Commemorations impacting creativity and national identity
It has become almost standard that during the month of February, Reggae Month, and particularly on February 1, the birthday of Dennis Emmanuel Brown, radio disc jockeys will invite their listeners to call in to the various programmes and request their favourite songs by the Crown Prince of Reggae.
Twenty years after his death, requests have been made by persons admitting that they were too young, or not yet born, to have experienced him directly yet expressing gratitude for the twin occasion of his birthday and Reggae Month to learn about him and share in the value of his creative contribution to nationhood.
I have been told by a manager at the Bob Marley Museum that patrons often confess that it is the children, some as young as three years old, whose desire to sing like Bob or see him that led them to visit that heritage site. Indeed, at one Bob Marley Symposium in Portland, I was cornered by an eleven-year old girl demanding to be alerted when “him come” so that she would be the first to see him. As far as she was concerned it could only be called a “Bob Marley Symposium” if the King of Reggae were slated to make an appearance.
The month of February affords other opportunities for observing and documenting the ways in which commemorative activities and events reinforce cultural identities, fuel national pride, and foster curiosity about heritage.
Among them is Jamaica Day and Black History Month. Their function in causing a people to remember reinforces the function of memory itself as both content and stimulant for creative production and creative growth in books, works of art, music, concerts, and exhibitions. One of my all-time favourite examples of this is the 1979 collaboration between Captain Sinbad and Sugar Minott, Fifty One Storm, in which they declare in part:
“Fifty one storm me neva born
Me granny haffe tell me wha did gwaan.”
For me, it is a classic case of the indelible nature of a national occurrence becoming a signpost erected by an older generation as a guide for those who may be disinclined to treat the event as extraordinary and take appropriate measures. In the case of Sinbad and Sugar Minott, their response was to pass on the history and the warning in song. It is a tradition of which Miss Lou is the best-known Jamaican exponent.
Very little of historical significance escaped her pen. In 2019, the one-hundredth anniversary of her birth, there will undoubtedly be many occasions to “re-mem-ber” with her and these may be followed by a desire to re/create.
The exploits of our athletes and sportsmen and women, the Reggae Boyz on the Road to France and Usain Bolt, for example, have been fodder for Joan Andrea Hutchinson. Melaine Walker, Veronica Campbell Brown, and Shelly Ann Fraser Pryce have been immortalised in dances created by that diverse and exceptionally talented group we have come to call “Street Dancers.” It appears as if their eyes, ears, and feet are trained for the next event to be stamped in dance all over the nation’s body. Imagine that one of these days, a seminar on the development of Jamaican dance will not simply move through the history from mento to reggae but from Bogle to Shelly-Belly.
Commemorations and the Curriculum
There is evidence that some tertiary institutions are recognising the link between commemorations and creativity and are devising ways to include this in their formal curriculum offerings. In March 2018, for example, Oxford Brookes University mounted a symposium on Commemoration and creativity.
It was designed for students of the humanities and social sciences. It sought to explore the ways in which commemorative practices, in this case of the world wars, affected ideas of reconstruction and reconciliation. Participants were required to make their interventions utilising the creative arts.
This month, the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts will observe Founders’ Week. How will the students engage with and be moved by the ways in which their founders continue to dwell in the broader cultural heritage of the society in which they train and hope to work as artists?
It is a challenge not just for the college, but for the entire region whose creative outpourings have produced Nobel Laureates, the likes of Derek Walcott and Sir Arthur Lewis, whose reggae music and natural heritage, in the case of the Blue and John Crow Mountains, have been inscribed in the annals of World Heritage.
Amina Blackwood Meeks, PhD, is the college orator, Edna Manley College of The Visual and Performing Arts. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org