Monthly Archives: June 2017


Altering the Soundscape of New York City

Altering the Soundscape of New York City

 

Author Danielle Brown reflects on Radio Station WLIB which provided the Soundtrack of her youth and more…. This extract was taken from her latest work, East of Flatbush, North of Love: An Ethnography of Home which will be featured in a Community Discussion in celebration of Caribbean American Heritage Month on Tuesday June 13, 6.00 pm @ Medgar Evers College with Roger Toussaint, former president of the Transport Workers Union Local 100, Dr. Lawrence Waldron, City College, CUNY and, the author, Dr. Danielle Brown.

Dr. Brown reflects on Radio Station WLIB which provided the Soundtrack of her youth and more. This extract was taken from her latest work, East of Flatbush, North of Love: An Ethnography of Home.

…..

“This is D. Brown rocking the mic for you. Caller, can I take your request? Hello?”

“Hello?”

“Hello. Yes. Caller, you’re on the air. Can I take your request?”

“Yes. Dis is Marcia. I want yuh tuh play ‘Ah Home’ by Iwer George, and I wanna send ah shout out to Mammy, Stacy, and Brian back home in Tunapuna. Big up TnT massive!”

“Ok. Thank you, Marcia, for calling in. Yes. Big up to all of Trinidad and Tobago and to the entire West Indian massive! Marcia, here is your request, and you know anywhere soca playin’, ‘Ah home!’”

* * *

Danielle Brown at May 14 book signing

A lot of the music that David and I listened to at home came from the radio, and Caribbean music was no different. Popular stations, like 98.7 Kiss FM, that mostly aired R&B and hip-hop dedicated some air time each week to playing Caribbean music. But perhaps the strongest radio presence for Caribbean music during my youth was WLIB 1190 AM, which specifically catered to the West Indian community. It was through this radio station that one could hear the voices of the West Indian diaspora in New York City.

Through WLIB we listened to much more than just music. In the early 2000s, I started studying the station and noting various aspects of its programming. The station aired talk shows and commercials for products and events catering to the needs of West Indians living in the city. WLIB advertised health-conscious events, such as walks for prostate cancer, as well as programs for budding entrepreneurs, like those offered by the Small Business and Development Center at Baruch College. There were frequent promotions for popular Caribbean nightclubs, like the Elite Ark, and advertisements for Travelspan, a travel agency specializing in trips to and from the West Indies. Major corporations such as Burger King, JC Penney, and First Republic Mortgage Bank sought to broaden their clientele base by advertising to a West Indian audience via the station and using (with the exception of JC Penney) persons with unequivocally West Indian accents as the speakers in their commercials.

In many ways, WLIB was crucial in crystallizing the West Indian community in New York. DJs would implicitly define the community by the music they played and the islands they would “big up” (or shout out) on the air. Musical programming played a vital role in creating bonds (or breaking them) within the West Indian community. There were times when, as a young girl, I felt that WLIB did not play enough calypso and soca, and that my heritage was being marginalized in favor of reggae and dance-hall, a sentiment that was echoed by others.

My friend Tiffany, whose father is Trinidadian and mother Honduran, once told me she used to feel slighted by WLIB’s programming:

When WLIB used to play more…specifically Jamaican music, you know…I used to be like sitting there just waiting to hear some…music from my country and it would be…one in between four reggae songs.

However, I should note that WLIB’s programming became more inclusive over the years and consisted of music not only from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Barbados, but also St. Vincent, Grenada, and Haiti as well. WLIB even began including a program—“Indo-Caribbean Today” with Amit Parasnath—dedicated to the East Indian community, which aired every Sunday morning from eight to ten. In many ways, the station grew to reflect the changing dynamics of the West Indian community in New York City.

While the music disseminated via WLIB helped to create bonds between different members of the West Indian community in New York, there were other aspects of the station’s programming that helped to foster a sense of community. WLIB provided broadcasts to and from several West Indian countries, allowing listeners to hear live radio from their respective homelands and communicate with loved ones back “home.” Listeners who called in to the radio program were able to send greetings and messages to family members living in their country of origin. Being able to communicate with loved ones was extremely important for many listeners, as talking to loved ones via the radio offset the cost of calling home directly, which in those days had the potential to be extremely expensive.

Equally important to listeners was the ability to receive up-to-date news information from their respective home countries, as well as general news information from the West Indies. Tiffany said she liked WLIB in part because “as the day progresses, you actually get to hear international news, or news with a specifically West Indian perspective, which makes me feel a little closer to home. You know what I mean? It gives me a feeling of nostalgia.”

Together, the musical and non-musical aspects of WLIB, as well as those of several pirated stations that emerged over the years catering to the West Indian community, served to create a space where West Indians in New York could feel connected to their native lands from the privacy of their own homes. The music and information flowing from these stations contributed to altering the soundscape of New York City, bringing immigrants and first-generation Americans closer to “home.” These radio stations created an environment that allowed many West Indian immigrants to simultaneously inhabit multiple spaces. For example, West Indians who live “ah foreign” could metaphorically occupy the space of their homelands through music, despite the reality that many would never be able to return home again.

Fortunately for me, my parents had their “papers,” which meant they could leave the country freely without fear of being barred from re-entering. My father would only return to Trinidad once during my childhood, and I was almost thirty years old before we touched Trinidad soil at the same time. However, my mom made several trips to Trinidad during my youth, taking my brother and me on several of them. It was important that we learned about the land of her birth.

East of Flatbush, North of Love, is available for purchase at www.mypeopletellstories.com


Maurice Bishop’s 1983 Hunter College Speech, an Historical Turning Point   Recently updated!

BDN Intro

Great speeches have marked pivotal historical turning points in the life of movements. A sampling of these great speeches are Sojourner Truth’s “Aint I a Woman” (1851), Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” (Washington D.C., 1963), Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie 1963 speech delivered to the United Nations (popularized in the Bob Marley song “War”), Dr. Eric Eustace Williams’ 1960 “March in the Rain” speech (demanding the return of Chagaramas), Fidel Castro’s “History Will Absolve Me” (1961), and Ida B. Wells’ “This Awful Slaughter” (1909).

Grenada’s revolutionary leader Maurice Bishop’s June 5, 1983, speech to an overflowing and highly enthusiastic crowd at Hunter College in NYC belongs in league with such significant speeches. Grenada had only recently celebrated the 4th anniversary of the March 13th, 1979 revolution and while still extraordinarily popular among the Grenadian people and among supporters worldwide, fissures were beginning to become evident within the revolutionary leadership. In the speech, Bishop outlined the extraordinary gains of the process but also highlighted the unrelenting pressures of U.S imperialism on the aspiring but vulnerable microstate.

This special Big Drum Nation issue will feature three aspects of this reflection: I) an analysis of the man and the moment (revolutionary leader Maurice Bishop and the conjuction of history), II) a personal reflection (multimedia) by the then Ambassador to the United Nation, Caldwell Taylor, on some of the behind the scenes factors that foretold the subsequent implosion of October 1983 and finally III, reflections from some  attendees of the historic June 5th event. – BigDrumNation

We hereby present the first of these three installments:

The Anatomy of a Man: Maurice Bishop & 5th June, 1983 – Al Rougier

by Atiba Rougier

I don’t use the words “political figure” to describe Maurice Bishop for many reasons but the most pressing of them is this: I see humanity in his leadership through his words, his speeches and the manner in which he lived his life, even to the very end as he stood against the cemented wall at Fort Rupert on 19th October, 1983. Within the colonial walls where he died, he once stood being honoured as Comrade and prime minister of the People’s Revolution. After speaking with Caldwell Taylor, former Prime Minister Tillman Thomas, Liam James, Annie Bain and Sylvia Belmar amongst many others, the man [Maurice], is more prevalent and interesting to me than the “political figure” the world sees and assumes to know.

Last summer I spent hours on the telephone conducting interviews and having conversations with local Grenadians, international journalists and scholars and what I’ve gathered is that Maurice was misunderstood in many ways. Because of this, when I am alone, in moments of sacred silence, I think aloud and I call him Boo Radley—To Kill a Mockingbird. Boo was misjudged but he was one of the silent heroes of Harper Lee’s prolific novel—if not the ultimate hero, next to Atticus Finch. Boo is special because he saved Scout and Gem from the racist prejudicial mob of Maycomb County and reminded us [the readers] of the harm that can be done when we misjudge and prejudge individuals based upon societal biases. He was a good man who people didn’t understand because they didn’t know him—prejudgments clouded their vision and they made misguided assumptions about him, which during his lifetime, Maurice empathised with. Even now that he is no longer with us in this tangible world of sights, sounds, tastes and smells, Maurice is still misunderstood and discussed in the lens of a political figure rather than a son, father, brother, husband or a friend.

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Many of the individuals closest to Maurice and who knew him well died alongside their friend and comrade—the others either died from natural causes or remain tight-lipped, traumatized from the events of October 1983, on that small isle of spice. Compiling a biographical composition of an individual thirty-three years later under these conditions poses a challenge. The loved ones who are left are either extremely distressed and don’t wish to talk and others weren’t close enough to Maurice to give substantial details on his character or who he was. However, in 2007, ten years ago, I stumbled upon a news article marking the 24th Anniversary of Maurice’s assassination. In it, his friend describes the final two days of Maurice’s life, from visiting him on the 18th during his house arrest to being jolted by the sound of machine guns on the 19th coming from Fort Rupert:

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To historically understand revolution and armed overthrow as a discourse, one must examine the men at centre stage. The ones who started it, the ones who fought for it, and the ones who later died for it. By studying these men one can understand the systematic successes and failures of political rebellion, in this case Maurice Bishop, the NJM, and the Grenada Revolution. Constructing an image of a man through an archaeological narrative is demanding. It is even more uninviting when this man did not leave a journal or diary behind [or they were destroyed]. His printed speeches are the relics of a distant past that I’ve combed through searching for flesh, blood, and emotions to separate the political figure from the man. I have ravaged through his written words searching for clues of his sensibility and consciousness to understand what he thought, what he felt, and what he desired—those entities of personality are absent from the pages in hand. It is hard reading his speeches in today’s climate because retrospectively, the artistic manipulation and effective use of words and discourses are poignantly clear and ever present.

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The histories we’ve inherited—what does it mean to inherit history and what is the responsibility of the inheritor? It is with this historical umbilical cord I’ve attempted to answer these questions—who was Maurice Bishop? What did the revolutionary fighters know about Maurice? What did counter-revolutionary populace know about Maurice? What did ‘children of the revo’ know about Bishop? What do the ‘babies of the revolution’ know about Maurice? Not much! Therefore, it is safe to assume that Maurice Bishop is the Boo Radley of the Grenadian Revolution. I am fascinated by the idea of the relationship between Maurice and his father, Rupert, and how early events shaped his political trajectory?

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The political figure of Maurice is as polarizing as Rome’s Mark Antony and Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto. All these political icons are considered charismatic, eloquent, charming, courageous but their most prominent trait seems to be their political ascension through the politics of death, revolutionary fervour, absolute courage and determination, incomparable ambition, democratic hypocrisies and their untimely and almost fatalistic, violent deaths. Given that Maurice died abruptly and suddenly, there is no autobiographical or biographical text related to his life and legacy, or who he was as a man (son, father, brother and friend) but only the man in his shirt-jack standing next to other Latin American or Caribbean radical/Marxist/Communist leaders during the Reagan Administration of the 1970s and 80s. And it is in this image, standing next to Fidel and Manley and Ortega that he has been unfairly embalmed within the pages of World History, though, he was unlike the others because he was uniquely Maurice, as demonstrated in this photo:

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I happily struggle to compose a photo of Bish or Bishy or Maurice or M.B. or Dad or friend, as he was loving called by loved ones and those who addressed letters to him “Dear Maurice” and who closed with signatures like: “Take care of yourself. Warm regards….”  As previously stated, in many ways Maurice reminds me of Boo Radley because I believe that Maurice was a man misunderstood. A man who embodied goodness but was grotesquely misrepresented because of the hijacking of his leadership by power hungry sycophants. Like Boo, he protected children and fought against injustice and imperialist bullies. I am drawn to the ending scene of To Kill a Mockingbird the more I read about Maurice. I am reminded of the final dialogue between Atticus and Scout and Scout’s question to him, “Well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?” Like the mockingbird, it was a sin to kill Maurice because all he did was sing to us, like mockingbirds do. It is easy to cast blame and call him names because of his associates and political alliances. To continue using Harper Lee’s classic as a marker for understanding the massacre on 19th October, 1983, Scout’s final words echoes true: “Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.” I often wondered about Maurice and attempted to separate the man from the myths and legends about him; however, I have come to the conclusion that just reading and listening to stories about him, is enough—no need to walk in his shoes, I would not be able to stand upright and steady from the weight of what he had to carry.

Letter from Gail

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Today, 5th June, 2017—marks thirty-four years after his eloquent delivery at Hunter College, NYC! This letter (pictured above) speaks to what was delivered…there’s advice as to what he should do or say and the reasons why. Fascinating to put the pieces together for a holistic image of the man versus the political figure.

This project stemmed from multiple conversations with Caldwell Taylor and an e-mail exchange with Martin Felix—they will be presenting an oral piece on their experience on June 5th, they were both present. Caldwell on stage seated behind Maurice as part of his entourage and Martin, in the audience. Here is a photo taken from the YouTube video that captured the illustrious and ominous evening:

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Sunsets & Sailboats,

-A.L.R

Photos: some are mine, some were sent to me by Caldwell Taylor and others were taken from Google Images.

© June 2017