Behold the great literature of Tanya
THE LATE October announcement of American songwriter/singer (and I am placing them in that order for good reason) Bob Dylan as the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature awardee “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition” naturally stirred some interest in Jamaica.We not only have a tremendous songwriting tradition which thrives despite our determination to put out too many songs in too little time, but have also created dub poetry, which formally spans music and poetry. We could go on at length and inconclusively about which Jamaican singer or deejay merits serious consideration for their song text as literature. Among the names that are likely to come up (if I am involved) as the debate gets heated, recordings are plucked from vinyl sleeves and CD cases, recovered from hard drives or streamed from YouTube are Lady Saw, Jimmy Cliff, Damian ‘Jr Gong’ Marley, Dave Kelly, Assassin, Spragga Benz, Grub Cooper, Bob Andy, Bob Marley, Buju Banton, Vybz Kartel, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Pluto Shervington, Ernie Smith and Mikey Bennett. And Tanya Stephens. Why leave her for last? Or, better yet, why set her apart? Not because of an unstated hierarchy by song quality or gender, but because the Stephens songs that I am going to suggest we read as text come from an album that may not have found as much general popularity as those from Gangsta Blues (2004) and Rebelution (2006).
So while It’s a Pity, These Streets, Cherry Brandy, Can’t Breathe, Boom Wuk, Little White Lie, and After You, are among the Tanya tracks that come readily to mind, the lines that got me hooked on Stephens come from her 1998 album Ruff Rider. The short track (more an interlude) is Man Ah Fraction, in which she concluded that she should not be frowned upon if she has three men because “one a dem a half an two a dem a quarter/So dem add up to one.” (Forgive me for any misquotes, it has been a while.)
And I said, now this is my kind of writer. Humour, contradicting the norms of gender imbalance, putting us men who believe we are all a woman needs firmly into our places and a basic school math lesson in five or six lines. And this was after songs like Yu No Ready fi Dis Yet.
When she did the Infallible album 12 years later, I reported on the April 2010 launch performance at what was then Christopher’s inside The Quad, New Kingston. That included a post-performance interview, one of the two or three times I have spoken with her. Infallible was (and still is) free and is worth many listens, as I personally testify.
However, in terms of literary merit, I invite you to read the lyrics to a couple songs from Infallible, including the title track, especially relevant to those of us who are trying to be decent parents. Analysis is up to you, I won’t try to tell you what to think:
I don’t always know what’s best... I make mistakes too And I’m not tryin’ to mess with your happiness
I just don’t want life to break you
And you’re probably smarter than I’ve ever been...
But you never seen the things I’ve seen, no
And you’ve never been as low as I’ve been
I don’t always know what’s right, I’m playing this by ear child And I’m not trying to dictate your life
To say that would not be fair child
You’re the last person on this earth I’d ever lie to
You should know, every time you’re hurt, I’m gonna cry too cry too You should know, every time you’re hurt I’m gonna cry too cry too And let me say in my defence, That it’s all love And sometimes Mama don’t make no sense But it’s all love I know you thinkin’ I’m getting old
And I’m a little bit out of touch
And you hate the way that I cling You try to get out of my clutch But it’s because I care so much All of life will come in time Just wait till you’re older I’ll do my best to stick around I’ll have your back and you’ll have my shoulder
Cause I can’t stop things going wrong
And, innocence don’t last too long Maybe I’m not infallible I’m only human I used to frustrate your grandma too That much is true, man So maybe I might fail to tell you which way to go
But can I please share the things that I know
Please, let met share the little I do know...
Then how about I’m Still Alive, in which she reverses the accustomed tale of HIV transmission in a committed partnership, from male to female. We only have space for the narrative, opening verse and the chorus: Johnny was a good man Had two kids and a beautiful wife Johnny was a good man Had two kids and a beautiful wife
He loved her very much, she was the pride of his life
He would never do anything to cause her pain
Unfortunately for him though, she never saw it quite the same
Johnny was busy giving her everything he had to give
And in return she gave him a test that came back positive
The news spread like wildfire and pretty soon
Johnny would walk through the door and he would empty the room
His boss said I want to keep you Johnny but my hands are tied
God knows I’ve tried but nobody wants to work by your side
And you’ve been an asset to us Johnny I’m indebted to you
So tell me, what would you have me do?” And Johnny said Why don’t you empathise? Walk a mile in my shoe What you want me to do if I were you
How can you watch me live in pain if your love can heal me?
Touch me every day, how can you not feel me After everything I gave I can’t believe you’re digging my grave
There is more. Much more. Look up the lyrics or listen to the caustic look at supposed success in, Itty Bit O Money; a neglected but still loving wife’s plea in Try Me; Train of Thought (Get On It); the hilarious Luv at First Grind; and don’t leave out Siddung pon It (that one is for Adults only). For good measure, look back at the Rebelution album and Do You Still Care?, a song about discrimination which should be required listening at the high-school level (I suspect Ms Stephens and I have differing views on homosexuality, but I did not say I agree with her entire world view. Her skill is superb).
Tune of the week: take a listen to, Do You Still Care? at www.youtube.com/watch?v=2 SsaGqeGoVg.
Tanya Stephens performs at We Are Reggae, held at Doctor’s Cave Beach, Montego Bay, St James, last Saturday.