A Conversation with Jean “Binta” Breeze

Jamaican-born Jean “Binta” Breeze is an internationally-renown poet, actress, storyteller, dancer, and theatrical director who writes and performs both in standard English and Jamaican patois. She grew up in Patty Hill, a small village in the hills of Hanover before moving to Kingston in 1978 to study at the Jamaica School of Drama, where she met the dub poets Oku Onuora, Mikey Smith, and Mutabaruka. Dub poetry, which is the term used for a poetic style that fuses reggae music with the spoken word, is a transatlantic form that emerged simultaneously in Kingston and London and subsequently spread to more far-flung places like South Africa. Breeze first performed onstage in 1981 with Mutabaruka in Montego Bay and went on to record a number of songs that received airplay on Jamaica’s reggae stations. The British dub poet, Linton Kwesi Johnson, heard Breeze and decided to introduce her to a European audience. She has in lived London since 1985 but spends a few months each year in Hanover to be with her three children.

Although Breeze first achieved international recognition as a dub poet, she cannot be so easily categorized. Finding the reggae rhythm of dub poetry somewhat restricting, she began to experiment with different kinds of musical styles, integrating jazz, blues, mento, and kaiso into her work. Breeze’s published work includes Riddym Ravings (Race Today), Spring Cleaning (Virago), On the Edge of an Island (Bloodaxe), and The Arrival of Brighteye (Bloodaxe). These works not only explore a wide range of personal, social, and political relationships but also grapple with the everyday experiences of ordinary Jamaican women. Using her skills as a storyteller and the emotive power of her voice, she performs the poems rather than simply read them. Breeze recorded Tracks (LKJ Records) with Linton Kwesi Johnson’s back-up band, the Dennis Bovell Dub Band. Her first screenplay Hallelujah Anyhow! was screened at the 1990 British Film Festival and subsequently broadcast on Channel 4. She also played a leading role in the Talawa theater production of The Prayer in London. She has collaborated with the African American female a cappella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock, and Maya Angelou personally chose her to perform at her seventieth birthday. Breeze’s spoken performance to the music of a gospel choir was so powerful and moving that, when it ended, Angelou immediately walked across the stage to embrace her. This interview was conducted in November 2001, on the morning after Breeze performed at the University of California at Los Angeles.

JS: You spoke last night about how you came to be a dub poet. I would like to begin with that because I think that it’s a great story.

JB: Well, I lived for a few years in the hills as a Rastafarian woman, and during that time I was not occupied with writing at all, but was just making up lyrics for a sound system called I.T. Open King Sounds and just chanting all the time and remembering things in my head. And when I came out of the hills, I had a psychotic breakdown, part of which included reacting to everything that was said on the radio. One day I turned on the radio, and it was playing, “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.” Now the bay near us is Montego Bay, so I got on a bus fifteen miles to Montego Bay and sat out on the pier, waiting to see who was waiting for me on the dock of the bay. And I was sitting there writing, when a Rastafarian man came up to me and said—“So! The daughter is a poet!” And I said—“Yes.” And he said: “Would you like to perform at a concert for his Majesty’s [Haile Selassie] ninetieth birthday?” And I said—“Yes.” This was 1980 or 1981, and the next week my name was in the papers as one of the artists in the show. So I saw him again, two nights before the show, and he said, “We’re having a rehearsal with the band.” I said, “Wow, with a band!” So I went to the rehearsal and Mutabaruka, who was already quite a well-known dub poet who had recorded in Jamaica, was a guest artist and was there rehearsing with the band. He liked my poem and he told the band what to do with it musically. He was so interested in the work that he recorded me a couple of weeks later. I was elated. And that’s how I became the first female dub poet.

JS: And after that, you performed regularly at the Reggae Sunsplash?

JB: Yes. I performed there three years in a row—‘83, ‘84, ‘85.

JS: Is that when you first performed “Aid Travels With a Bomb,” your poem that attacked the International Monetary Fund’s recommendations for the economic restructuring of Jamaica?

JB: Yes, yes. It was a couple of years after we signed with the IMF [International Monetary Fund] in 1978. I was concerned about Third World economics because my major field of study had been human economic geography. So when I saw what happened to people’s services on the island in the years that followed signing on with the IMF, I wrote “Aid Travels With a Bomb.”

JS: I feel that much of the criticism you make in that poem is even more relevant in today’s conditions of globalization.

JB: The distance is getting further between North and South, and certainly between the classes in the Third-World countries. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.

JS: What about the rural areas?

JB: The rural areas are completely neglected. Completely neglected. Peasants still do not own the land, you see. And, most of the young people don’t want anything to do with working in the fields. One, they don’t own the land; two, the crops don’t provide any kind of an income, which is why marijuana became such a popular crop to grow because it was the only way that young people could actually earn some money from planting. So the rural areas have been completely depopulated, either by migration into the urban areas or by migration to America and England. There are a lot of ghost towns.

JS: Can you name some?

JB: Well, in Patty Hill, the village I come from, the majority of the people just aren’t there anymore. Everybody is abroad.

JS: The same could be said for Caribbean writers. What is so striking about the Caribbean as a region is how many of its writers live abroad. Even someone like Louise Bennett, who was one of the first poets to use the Jamaican language in her work, now lives in Canada.

JB: Well, these are small islands with little resources and therefore the last thing that gets supported is the arts. Reggae has made an industry for itself, and because of its popularity internationally, reggae artists make a living from touring. Also, tourism has allowed reggae to actually flourish on the island. But poetry is not a popular art; novels are not popular art form. So whereas the music is surviving, the other arts do not.

JS: Is this why you moved to Britain?

JB: Yes.

JS: But you spend half your year in Hanover?

JB: Yes.

JS: And this decision has to do with. . .

JBB: With my children.

JS: Your children, I see. But in the sense the necessity . . .

JB: The necessity for me to be in England is purely economic.

JS: Although you have lived in Britain since 1985, your poems are very much rooted in rural Jamaica. You also travel back and forth between Britain and Jamaica because your children did not emigrate with you. Diaspora carries with it questions of home, belonging, and movement. Can you talk about what it means to live in two places?

JB: I find it very confusing, practically schizophrenic. It’s really, really hard to try to live in two places, and I think the main problem with living in London is one, the distance from the Caribbean and two, the weather. Apart from that, it might have been possible to live there because there’s such a strong West Indian community. I mean, it’s a metropolis, London, so you can actually feel pretty much at home, especially in Brixton where most of the West Indian people live. You can have a sense of community and a sense of belonging, if it weren’t for the dastardly weather, you know. But I didn’t go to England until I was thirty, so I’m not like people who maybe grew up there or had an education there or built up family and friends there. All my family is still in Jamaica, so I find it really, really difficult to be away from Jamaica and at the same time, while I’m in Jamaica, it’s extremely difficult to make a living. So I’m kind of caught in a trap, which I call “the Atlantic trap.”

JS: So you are forced to straddle the two worlds. When you talk about Brixton being almost West Indian, would you say that Black Britain is largely an urban phenomenon?

JB: Yes, it’s definitely urban. I mean, rural England has very few black people.

JS: So, in a sense, you are living between an urban West Indian existence in Britain and a rural one in Jamaica. And these are the two worlds that co-exist, if only schizophrenically as you say, in your poems. Do you think that if you had been more successful at recording music you would have been able to stay in Jamaica as Mutabaruka and some of the other dub poets did?

JB: Well, the people who still live there make all their money from touring.

JS: But Mutabaruka has also recorded a number of albums, which of course allows him to tour. How would you describe your place in the recording industry as a woman performer?

JBB: I haven’t done as much as I could have, because I didn’t like the music business. It was really kind of hard not having proper management and the business skills to enter that world. So I fell back onto the literary establishments and started publishing more than recording. But one of my favorite things is still performing on stage with a band.

JS: And you still tour?

JB: Yeah, I still do that.

JS: And where do you play?

JB: I go mainly to Italy.

JS: But you did record Tracks (1991), where you work with a lot of different kinds of rhythms. I see in this album the break you made with dub poetry in terms of strictly using reggae beats.

JB: Which is why the album didn’t sell (laugh), because it has jazz, it has blues, it has reggae . . .

JS: But I wonder if its failure to sell has more to do with marketing.
JBB: Well it couldn’t be marketed as reggae, and it couldn’t be marketed as jazz. The music business needs you to say what label you’re coming under.

JS: You mention in a short piece you wrote—“Can a dub poet be a woman?”—that the American company that recorded your earlier songs did not want to record your album because they thought your work had become too personal.

JB: I think it was just the woman’s voice they did not like, because my early works like “Aid Travels with a Bomb” and “To Plant or Not to Plant” and so on were overtly political and not talking about women doing the laundry and bringing up the children. So once I started writing women’s domestic dub, it was considered too personal.
JS: It shows how strongly gendered the form is, doesn’t it? But I actually find what you call “domestic dub” to be some of your most powerful work. These poems are clearly indebted to Louise Bennett and the way that she appropriated an English poetic form, the dramatic monologue, for giving voice to Jamaican experiences. She also transformed the form by making its iambic pentameter accommodate the lilt and rhythm of the Jamaican language. What is equally impressive about your work is your use of both Jamaican and English for expressing an incredible range of characters. What comes closest to mind for me is theater.

JB: Theater is my background. I’m a trained actress, and I’ve worked as a director. I’ve worked as a choreographer in a theater. I mean, acting is one of my first loves. And I think that I write so many dramatic monologues because I’m searching for lines that ask me to use all the acting skills I possess. There are very few roles in the theater for women like me, ones that ask everything of you.

JS: So you’re writing your own roles?

JB: I’m writing my own characters, in a way.

JS: Are these characters based on people you’ve known or seen? It is not as if they are all version of yourself or even different kinds of women. You assume the voice of a cocky young man in “Hustler Skank,” a psychotic pregnant woman in “Riddym Ravings,” a little girl in “The Arrival of Brighteye,” and retired Calypso man in “Ole Warrior.” You literally become these characters. They are all very different from yourself, and the closest performance that comes to mind is Anna Deavere Smith, who actually goes out and interviews people and bases her characters on these scripts. But that’s not what you’re really doing, is it?

JB: I actually hear voices. When I start writing, I actually hear them speaking. It comes in one go. I don’t have to think about it or interview people. But then I know all of these people so well. I’ve always been a people’s person. I’m completely inspired by people in what I do. If you ask me why I write, I’d say it’s because I hear voices and I find it really easy to do. It’s not just theater for me in terms of performing what I’ve written. It’s also theater for me in terms of getting into the role to write the voice in the first place.

JS: In your most recent collection, The Arrival of Brighteye and Other Poems, there’s an extended narrative that cuts across several of the poems. This work, more strongly than any of your previous collections, takes up questions of immigration and diaspora through this extended narrative. I know that the signature poem was commissioned by the BBC for the fifty-year celebration of the arrival of the Empire Windrush, which was the first ship to bring postwar immigrants from the West Indies to Britain. Did the collection grow around the commissioned poem or is this where your own work has arrived after living sixteen years in Britain?

JB: Well I’m now talking more to my audience in England, who are still West Indian, and beginning to tell their stories, having come from the other half of it, really, but now recognizing the stories that are important to the half that has migrated as opposed to the half that stayed home.

JS: There is an explicit sexuality to this collection right down to the language, with its punning and word play, that is also present in your earlier your poems but not so extensively. Is this a stage in your writing that is influenced by the intimacy you have with your audience?

JB: This is one of those things that the distance from home and time away from home allows, because I don’t think I would have written about women’s sexuality so explicitly if I had been living in Jamaica, where you don’t get explicit about that kind of thing. But I think that is one of the freedoms that living in a place like England allows. It’s definitely English in that sense, even though the experiences I’m writing about are Jamaican.

JS: How do the women in your audience in England respond to your new work?

JB: They love it, they love it, yeah.

JS: Dancehall music, which is also sexually explicit, has been criticized for how its overt sexuality is expressed through the denigration of women. You have poems like “Get Back” which are critical of DJ slackness, then you have others like “Dubwise” which also show how women are empowered by dancehall culture. There appears to be a doubleness in your commentary on dancehall culture and women’s sexuality.

JB: I think the whole Caribbean is naturally schizophrenic (laugh), and most of all about sex. I think it’s one of the most sensual, sexual set of people, but with more hang-ups and still very Victorian about their sexuality. So you have a kind of freedom and spontaneity about the body, and at the same time all kinds of dogma and taboos about different kinds of sex, or the nature of the sex you are having, or who you’re having sex with. I think it’s a schizophrenia that stems from the meeting of Europe and Africa in the first place, which can sometimes be a perfect blend and sometimes can be completely destructive. And I think it shows up most strongly in sex. So you have Lady Saw, for example, who is very explicit in her sexual lyrics and is loved by the majority of Jamaicans. Yet, there is the whole social establishment that says she must be banned from the stage for the kind of lyrics she’s performing. And then you have a man like Beenie Man, who sings completely sexually about women, yet his audience is full of women that love him and think that he’s the greatest thing that ever happened. You have poets like me talking about how slackness is degrading to women, and at the same time it’s all women who are jumping up to the slackness at the dancehall. So it’s really hard to kind of say that there’s a true line. I do find it very schizophrenic, and that’s a word that I use a lot. (laugh) My current work is getting much more sexual. I think it’s about time. It’s critical for Caribbean women poets to explore their sexuality a lot more rather than allowing the men to define women’s sexuality without the women. Lady Saw is an exception. In her we see how Jamaican women are beginning to define their own sexuality on stage. And I am also, in a way, doing the same. In a few of the poems which will be in my next collection, I write about the sexual desires and the sexual strengths of the Caribbean woman. And so I’m writing a lot of very raunchy poems at the moment. I’m taking that on.

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