El­lis help­ing Trench Town by get­ting a PhD

Jamaica Gleaner - - ENTERTAINMENT - Michael Reck­ord/ Gleaner Writer

“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.


“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.

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