Late last year, the cultural arm of the United Nations, UNESCO designated Kingston, Jamaica as a “Creative City.” The then Ministry of Tourism and Entertainment lobbied hard for this, and the Tourism Enhancement Fund reportedly put up J$3.4 million in support of these efforts. So, this is all good stuff. It’s a good selling point.
I have a little quibble, though. The Creative Cities Network comprises 116 cities in 54 countries covering seven creative fields: Crafts & Folk Art, Design, Film, Gastronomy, Literature, Music and Media Arts. Each city is recognized for only one of these fields, however. Kingston is in the Music category, alongside Bogota, Colombia and Salvador, Brazil in the Latin American region. Oddly, no city in the U.S. has yet been designated a “musical city.” Well, a few spring to mind. Maybe they will get round to New Orleans, Nashville, Memphis, Chicago…
But I digress. The web page for Kingston (at https://en.unesco.org/creative-cities//node/352) is still under construction, and so far features a random photo of a reggae concert. There is no doubt that Kingston is the “Home of Reggae” (and, I might add, the oft-neglected yet related genres of mento, ska and rocksteady. At least, they are quite neglected in Jamaica, these days – except for mento bands at all-inclusive hotels on the north coast). Most of the emphasis is on the Marley legacy, at least as far as marketing is concerned; as landmarks, we have Tuff Gong Studios, the “government yard” in Trench Town, the over-priced Bob Marley Museum, Alpha Boys’ School and still a few of the old-style record stores and recording studios. So it is understandable that tourism officials should jump at the opportunity to market Kingston as a great destination for music fans. After all, the Tourism Ministry still insists on recycling lines from Marley songs as tag lines in their marketing. Come to Jamaica and “get all right” is their clumsiest slogan yet.
I am not at all dissing reggae (nor the dancehall phenomenon, which still appears to be alive and kicking in some form or other) and I acknowledge that I’m no expert on modern Jamaican popular music. But hey, doesn’t Kingston represent anything else, culturally? I do believe so. I am disheartened to see the Creative Industries arm of JAMPRO – the Jamaican Government investment arm – focusing almost entirely on reggae music and film (Film? I have never been convinced).
Kingston, Jamaica needs to step up its cultural game generally, and across the board. Why do I say this? Well, for one thing: Our nearest neighbors in Cuba are well and truly on the map. Their historic Gran Teatro just reopened after a three-year refurbishing program. Our historic Ward Theatre is literally crumbling; be careful not to stand too near in case you get hit by falling plaster. If we’re talking film, a bevy of Hollywood actors and directors attended the 37th International Festival of New Latin American Cinema in Havana last December. I saw a photo of Don Cheadle relaxing at a street café. He might have flown to a secret destination here in Jamaica for a vacation, but to hang out with other film people, possibly scouting a location…?
Yes, our tourism interests can continue to dwell on Bob Marley – and Usain Bolt (both country boys, who made their fame and fortune in the city) if they wish. I would like them to include in an active way other aspects of our Kingston culture, not just on a website calendar. There are many other cultural delights to explore in our capital city.
Case in point: The visual arts, which I believe have been much neglected and under-appreciated in the last ten years or so. The Edna Manley College is bursting with artistic talent, right now, waiting to find outlets for expression. I applaud the National Gallery of Jamaica for keeping the banner of Jamaican art flying. There are a few small, low-budget art galleries; but there is much talent, right here in Kingston, as the Paint Jamaica venture, for example, shows. Art and design of all kinds (including our great uptown/downtown fashion designers) is trying to flourish. It’s trying, despite a serious dearth of funding.
Case in point: The literary arts, which despite the huge global success of Kingston-born Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings (winner of the Man Booker Prize) remains the poorest relative of all, while those spoilt brats of culture, reggae and film get all the attention. We have several other writers (Kei Miller, Claudia Rankine to name but two recently) who have won major international awards. Well, 2016 is the year of the Calabash International Literary Festival (not Kingston, admittedly, but a major event on Jamaica’s cultural calendar). It used to run every year; now it’s every two years, and it’s held together by the determination of a small group of dedicated Jamaicans.
Well, OK – Calabash is at least on the Tourism Ministry website. So is Kingston on the Edge (KOTE), a vibrant urban arts festival that includes almost every form of artistic expression (June 17 – 26, this year – mark your calendar!)
The Kingston Book Festival – an intense week of readings, book launches and discussions on the business of books – was not there this year, but I hope it will be come 2017. The Festival ends tomorrow (March 12) with the Kingston Book Fair. There is a well-organized, well run Book Industry Association of Jamaica which engages in practical ventures in support of all aspects of the book business, including local publishers and writers and has a vision for the future. Again, we have some superb established local writers, an enthusiastic and close-knit network of local publishers and a wealth of talent yet to be unearthed. This creative community just needs more public and private sector support.
Then we have the recently established Kingstoon Animation Festival, conference and marketplace – at the aforementioned Edna Manley College for the Visual and Performing Arts, coming up this weekend (March 12-13). Unlike the literary arts, animation is the latest big craze. It’s sexy. The Kingston Book Festival hosted a very successful mixer and brainstorming session for animators, illustrators, writers and more two days ago. The energy was definitely present in the room.
So – JAMPRO has a Department of Creative Industries. Let’s embrace all our creatives, especially Kingston’s young, upcoming artists of all descriptions, and especially (if I may) our young writers. Those government officials may be very pleasantly surprised.
If Bob Marley was alive today, he would be old enough to be their grandfather. We love Bob still… but let’s move on. The future of the arts in Kingston is here and now.