Jamaica is hard to pin down; “the confounding island”, says Orlando Patterson. But appraising prominent citizens can provide societal insights. So who was our most influential personality of the last 10 years?

In sports there is no argument. Usain Bolt is the greatest sprinter of all time, the most globally acclaimed athlete in history, and the most famous living Jamaican ever.

The period 2010 to 2019 saw three prime ministers — Bruce Golding, Portia Simpson Miller, and Andrew Holness. One of our sharpest prime ministers, Golding started well. To be fair, he inherited the “Dudus” dilemma, but he bungled it. He might have rescued his reputation by reinstating the 2010 State of Emergency, as the public wanted. But, mired in Manatt, he resigned to become a great ‘what if’ of Jamaican history.

Simpson Miller held Jamaica together during the start of the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) fiscal compression programme that eventually led to Jamaica’s debt ratio falling from 150 per cent to below 100 per cent. Her empathy with the poor was key to belt-tightening being so calmly accepted. Still, she failed to convert her political capital into permanent change.

“Brogad”, as younger folks dub Holness, is a ‘bilingual’ prime minister. He’s at home with technocratic jargon and street level slang. Having grown up in a board house and attended decidedly non-uptown Spanish Town Primary and St Catherine High, he connects easily with the masses — after all, he grew up as one of them. Whatever his faults, he is the hardest-working prime minister in my experience.

From the outside, he has all the attributes of an outstanding leader, save perhaps a team player outlook — a charge made in the 2013 Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) leadership challenge. Things like operating without an information minister, unlike any previous Administration, make you wonder. Can social media posts replace a properly crafted party narrative? Is his Administration a mere appendage of its leader?

The Opposition People’s National Party (PNP) keeps shooting itself in the foot, and this Government has a strong list of accomplishments — massive infrastructure improvements, record houses built, record low unemployment, and the most stable macroeconomy since the 1960s. All this should earn the JLP another term. However, its communication set-up smacks of “pride goeth before a fall” hubris. Still, vox pops suggest Andrew Holness is the most popular prime minister since Michael Manley, and comfortably ‘politician of the decade’.

Jamaicans have made breathtaking strides in literature, none more so than Marlon James. His A Brief History of Seven Killings won the 2015 Man Booker Prize — the leading literary award in the English-speaking world. Black Leopard, Red Wolf’garnered a 2019 US National Book Award nomination, and made many international top tens. The many other Jamaican authors attaining recent global acclaim include Ishion Hutchinson, Kei Miller, Kwame Dawes, Lorna Goodison, Olive Senior, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Curdella Forbes, and Candice Carty-Williams. Never has Jamaican literature enjoyed such a fruitful period. Someone needs to put this marvellous flowering in perspective for the general public.

Bolt’s 2012 and 2016 triple golds were exhilarating, and Bejing 2008 was his brightest day. But the happiest national moment of the decade was likely Toni-Ann Singh’s out of the blue Miss World 2019 crowning. Nothing is, at once, so ephemeral, and yet so potent as female beauty. “A beautiful woman is the strongest argument in favour of the existence of God,” goes the Italian proverb. Francois Villon lamented, “Tell me where, in which country, Is Flora, the beautiful Roman… Who had a beauty too much more than human? Oh, where are the snows of yesteryear!”

Edmund Burke called beauty “a promise of happiness”, but biologically it signifies fertility and the miraculous continuation of the human race. Sporting contests identify genetically gifted males, and beauty contests are female equivalents. Although with high-tech make-up, hair extensions, facial surgery, and body implants, who can tell natural from manufactured loveliness these days?

Miss World now wisely sells itself as beauty with a purpose, emphasising talent as well as looks. Jamaican women are unquestionably among the most beautiful and gifted on Earth. But what makes them stand out globally is their confidence, as befits the country with the world’s highest percentage of female managers. Toni-Ann’s was a very symbolic triumph of pulchritude, talent and self-assurance.

Now Usain Bolt dominated 2010-2016; Andrew Holness 2016-2019; Marlon James 2014-2019; Toni-Ann Singh 2019, but only one Jamaican reigned supreme in his field for the entire decade, Adidja “Vybz Kartel” Palmer. Since most Jamaicans also clearly consider music their most important area of human endeavour, who else could be our most influential personality of the period?

Younger folks — those below, say, 40 — almost unanimously proclaim Kartel the greatest deejay and lyricist of them all. He has musically ruled the country longer than anyone before, and done it since 2011 while in prison for murder. No Jamaican artiste has ever had such a sustained level of influence. Some describe it as cult-like, and indeed it’s almost impossible to have a sober conversation about his impact, because any criticism risks threats to personal safety. And look at this recent Twitter comment. “He’s even more famous in my country Kenya where the youth gangs worship him like Haile Selassie.” To Jamaicans in 2020 Kartel might seem sui generis. Yet Ted Gioia’s excellent book Music: A Subversive History affirms that aspects of the Kartel persona are universal: “Here we encounter the mischievous attitudes of the trickster, the stylised use of invective and loaded meanings, a brash irreverence, a desire to goad and provoke, a flaunting of community standards, and sometimes shocking profanity.”

“Cellini confesses to 14 different violent crimes… his memoir describes the Pope’s reaction when an advisor suggests the artist ought to be punished for committing a murder… ‘You should know that men like Benvenuto, unique in their profession, need not be subject to the law.’” Free the worl boss, indeed!

None of this is justification for his acts. We now live under the rule of law, not the whims of rulers. Who is convicted of the crime must do the time. It might seem a travesty that Kartel can release music in such volumes and with such ease from behind bars. Yet one of Gioia’s common themes is the inability of authorities to rein in subversive but massively popular musicians. The most common ending on both sides has generally been ‘If you can’t beat ’em join ’em.’

It also struck me that while Gioia was coolly dissecting historical events in retrospect, we Jamaicans are actually witnessing and heatedly debating similar occurrences in real time. For instance, will Kartel really be freed on appeal, as so many are convinced? Would this unleash a free-for-all mentality among our gangs? Would it be black Kartel or bleached Kartel on stage? And, can you imagine the size of the crowds he would draw? This may well prove again, perhaps, that dancehall is a living folk music, and that Jamaica is nothing. if not — for good and for bad — human nature in the raw.

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