Kwame Dawes and the Reggae Aesthetic: a cultural, social and political proposition by John Robert Lee

Kwame Dawes. Natural Mysticism: Towards a New Reggae Aesthetic. Peepal Tree Press, 1999, 2003, 2008. 296 pgs.

I. Introduction

I came late to Kwame Dawes’ ground-breaking work Natural Mysticism: Towards a New Reggae Aesthetic. I had heard this poet, novelist, essayist, editor, musician speak on the topic as early as 1999 in the prestigious Derek Walcott lecture during St. Lucia’s annual Nobel laureate Week celebrations. I had heard the term repeated in various places. It was not until I read his collection of poetry Wheels (Peepal Tree Press, 2011) that I determined to track down Dawes’ published ideas on reggae aesthetic, and so I came, at last, to his book. The other book that also came into view at the same time was his close study of Bob Marley’s lyrics, Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (Bobcat Books, 2007), certainly a companion volume. Wheels was the best book of poetry I read when it appeared. His range of themes and forms, his seeming stylistic ease, made me wonder how I had missed paying closer attention to such an important contemporary writer (and my editor at Peepal Tree Press.) The way I put it to a young poet friend was that one never notices the slowly growing mound-hillock outside one’s kitchen window, until, startlingly, suddenly, your eyes discover that a new mountain has risen. With a fresh and eager immersion in Dawes’ oeuvre (I still have much to discover including his latest Duppy Conqueror: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2013), his novels and plays, more of his non-fiction,) I came to the realization that Kwame Dawes stands among the most important contemporary literary figures.

His range is international: from his native Ghana to the home he grew up in, Jamaica, to his sojourns in North America and Europe, his travels throughout the Caribbean, his co- founding of the now highly rated biennual Calabash Literary festival, he is a well-travelled and well-recognised writer. The awards he has garnered from Forward to Emmy to Pushcart to Guggenheim reflect the respect he has gained for his steady, focused, unwavering work—both his own and on behalf of many other writers, across several continents, including Africa.

For so many of us who came to our adulthoods in the Caribbean during the seventies—that period of revolutionary ferment in politics, culture, society; that time when we moved from anti-colonial to post-colonial and began to face post-modernism—reggae and its stars, Rastafari, the original, unique and seductive Bob Marley, led the way in shaping our consciousnesses as the new Caribbean massive. There were parallel movements in other parts of the Caribbean of course: Trinidad, with its street protests, soca music and rapso poetry; the islands with a strong French Creole influence like my native St. Lucia with our movements of creolité and zouk music; the challenging sound of what Kamau Brathwaite dubbed ‘nation language’; the socialist movements in politics that looked to Cuba, the Jamaica of Michael Manley and the brave efforts of the doomed Maurice Bishop and his New Jewel Party in Grenada.

More could be mentioned in another space, but above all those sounds—came, insistently, with its drum-and-bass, the strong off-beat of Reggae, the sexy rub-a-dub, led unarguably by Bob Marley and the Wailers and their roots-rock reggae. Reggae that spoke of revolution, called us to “get up, stand up”; that spoke of love in tenement yards; that called us to worship and praise Jah; that drew us to dance. And everywhere, in every street of the Caribbean, and soon, in every avenue of every city of the world, walked, with confidence and assurance, the dreadlocked Rasta men and women. It was all a manifestation of what Dawes has so appropriately called, ‘the Reggae Aesthetic’.

When I began to read this book, it quickly became a page-turner. Others no doubt have written of this seminal, water-shed period of Caribbean life and experience, from the mid- sixties to the mid-eighties (in my reckoning), but for the first time I was studying a closely- observed record of the lives and times and music and ideas that had so moved me and all the companions and lovers and artists among whom I lived in those heady days. Marley and the Wailers, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Jimmy Cliff, Culture, Burning Spear, Steel Pulse, all of wonderful them, and all they carried in their wake, were the stars in our pantheon. The red, gold and green banners; the green leaf on the front of the tams; Rastafarian thought with its unique perspectives on our lives as Caribbean people, on the oft-derided Africa, on the sinister Babylon of class division, church-and-state repressions, racism, apartheid, in which we (so called Third-world peoples) lived decidedly uncertain lives; Rasta talk with its deliberate subversion of the official languages; Rasta life style with its health diets; and Rasta, with its logical conclusion of Black Power incarnated in its Black God Jah Rastafari…we were intoxicated by all this. So many of the upcoming generations for whom the class-ridden society could find no place, found an identity, self-esteem, historical groundation, in reggae and Rasta.

But not only was Kwame Dawes writing a fascinating social and cultural history,—a seminal work that sits alongside the earlier work of Kamau Brathwaite, Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon of Martinique, Gordon Rohlehr of Trinidad, the creolité propositions of Jean Bernabé, Patrick Chamoiseau and Raphael Confiant of Aimé Césaire’s Martinique, and other thinkers throughout the pan-Caribbean area—but he was making a very bold assertion: that reggae and its spiritual heart of Rastafari, provided an aesthetic that could shape the arts and literature of the new Caribbean already taking shape around us. The Caribbean which is already here, at home and abroad. And he proposed that if you look at our art and literature, not only at the obvious musical achievement and its unique production apparatus, you can see the reggae aesthetic already in operation.

An impossible task, but I chose, from throughout the 296 page volume some quotes that capture the essential ideas in Dawes’ formulation of the Natural Mysticism that comes from Reggae and its aesthetic sensibilities. And I offer some further responses to a movement that has had profound influence on my generation.

***

II. Excerpts from Natural Mysticism, with comments

a. “Unlike the folk forms of an earlier period, this was not an art form to be discovered or recovered from invisibility by the ethnographer from a different class. In the case of reggae, a working class art asserted itself in its own terms and through a language and discourse that would in time shape the way the entire society defined itself and its artistic sensibility” (18).

Of course, as Dawes recognizes, reggae can find its root antecedents in the earlier Jamaican folk music and the ska and rock-steady that immediately preceded reggae. But it came forth as something new, and yes, asserted itself as he describes. As a writer, I often admired the musicians—whether calypsonians like Trinidad’s Shadow, Kitchener, Sparrow and David Rudder, or the consummate, supremely confident Jamaicans—who did not seem to be struggling with the language spectrum as so many of us writers did.

For those of us who wrote in the more formal registers, we wanted to use our linguistic indulgences and genuine appreciation of the images, metaphors and idioms of our Caribbean English; but we also strained for the plain, colloquial speech, even as we stretched for a high, poetic language, or mid-Atlantic prose style. The reggae and kaiso singers sang as the average Caribbean person spoke. It was not till the dub-poets of Jamaica (led by Linton Kwesi Johnson, the late incomparable Mikey Smith, Jean Binta Breeze et al) and the rapso poets of Trinidad (Brother Resistance) and then the nation-language poets of all the region (led by the ground-breaking work of Kamau Brathwaite,) began to follow the example of the singers and rhythm-makers, that the new, truly post-colonial literary voices began to be heard. But as Dawes has pointed out in his references to Anthony McNeill, Denis Scott and Lorna Goodison, even the more formal-language poets like these also gained a new freedom as the aesthetic rising out of the music and its social contexts began to lead the writers out of the old harnesses into a new, self-confident freedom. What was true about the birthplace of reggae, Jamaica, and its new-found liberation through the immediacy, the relevance of that sound, those lyrics, became true for the rest of the Caribbean, both at home and abroad.

Today, even after the golden-age days of roots rock reggae and the Wailers and their contemporaries, Jamaican music via dance hall and ragga, has become the most popular music of the new youth cultures.

b. “…I am trying to find an aesthetic that both corresponds with my personal instincts and also relates to my sense of the social space I occupy as a writer. Why do I write as I do? What history, what discourse, what experiences have shaped my own sense of poetic and narrative construction? What cosmology has given rise to my cosmology? And what is it that connects me with other artists whose work I sense shares an ideological and formal affinity to my own? I refer in particular to what I regard as the emergence of a distinctive voice in Caribbean writing that is confident in its cultural roots in the region” (34).

I suppose more artists than we realise face these questions raised by Dawes. A poet friend often asks now, after many years of writing and publishing, “what is it for?” As anti-colonialism gave way to post-colonialism in our Caribbean, the matters and questions of relevance of our work to the surrounding societies became paramount. The street protests, the open rebellion by new generations against the pillars of the status quo we had grown up under in the fifties and sixties, would not allow us, as soi-disant public voices of the community, to do otherwise. To find a balance between my personal talent and my artistic inclination and the vibrant demotic and demographic I was actively involved in became the angst of many late night arguments, discussions and quarrels. It was you might say, at heart, a ‘political’ question. The politics of the arts and culture alongside the politics of the street.

Who are we, these new Caribbean people? Where have we come from and where do we want to go? The new marxists and socialists were at the door. The youth would not be satisfied with the time-worn complacencies of church and state. And as people with deep spiritual groundings, faced by the new atheists, the new-age enthusiasts and the fundamentalists, what was my cosmological compass? What was my meta-narrative? How was all that to translate into the forms and contents of our new literatures, what was to be the distinctive voice of the forthcoming poets and novelists and playwrights. The painters, sculptors, dancers, a few film makers and certainly the musicians, especially the reggae musicians, were pointing the way, out of Babylon, to a possible Zion. There, in the Rasta-inspired reggae, Dawes found the aesthetic he was seeking, that brought together the sacred and secular, the political and historical, the Caribbean and Africa. There was the way to find the confidence in our cultural roots that would give the new literatures their authenticity. There, already, was the voice we were looking for.

c. “But if the nationalist phase of Caribbean writing was concerned with the act of naming, acknowledging, and clarifying a sense of self, I knew that the new literature had both to find the language and forms with which to contend with current realities; had to possess a reflexivity that allowed for irony, for satire; had to find a poetic and aesthetic articulation that emerged not merely from a progression of the literary tradition but represented a qualitative shift from an anti-colonial literature which in its aesthetics still privileged colonial forms, to a post-colonial writing which was rooted in our own way of seeing and speaking. The task was no longer to create a literature from the West Indies, but to allow the voice of that region to reflect on the world that it met” (61).

The task of allowing our voice “to reflect on the world that it met,” rooted in “our own way of seeing and speaking,” was the supreme achievement of Marley and the reggae composers and singers. And yes, it represented “a qualitative shift.” And so, the new classics of our voice, our new-found voice, rose clearly and with undeniable power, electrifying a generation that knew this was what they were waiting for: Linton Kwesi Johnson, Mikey Smith, Jean Binta Breeze, so many, not only Jamaicans, but throughout the Caribbean and the diaspora, Exodus, movement of Jah people!

The recent success of Jamaican writers like Marlon James, Kei Miller and Claudia Rankine also continues to demonstrate this. In James’ case, for example, his Booker-winning novel A Brief History of Seven Killings is a no-holds barred, powerful, confident setting out of the Jamaica of the period Dawes is examining, the rise of Marley, reggae and Rasta. Marley is very much a central actor in the book. The language is unapologetically Jamaican as that of the music. The characters, drawn on real-life personages are Jamaican in every way. The novel is not only post-colonial but post- modern and will not be confined only to the label ‘Caribbean’. It is a world novel, in the way one might speak of world-music. Contemporary Caribbean literature reflects that cosmopolitan quality even as it is grounded in the Caribbean reality. And as Dawes makes the point, this is so whether the writers are working from home or from the large Caribbean diasporas. More than ever now, with confidence, without reference to the once-colonial master imperative, our writers are reflecting on the world we meet, at home or abroad.

d. “…an aesthetic is defined as a cultural, ideological, and formal framework that is identifiable within an artistic form to which it gives coherence, and this aesthetic can be related fruitfully to other forms” (67).

e. “There are two basic ways in which the aesthetic works. On the one hand, the aesthetic may serve as a self-consciously applied frame, guiding and shaping the work being produced, where the artist is looking to reggae for a model of creative expression. On the other hand, reggae music epitomizes an aesthetic development within an artistic community as a whole or within a society at large” (74).

f. “I make use of four basic levels of analysis…on the first level is the nature of the overarching ideology of the reggae aesthetic. This relates to issues of mythology, cosmology, and the extensive historiographical concerns of the music…Second, I am concerned with issues of language use since it is the political and formal use of language in reggae that has had the most telling influence on the art of the region. Third, there is the question of the topics or themes of reggae music…Fourth, there is the level of form, – the way in which the formal dimensions of reggae can be seen to offer models of formal expression” (101, 102).

While I read Kwame’s thesis with great enthusiasm and excitement, hearing someone articulate what I had experienced and sensed with reggae and Rasta, from time to time, some doubts would rise to question his propositions. Was my friend straining to make a thesis out of his beloved Jamaican reggae? Was he juggling to force an aesthetic on the new Caribbean literature? Given the complexities of Caribbean life and art and culture, would it fit, this encompassing world-and-life view expressed by reggae, would it give a real, viable, feasible, authentic philosophical framework to our post-colonial and post- modern literatures? Would it provide the paradigm shift we definitely needed?

At the heart of his probing of the aesthetics of reggae he put forward the above definitions and analytical outlines. By an inductive process, examining reggae closely , he arrives at the principles that shape the aesthetic he sets forth. And it makes sense, it is hard to argue convincingly against, his thesis. And it is not a closed-door, dogmatic thesis. He sees his explorations as the beginnings of an ever growing process. He says elsewhere that “it is possible to argue that the patterns revealed and crystallized in reggae music serve as useful tools to explore the work of writers who are working in a postcolonial space in which the construction of a distinctive voice is crucial to the realization of an autonomous Caribbean literary tradition” (261). He sees a “postmodernist innovative vitality” in reggae which allows it to tap into the folk heritage past and to move on into the newer forms, as witnessed in the later developments of ragga and dancehall, and to become a multi-language, international form that can adapt, without losing its uniqueness at core. So applied to literary work, there is the way pointed to capture our mythologies and histories, our urbanisations, our politics, our newer post-modern visions and concerns; and to capture that content in language that is true, adventurous, unique in many ways within the context of world literature, as Marley and the musicians have shown so convincingly and influentially, with their “models of formal expression.”

g. “Reggae , I believe, offers the closest thing to the kind of sensibility that T.S. Eliot saw in the metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, a sensibility that engages in a dialectic of body and spirit, reason and emotion, a sensibility not yet divided by the dualism of western scientific rationalism” (259).

Well yes, reggae comes out of the totality of our lives and sensibilities, “body and spirit, reason and emotion,” and much of it from the hard part of our resistance to oppressions and exclusions; our poverties, our politics and defences against criminalities; and yes, also from our sexualities, our loves, our youthful rebellions and the jammin’ of our dance hall happinesses; our faiths and wonderments about the spiritual and cosmological realms we know we inhabit. So the music, so the art and so the poems and stories and plays. So the making manifest of the natural mysticisms of our experiences that reggae and its emerging aesthetics so ably encompass.

***

III. Conclusion

“I understand that it is only in the mastering of the particular and the parochial that a sophisticated universalism can be achieved” (264).

And, finally, reggae has done this, on all fronts. So can our literatures. Selah.

—John Robert Lee

Kwame Dawes and the Reggae Aesthetic: a cultural, social and political proposition, part of Respect Due: Symposium on the Work of Kwame Dawes


John Robert Lee is a St. Lucian writer. His most recent publications are City Remembrances (Mahanaim, 2016), Sighting and other poems of faith (Mahanaim, 2013), elemental: new and selected poems (Peepal Tree Press, 2008) and Bibliography of St. Lucian Creative Writing 1948-2013 (Mahanaim, 2013).

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