One night, an evil spirit held me down
I could not make one single sound
Jah told me, 'Son, use the word'
And now I'm as free as a bird
- Peter Tosh - Oh B@&#o k$&%t (1981)
Every culture, and every language has its expletives and some are, well, more potent than others. The standard Jamaican expletives – lets call them The Cloth Collection – are of the most potent variety and make certain people very uneasy, as they are surrounded by strong social taboos and ideas about propriety. In fact, the public use of indecent language is prohibited under section 9C of The Town and Communities Act, which states, somewhat comically, that:
Any person who shall make on any fence, wall or other building, any obscene figure, drawing, painting, or representation, or sing any profane, indecent, or obscene song or ballad, or write or draw any indecent or obscene word, figure or representation, or use any profane, indecent or obscene language publicly can be subject to a fine not exceeding $1,500 or to imprisonment with or without hard labour, for a period not exceeding thirty days.
It is an example of the sort of colonial, socially oppressive laws, designed at controlling and civilizing the “unruly masses,” that entered Jamaica’s law books in the years around and after Emancipation. I understand that this law, in its original form, dates from 1834 and, although there have been calls for it to be repealed, there has been no action on that to date.
Despite these taboos and prohibitions, expletives are omnipresent in Jamaican life, in ways that cut across class and circumstance. I pride myself that I can curse in six languages, Jamaican included, and that is a facility I use liberally and unapologetically when I spar with the rogue taxis and coaster buses on the Red Hills and Constant Spring roads. And I understand that tirades of expletives are regularly heard in certain government ministries and other halls of power.
Yet the Jamaican creole expletives are seen by many as the ultimately assault on propriety and they rank up there with unruly hairstyles and spaghetti strap tops in public buildings as the sort of social infractions Jamaica’s increasingly strident “moral majority” seeks to curtail, with a sense that all will be lost if their desperate containment efforts fail. I picture the legendary Dutch boy with his finger in the hole in the dike, heroically holding the threatening flood at bay.
What we have to ask, though, is what is perceived to be at stake in a society which, for arguably quite different reasons, already tethers on the brink of anarchy. And if such petty social control efforts effectively quell or fuel the fire. The responses are, at times, extreme and destructive: in 2012, a highly pregnant woman, Kayann Lamont, was shot and killed by a Police officer in Yallahs, St Thomas, during an altercation when he tried to arrest her after she let loose a string of expletives about a stolen phone – a tragic fate that would almost certainly not have befallen an Upper St Andrew denizen involved in a similar incident. For Jamaica’s efforts at social control are, invariably, targeted at the lower classes, whose supposedly inherent “unruly” conduct is regarded as a perennial threat to the established social order.
One thing is sure, most of these social rules are not based on any broad social consensus, as they really should be, but they are articulated and imposed by what is still, for all intents and purposes, a privileged minority which, hypocritically, does not always apply the same standards to itself. The contradictions of Carnival of course come to mind. At the same time, notions about respectability are also internalized by many of those it seeks to corral, and thus produces some of its most strident and missionary advocates, initiated and propagated through the channels of church and school, which only helps to consolidate the social status quo.
I am not suggesting that there should be no social rules, or standards of civility, and that there should be no public order, but that the prevailing laws and rules need to held up to critical scrutiny to ensure that they are fair, reasonable, culturally attuned and socially inclusive, and devoid of needlessly oppressive social agendas. I see no reason, for instance, why the use of expletives should be of any concern to the Law and the security forces, or why there should be such a hysterical and largely irrelevant insistence on “proper” hairstyles and dress codes, at the expense of practicality, in a tropical environment, and of well-established cultural practices, such as the wearing of locks.
There has been heated debate about the origins and significance of Jamaica’s creole expletives, and their references to the female body and menstruation. The most common argument is that they are demeaning of women – and perhaps they do reflect the undeniable misogynistic tendencies in Jamaican culture and the strong taboos that surround female sexuality and bodily functions – but there are also other ways to look at them. One is to ask whether these references are, in fact, necessarily demeaning, and to question why they are regarded that way, and whether they can be turned on their heads to challenge those perceptions (to borrow Ebony G. Patterson’s admonition in her keynote address at the 2015 Edna Manley College graduation). Carolyn Cooper, in a 2013 Gleaner column entitled Divine Jamaican Bad Words, argued a similar case, that the Jamaica’s creole expletives should be regarded as a provocative celebration of the female fertility, rooted in African religions and cultural traditions.
The defiant, spiritual power of Jamaica’s “cloth” words was celebrated in song by the great Peter Tosh, who fully grasped their poetic, socially subversive, and indeed revolutionary potential. And they are, for all sorts of reasons, including this very same defiance, a common occurrence in contemporary dance hall music, with endless controversies, calls for parental guidance ratings, fines, and Police interventions resulting.
But more importantly, we need to remember that Jamaican culture has captured the global imagination exactly because of its powerful, inspiring challenge of the status quo – a rebellious spirit which has become sadly jaded and attenuated in recent decades and for which there is insufficient tolerance and appreciation in Jamaica itself. For the local status quo is not amenable to any real, substantive threats to its ever more entrenched privileged position, which is now fueled and supported by the socially aspirational culture that has overtaken Jamaican society. If Jamaica’s rebel culture is accommodated in that context, it is merely in a cosmetic, co-opted and disempowered manner.
And this takes me to what provoked this impromptu blog post: the 2019 valedictory speech by the Edna Manley College graduate Waldane Walker, who is an actor, which has been the source of intense debate and controversy because he ended his presentation with the words: “Big up unno b#@&&%$t selves.” I was not present at the function (I admittedly avoid public functions in Jamaica because of the routine insistence on endless, ponderous and pointless protocols that turns such events into hostage situations – another exponent of this oppressive “propriety syndrome” I am alluding to). Like many in Jamaica, I first saw the video clip with the final words, which had gone viral on social media before the function was even concluded. It was immediately clear that there would be controversy but it was also clear that Waldane Walker had the support of most, if not all of his fellow graduates, who spontaneously rose from their chairs to applaud and cheer him. It was obvious that he had in fact spoken for them, as a valedictory speech is supposed to do.