On the BBC World Service early this morning there was a cluster of talkers, apparently of some note (I don’t remember who they were—it was four-fifty in the morning, Two Notch Road was dark and steaming, and I was busy trying to wake up for the gym), lamenting that there are no rebels anymore. One musician admitted that there were no musicians that one could call rebels like Bob Dylan or Bob Marley. The commodifying of rebellion was killing all rebellion. The final comment was provocative—the true rebels are the men and women who are strapping bombs around their bodies and detonating them in large crowds—these rebels are conservative believers but people who are acting against the status quo. By the time I turned into the wide parking lot of the gym I began to wonder what was so appealing about being a rebel. Bob Marley and the Wailers singing:
I’m a rebel
I’m a capturer
kept running through my head.
I like to tell poets that without risk there is no real poetry. I am not sure I am talking about rebellion here. But rebellion demands some risk. So I wonder if I take risks. I do think about the consequences of some of my poems when I am planning a reading set. I always thought twice about performing “Fat Man”, a poem about nuclear holocaust and American imperialism, during the months after 911. A rebel would not think twice. I went through an annoying series of back-and-forths about my manuscript Impossible Flying before it was published—I was deeply concerned about the impact it would have on my family. I did not feel like a rebel, then. And tonight I told a commissioner of a piece I am working on about HIV/AIDS in Jamaica that I was not sure I wanted to take a crew to Jamaica two days after the general elections and a few weeks after Dean because it is may not be entirely safe. A rebel would say, damned the torpedoes (or the nine millimeters, you get my drift) and go for it. Rebels like to say, “I don’t care what anyone thinks, I am just going to do what I have to do.” I rarely ever say that. I can’t recall when last I have said that. But I end up doing what I think is important, I end up going against the grain, I end up challenging what is already there. But a rebel? I don’t know.
Rebellion, though, can be caught through the osmosis of childhood influences. It is hard to have been raised in Kingston in the 1970s by a Marxist father and a daring clear-eyed Africa woman willing to marry a Jamaica and to travel a few thousand miles away from family and friends to live in an alien country and not have a hint of rebellion. It is hard to have been brought up with the mythic fables of a father facing deportation and of him tossing out CIA agents from his home without thinking that maybe rebellion is the way people live. Hard, too, to have grown up during the austere days of socialism when national pride was predicated on the willingness of people to suffer deprivations and inconveniences for the sake of independence and the fulfillment of a dream of cultural ascendancy—the days when, as a teenager, those of us who were clearly middle class, self-identified as working class (even now saying I am middle class smarts), and would have never been caught showing off about material possessions and such the like. Not cool. Not rebellious. And all those great rebellions taking place around us were monumental. Ali mouthing off after his resistance to the Vietnam war, and winning fights against people who were clearly not rebels; Bob Marley conquering the world with his trickster wit and hardcore sense of faith and pan-Africanist sensibility (I don’t come to bow, I come to conquer); our rejoicing when an afro haired woman became Miss Jamaica; Michael Manley standing up to the aligned nations and happily talking to Fidel Castro when we all knew we would pay for this dearly; the West Indies cricket team, with Vivian Richards in a knitted rasta wristband, demolishing the English team to become the most dominant cricket power in the world—yes, those were rebellions, and why wouldn’t I be a rebel after that?
The truth, though, is that rebellion will not always be useful, nor will always make sense in the short and long run. But for me, rebellion is satisfying. I became a Christian as an act of resistance and rebellion. It was my act of shifting the ideas around what a person can believe even in the midst of a larger act of rebellion. The standard around me, the conservatism, if you will, was atheist and orthodox. My faith was countering this. Indeed, I found strength in being misunderstood, in being laughed at, in being warned against this act of foolishness. I was a Pan Africanist, a non-capitalist Christian—in my head I was shattering all kinds of stereotypes and this was heady stuff. It still is.
But rebellion is always dependent on what exists around you in the same way that irony is predicated on a shared sense of the norm. I have no idea what my rebellions are today. I am ot sure if I have any rebellions. Perhaps rebellion is for the youth.
One of the talking folks on the radio this morning said that he had spoken to the Marley sons and asked them how they thought their father would feel to find that there were not more rebels of his ilk around. I was not interested in their answer. I was fascinated by the audacity of the question. He was calling Marley’s children non-rebels. He was calling them status-quo folks. He was dissing them, as far as I could tell. And he thought nothing of it. Maybe he did not even think it was a diss. Marley, I suspect, would have told him two choice words and left him stranded. They apparently answered. Were they rebellion against rebellion?
There are rebels everywhere, no doubt. Kenneth Goldsmith is a rebel, isn’t he? He has been rebelling all over the blog with is images, and his aesthetics. Indeed, a lot of rebels blog these days. They blog and they u-tube. Maybe that is the problem. Too many rebels. I am happy with just enough rebellion to allow me to ask questions about most things, to imagine what is behind the motives of others, to never take anything someone says for granted or at face value (with a few very crucial exceptions), to not be afraid of being different—in fact to relish it in some ways (except these days I will wear a suit and shoes); to continue to write poems and blogs that make me worry big time just before they are about to be published.
Born in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of the country, citing in a recent interview his “spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music.” His book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (2007)...