Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer
In one of the four final panels on the final day of the inaugural Rastafari Studies Conference, poet and broadcaster Mutabaruka was examined from four perspectives at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona.
The panels' placement in the largest room utilised by the conference, the N1 Lecture Theatre, may have indicated expected audience size at last Friday's session. If so it was justified, as a large audience turned out to hear Professor Carolyn Cooper, Michelle 'DJ Afifa' Harris, Hugh Miller and Ras Takura present, Velma Pollard chairing the session.
The papers were as varied as Mutabaruka is multifaceted, but Harris hit on a common thread during the post-presentation interactive session. Harris, whose paper was titled 'Mutabaruka: the Icon', said that "he is a practical example ... . Everything about his life shows you how you can question". So Mutabaruka can say Rasta and still not smoke.
Cooper's paper 'Mek We talk Bout de Bottom a de Sea: Mutabaruka's Submarine Poetics' spoke to his poetry and its focus on memory through the transatlantic voyage. She focused on his 1994 Melanin Man album, with track four, Killin, inspired by a visit to the Holocaust Memorial. Cooper described Mutabaruka's approach as "an intellectual reasoning that dispels lies and reclaims truth". She said while he does not disdain the work of building physical museums to honour our history, his "redemptive talk" serves the same purpose.
In her aquatic analysis, Cooper referred extensively to artist and illustrator Tom Feelings and also spoke to James Brown's Black and Proud, which he said cost him a lot of his white audience. The description of sharks following the slave ships for miles to feed on the discarded dead (or maybe some of those who tossed themselves overboard) was particularly harrowing. The seabed, then, becomes the organic museum of African people.
Cooper said that in Colombus Ghost Mutabaruka takes on the mask of a rapacious explorer, quoting from the poem at length. She said that in his poetry Mutabaruka "brings to the surface the history of African peoples" and termed his work "revisionist history".
Miller spoke on 'Mutabaruka - A Global Development Theorist: A Sociological Perspective'. So he looked at Mutabaruka as a development thinker, seeing the poet's decision to go barefooted as a profound statement on freedom as development.
He is also concerned with "terminologies or what people will think when you say a particular phrase or word like 'God' or 'Bible'." "Sociology would see Mutabaruka as a cultural relativist," Miller said. He added that "Mutabaruka's developmental thinking has also helped us in overstanding Rastafari".
However, Miller cautioned that "not for a moment would I suggest that Mutabaruka would want to be called a development theorist".
Ras Takura gave a personal, heartfelt presentation in 'Mutabaruka: I n I Teacher', against the backdrop of a slide show of Mutabaruka images. Opening with the statement "Muta is Rasta. And him no really compromise that. Him often say religion was created by insecure men to oppress women. The man live Rasta".
He spoke to Mutabaruka addressing issues such as sex, money and death, which some Rastafarians would avoid. He analysed Mutabaruka's 'Whiteman Country' and said he has reasoned with returning residents who have said that poem made them come back to Jamaica.
In broadcasting, Ras Takura said "Muta authenticate Patois as an official language to use on the radio in Jamaica".
And on a personal level, he said "Muta teach I to grow still. As a youth is one of the only people who when him talk I understand. I never know my personal father until I was 20. Muta adopt that space in my mind".
Ras Takura closed with an excellent delivery of Mutabaruka's celebrated 'Dis Poem', Pollard commenting "you will agree with me that he has done his teacher proud".
In the closing minutes, Harris said that as a DJ, presenting music, "my interest in African music has come from Muta ... . He presents a very important role model for upcoming entertainers to follow. He has found his calling from early and he has made it into a life work and he has become an icon".
The first comment from the audience was a personal testimony to Mutabaruka's honesty as a businessman.