Alpha Boys School…132 years old…with an eye clearly on the future

Alpha

Yesterday was the 132nd  anniversary of Alpha Boys School (a vocational school for young men in Kingston, Jamaica run by the Religious Sisters of Mercy).  For those who love music, Alpha is an almost magical place where many of the unique musical styles that define Jamaican (Ska, Mento, Rock Steady) emerged. 

Today I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Mr. Josh Chamberlain, Special Projects Officer from Alpha.  Josh is on a visit to Canada to continue his successful efforts to build a network of musicians, technicians, educators and lovers of great Jamaican music so that the current success of Alpha can be put on a sustaining path into the future. 

I do not want to get out in front of Josh and his colleagues, but suffice it to say that, if the pieces they are developing come together, there are some very cool things coming from Alpha.  While music will always be the core of the equation, there are plans to evolve Alpha, with its unique facilities and history, into a centre of music technology and innovation.  And in the process, provide Jamaican youth with skills for real jobs that contribute to Jamaica’s future growth.

The plans are very exciting.  It will take lots of support to bring to fruition. 

If you don’t follow them already, please keep your eye on Alpha’s Twitter and Facebook accounts for upcoming developments. 

And if you don’t tune in regularly to their internet radio channel AlphaBoysSchoolRadio.com then do so immediately!  If you are Jamaican, you will recognize the tunes and styles and be transported back home.  And for the rest of us (who just wish we were Jamaican) it will have you calling the travel agent to make a booking to visit. 

Alpha Boys School Radio is your passport to Jamaican Music.  And Alpha Boys is on a path to bring more and more success to the youth who study there and more and more of Jamaica to the world. 

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That Jamaican Vybz: No Redemption

While on assignment in Jamaica there were several issues (i.e. the reluctance of the many Churches in the country to take on domestic and child violence with the same ferocity as they do homosexuality; the widespread violent tendencies within some communities in Jamaica) that I tended to avoid taking up.  This is probably as my views on them were either not fully formed (or informed) or that pursuing them would not advance the cause of representing Canada in the country.  Now out of government harness, I want to raise one of them.

What is it about Jamaica/what does it say about Jamaica that a large segment of the youth (particularly poor, ghetto youth) see a hero in the convicted murdered Mr. Adidja Palmer a.k.a. Vybz Kartel?  Why is it, alongside all the efforts in Jamaica to build a better society, he is still glorified by fans (including, apparently, (and I hope I have this wrong) the great Jamaican athlete Usain Bolt and politicians such as the PNP’s Dwayne Vaz ) and the media?  Why is it possible for him to grow richer by the day as he churns out a seemingly endless catalogue of new dancehall hits from prison that go to the top of the charts and win him Jamaica Youth View Awards?

My biases first…I don’t particularly like Mr. Palmer’s music, or dancehall in general (I prefer the Rock Steady, Ska, or Reggae form of Jamaican musical expression).  And, I genuinely believe in the necessity for societies to make provision for the rehabilitation of criminals in their care and custody.

Convicted in 2014 for the brutal murder of an associate, and sentenced to 35  years in prison, Mr. Palmer certainly appears have got what he deserved.  There is no denying, however, that his current existence must be unpleasant.  I have been inside Jamaican prisons and they are horrific places. I don’t even wish them even on hardened criminals.

Mr. Palmer’s continuing success in the music business, despite his incarceration, might seem strange at first.  However, it must be remembered that Canada and other international donors have worked with the Jamaican authorities and with NGOs to improve prison conditions and to improve the opportunities for rehabilitation, including through the installation of rudimentary music recording equipment to provide inmates an outlet for energy and opportunities for the future.  He, and others, in prison appear to be making good use of these facilities.  Although it would also appear that Mr. Palmer can also count on a significant business and production support system outside of prison to help him with the production, distribution and marketing.

During my assignment in Jamaica my wife and I took personal interest in the justice and prison system in Jamaica.  For example we supported efforts to screen “Song of Redemption”, an excellent film that highlights conditions in prisons and the need for rehabilitation for offenders.  The film, by Nice Time Productions, provides graphic reportage on conditions in prison as well as the positive potential for music to create conditions for rehabilitation and redemption.

So, by rights, I should be pleased with the efforts of Mr. Palmer while in prison to continue his trade and to try to better himself.   But I am not.  Why does it bother me so much?

I guess it is because there appears to be no attempt at redemption here. Convicted of murder, there is no remorse.  Mr. Palmer simply continues as before; recording and making money (reports on his net worth vary from USD$1 Million to USD$5.5 Million).  Where does this money go?  To support his family? or back into the criminal underworld where he was, and I gather still is, such a dangerous figure?

Mr. Palmer continues to spread a message that brutal violence is an acceptable form of dealing with problems, particularly if you are poor and marginalized.  He continues to encourage the notion, particularly with poor youth, that participation in gangs and criminal syndicates is legitimate and that it is ok to swindle old people out of their life savings through the lottery scam and otherwise because it is a form of reparation. Reparation for the system of slavery that none of today’s youth have ever known, but will gladly identify with. And his fans buy it!  They still believe he is the “cock of the walk”, the “Worl Boss”, and an inspirational, indeed aspirational, figure.  And more mainstream elements of Jamaican media encourage it.  The Jamaica Observer continues to run promotion for his new albums and Loop Jamaica has frequent stories on him.

The question I have is why?  Three  years was not enough time in Jamaica to allow me to figure this out.  I hope that my Jamaican friends might help me to understand.

For now, I find no redemption in Mr. Palmer and, worse,  begin to lose hope in progress in Jamaica while his type has such a hold on Jamaican youth and society.

I will prefer to find it in another musical son of Jamaica, Bob Marley.