Sun | Feb 25, 2018

Carolyn Cooper | 'Freestylee' in universe without borders

Published:Sunday | August 28, 2016 | 12:00 AM

When I saw the subject heading 'Bad news', mi just kiss mi teeth. It must be one of those fraudulent emails from a friend in trouble abroad who desperately needed money. You know the usual incredible story: "I'm in Timbuktu, where I came to view the wonders of this ancient university centre. I was captured by terrorists. Please send US$500 to this bank account in New York so that I can be released. I will repay you when I come home." Your friend's real trouble is that his or her email account has been hacked.

When I did open the email from my friend Maria, I got the belly-bottom news that Michael 'Freestylee' Thompson had died that morning. Even then, the email seemed like a hoax. I refused to believe that Michael was dead. Nutten couldn't go so. But it was true. Michael had had a heart attack. He had gone to a place from which no amount of ransom money could rescue him.




I met Michael online in May 2012 when I was looking for a funky cover for the Global Reggae book I'd edited that was about to be published by the University of the West Indies Press in their Canoe series. I saw his Soundman image on the Internet and immediately knew that was it. My very first email to Michael was brazen begging:

"I've only just discovered your work on the Internet - I'm ashamed to say. It's just wonderful. I'm hoping you'll be able to do the cover."

Michael's response was typically generous, as I came to find out. Right away, he caught the vision of the book and confirmed his willingness to participate in the project - without even asking for a fee! And he introduced me to Maria Papaefstathiou, a Greek graphic designer, who was partnering with him to develop the International Reggae Poster Contest. Michael said, "We will team up on it and get you a wicked cover."

I got much more than a wicked cover. Over the last four years, Michael, Maria and I became very good friends, working together on several creative projects. I persuaded the UWI Press to contract Maria to design the Global Reggae book. The managing director at the time, Mrs Linda Speth, was so pleased with Maria's brilliant work that she asked her to design other books. Incidentally, Global Reggae just won the UWI Press award for the best-selling edited book for the period 2012-2015. I'm sure Michael's 'wicked cover' sold the book over and over again.




What I admired most about Michael was his quiet eloquence. He wore his exceptional talent with simple grace. He was not full of himself. He was a modest man who produced brilliant work with apparent ease. Michael chose to take on a whole range of difficult global issues in his compelling graphic designs.

In an interview posted on the Jamaica Primetime website, published June 7, 2010, Michael highlighted the cultural and political messages in his poster art: "My designs are quite varied, depending on the poster type and whether it is political or cultural, regional or international. I tend to lend a voice to issues which I feel passionate about, such as injustice against indigenous people, environmental exploitation and poverty.

"However, I also touch on Jamaica's rich historical and cultural past. Jamaica's musical experience is a treasure I just cannot ignore; Ska, Rocksteady and Reggae. My style is also deeply rooted in Jamaican popular symbols mostly from the iconic years of the 1970s.

"I take those images from Jamaica's urban visuals and turn them into cool posters of our time. Images include hand carts, skates, Honda 50s, s-90 (Honda motorcycle), Rastafarian lion of Judah etc; turning them into hip international visual icons, anything that is retro Jamaican was fair game".




One of Michael's grand passions was to see the establishment of a world-class museum for Jamaican popular music in downtown Kingston. This is a primary mission of the International Reggae Poster Contest. Michael's vision was broader than Broadway. He wanted an iconic building to house the museum. It should embody the inventiveness of Jamaica's musical legends. His preferred architect was Frank Gehry.

Michael knew that the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain, designed by Gehry, had transformed the decaying city into a vibrant cultural and economic Mecca. He was confident that a music museum on a similar scale could do the same for Kingston. In December, 2015, UNESCO designated Kingston as a creative city of Music. This intensified Michael's commitment to use his talents to advocate for a reggae hall of fame.

Michael 'Freestylee' Thompson described himself as an artist without borders. This was no exaggeration. He conceived a whole world of politically engaged posters that addressed global issues. And 'Freestylee' signifies his remarkable freeform creativity. This is how he put it in a Reggaeville interview posted on February 1, 2011: "The absence of any direction drives the energy in my art. It pushes the boundaries of my creativity to grow.

Last Sunday night, I stood on a bridge next to the Guggenheim museum in Bilboa watching the display of fireworks celebrating the city's annual cultural festival. I said to Michael, "This spectacular display is for you, 'Freestylee'. Your creative energy will continue to light the world."

- Carolyn Cooper is a consultant on culture and development. Email feedback to and