Calabash ’08 (Pt 3) Reggae and the Obama Moment

Bob Marley and Barack Obama are the absent heroes of the 8th annual Calabash literary festival that Colin Channer (pictured) has pulled together again in Jamaica: Marley, because his music and poetry incarnate the living “reggae aesthetic” (with the pan-African, Judaeo-Christian, sexual, political and celebratory overtones which the poet and Calabash co-founder Kwame Dawes expounds in conversation here). And Obama, because he seems to stand for a possibility that is artistic as well as political — for the idea that imagination can lead the way, that shocking transformations can develop before our eyes. I don’t know how many people I heard say things like: “I never thought that I would live to see the Berlin Wall fall down,” or more often: “I never thought I would see the day when Nelson Mandela walked free in South Africa. And I never thought I’d see a black man nominated for president in the United States.” So the suspense of the Obama moment in America touches this gathering of writers and readers in the West Indes. And for many of the writers I interviewed at Calabash, the Obama moment in America has implications that are artistic as well as political. The poet Yusef Komunyakaa made the literary link with Obama this way: “I think it has everything to do with possibility,” he said. “The writer is definitely a dreamer.”

Click to listen to Chris’s conversations on the Obama Moment at Calabash ’08 (26 minutes, 12 mb mp3)

So I asked a number of the writers at Calabash to fill in the connection between the Barack Obama politics back in the States with the stories and poems and dreams being read out to a couple of thousand listeners on a beach in the Caribbean in this late spring of 2008. I begin with Lorna Goodison, a very popular novelist and poet in Jamaica who has taught since 1991 in Canada and at the University of Michigan.


I have students come to me and say, ‘I’m not coming to class, I’m gonna work for Barack.’ I’ve never ever seen that. It would be a real sin if that youthful enthusiasm and verve and engagement just went away… I’ve been teaching a West Indian literature course and it just turns into a course of poetry… Do you know John Agard’s “Palm Tree King”?

Because I come from the West Indies / certain people in England seem to think / I is a expert on palm trees

So not wanting to sever dis link / with me native roots (know what ah mean?) / or to disappoint dese culturer vulture / I does smile cool as seabreeze…

I sense in my students a need to be seen for who they are and my sense is this business of stereotyping people or putting people into categories is just something that the world seems to be really tired of, or they want to break out of, and I think that maybe that explains something about Barack, because Barack has defied a lot of these stereotypes. Although I think, as Derek [Walcott] said the other day, “The day when black man can be vilified for being elitist in the United States is a great day.” That is my reading of it.

Lorna Goodison of From Harvey River: A Memoir of My Mother and Her Island, in conversation with Chris Lydon at Calabash ’08, Treasure Beach, Jamaica, May 24, 2008

Thomas Glave

Thomas Glave is a Jamaica writer who teaches in the States, starting at MIT in the fall. He’s just edited an anthology of gay writing from the Caribbean:

The very idea of something unthinkable, which is that there could be a black man in the United States White House, is already, in itself, an enormous proposition, and that charges the imagination. It charges my imagination to begin thinking many other things, like, ‘what else might be possible in the United States?’ But it also, I think, stokes faith that actually people can change and people actually can be accountable to one another as human beings and that perhaps racism, and ethnocentrism, and bigotry are not always intransigent forces, and that gives me more faith in human beings.

Thomas Glave of Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles, in conversation with Chris Lydon at Calabash ’08, Treasure Beach, Jamaica, May 24, 2008
kwame dawes

Kwame Dawes

The poet Kwame Dawes wrote the book, literally, on the reggae aesthetic. He likes being called “the busiest man in literature today,” and he’s all over the globe: born in Ghana, schooled in Jamaica, now a professor at the University of South Carolina, and not yet 50 years old. Kwame Dawes has been writing his own blog from Calabash. He spoke with me about the range of reggae meanings in his life on his way to defining this Obama moment for the United States and the world.

Colin Channer and I have a saying: always turn to reggae if you’re in a crisis to see what the answer is. You know, when people would say: ‘what would Jesus do?’ we say: ‘what would reggae do?’ Reggae music achieves a remarkable thing. It manages to be at once a deeply spiritual music, rooted in a Rastafarian belief system and a strong engagement with Judaeo-Christian ideas but turning them into an Afrocentric series of ideas. And at the same time it manages to articulate political sensibility and sensitivities, and in that sense it speaks to the present in connection with a larger understanding of the history of a people. On top of that it is fundamentally a sensual music of visceral passionate response. It is about dancing. It is about sex. It is about the body. It’s about all of these things. So in one reggae lyric you can get all of these elements. And it seemed to me discovering this as a young guy engaging Bob Marley’s music, I began to think if I could write poems that achieved that kind of breadth and complexity within the same line, then I’m beginning to find something I could call an effective aesthetic…

Barack Obama and his campaign. I think that’s the story. I think we like to be fair and balanced and pretend there’s another story happening, but that’s the story… A win by Barack Obama does not necessarily mean that all has changed… I think Americans would need to shift something in their minds to accept that their president is a Black man. I think Black, white and Hispanic Americans – something dramatic would have to shift in their minds…

Power won’t change. I don’t think that Barack Obama will not be an imperialist. I think he will be an imperialist, but we can look at models of imperialism and say maybe… Maybe he is Joseph in that biblical narrative, or is he Moses who gets out of Egypt. So they are paradigms that are called to question.

Kwame Dawes of Bob Marley, Lyrical Genius, in conversation with Chris Lydon at Calabash ’08, Treasure Beach, Jamaica, May 24, 2008

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