Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Jamaica Prepares for Another Vibrant Carnival Season in 2019

Photo via Skkan Media Entertainment
Needless to say, I'm biased. I think Jamaica Carnival is wonderful. I've never been to Trinidad, and in my 40 years in Toronto I've only missed a handful of Caribana parades. Carnival is an enjoyable passion of mine, and every part of my heart believes that Jamaica Carnival is the perfect storm of carnival excellence!

Since attending for the first time in 2017, I have kept an interested eye on the costumes, promotions, and the overall impact this exciting event is having on Caribbean culture, music, and international vibes overall.

As someone who has played mas, built mas, written about mas, and helped to organize and promote mas, I have waved the proverbial flag high and mighty for our local Toronto event, for years. I have studied our carnival and invested time and passion into understanding how I can play my part, how we as Torontonians of Caribbean descent can work together to sustain this event, and I've even tried an exercise to visually operationalize the structure of Canada's largest Caribbean celebration to see how perhaps we can begin to explore new ways of strengthening the model of accountability, and eventually build that Caribbean community centre that the parade was originally intended to fund. Anyone involved in the logistics of this massive undertaking, however, knows that it's all easier said than done.

Via CarnivalInJamaica.com
Even from an unofficial distance, I can't help but still love everything about carnival, and that's why I am most impressed by the Jamaican's tightly-executed branding and presentation of their events, their themes, and their unique experiences. Canadian-born, and raised in a non-Carnival, traditional Christian Jamaican home, I pretend not to be a carnival "expert" by any means. But I do recognize genuine excellence and well-established businessfolk coming together to celebrate this festive time of year, to showcase various talents, and to encourage tourism to the island of Jamaica for yet another wonderful reason.

Everything about Jamaica Carnival makes me feel proud.

For example, the bands are spectacular. This year there have been four established bands that have launched their themes, costumes, designers, and affiliated marketers and sponsors in late 2018: Xaymaca International who launched on November 10, Bacchanal Jamaica launched on November 17, Xodus Carnival launched November 24, and One World Rebellion launched on December 8. Previous participants Jamaica Carnival (the originators of this Kingston celebration, as founded by legendary Jamaican calypsonian Byron Lee) have not taken part since 2017. While the legacy of Lee is still alive and well in this regard, financial restrictions will prohibit participation until further notice, according to a Jamaica Gleaner report early last year.

Since my last attendance in 2017, the carnival has seen increased numbers of participants (the attendance of 2000 in 2016 grew to 6000 for 2017 according to Kamal Bankay, the Chariman of the Jamaica Carnival Stakeholders Committee), and the town of Kingston has taken on new life for Caribbean and international tourists who might otherwise stop off in Negril or Ocho Rios to be entertained. Leading up to this year's Road March, taking place on Sunday, April 28, Kingston will be a hub of visitors, beauty, and entertainment excellence from the participating bands and affiliated brand sponsors and promoters.

Bacchanal Jamaica in particular has a heavy roster of pre-set dates and anticipated events that the soca-loving fete crowd can look forward to each season. Some of the significant dates already in place include:

March 8 - Bacchanal Mas Camp Opening
March 30 - Rum for Breakfast
April 12 - Bacchanal and Dancehall
April 20 - Beach J'Ouvert
April 24 - Bacchanal Night Mas
April 26 - Bacchanal J'Ouvert

For those who will only be in Jamaica specifically to celebrate the Carnival, they have four excellent choices of bands to jump up with, including Bacchanal Jamaica, and can access, interact, and prepare themselves accordingly through the excellent range of online products and photos that have been made available for the international carnival market.

XAYMACA INTERNATIONAL launched their concept ICONIC, with the support of co-sponsors and design and marketing affiliates Tribe, Kandi, Sleek Jamaica, Richie Ras, LehWeGo, Rogue, Skkan Media, Krave, Medz, Punchy Punch, and Keisha Als.

Featuring a range of sultry and dynamic designs, masqueraders can choose from sections like Dynasty, Victress, Mendoza, Dancehall Queen, Ashanti, Primadonna, Donatella, Vainglory, Burlesque, Bohemian, Psychedelic, Aphrodites, Aja, Queen of the Nile, Rose, or participate in a specially designed t-shirt stating: "Out of many, one band."

BACCHANAL JAMAICA will be celebrating Carnival this year through their theme of "Invictus." They launched  at their notorious mas camp (located at the National Stadium in Kingston), and will continue to host events and pre-carnival festivities at the popular location up until Carnival Day.

Along with their allies Lavishmas International, Eden, Designs by Dru, and VIP Carnival, they will be presenting sections like Venus, Gaea, Salacia & Neptune, Bellonw & Mars, Felicitas, Electryo & Bacchus, Diana & Apollo, and Cleopatra, in addition to offering Sunday wear and t-shirts for interested participants.

XODUS CARNIVAL launched the "Cosmopolitan" theme for 2019. "The World in One Band" consists of a range of location-specific costumes representing various destinations and their significant aesthetics. Sponsored by affiliates Dream Entertainment Ltd, Trinidad's Y.U.M.A., Campari, Appleton Estate, Wray & Nephew, and Hennessy, the costumes are stunning, with amazing graphic representations of the featured cities.

Xodus revellers can be transported to Bangkok, Aztec, Kingston or Manhattan, Nairobi, Madrid, Macau, Florena, Tokyo, Cairo, Mumbai, Asella, Rio, Bali, or Figi through beautiful regional-specific costumes.

One of the most newsworthy elements of this year's Jamaica Carnival promotion, thus far, has been the addition of the new band produced by Trinidadian-natives and Caribbean music legends Fay-Ann Lyons and her husband Bunji Garlin.

ONE WORLD REBELLION launched their theme "Revolt" and has received coverage and attention from the Gleaner, Loop Jamaica, Carnival Fetish, and many other Caribbean news brands for their unique designs as well as special messaging. While initially Fay-Ann's words about the nature of Carnival in Jamaica vs. Trinidad were taken out of context, but interviews and discussions quickly clarified that her love for Carnival has expanded to Jamaica out of passion and good intention, and not as a means of reducing participation in Trinidad or "choosing sides."

The launch of One World Rebellion even featured reggae's dancehall legend Beenie Man, reminding all Caribbean music lovers that our separations are only geographic when it comes to the proper celebration and sharing of music and culture. Fay-Ann clarified this dedication by stating that her band and this year's theme were "rooted in history" and based on the background of cultural revolution amongst all African descendants.

Her band is bringing this collective history together; sections highlighting warriors and power, goddesses and African prints are her homage to the history of the Caribbean, as well as the carnival celebration. Costume sections are named Iroquois, Breffu, Valkyrie, Aza, Bois, Thesilea, Oceania, Thrachan, and Aquarius and will be supported by Campari, Coca-Cola, Wata, and Chromatic Live.

Like Bacchanal Jamaica and the other bands, One World Rebellion will also host a series of pre-Carnival events, and Lyons' fitness brand Aza Fit will provide stamina-building workout sessions for their patrons and interested participants.

Once Christmas passes, carnival enthusiasts worldwide reset their calendars, prepare for new music releases, and get ready to observe, participate, and share news about the rolling wave of riddims and costumes that will take place over the course of the year. Trinidad's Carnival remains the pinnacle of the celebration: it has an early emergence in the carnival calendar year, the religious tie to Lent, as well as the observation of the end of slavery and a range of local traditions and folklore.

The tradition now continues to evolve, present itself uniquely in various locations, and highlights a range of celebrations and practices. At the root of this event is the public enjoyment of culture and the freedom to express with exuberance and inhibition.

With any change to cultural celebration, will come analysis and social impact studies on the effects and impacts of the new addition as well as opinions and recommendations for its success. For example, cultural expert Kai Barratt explored the use of slim, light-skinned, and scantily-clad models in the promotion and endorsement of Carnival, which she believed to be in stark contrast to Jamaica's "Out of Many, One People" national messaging.

Any consumer of Carnival culture knows that the majority of models and featured faces tend to be non-black, very thin, and represent a range of "lighter" hues and "straighter" hair, often leaving out the average-sized, darker-skinned, fuller-clothed participant of Carnival across the region. Issues of class and the social value system were also presented via Barratt's research, where the images of Carnival participants can also exclude the "average" woman from relating to the experience and accessing the means and opportunities to take part in this ritual.

It is not news that racial discrepancies and social barriers exist in the Caribbean, so seeing these issues at play during Carnival season is almost inevitable. The high cost of costuming, and the "uptown" gatherings of soca lovers and mas enthusiasts were linked to power and unbalanced representation, while the day-to-day realities of the citizens of the islands are often deliberately left out from the marketing and promotion of these events.

Carnivals are presented as multicultural and accessible, however, they are particularly niche-based for those who are dedicated to the phenomenon, and those who make this a part of their regular routine. Many will remember the work of Jamaican academic Carolyn Cooper, where arguments were made that somehow the "slackness" found in dancehall was unacceptable to many, yet similar movements and displays from the "uptown" soca crowd received a pass due to racism and classism.

These discussions go hand-in-hand whenever "Carnival in Jamaica" is a topic, because there will always be an assumption that Carnival is a particularly Trinidadian or upper-class occurrence, and that it is not in the Jamaican history to produce or celebrate it in the same way. It is in stark difference to the open dancehall celebrations of the reggae community, and therefore it appears (to some) a contradiction to openly embrace both.

I've read criticisms from both sides, about either the preservation of Jamaican and reggae culture, or the betrayal of Trinidadians when it comes to celebrating Carnival in other locations or in unconventional ways. My conclusion? The average Carnival enthusiast is truly just seeking the liberation and joy from the experience, an opportunity to dance freely, wear costuming that takes a level of confidence and risk, and to frolic and fraternize with peers, countrymen, and make new acquaintances through these shared moments of revelry and excitement.

Not to take away from the fact that there is definitely a racial bias in Carnival promotion, and that (truth be told) this bias still exists outside of Carnival as well. I also won't take away from the contradictions in treatment and acceptance from dancehall street parties versus outdoor soca fetes, both in the Caribbean and abroad. There is injustice, there are imbalances, and there are definitely loyalists and traditionalists that don't want to see the various sub-cultures and traditions merging. On a larger international scale, and on a specific island scale, these are the usual social controversies we must all work on improving.

I view the emergence of Jamaica's Carnival as a benefit to the Jamaican tourist experience, as well as yet another great reason to enjoy the island in a new way. Jamaica already hosts a great number of music festivals, and has artists from all genres performing for large audiences year-round. Hotels are consistently booked, and millions travel in and out of MBJ and KIN airports each day to soak up a little sun, and go home with a touch of spirit, a bottle of rum, and the vibes of Jamaica in their soul. Adding Carnival to the already positive and memorable Jamaican experience is a blessing. Why not? Why not give folks one more reason to enjoy Jamaica? Without taking away from dancehall or reggae culture, and without disrespecting the values of the island, the Carnival should be viewed as a beautiful occurrence that is open to adapting and expanding over time.

The buzz about Jamaica Carnival is on a steady incline, so it is my hope that it will adjust and conform over time. I already saw evidence of this with many reggae and dancehall artists participating in the 2018 festivities, performing on trucks, to thousands of masqueraders doing the "Genna Bounce" along the Road March route. Jamaica will adjust. The people will accept what they will, and dash away what defeats their innate soul and purpose. I trust that the Jamaican people will endorse and customize this experience for the benefit of their people, in due time. I also trust that Jamaica will embrace the international elements, and adjust accordingly.

The official "Carnival in Jamaica" brand launched in October of 2018 in Kingston, as a collaboration between the Ministry of Tourism, and Jamaica's Tourist Board. Dedicated to keeping Jamaica at the top of the Caribbean tourist's destination list, all related supporters and business affiliates are putting forth a great coordination to ensure that Jamaica's Carnival continues to grow, has a steady and positive impact on attendees, and also helps to create unity amongst the Caribbean islands without the physical or music-specific divisions. Just like reggae music is easily enjoyed and celebrated across the West Indies, Jamaica has also embraced the legacy and joy of soca music through Carnival season and is also witnessing a permeation into other elements of Jamaican celebration.

There are so many wonderful fragments of Jamaica culture to uplift, to enjoy, and to endorse. My spirit gravitates towards this particular Carnival because of my heritage, but also the mix of reggae and soca music, the natural joy, the powerful dancing, beautiful artistry, elaborate costuming, borderless camaraderie, vibsey performances, tightly branded parties, and at the core of the experience...just enjoying the outdoors, having your feet on the streets of the city, and tying it all in to enterprise and celebration.

I'm looking forward to the 2019 installment of this wonderful international Caribbean-centric tradition, and I'm happy to endorse it the best way I know how: through online and physical support of our hometown Toronto Carnival bands, events, soca DJs, and brands; through showcasing Carnival culture on our official Kya Publishing @CarnivalSpotlight Instagram page; through the promotion of my 2014 urban fiction novel "Carnival Spotlight" that embraces Carnival culture from a Canadian perspective, and through sharing the images of more brown-skinned natural Carnival ambassadors, and supporting body-positive Carnival movements like #EveryBODYPlayAhMas. Most importantly, by doing my best to attend as many Carnivals as possible, support the economies of the local promoters and businesses, and to take a jump for my spirit that craves this annual rejuvenation!

See you on the road!

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales."

Monday, January 7, 2019

Cancelling R. Kelly, Kanye, Kevin Hart, and Dare I Say Bill Cosby

It sucks. It's uncomfortable. It's embarrassing. It's unfortunate. It's a shame. It's hurtful. It stings, and it makes you question your priorities and morality in a way that you never thought you would have to. Drawing that firm line in the sand against one of "your own" can feel like betrayal, even when it's abundantly clear that something is wrong, and that something must be done.

Like many, that R. Kelly docu-series "Surviving R. Kelly" was the last thing any of us will ever have to see to know and remember just how terrible this man's behaviour has been...from time. Those testimonials, the pain on the faces of those women was disturbing as hell. We've all heard the whispering, the shouting, and seen the evidence plain as day, but somehow it took years. Decades even, for a collective cultural "WTF" moment where we are forced to look at Robert Kelly without the lens of his fabulous R&B hits...and see him for the asshole he is. There: I finally said it.

We knew with Aaliyah, but we still sang along. We were 14 at the time, and knew she was young, too. We heard the rumours, but maybe it was immaturity or just a general lack of understanding of life that never made us question him or his intentions for too long. Aaliyah seemed happy, we all loved her vibe and her spirit, and we left it at that.

"Age ain't nothing but a number..." was a song that played in our adolescent female psyches in a way no male could ever understand. As disturbing as it is, there is a part of you as a young woman that wants to be acknowledged as mature enough to be in the company of older men. You want to dress like an older woman, and act like an older woman. You want to prove that you are grown enough for grown situations. And this isn't based on daddy issues or a lack of sensibility...even for those who grew up in stable two-parent homes with loving and doting fathers, Christian values, and a firm sense of love and respect, the admiration of a slightly "older man" can still be easily intriguing to young girls.

I can only speak for myself as a woman, as a Black woman, and as someone who has always been in tune with pop culture when I say that: I can see where we went wrong, but I can also see why.

My older sister had R Kelly's "12 Play" CD that was released in 1993. I was in the tenth grade, and a music lover from birth. I knew good sounds when I heard them, and R&B was in a place where the slow jams were sensual, the lyrics were provocative, and the rhythm meant more than anything. I can remember listening to those songs over, and over, and over again partially intrigued by the mature subject matter, and subsequently desensitizing myself to some of the content.

That album was memorized. Your body's calling for me. I don't see nothing wrong with a little bump and grind. Homie lover friend. I like the crotch on you. Summer bunnies. Sex me. Twelve play. And then there was my favourite track, number 4: seems like you're ready.

It seems like you're ready.
Seems like you're ready.
Seems like you're ready.
Girl, are you ready?
To go all the way?

I was 15, what did I know? How could I comprehend how the master manipulator was even training my young mind, through sound and subconscious? The album was fire. That song in particular was dope and I listened to it on indefinite repeat. It was cool to listen to mature music and R. Kelly's "12 Play" album was a certified hit. There was zero part of me that recognized how his hypnotic lyrics were permeating my young brain, and there wasn't anyone around who looked at that man or his master manipulation as a severe problem.

A few years later, I remember visiting a friend in Chicago. I was already 21, she was slightly younger, and after a night out on the town we headed to the Rock and Roll McDonald's in the city, because there were rumours that R. Kelly would be stopping by. What were we hoping for? Probably just a photo, a good story, and the chance to see a celebrity up close. What do I remember? A lot of young girls hanging around, late-night, in case the superstar decided to pass by.

He never came, plus a parking lot fight and over-crowding caused them to shut down the restaurant temporarily that night. Crisis and kidnapping averted.

I am hesitant to make this an issue about the "Black community" or to use race as an excuse for accepting obviously disgusting behaviour, but when it keeps happening, and when you keep seeing people that you really wanted to love, and admire, and uplift, being beaten down...it starts to feel personal.

Like many, R. Kelly's music was a staple of my life's experiences. Parties. Celebrations. At-home sessions. He wasn't Michael or Prince...but he definitely had his lane, and occupied it consistently. He was a bad boy, with an unforgettable presence and an acute song-writing ability that lured the likes of Celine Dions and motion picture soundtracks, reggae artists, and sacred moments like the funeral of Whitney Houston.

I heard rumblings of his indiscretions, but never spent a lot of time studying them or researching the validity.

But it's a different time now. Everything is coming to light for a lot of people in the worst way. Exposure is a daily reality from the White House to the Grammy's, and it leaves many of "us" in a position where we finally have to come to terms with letting go of the illusion of support, and eliminating excuses for bad behaviour.

Jada Pinkett Smith posted a video on Instagram this weekend asking why? Why was R. Kelly's music still being consumed, and why were his numbers spiking at a time when his demons were all front and centre for all of us to see simultaneously. Some said that it could have been because of the younger generation, curiously listening to his lyrics and tracks to see what the hype was about. It could have been individuals reminiscing about the beautiful music he made, and trying to piece together the how and why.

A part of me sat and mentally went through all of the hits R. Kelly has made over the years, and wondered why it was so hard to admit that I'd have to let these songs go to a certain extent. Songs like Double Up featuring Snoop Dogg, or "Keep it on the Down Looooow," or those humour-but-not-humourous songs like "Feelin on Yo Booty" and "Get up on a Room," or what about "Half on a Baby" or "I Can't Sleep, Baby" and "Ignition," and the list literally goes on and on.

How do we forget the beautiful "If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time," or "I'm Your Angel," or everyone's birthday song "Step in the Name of Love?"

It's a damn shame.

Just like it was a damn shame to see Kanye West, one of my favourite rappers/producers of all time, smiling in the White House, or sitting in the Oval Office with that pathetic 45th leader, confessing his daddy issues to the world, and forcing a hug on the wanna-be-dictator who was clearly not worthy of the space or attention our rap star was giving him.

Just like this fiasco with Kevin Hart, and the old homophobic Tweets, and hosting the Oscars, and the back and forth about comedy and opinion, and the importance of respecting all lives and all sexual preferences, and then thinking about how right now at the pinnacle of his career, we get to watch Kevin be crucified. We knew it was coming (it always does), but it still makes you cringe when it starts to go down.

Looking at photos of Bill Cosby still hurts me to my core, because he felt like a beloved family member that was tied to so many laughs, and jokes, and moments gathered around the television, and he was the root of so many people's emulation of fatherhood, and someone that the Black community (and every other community) adored and respected, and now we know that he has been stripped of his throne many times over, and that he was not the man of character and genuine charm we hoped him to be.

I can not, and will not excuse the bad behaviour of anyone. Not Trump, not Cosby, not anyone. The media's role in shaping stories and guiding public opinion are evident at times...but when reality is unavoidable, it's that last step that hurts the most. The cancellation.

It hurts to see anyone of substance fall from perceived "grace," but as a Black woman who always has, and always will love and respect her Black brothers/kings, it is particularly difficult to admit that time is literally up for those who we upheld for so long. We hoped it wasn't true. We hoped they were who we wanted them to be, and who we as a culture NEEDED them to be at times.

And now we mourn.

Coupled with the disappointment and disgust, are feelings of defeat and hopelessness. Wrong is wrong, but there is a part of me that feels protective of the spirit of the Black man, and I'm ultra-sensitive about the cultural influences and inspirations of the Black community, and mingled in somewhere with the feelings of anger and frustration...are feelings of pity and sadness.

I wish they would have received the guidance, the strength, or the foresight they needed at the time of their indiscretions. And while Kanye's mental illness and Kevin Hart's bad jokes were not as terrible as R. Kelly's abuse of minors, or Bill Cosby's sexual assaults, there are times when you look at any of them as Black men and really just want to pray for their peace, their protection, and their place in society.

There are times when you look at them as Black Men and hurt, because you know it hasn't been easy. You can't excuse their behaviour, and you definitely can't make the truth go away, but it still hurts. It still feels like watching a family member be persecuted, and it feels like losing small sources of power in places where it isn't always easy to obtain king status.

Why have I never publicly criticized Bill Cosby? How come I still listen to my old Kanye West albums? Should it be this easy for me to still follow Kevin Hart on Twitter? Am I going to participate in the public #MuteRKelly campaigns? Sadly, their actions are now leaking over into our daily lives as Black community members, as well as consumers of pop culture where we are now not just passive recipients, but almost complicit if we support their products or idealized legacy in any way.

"Praying about it" feels like a typical Black thing to do: hoping that God will reach the spirit of these broken brothers, and help to right their wrongs. Praying for collective forgiveness from mainstream media so we can keep a piece of the crown that was once given to these talented Black figures. Perhaps the most difficult and uncomfortable part is when you have to put the racial loyalty aside, and acknowledge that nothing...absolutely nothing can justify some of these actions.

It hurts. Some (like Kevin Hart) may be able to survive the scandal and still continue to have a fruitful career. Others (like Bill Cosby) will continue to age, and fade away from our interest and childhood memories.

The lives of those young Black women that R. Kelly is manipulating matter. And the impact of these actions matter. I hope that somewhere in these unfortunate examples, that the young Black men coming up now in the entertainment industry can take a good look at what their image means and respond accordingly. That they recognize that somewhere beneath the talent, the fame, the millions, the gold, and the opportunities is a very, very limited window of influence that they can't afford to take for granted, or mess up.

We are getting used to being "let down" by our public figures and designated "role models"...and I do believe those who have the power really better monitor it, nurture their opportunities, and do the right thing. Talent will only excuse so many wrongs, and the end result it too painful to continue to endure. When one goes down, we all feel the pain. Let's hope that the lessons are learned, as an important takeaway from an otherwise unfortunate state of the Black man (yet again) and his constant battle to keep his head held high.

We love you, but our love can only do so much.

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

REBEL SALUTE // Reggae Festival Hosts Local Media Launch in Kingston, Jamaica

Sponsors, dignitaries, recording artists, and members of the Jamaican local media gathered at the Pegasus Hotel in Kingston, Jamaica on the evening of December 27, 2018 to launch the concepts and features surrounding the annual Rebel Salute roots reggae festival that takes place each January on the island. What began as a birthday celebration for legendary reggae vocalist Tony Rebel, near to January 15 of each year, has evolved into one of the prime festivals in Jamaica, now preparing to present the 26th year on January 18 and 19, 2019 at the Grizzly's Plantation Cove in Priory, St. Ann.

Far from the Pegasus ballroom, we participated in the media launch via live-stream (available via Facebook, Instagram, and online at RebelSaluteJamaica.com) here in Toronto, Canada, to take in the greetings and introductions from the various sponsors and participants who have helped to support and maintain this festival over the years. The 2019 iteration of Rebel Salute promises to be the best yet, with an outstanding lineup, and a range of products, services, and features for the reggae patrons.

"Every January, thousands of reggae music lovers make the pilgrimage to Rebel Salute for a world-class event that delivers a spectacular experience of authentic roots reggae, wholesome culture, and healthy living," according to the event website. This "family-friendly festival promotes the positive aspects of reggae music, and by extension the best of Jamaican culture."

Proclaimed to be "the greatest show on earth," the launch detailed the ticketing and highlights of Rebel Salute. Taking place over two days, tickets to the festival are currently on sale at a number of ticket outlets on the island ranging from Total gas stations to Fontana branches, as well as through online outlets FirstInLineJa.com (formerly YardTicket), and TicketPal.com.

The prices are as follows (listed in Jamaican Dollars):

General Pre-Sale: $5,500
General Gate Admission: $6,000
VIP Pre-Sale: $10,000
VIP Gate Admission: $11,000

Features also include the option to camp out at the venue under the stars, and Jamaican cuisine that adheres to a strict vegetarian menu (no meat at The Cove), a drug-free environment, violence-free surroundings, and no alcohol permitted. In addition to the ital eating, there will also be "an abundance of culture of the Jamaican people." The art and craft village, and the "Herb Curb" exposure is a unique feature of this family-friendly gathering of "healthy livity".

The media launch reminded viewers and in-house participants that Rebel Salute will be a world-class event, profiling the wholesome culture, healthy living, and a spiritual renaissance. Like other high-profile festivals in Jamaica there has been a range of legends on the stage from Jimmy Cliff in 2005, Movado in 2011, plus Steve and Damian Marley in 2012 to name a few noted by the MC. A memorable performance from Koffee was noted, as she has had a steady career incline since.

The host Johnny "Live" Daley thanked many of the sponsorsaccommodation partners, as well as introduced musical performances from the likes of Bushman, Turbulence, and Capleton. Turbulence, recently returning from a 4-year stay in Kenya, in a post-performance interview at the launch, says that "people can expect the unexpected" from his performance at Rebel Salute, as he continues to promote his new album entitled The Remedy.

On behalf of the Strictly Roots brand, Michael Dawson spoke of his support of Rebel Salute, as well as promoting his brand that strives to take the waters from Blue Mountain and use them as a symbol of a natural lifestyle, and bringing information to patrons about their roots.

An EPICAN representative spoke about Jamaica's first seed-to-sale cannabis brand, with a store and marketplace now located in Kingston. Also a sponsor of Rebel Salute, he said that at EPICAN "we think it's our sacred duty to support reggae music."

Mark Pike, from Enterprise Jamaica said that in the two years that Enterprise has been present in Jamaica, they have supported the Rebel Salute for both years. "There's a rebel in all of us," he said, noting the importance of Jamaicans at home and abroad connecting, and the role that Enterprise plays in that process. In celebration of Rebel Salute, along with Reggae Month in February, the world's largest rental brand will be offering discounts to attendees.

Representatives from law enforcement ensured optimum safety and protection during the event, and also sent a reminder that participants and vendors should adhere to all guidelines, outlined in the best interest of all present.

The Honourable Olivia Grange, the Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment, and Sport was in attendance, along with the Mayor of Kingston Delroy Williams, and other noted Jamaican dignitaries. The Minister began her address, in response to an anecdote from the MC, with a salutation to reggae artist Buju Banton, who was recently released from serving time in Florida. "Buju has served his time, and he's now a free man and we are 100% in support of him. He's one of the most talented artists that Jamaica has ever produced," said the Minister. "Welcome home, Buju. We love you."

"Tony Rebel succeeded in capturing the best in artistry and consciousness in an unabashed presentation of our Jamaica and African heritage," the Minister said. "Presenting the dignity our African ancestry has represented in Rastafari culture, with Africa at the centre of our cultural and creative consciousness."

Cordell Green, the Executive Director of the Jamaica Broadcasting Commission, introduced the evening's guest speaker just before 10:00 p.m. Queen's Counsel Paula Llewellyn, Jamaica's DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions). Speaking about her position as the first female DPP on the island, as well as referring to recent visits to the island from DJ Khaled and Drake. Her most important message: for the artists to be aware of their influence.

"I am all for artistic expression, but remember that no one is above the law...no one is below it, either," she said, reminding the artists and those in attendance that music is an important tool for messaging. A steady voice for justice, as Jamaica's only female director of prosecutions, she stressed that folks must always "know the rules of the game" and honour their talents.

"We own the authenticity of reggae: nobody can take that away from us," she said. "But I would like The Preservation of Reggae to also include an acknowledgement, that with this awesome gift, and with the awesome power, you must have a recognition that responsibility must be intermingled there. That responsibility means that you have to be careful--not careless--as a practitioner and an exemplar of what being a reggae ambassador is all about."

The DPP commended Rebel Salute for exemplifying positivity, and stressed that: "There is nothing wrong about Jamaica that what is right about Jamaica can not fix. Rebel Salute is one of the iconic things that is right about Jamaica."

Just after 10:30 p.m., the Fire Man himself Capleton was there to perform, electrifying the crowd with call-and-response, afterward telling reporters that he is "inspired through creation" and "has a passion for the music," putting his all into it to make sure it's great.

Festival-head Tony Rebel noted that he enjoys bringing new talent to the stage each year, and said that he is "feeling good about the young artists. We need a constant flow of different artists exercising the same style--within reggae--but maybe have a different way they do it. It's always good to fill the space with  young artists coming up."

In conclusion, Tony Rebel said that Jamaicans must stand on the shoulders of our ancestors, and to share with each other. "Jamaica is still wonderful. Jamaica is still beautiful. Jamaican people are still some of the greatest people, and most talented people I know. Every country has their challenges, yes...but come! People here still will accommodate you, people here still will love you, and people will keep you safe too."

"It's a spiritual mandate to preserve the healthier aspects of our culture," said Rebel. "Let's listen to music that can motivate you, and music that can inspire. That is why everybody makes the trek in January, because they see it as a spiritual renaissance. The camaraderie of Rebel Salute, you don't see it no where else."


"I've been doing this for 25 years: trust us. We are going to make sure that you get the best that you can get," said Tony Rebel before releasing the names of some of the festival's performers.

Some of the announced artists included: Patoranking (from Nigeria), Mykal Rose, for the first time The Wailers, the Wailing Soul, Dawn Penn, Wayne Marshall, Marvin Moore, Marcia Aiken, Anthony Malvo, Wayne Wonder, Luciano, Shalom, Perfect, Capleton, Leroy Gibbon, Terry Ganzie, Chessie, Mighty Diamonds, Marva Gillespie, Koffee, Mr. Easy, Jah Boogs, Annu, Bushman, Queen Ifrica, Leroy Smart, reggae band Chalice, Agent Sasco, Horace Andy, Ken Boothe, Half Pint, Mr. Vegas, Nesbeth, Turbulence, Louis Culture, Echo Minot, King Kong, Jesse Royal, Yellowman, Chi Ching Ching, King Sound, and Bounty Killer.

He also said they are giving Buju Banton space, that he is always invited, and all things are possible. Additional artists to be announced in the upcoming days via Instagram, Facebook, and the Rebel Salute website. Said Rebel: "When I say that I am going to give you more names: don't doubt me!"

The four-and-a-half-hour media launch concluded with a performance from Tony Rebel and some of his special guests, with vibes high and so much to anticipate with just a few weeks remaining until the big event. It was a pleasure to watch from Toronto, and connect with the passion of the culture that makes the island of Jamaica so influential.

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales."

Friday, December 14, 2018

Book Review: "Becoming" by Michelle Obama

In a time when international politics can make your blood boil, your heart sink, and make you question your faith in humanity and democracy, reading the words of Michelle Obama are a welcome and reassuring voice of hope, logic, and dignity. Her book "Becoming," released by Crown Publishing Group (a division of Penguin Random House) last month immediately topped every best-seller list. Naturally.

Michelle Obama has become a face--and spirit--of strength, comfort, and progress for many of us watching her career, her movements, and her family over the past decade or more. She represents the grace that is fitting for a First Lady, as well as a relatability required in a trusted friend or mentor. Throughout her years in the White House, and even now her years beyond the intense political spotlight that the highest office in America holds, she is still someone worth emulating and praising.

Like most, I knew Michelle Obama as the super-healthy, Ivy League-educated, fun-loving, intelligent, and fierce matriarch of the beloved Obama family. I've seen her speak on behalf of her husband to crowds of thousands at rallies, she's jammed with the likes of Ellen and others on national television, and she made it hip to be fit and health-conscious. She showed us all that despite being under the most excruciating pressures and unshakable spotlight, that she could still function as a lovable and classy lady, with the nation's best interests always firmly placed in front of her.

It was great to now go back in time and learn the fine details of the life of Michelle Robinson Obama, to see her family upbringing, the nuances of her childhood, and how she always worked hard, believed in education, and had a spirit of steel as she navigated her way from the south side of Chicago, to a corporate legal position. I never knew the in's and out's of her life until now, and I truly feel that I am better of now that I am up to speed. Her parents and her brother Craig are a tight group of solid folks, and a great example for all.

A few particular things in this book stood out for me, in defining the overall character and legacy of Mrs. Obama to date. First and foremost: her love for her husband and family, and her ability to use the bigger picture as the compass for her decisions and actions. I also admired her dedication to education, and how her parents stood behind her 100% as she achieved her academic goals...yet never let this define her. When she found herself in a high-paying, comfortable job as a lawyer, and was on track to becoming a potential law firm partner...she still followed her instincts, and returned to community work. She never chased the money: she chased her passion.

To this date, I also admire her resiliency, and the way she conducted herself with utmost dignity and pride. Even a couple weeks ago at the funeral of George H.W. Bush when she (albeit, tight-lipped) greeted U.S. President Donald Trump with a polite "good morning" and a handshake, I had to give her credit for not cussing out his b*******t (insert Jamaican expletive here), and instead taking the high road.

When they go low, we go high! That's her catch phrase, and as many times as I've heard Michelle and even Hillary Clinton repeat it in unison with crowds, to see her LIVE it is a true marker of her seriousness. Michelle Obama is a thinking lady, and every action is a result of planning, calculation, and with the intention of influencing the greater good.

I won't even tarnish my feel-good vibe right now, griping about the circus clown and his entourage of fools that currently take up space in the nation's capitol, and make my blood pressure soar with every headline. In fact, I couldn't have read this book at a better moment in history because I need to be reminded of how even in the worse possible circumstances, with the right mentality and the right heart, you can push through and survive anything.

Even this current political climate. Yikes.

The biography of Michelle Obama should be a must-read book for young women, because of the lessons it inherently pushes in how to be lady-like, yet still be a boss. How to take control, yet how to also yield control when necessary. How to empower others, and how to motivate yourself. Particularly from the perspective of a women, it is important to see how Michelle was the ultimate right-hand to her husband Barack throughout their courting, marriage, and time in the White House, yet she still never lost herself in his shine. She was his rock, just as he was hers.

I appreciate how supportive she was of her husband, and how she often even put her own priorities on temporary pause to ensure that the equilibrium of her family and the greater goal were maintained. She wasn't bitter or miserable. She didn't complain or make a fuss. She expressed her concerns appropriately, and with power. Overall, she was a ride-or-die companion to Barack on his journey, and she realized the importance of the moment in history they were creating day-by-day. Michelle didn't pout and leave Barack to figure it out on his own: she lifted him up, and she formed her own team to ensure that her own voice and aspirations were not lost. Her was also her ride-or-die.

All while maintaining a comfortable balance for their girls, Malia and Sasha, growing up under ultra-extraordinary conditions with secret service agents shadowing their every move, and cell phones popping up at every corner to capture their adventures. The legacy of those girls has remained untarnished, and they have managed to come of age under intense scrutiny, yet somehow privately, thanks to the monitoring and careful guidance of their mother.

The book "Becoming" is a long read, at just over 400 pages, but a beautiful and captivating story of love, of romance (I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the courtship of Michelle and Barack), as well as a story of creating a strong family and maintaining balance by also giving back, and contributing to society with intention and good will.

Her book sales have been record-breaking, and "Becoming" is the top seller for 2018, to no surprise. Her book tour had a successful run over the past month, featuring other phenomenal ladies on stage with Michelle, as she discusses her book and the related lessons. Good news was released this week, for those (like me) who were unable to secure tickets to the first leg of Michelle's "Becoming" book tour: new dates have been released for 2019, and tickets go on sale tomorrow (December 15) via her book/tour website: https://becomingmichelleobama.com. She'll touch down in Toronto next May 4, and I'm sure the words of her book and the example of her spirit have already motivated 19,000 lucky supporters to secure their tickets to attend. Here's the link to order tickets to "Becoming: An Intimate Conversation with Michelle Obama." (Word of the wise: log in at 10 a.m. on the dot, or kiss those tickets goodbye!)

I thank God for a woman like Michelle: someone to look to for positive examples, and someone who is keen and still exhibits endearing human emotion. As a mother, an academic, a community-leader, a supportive wife, and as a conduit for change and inspiration amongst many, she has proven to be one of the most effective icons of our generation. Standing next to a formidable character like Barack can't be easy, but she has held her own every step of the way, and has consistently exhibited the qualities and determination of a great leader.

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

How the Albums of Buju Banton Inspired my Passion for Reggae Music

Growing up in a Jamaican household our family always listened to reggae music, but my parents also had a taste that spanned from Bob Marley...to Neil Diamond at times. While reggae, calypso and sounds of the West Indies were honourably celebrated, so was the music of Blondie, Queen, Ashford & Simpson, and Whitney Houston to name a few. A musical family from Toronto straight back to Manchester, Jamaica, we all had an innate appreciation for all good music: period.

I can remember the Caribbean compositions of ska, lover's rock, and roots reggae as a late 70's baby; it was a natural soundtrack to outings and special events. The rhythms were soothing, and the lyrics even at times humourour to our young ears. For example, when Lovindeer released his tribute of disdain to Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, my siblings and I laughed at the patois-laden lyrics, singing along to the instant hit about the storm that ravished our island, devastating many.

Reggae music is special--albeit not always appreciated--to anyone of Jamaican ancestry. It is our music, exclusively. Now thanks to the recent UNESCO declaration, it is also a global treasure that the United Nations has committed to protecting and preserving for the social impact it has had on its listeners around the world. Reggae music is, at its core, a music for the people and by the people. A music of movement, rebellion, love, and progress.

It wasn't until 1992 that I took a deeply personal interest in reggae music, falling in love with not only the messaging but also the artistry, the performers, the instrumentation, and the culture. The artist that first caught my attention unlike any other reggae artist to date was Mark Myrie, aka Buju Banton.

Entering high school in 1992, I had already lived a brief-but-full life of piano lessons, choir practice, playing the clarinet in the school band, and obsessing over and studying music daily. It was a lifestyle for me even before reggae music became an addiction: music was a part of me. Up until then, I didn't own any reggae music of my own. My father had records, and I had to resort to borrowing the mix cassettes of my older sister. I didn't know the names of the new artists, but I knew the vibe very well. I would duplicate the mixes for myself and use them to DJ our elementary school birthday parties and dances. I was intrigued by the essence, but had yet to study the players.

Mr. Mention was the first reggae album I ever purchased, back at the Pickering Flea Market, and to this day remains one of the best reggae albums of all times, as far as I'm concerned. With tracks like "Love How the Gal Dem Flex," "Have to Get You Tonight," and "Who Say" instantly catching my attention, I would play the A side, and the B side, and back to the A side on indefinite repeat. It was "Bonafide Love" featuring Wayne Wonder that captivated me most of all. I had fallen in love with the voice of Buju Banton, with the fun and charismatic tone of his lyrics, and the rhythms have never left me to this day.

I had every track on the Mr. Mention album memorized, and as a writer, the young Jamaican swag and the loveable charm of Buju Banton also helped to inform my taste in events, individuals, and behaviour. After Mr. Mention came a series of singles from the Stamina Daddy album, released in Jamaica in 1992 containing songs like the title track "Stamina Daddy" and other favourites like "Gold Spoon." It was also around this time that I discovered the Toronto-based Friday Night Reggae Mania radio show with host Ron Nelson, and I would anticipate the weekly mixes including Buju Banton, which also led me to other artists of the era. Reggae music had captivated me, and the entire culture began to expand around me.

By 1993, I was an official connoisseur. Not quite old enough to attend reggae events in the city of Toronto, I was instead glued to my radio, and committed to keeping up with reggae news and events through Ron Nelson and also through the interviews and performances on our Canadian music station Much Music, with host Master T and the range of artists he would have in-studio for mini-concerts and discussion. When Buju's album Voice of Jamaica was released that year, I was full-speed-ahead into songs like "Red Rose," and "Deportees," as well as the more conscious tracks like "Tribal War" and fun loving hits like "Make My Day."

If I had a mood, there was a Buju Banton song that would fit it. If I had a vibe, there was a track to match my energy. Now in my second year of high school, I also became an avid story writer, knocking out a few books a year was my regular speed, and I was inspired by the sounds of reggae music in particular. While the adolescent novelist was consumed with friendships, and childish thoughts, through the imaginative dialect of reggae music, I was able to begin to explore more mature concepts, and now also give my characters a distinct Jamaican edge that I wasn't particularly exposed to from my conservative-Christian family.

To no surprise, my characters were always Jamaican-centric. My male characters had a distinctly dancehall-inspired swag, and this was the culture and the environment of which many, many stories were birthed. It was a culture I longed to explore, and the older I got, and the more knowledgeable I became about the music, the more I learned, and the more I wrote. The more I experienced, and the more I enjoyed through this music.

It was around this time that I was officially old enough to make my own life decisions, and found myself with a driver's license and a full social agenda that always included me partaking in reggae music in one way or another. I began to date. I began to attend parties, my curfew slowly extended...and my passion for the music and culture automatically grew with these new freedoms. By the time 1995 hit, and the Til Shiloh album was released, my dedication to reggae music was solidified. A close friend of mine with a never-ending list of connections in the music industry, invited me downtown with her one Saturday afternoon when Buju Banton was in town for a concert. Still only 17, this was my introduction to the cross-city travelling and entertainment that would consume my late teens and twenties. But at this particular moment, it was a true experience. We ended up at the Much Music studio on Queen Street, and had what would turn out to be one of the most memorable afternoons of my life. To this day.

Standing on the sidewalk, we saw a tall, slender, dark-skinned young man with a white bucket hat, solemnly sipping on a cup of tea with his foot perched behind him against the wall of the Chum building downtown. Buried in the collar of his winter coat, he sipped, and shivered. We stared. He stared back, with a mischievous smile. Is that Buju? I had to wonder, but his casualness and independence made us think otherwise. It wasn't until members of his entourage and band approached that we realized we were in the company of the great Buju Banton that entire time.

He laughed at us, because we were young and timid, but he also said hello, obliged us with photographs, autographs, and a his drummer even handed me a signed copy of his 12" single "Sensimilia" for me to take home, along with "Til Shiloh" tour stickers. With our Buju Banton swag in hand, we also made acquaintance with Wayne Wonder, and stuck around Much Music to watch Buju's performance of his album. In an unfortunate turn of events for me, I was not allowed to accompany my friend (already 19 years old) to the concert that evening, but I was content to go home with my personalized memorabilia, which only further cemented my appreciation for the artist.

Favourites on the Shiloh album: most definitely "Champion" and "Murderer," as well as "Not an Easy Road" and "Wanna Be Loved." It's safe to say that next to Mr. Mention, this album definitely holds a special place in my reggae heart: it is permanently made significant in my memories.

By the time Inna Heights was released in 1997, I was finishing high school and entering my first year of post-secondary in Windsor. Buju transition from groovy and upbeat dancehall tracks, into more conscious, spiritual, and message-driven lyrics that were a definite mirror to my own personal consciousness and internal growth as a Black woman, and as an independent thinker. Songs like "Hills and Valleys" and "Destiny" were chart-topping hits, as well as personal favourites, for the inspirational words as well as the soothing riddims.

Buju was evolving, and as a fan, I was evolving as well. He was one of few artists that I had consistently listened to over the years, and I appreciated the direction he was heading in as I was transitioning into a new reality of living on my own in another part of the province, as well as stepping into higher education and self-reflection. Tracks like "Circumstances" and "Give I Strength" were like fuel, while songs like "Love Sponge" and "My Woman Now" still provided the light-heartedness and loveable personality that was expected from Buju.

At this point in my life, there was no comparison. Reggae was the be-all and end-all of music as far as I was concerned. I could still enjoy R&B, hip hop, pop music, and house, but it was reggae music that filled my dorm, my headphones, and heavily influenced my lifestyle and preferences.

The next few albums from Buju Banton, while still powerful, seemed to be released in succession over the years without my knowledge of the entire body of work as a whole, but instead by a few memorable tracks. The Unchained Spirit album in 2000, and 2003's Friends for Life definitely made it to my Napster download list, but I was not as quick to purchase the albums as I had been in previous years.

It was a different time. Cell phones emerged. Digital music was taking over. Technology was pervasive, with chat rooms, email, and other distractions taking the place of the old-fashioned cassette/CD Walkman movements that I was used to. Now, I had a plethora of music available to me as I downloaded songs 24/7 with a vengeance and built my CD collection proudly. Mix CDs were popularly consumed from the flea market, or through copying, and I spent so much time in the club and at the dancehall that I was drawn to what was new, what was hot, and what the DJs were playing. While Buju's popularity was definitely consistent, and his rank in the reggae hierarchy unchanging...his tracks were not as popularly played in the venues I frequented, as upbeat sounds and digitized riddims were taking over.

Dancehall was changing, and while I went along with it for the most part, I also found that it no longer moved me the way it used to in the 90s. I transitioned into culture music, into other genres, and I didn't have the same daily pull to Buju Banton as I once did. I was getting familiar with other artists. I was starting to travel. I was distracted by life, and without deliberately seeking his music out, I found that I didn't encounter it as much.

In 2006 his album Too Bad was released, which had a few big tracks like "Driver" and "Too Bad" that brought Buju Banton back up to a party vibe, in the forefront of reggae, and into my visibility again. It was around this time that I caught him live at a Redemption event in Toronto (in July of 2007), and had the pleasure of hearing the new songs live, as well as some of the oldies-but-goodies. Old enough to now attend his shows, and now living full time in Toronto again, this particular concert was definitely not going to pass me by.

At the Kool Haus venue on Queen Quay, Buju and his live band put on a great show, and I was happy to have had the opportunity to be in his presence again. He was different, however. Again, I felt it to be a bit of a transition period for Buju...or perhaps just for myself. There was a slight disconnect, but because he was Buju, and because he remained my favourite reggae artist, I enjoyed the show to the fullest, and to this day am happy that I was able to attend.

By the time his 2009 album Rasta Got Soul was released, again, I didn't consume the album as a whole, but instead as individual tracks, where they made an impact. Overall, however, I was distracted from the genre of reggae music because I didn't appreciate the direction dancehall music was headed in, and I missed the light and danceable riddims from the 90s...drawing my spirit, and my social circumstances to the world of soca music. In time, the dancehalls were replaced with fetes, and my appreciation for Buju remained in the 90s and early 2000s where I believe he had the greatest musical impact on me.

Of course, there wasn't a time you would head out to a club event or festival without hearing a few Buju Banton songs. To this day. A party isn't a party without at least one or two Buju songs. It's an expectation to say the least. He is a legend, and always a part of my musical experience one way or another. To hear about his legal troubles was something we as fans weren't prepared for, because as much as he was a star and public figure...he was also the voice and face of righteousness. We had seen and heard him transition over the years and embrace his maturity through music. With the realization that we could no longer receive new music from him, I think many of us as fans were in a state of shock.

I'm unsure what all of the songs from his 2010 album Before the Dawn were like, but right now I have committed myself to listening to the words he published just before his voice would be taken away. Now, with his release in just a few short days, I feel the timing couldn't be better. Reggae music has remained a constant part of my life, however, it has definitely transitioned and impacted me in different ways over the years. While roots reggae and lover's rock, culture songs/artists and singers will always be impactful, it was the genre of dancehall that had me questioning the future of reggae music at times.

Like many, I wonder what type of musical sound the newly released and Buju will share. I am curious to hear how his voice sounds, and the thoughts he has been compiling over the past years as his life has been filled with conflict and character judgements. As many of the artists of his time have faded away, and many new artists have emerged larger than life and extremely influential in reggae music and culture, I would like to see how the balance of power is distributed with the legendary Buju Banton back in the studio and ready to perform again and share messages with his listenership, eagerly awaiting his perspectives.

It's a great moment in reggae music history right now, again, as the UN recognizes the international impact the music has has on society, and also as the genre of reggae music prepares to welcome back one of the most important musicians of our time...if not, of all time. His message to fans on November 15 of this year gave us an indication of where his medz are, and we can only look forward to his wisdom, his insights, and what his return will mean for the future direction of music and how this treasure is sustained for the next generation. The anticipation is amazing, and I am excited to see him perform again live soon...on Canadian soil, or abroad. I am ready to lean in his direction, trusting his musical judgement over the years to steer me in the right direction of listening to and appreciating for my native music.

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.

Hearing this song always brings me back to my introduction of Buju, and the joy his music brought to my young soul: