Carolyn Cooper | Good and evil Yellow Pages
Thanks to three self-righteous civil-society groups, we now have a choice of covers for the 2017 Kingston and St Andrew Yellow Pages business directory. One good and the other evil! The original evil cover features a dancehall scene painted by Lennox Coke. The good cover, also by Coke, highlights a speaker box transported by a male cyclist.
The National Association for the Family, The Jamaica Coalition for a Healthy Society and The Love March Movement sent a letter to Ian Neita, chief executive officer of Global Directories, expressing concerns about the bad cover image. Mr Neita decided to appease them with an alternative good image.
When I looked at the bad image, I couldn't see what the fuss was about. It seemed perfectly good to me: men and women in the dancehall enjoying themselves. The men were fully clothed; the women less so. But there was no indecent exposure. At the centre of the scene was woman in calf-length tights whose rear end was turned to the viewer. I suppose this was the pose that upset nice and decent people.
Nationwide News did a cover story about the controversy on Thursday, December 1 based on the Jovan Johnson story in The Gleaner that morning. Phillipa Davis, advocacy officer of The National Association for the Family, reported why the coalition had sent a letter of protest to Mr Neita: "Sexualised imagery, in particular what was shown, was not particularly dignified for women, and the fact that young girls are quite impressionable about their bodies, and if a message is communicated that their value is based on this kind of sexual posturing, that is not a positive message."
This dancehall painting certainly does not suggest to the rational viewer that the value of young girls is based on sexual posturing. As far as I could see, there is not a single young girl in the painting. The women all appear to be above the age of consent. And since dancing men were included, shouldn't the coalition also worry that their sexual posturing would send a negative message to impressionable young boys about their bodies?
Quite frankly, I think Ms Davis and her fellow protesters are reading far too much into what is actually a quite tame dancehall scene. The problem seems to be dancehall culture itself, not its representation in this painting. But as the conversation progressed on Nationwide, it became clear that it really wasn't just dancehall culture that was the issue. The much bigger picture was sex itself. It is holy and should not be blinging on the directory cover.
This is how Ms Davis put it: "Sex is sacred. Sex is something beautiful. We want to preserve that sanctity about sex. But when it is portrayed - and what was on the scene was not sexual intercourse but it was taking sex and sexual expression out of that sacred context - and that is what we are concerned about." For Ms Davis, sexuality in the dancehall could not possibly be sacred. Sex must be kept in the closet
'DEVIOUS AND EVILOUS'
It was Peter Tosh who made me see most clearly that carnality and spirituality come together in the dancehall. I interviewed him in 1983 soon after his magisterial Reggae Superjam performance. He gave a typically perceptive analysis of his use of so-called bad words: "A guy say, 'Damn you', 'f**k you' and a guy don't say nothing! But as a man say 'b*mb*-cl**t', him vex. It has too much spirituality."
He elaborated: "Me have a song name 'O B*mb*-Cl**t', which me sing, and me sing it with dignity. Seen? If you listen to the song, from the first verse to the last, me wrote so many verses to clarify my song, because me know our middle-class nice, decent, clean people out there don't like that. But they do the most devious and evilous b*mbo-cl**t things in the society that even the Devil himself is ashamed of, but them don't wan hear me say b*mb*-cl**t. A can't tek dat."
Tosh's startling assertion that there is spirituality in what we often see as pure carnality led me to think about representations of female sexuality in the dancehall in a new light. I came to see the dancehall as a space in which female fertility rituals are celebrated. So you can just imagine my delight when I read the following account of erotic dances in Guyana written by the Trinidadian literary critic and linguist Prof Maureen Warner-Lewis:
"... The leader of the dance circle erotically clapped one hand over her genitals while raising her other hand to clasp the back of her neck. ... The leader described her action as part of a wedding dance that highlighted the significance of fertility; while making her gesture she exclaimed the word b*mb*, a reference to the female genitals, a word much used in Jamaica as an obscenity, and which has several Central African sources."
Like Ms Davis, I believe sex is beautiful. Unlike her, I think sexuality can be expressed with great beauty and spirituality in the dancehall. Some of us will keep on bubbling in the open with the bad directory. Others will choose the undercover version that's still all about dancehall. Bait, but no switch!