Ian Boyne, Contributor
Only prejudice, intolerance, bigotry and small-mindedness could make anyone question whether iconic cultural artiste and media practitioner Mutabaruka should be given national honours during this our 50th year of Independence. There is no voice in media today which has been more passionately engaged in cultural liberation and which has been more forceful for genuine political and economic Independence.
It has been 20 years since Muta has been hosting his 'Cutting Edge' programme on IRIE FM, the country's number one radio station, using it as a tool of education and mental liberation for the Jamaican masses, many of whom have been locked out of the formal education system. But more than 20 years before that, 41 years ago, Muta, then Allan Mutabaruka (born Hope), started to put his revolutionary and emancipatory thoughts to paper, having been published in the then signature music/cultural magazine Swing. In 1973, Muta delivered his Outcry, a collection of poems.
In its introduction, Swing editor Johnny Golding was to pen words that would apply throughout Muta's dazzlingly fertile career: Recalling that readers were "ecstatic" from his very first poem published in July 1971, and that "we have derived much pleasure in further publication of this brother's words", Golding said: "They tell a story common to most black people born in the ghetto ... And when Muta writes, it's loud and clear."
Muta is nothing if not loud and clear. Four decades after he started and now celebrating his diamond jubilee (with the Queen, God forbid!), Muta is still rivetingly relevant, pungent and pugnacious. There is absolutely no public figure anywhere his age who is as popular among young people, especially ghetto youth, and who is seen as their peer. Ageless. Timeless. Always cutting edge.
He popularised dub poetry among the Jamaican masses, and commands interest in even hard-core dancehall audiences. But white people in America, Europe and, indeed, all over the world flock to his concerts and are just as ecstatic about his performances and lyrics; even when they are as piercing as a dagger to their hearts. They don't take it personal when it comes from Mutabaruka, a man with poetic licence to kill racism, chauvinism, colonialism and imperialism.
In terms of his art, and the sheer excellence which characterises it, Muta is indubitably one of the finest artistes ever produced in this country in our 50 years. Ask Mervyn Morris, Order of Merit, and literary scholar extraordinaire. Muta has influenced a whole generation of dub/protest poets, the kind of signal achievement made by outstanding trailblazers. Who can forget 'Every Time a Ear De Soun' and 'Dis Poem' among Muta's plethora of poems? Muta is folk hero, charisma personified. He's the people's philosopher and was fittingly given a fellowship at the University of the West Indies as folk philosopher some years ago, though he himself never attended university.
A product of Rae Town, he had come into contact with black power literature in the 1960s and began reading people like Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver and Marcus Garvey. There is no better example in Jamaica today of a man who has not gone to university but who loves reading and learning as much as Mutabaruka. He is far better read than many university graduates and more intellectually aware than some university lecturers I know.
STILL DOING CONCERTS
Thoroughness and a restless quest for the best is what characterises Muta's approach to everything he does. The man is a polymath. He instinctively rejects the view that one can be a jack of all trades but master of none. He is at the top of his game in his art form and is still in demand internationally, and will perform at the U2 reggae concert during the London Olympics, after which he will again be on a European tour. Africa is his playground, he boasts. He was the first man in Jamaican media to broadcast live from Africa.
So in his art form, only Linton Kwesi Johnson can be equated with him in terms of status, but certainly among Jamaicans in the diaspora and at home, Muta is number one. He can't be beat with 'rootsiness' and vibe. As a sound system man, Muta is unparalleled. I know of no one who has a wider appreciation and knowledge of various genres of music globally. The man is absolutely phenomenal. I rate Dermott Hussey, but in terms of breadth and depth, Muta is not surpassed.
You can't compete in a clash with Muta on R&B, soul and disco classics, and if yuh tink yuh bad, try him on vintage Jamaican music from mento, ska, to rocksteady and reggae. I have seen Muta pull for some little-known Jamaican oldies that make me want to scream out in my bed (for the wrong reason!) very late at night. (I have rarely missed a 'Cutting Edge' over the years. Muta is the only reason I listen to radio after 7 o'clock on any night and I am usually up with him until he closes at 2 a.m.)
If you talk about conscious reggae and conscious dancehall, forget it. There is absolutely no one I know whose knowledge equals Muta's. And that is reggae produced in any striking country in the world. So there is no one playing music on the Jamaican airwaves who has a wider musical knowledge than Muta. And if you listen to 'Cutting Edge', you are treated to an encyclopaedic experience in music. If you think Rastaman is limited in musical appreciation, listen to the programme.
In terms of media, Muta deserves far more credit than he has ever been given. If the Press Association of Jamaica did not have this woefully inadequate system of awards where people have to apply for their own awards, there is no way that Muta's 'Cutting Edge' programme would not have won multiple awards.
Muta has done some remarkable things with grass-roots radio. Who could have thought that 'yute and yute and formally uneducated man and man and dawtas' would stay up till 2 in the morning listening to lectures with American and European voices talking about the history of Christianity; why the Gospels were not written by the names on them; genetically modified foods and their dangers; how the global financial system is controlled by a few; the writings of the Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu, African history, etc. Some of the most cerebral CDs I have listened to have been on Muta's 'Cutting Edge'.
Muta goes all over the world and buys CDs and comes back and exposes ordinary Jamaican people to cutting-edge intellectual work. 'Cutting Edge' is a grass-roots university. The man should be awarded national honours for his work in media alone - let alone his awesome body of work as a cultural artiste and folk philosopher.
Muta's work is development journalism through and through. On Wednesday nights, my wife knows that I am not available for much discussion, except to discuss Muta's gripping analysis. And, of course, she can't help hearing my uproarious laughter in the still of the morning, especially as Muta ridicules Christianity and makes mockery of Christian teachings and especially pastors (though I am one, I confess!).
And here he deserves special commendation. Muta, more than any other single Jamaican, has brought cutting-edge biblical scholarship to ordinary Jamaican people and made them aware of the most controversial ideas being discussed in the most prestigious universities of the world. Muta, on his travels, picks up a lot of things, and now that much is available on the Internet, he is like a child in a candy shop.
Before I heard the name Bart Ehrman, now the most quoted biblical scholar in the big North American and European media, Muta many years ago gave me his early book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. Then, Ehrman was unknown to most of the religious academy and none of the international media.
MUTA VS THE CHURCH
Christians have been upset with him, for Muta has been the Church's harshest and most fierce critic in Jamaica. He despises Christianity with a passion and believes with every energy he can muster that Christianity is the worst thing that has happened to us and continues to affect us. Forget about whether he is mistaken or Antichrist. You have to admire his contrarian spirit, his sceptical, enquiring mind; his willingness to peer beyond received dogmas.
Paradoxically, Muta has offended many, but yet is so loved and respected by many. Muta is a fierce critic of Church and State. Him bun fire on all political parties and attacks the People's National Party (PNP) and Jamaica Labour Party with equal and refreshing vigour. Unlike some of our well-known churchmen who have sold out their souls and minds to the political parties, particularly to the PNP, Muta remains genuinely independent and critical of both the Palace and its Prophets. For that alone he deserves respect. And gets it from the masses.
Today, Muta is the country's most influential cultural critic and public philosopher. His thorough-going critique on Wednesday nights on contemporary affairs has a breadth and force not equalled by our newspaper columnists and on-air commentators. There is a powerful interview he gave to United Reggae, an online reggae magazine, just last month.
Muta's searing critique of dancehall music and how it has been co-opted by capitalist, nihilistic values; his profound analysis of how American culture has recolonised the minds of the Jamaican youth and our people generally; his dramatisation of how fast foods, hip hop, American movies, reality TV and celebrity culture have duped us, rivals by anything in the academy, media, Church and civil society.
"American thinking with a Third World living!" is how Muta characterised Jamaica today in that interview. "You see people dress up ... they are so materialistic ... they don't think about their spirit, they think about their body. Nuff people look happy because a lot of party going on, but when they come from dance, go home and lock the door, it's pure ignorance and vexation."
Only ignorance and vexation would make us not honour this cultural giant.
Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.