Passion For Revolushun Inspires Dub Poets by Sheila Nopper
nah-ee-lah and d’bi young are creating sparks with their word sounds. These second- generation dub poets—who are also noteworthy playwrights and actors—rhythmically fan those sparks into flames of resistance against injustice as they burn new pathways toward social liberation.
The roots of this poetic uprising were planted back in the 70s by nah-ee-lah and young’s foremothers, who include Lillian Allen, Afua Cooper and ahdri zhina mandiela. Through their own artistic endeavours and community activism, these ‘elder’ dub poets inspired people of diverse cultural origins to stretch the boundaries of their creative expression.
They took their rebelliously empowering art to the people by reciting their poems in the streets and in schools, as well as at protests; they confronted the Eurocentric gatekeepers of the art world to demand that their art form be taken seriously; and they hlped develop the creative talents of aspiring poets, al the while finding an affinity with a wide variety of radical artists, musicians and community activists.
Allen and Cooper were the driving force behind the first International Dub Poetry Festival in 1993, as well as its June 2004 sequel, which featured an intergenerational range of women and firmly established Toronto as an epicentre of the “word sound power” movement worldwide. It was at this latest festival that I first encountered the stimulating performances of nah-ee-lah and d’bi. Several tracks from nah-ee-lah’s 2002 CD Free Dome—which received an award from the Urban Music Association of Canada—incisively expose the multi-layered and intertwined levels of white supremacy and sexist programming.
One example is “i c u too,” in which she critiques the white male tendency to view black “womyn” as exotic creatures and, correspondingly, the wannabe kids who try to “dress like who they think i be.” On the track “real evolution,” she reminds us of our individual responsibility to bring about change.
Over the simulated sound of an old scratchy record, nah-ee-lah proclaims, “real evolution will not be covered packaged or broadcast/ in lies/ real evolution/ true revolution/ begins on the/ inside.” nah-ee-lah graciously explains that she is putting some of those ideas into practice in her personal life by learning “to listen a bit more and change how I speak to people.”
This, she explains emphatically, “is expanding the possibilities of my relationships and my ability to love.” A recent example of that shift occurred when—despite her disappointments with academia, and bolstered by the encouragement of people she respects—she decided to persevere toward completing her master’s program in Fine Arts (Theatre—Playwriting) at York University.
Her critique of such so-called “institutions of higher learning” will no doubt be cleverly infused into the script of her thesis play, entitled “No Knowledge College.” She expects she may one day be teaching at a university herself. In a similar vein, nah-ee-lah has designed multimedia workshops on culture and language that examine the role of the dominant culture in repressing the creative expression of those it marginalizes.
She is also enthusiastically preparing to launch a new production company that will coincide with the release of her next CD. Born in Jamaica, d’bi young, a self-described “blackbushoomaan,” grew up watching her mother, Anita Stewart (also known as Anilia Soyinka), perform throughout that country during the 80s as the only woman member of the legendary politically-charged dub poetry group, Poets in Unity.
Now residing in Toronto, young is an increasingly sought-after poet and actor. Like nah-ee-lah, she is interested in exploring the dynamics of power and identity. A participant on the recent Toronto dub fest panel, “Women of the Word,” young said, “If you are truly invested in revolution, you have to investigate your relationship to power—how power is balanced in our community, how we give and receive love as women and men, how we capitalize on our power, and how we also play into the roles of submission and gender stereotyping.”
These uncompromising values permeate young’s work. Presently, she is fine-tuning the production of her “one oomaan play” entitled blood (claat), which is a reclamation of the Jamaican use of a slang epithet associated with menstruation. Young explains that the play—the first of a trilogy—“is loosely based on my life, and what it means to be a woman, an African woman, a black woman, what it means to be womanist, feminist, working-class, a full-time artist, and how we tell stories responsibly.”
In it she plays eight characters, male and female, who, through conversations with each other, “reveal how they deal with blood—blood in violence, blood in molestation, blood as menstrual cycles leading to birth, and blood as ancestry and lineage.”
At Toronto’s 2004 Summer Works Theatre Festival, blood (claat) was nominated for best play and young was credited with the best performance. She’s scheduled to present the play at Vancouver’s Sisterhood Festival next spring and at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille next summer. Blood is a recurring theme in d’bi young’s work. In the gripping track, “blood” on the demo of her forthcoming CD, dubbin revolushun (recorded in Havana), she boldly questions the silence surrounding the once celebrated monthly ritual of bleeding, and audaciously wonders “from where the shame around my cunt came.”
She contends that “it’s a covert operation” when “more than half the population—bleed.” Linking her ancestral blood of centuries of slavery to images of women’s blood as a creative liberating force, while simultaneously making a diasporic goddess connection with her Cuban/Yoruba sisters, she proudly declares, “i bleed cuz i am a warrior/ amazon dawta of yemaya.”
Another exceptional track, “genda benda,” provocatively explores gender as a social construct and encourages “tha sistas” to “redefine your feminist position” and “question the standards of beauty.” Later in the song, she offers a tribute “to all weirdos/ people who be responsibly different/ he she/ she he/ transvestites/ transgendered/ queer gay bi lesbian straight….”
In so doing, d’bi young offers a welcome alternative to the divisive stance of such male reggae megastars as Beenie Man and Sizzla, who frequently call for violence against their queer brethren and sistren. nah-ee-lah agrees that “the huge flare-up with the homophobia that’s pervasive in reggae music” needs to be addressed. “I don’t believe in ostracizing anyone for their beliefs,” she avows, “or killing anybody over any differences.”
Yet she is also concerned that censoring people’s right to artistic expression could backfire and ultimately silence outspoken artists like herself. While maintaining a steady analytical pulse on issues related to identity, racism and sexism, both d’bi young and nah-ee-lah venture beyond the societal taboos of their Jamaican heritage and expand the implicit limitations of polite Canadian etiquette. They do this by offering insightful commentary on “cuntroversial” topics, what nah-ee-lah describes as “women’s sexuality and sensuality—and ownership of that—you know, being able to discuss your clits.”
Rather than advocating censorship as a solution to homophobic, misogynist or white supremacist diatribes, nah-ee-lah hopes “there can be some kind of ground that we can communicate on and learn to live in harmony in a way that respects human life.” Though distinct in their poetic styles and in their choices of musical accompaniment, these contemporary griots unabashedly slice through “the institutionalized shit” (young’s words) and “democracy’s hypocrisies” (nah-ee-lah’s words) without apology.
The compelling issues evoked by these artists resonate with the concerns and aspirations of people seeking social justice. “Revolution as I understand it, in terms of creating equality for everyone, can’t happen without women’s liberation,” states young. “If we’re going to challenge capitalism and imperialism, then we have to look at how misogyny, sexual oppression, gender stereotyping and gender conditioning help to keep capitalism and imperialism in place.”
Defiant yet compassionate, d’bi responded to an email query about the passion that defines her artistic work by writing: there is no revolushun without passion.” “there is no revolushun without passion and spirit and love and pain and sacrifice and mistakes and dancing and sensitivity and celebration and funerals and children and sorrow and burnout and rebirth and apologies and confusion and forgiveness and vulnerability and strength and passion there is no revolushun without passion.”