Be­hold the great literature of Tanya

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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 SsaGqeGoVg.

Tanya Stephens per­forms at We Are Reg­gae, held at Doc­tor’s Cave Beach, Mon­tego Bay, St James, last Satur­day.

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