What would the world sound like without reggae music?  Anyone who has heard Jimmy Cliff sing ‘Sitting In Limbo’ can wonder how a song can sound so soft and be so hard.  In mixing politics, love and expectations, reggae music made thinking as cool and smooth as dancing.

Surely, the world changed with James Brown and Elvis Presley.  It changed a third time with the sound of the Wailers, Jimmy Cliff and all those that followed.  From a small island nation of less than three million former slaves came a sound and a culture that even the black ruling class of Jamaica once found offensive and resisted.  Yet, as Toots Hibberts sang decades ago, reggae ‘got so much soul’ as to be irresistible to ‘the young and old’.

In 1980, the confident, unabashed verses of Bob Marley and The Clash would sink this once 14 year old forever into the colorful waters of their music and their belief in themselves.  To that kid, here was the new world and it welcomed him, munificently and without judgement.

Marley would only live another year before shooting to superstardom as a symbol of freedom after his death.  Joe Strummer would cast his line for twenty more years into the water, looking for the new freedom.  It was these guys and others like Burning Spear, The Gladiators and The Jam who would ever remind that kid and this man that, ‘what you give is what you get’.

Change is never thorough nor absolute.

Shelley-Ann Fraser-Pryce celebrates gold in London in the 100 meter race. (Wikipedia Commons)

The human mind is too complex a machine and the human race too vast a species.  Still, when change comes, truth is more difficult to refute.  What once seemed durable becomes truly brittle.  Even in our once Protestant nation, there was no going back once the first Jew, Louis Brandeis, was appointed to the US Supreme Court.

The same should be said of the arrival of reggae music to London, to New York and then the world.  The music had changed.  So too had the musicians.  The old stores, fears and beliefs on empire were closed.  There was no going back.   In London, the stores were reopened by Pakistanis, by Indians and by the Jamaicans as Englishmen, using a language that is parts Celtic, Hindi, Arabic, African and all English.

An MBE was awarded this year to British DJ David Rodigan, for his career in touting Jamaican music.  I think its time to offer the same appointment to those Jamaican musicians whose music thankfully was spread through the remnants of the British Empire to the world.  The first award should be given to Bob Marley.   The second to Jimmy Cliff and the third to Winston Rodney.

Marley, born in 1945, was the child of a white British serving officer and a black Jamaican, his mother Cedella Booker.  He was a product of the British Empire, bad and good.  Marley rose from poverty to proudly spread the Rasta message of love and unity.  He was proud of his Jamaican heritage.  He is still Jamaica’s first citizen and statesman.  Britain should first recognize him for bringing joy to the world in the language of the British Empire with his music.