Ellis helping Trench Town by getting a PhD
“Iwas born and raised in Trench Town,” educator, actor, comedian and poet Owen ‘Blakka’ Ellis said. “And I lived there until I was 16, when our house was firebombed in a political upheaval that changed the entire community forever.”
That was the dramatic beginning of a presentation Ellis made recently to a small group of students and lectures from the Institute of Cultural Studies (ICS) at the University of the West Indies. Speaking with passion born of sincerity, he told his audience that helping Trench Town was just as important to him as getting the doctorate he was working towards.
When I spoke to him the Tuesday before, he was actually engaged with both projects — training two Trench Town residents, Jermaine Mallette and Rachel Allen, in his research techniques. They include interviewing and videorecording residents. Learning the skills would, of course, benefit the two, while the material collected would help Ellis.
Repeating what he told the ICS group, Ellis explained that he wanted to stay out of the faceto-face interviewing as much as possible so that residents’ perception of him as an entertainer would not interfere with their responses. “I don’t want them to think it’s another Ity and Fancy Cat Show,” he said, referring to the popular television series which he often wrote sketches for, occasionally appeared in, and which his company produced.
Some other well-known personalities from Trench Town, a community which arguably has produced more famous people than any other in Jamaica, are cricketer Collie Smith, Rastafarian Elder Mortimer Planno, and musicians Joe Higgs, Lord Tannamo and Dean Fraser. Those men are on Ellis’ list of “five lesser known” celebrities. His A-list would no doubt be headed by Bob Marley.
The data Ellis receives from his assistants will be used for two purposes. One, to write his PhD thesis, ‘Trench Town Talks: A Site of Exodus, Exile and Pilgrimage’, which he hopes to finish in a few years.
EMPOWER THE COMMUNITY
“I’ll be Dr Ellis by 2020,” he predicted. The community will also benefit. Ellis told me, “After analysing the data, I’ll take it back to the community to share, asking, what do you feel about it? What do you want to do with it? My intention is to use the decades of experience I have as a community animator to empower the community to change the narrative or their lives — or improve it. They should decide their own destiny.”
He continued: “The research is not just to serve me and get me a degree, It’s to serve residents of the area. I want to go beyond extracting content and literature from the community. My study and final work is just a preliminary.”
That final product, he said, won’t be a book or essays for a journal. He is planning “a performance portfolio,” along the lines of the DVD he produced for his master’s degree from York University in Ontario, Canada.
As an insider-outsider, a former resident who was forced out of the area, but one who keeps going back in various capacities, (for example, he served as chairman of his primary school board), Ellis is interested in hearing from those who left or were exiled, and those who have stayed. ”Why?” is a recurring research question, he said. Why did you come here? Why are you still there? Why did you come back? Why do you insist on staying even though things get rough? He wants to know what residents think of both the big and small incidents — like political involvement and Beyoncé riding through Trench Town on a bike. And, he insists, “The research is to produce knowledge and serve the community in a real way.”
Owen ‘Blakka’ Ellis.