Snapshots (July/August 2008)

A brief look at Caribbean people doing extraordinary things

Danny Cipriani during the Guinness Premiership match between Leicester Tigers and London Wasps in March. Photograph by David Rogers/ GETTY IMAGES SPORTFrom left, musician Jahbami, Frederick Morton and Colin Murray of Carib Brewery during Trinidad’s 2008 Carnival. Photograph courtesy LEELASHLEY.COMJah Cure entertains the crowd during a performance in Trinidad. Photograph by David WearsJamaican-born R&B singer Martell Nelson, better known as Razah. Photograph courtesy Def Jam

Razah on the Cutting Edge

He speaks in a distinct New York twang, but when asked if he still identifies with his Jamaican roots, Razah transitions easily into the patois of his native land.

“I am still close to my roots, I still speak Jamaican. I was born in Jamaica but raised in Brooklyn.”

And even though he is billed as Def Jam’s newest R&B star, Razah sees his recent signing-with the label that made Rihanna a superstar-as another success for the Caribbean.

“We’ve been deserving that. This is real big for Caribbean people, to show the shining talent we have. We’re good too, we can sell records too,” he said.

Born Martell Nelson, Razah has been singing since the age of 11. Despite spending his early years in Jamaica, and adopting the edgy street name (“That’s just me being Jamaican”), he favours soulful, emotional songs.

At four, Razah migrated to Brooklyn, USA. While his mother juggled multiple jobs and studies to be a nurse, Razah focused on his music.

“This is something I always dreamt about. This music is something I always did. I give all praises to my mother for taking care of me so I could focus on my music.”

In 2004, Razah developed a professional relationship with his managers Sekou “Hood” Reaves and Gerald “Man” Holman of ManHood Entertainment. They got to work producing music that would eventually land Razah a plum recording contract.

His singles-Feels So Good, a remake of Teddy Pendergrass’ When Somebody Loves You Back, and Where Do We Go From Here-received lots of airplay on radio and in the clubs.

The latter caught the attention of Rihanna, who wanted to sing on the track. During the recording session for the remix, Jay-Z, Def Jam’s then president and Razah’s idol, walked in. Two days later Razah was signed to the label.

The 23-year-old took his big break seriously and immediately went to work on his album. “We’ve been working, we don’t sit around and wait for nothing. When we got signed, we went and recorded the album in two weeks. They were amazed.”

His debut album is soon to be released. The first single, Rain, was released in January. The soulful ballad, in which he yearns for the rain to take him away because he can’t live without his love, was actually inspired by a Trinidadian girl whom he dated in high school.

His intention is to make timeless music and in doing so he writes from the heart on topics that anyone could identify with.

Other songs on the album include Dear Dad, a letter to the father he never knew, and Girlfriend, a reggae-flavoured track with Elephant Man.

Laura Oowric

Local Boy Makes Local

In November 2005, when Frederick Morton started the Caribbean music cable channel Tempo, there were only a handful of artists in a few islands making music videos to help market their sound.

In Jamaica, there was a strong music video culture already, and some of the island’s talented directors had ventured beyond their own shores to collaborate with artists in North America and the UK. There were even locally-run music video stations in operation. In Trinidad, one of the most packed media markets in the Caribbean, the music video was still finding its feet as a promotional device, even as the country’s first music video channel went on the air.

Today, more artists are getting access to airplay than ever before, locally and regionally, and more talent sprouts out of the intersection of music and video production in the Caribbean every year: cameramen become directors, singers become video stars.

Morton, 39, says it was this knowledge that led him to pitch Tempo to MTV Networks executives. His belief that he had an important role to play in getting more of that talent exposed led him to invest his “entire life” into acquiring it from MTV, in December 2007.

Morton went to the US at 17 from his native St Croix and graduated from Rutgers Law School. He has a master’s in public administration from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, as well as a bachelor’s degree in economics from Rutgers College.

As an attorney, he represented Fortune 500 companies, then became corporate counsel for Johnson & Johnson. He joined Viacom Inc (MTV Networks’ parent company) and rose to become chief litigation counsel. At MTV his success led to his appointment as senior vice president.

Now he’s rolled up his sleeves to tackle Tempo’s “liberation.”

“What you have within a structure like MTV Networks is a channel that’s trying to serve a particular community. But in serving that particular community, it has to adhere to certain rules of another community-and you can’t activate when the other community may be more important to them.”

He doesn’t expand on the deal between himself and MTV Networks, but MTVN is reportedly restructuring its cable group in an effort to improve international profitability. Interviewed on a visit to Trinidad, Morton said he had a business plan that was now in its third year.

“What the third year calls for is continuing to build our existing shows … refine and expand

them, add one or two shows.

Downtown Island will see more islands, [and] Live & Direct will continue to put down cultural events in a number of these islands. We’re hoping to develop some programming for kids especially, and a news component will probably arrive at some point … lmagine the first Caribbean tele-evangelist. Imagine Tempo Awards, imagine a Tempo creative arts competition … “

It was a working trip for Morton, who was in Trinidad to do some shooting for Carib (Trinidad’s biggest beer brand). This is how Tempo covers some of its overheads-product placement is one of the marketing devices driving music-channel programming. Cable &: Wireless was the charter sponsor of MTV Tempo, and there isn’t one viewer who is not familiar with the bmobile brand.

“One of the major challenges is economics,” says Morton.

“So some of the things I want to achieve may not happen this year, they may happen in the following year-but the thing is: they will happen.”

He promised that Tempo would continue to invest in cultural events across the Caribbean and intended to bolster its online presence.

Another part of Morton’s plan is to take the channel to North American audiences. He thinks it’s important for the Caribbean music/video production industry to get the right support.

“I’m tired of us talking international all the time. I’m a regionalist. I’m about being self-sufficient … We should be able to live, and live good, always within our region. We are part of a global economy, but it would be great for a Caribbean artist to go platinum in the region-and that’s possible.

“But there is no infrastructure to make that happen, so it’s about building that infrastructure-because if we do, we’ll realise that this idea of foreign and international [being better] has been forced upon us.”

Tracy Assing

A New Beginning for Jah Cure

It’s his voice. More than the melancholy melodies and evocative lyrics, it’s the plaintive pitch of Jah Cure’s voice that has echoed from behind prison walls, across airwaves and into the souls of all who hear it. So powerful is this voice, and the emotion in it, that during the eight years he was imprisoned on charges of rape, robbery and gun possession, the reggae singer’s case became a cause célèbre in Jamaica.

In an incredible story that will go down in reggae history books, a rising roots revival singer was sent to jail-and became a megastar while he was behind bars.

Jah Cure, born Siccaturie Alcock in the parish of St James, had always loved music. As a little boy, he would I sneak out of his house at night to watch the heroes of Jamaica-dancehall and reggae artistes-perform at stage shows and concerts, including Reggae Sunsplash. At 15, he moved to Kingston, where he met Beres Hammond, Sizzla and Capleton, who would baptise him Jah Cure because the youngster smoked so much he had the look of one well-cured.

In 1997 he released a duet with Sizzla called King of the jungle, and his career appeared about to take off.

Then, in the wee hours of the morning of November 16, 1998, a policeman stopped Jah Cure on a street in Montego Bay and asked the young woman with him if Jah Cure was the man who had raped her. In the bitterest twist of irony, it was his voice that sent Jah Cure to prison.

“I was able to identify him because his voice was distinct,” the woman said. “Anywhere I hear that voice, I will always remember it.”

So, at 19, without a jury trial or DNA evidence being submitted, Jah Cure was convicted by a magistrate in Gun Court and sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment. At stage shows and sessions across the island and in music videos, respected performers such as Morgan Heritage punctuated their performances with the cry “Babylon, release the Cure!” To many, Jah Cure’s case seemed to epitomise the injustice and persecution that Babylon (the police and the Establishment) continued to inflict on Rastas and the poor in Jamaica.

But the voice refused to be silenced in jail. Instead of ending his career, prison made a star of Jah Cure. Recording equipment was smuggled into his cell and he was able to release three albums, Free Jah’s Cure (2000), Ghetto Life (2003) and Freedom Blues (2005). They included the mega hits Behind These Prison Walls (Reflection), Longing For, Sticky and Jah Jah Bless Me.

In interviews in jail, he said, “This is a painful situation for all involved, especially the girl. But I am not the cause of her pain. Every night I pray to Jah to find the real person and release me from this terrible condition.”I am now capitalising on all ways possible and building for when I go back out into society. I want to be able to win souls and be a great man. I want to be much better than before … My music brings healing and I am waiting for the time when I can spread this healing across the nation and the world.”

He emerged from Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre in downtown Kingston on July 28 last year (long before the appointed hour, to avoid being mobbed by fans). Two weeks later, he performed for the first time in public at the Reggae Sundance Festival in Eindhoven, Holland, in front of a crowd of 20,000.

In October he gave his supporters at home Curefest, a three-day celebration of his freedom. From there, he toured the Caribbean, drawing crowds of thousands in every country. And at each, the reviews were the same: awesome. Jah Cure exuded a serenity and love that was almost tangible.

In January, he released his fourth album True Reflections: A New Beginning. Who knows where his story goes from here, now that Babylon has released the Cure?

Nazma Muller

Danny Tackles the World

England rugby has been swooning over Danny Cipriani, a 20-year-old whose athleticism, silky handling skills and sheer brilliance have impressed pundits and fans alike.

Some mesmeric performances this season from Cipriani, a fly half who plays for European champions London Wasps, prompted calls for him to replace Jonny Wilkinson-one of the world’s most influential rugby players-on the England team.

It’s ironic that as the West Indies Rugby Sevens team struggled to make an impact at an international rugby competition in San Diego, halfway across the world, there was a world-class player of Trinidadian heritage playing for England against the Italians in the prestigious Six Nations tournament.

As a rugby fan, and London Wasps supporter, I’ve been lucky enough to see this precocious talent in the flesh. On first hearing of him a couple of seasons ago, I wondered whether he might be distantly related to Captain Cipriani, a former mayor of Port of Spain and champion of workers’ rights whose statue stands in the middle of the city.

Danny Cipriani is proud of his heritage and tries to visit Trinidad every year. He jokes that he’s usually the lone white boy when he attends family gatherings there.

Even though his parents Jay and Anne separated shortly after his birth, Cipriani has a close relationship with his father.

“My dad’s always been there to speak to … I’ve got two very loving parents that I’m grateful for,” he told Guardian sportswriter Donald McRae.

Cipriani’s mother has worked hard to give her son a good start. A black-cab driver in London, she boasts about her son to Danny Cipriani during the Guinness Premiership match between Leicester Tigers and London Wasps in March anyone who gets into her taxi.

Although this is slightly embarrassing to the young man, he admits it was thanks to this habit that he got a piece of advice that has helped his career immensely.

“She was told by this man, a passenger, that I should train with Margot Wells [the wife of the former Olympic 100m champion Allan Wells]. And I said: ‘Mum, I haven’t got enough time.’ But I wanted to add another dimension to my game and get quicker, and so I ended up following her tip.”

Cipriani played football at junior level for Queen’s Park Rangers and Reading FC, and also played schoolboy cricket for Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Surrey. It’s not surprising then that he lists cricketer Brian Lara as one of his heroes. He chose rugby because of its “free-flowing” nature, and the way he plays, it looks as if he was born for the sport.

It’s not only his speed, guile and handling skills that impress rugby fans, but his maturity and ability to keep calm under pressure. He attributes this to a willingness to learn from older players and from disappointment. In 2007, Cipriani was part of the initial England squad picked for the Rugby World Cup in France, but was left out of the final squad. Rather than sulk, he returned to training, and since then has been one of the standout players in English rugby’s top division. Sadly, he’s now out of the game for a while, having broken his right ankle in a Wasps match in May.

The praise for this rugby prodigy comes from all quarters. England coach Brian Ashton described him as the finest prospect he has ever seen and Wales coach Warren Gatland (who once coached Cipriani at Wasps) said he has the potential to be “a bigger superstar than Jonny Wilkinson.”

Reports from his team mates indicate that Cipriani has taken all the praise in his stride and his feet remain firmly planted on the ground.

“I want to be an England star one day. But I never want to rest on my laurels. If my ego takes over, the career’s over.”

But being in the spotlight has had some negative repercussions. One Sunday tabloid revealed that a woman with whom he had a brief romp had started life as a man. The newspaper cheekily wrote, “The 20-year-old fly-half had no idea that, before her sex-swap op, the stunner had very different tackle.”

He said it was a mistake anyone could have made, and though he dealt easily with the teasing in the Wasps changing room, he was more concerned about how his mother would react.

But Cipriani has nothing to fear. If he lives up to his potential, and guides his club and country to glory, Anne Cipriani won’t have to worry about tabloid tales-she’ll be too busy accepting compliments from passengers who are blown away by her son’s dazzling talent.

Franka Philip