Kwame Dawes does Detroit

Last April, I found myself on an airplane en route to the annual Houston IFest, my CD player whirring out Bob Marley songs from the Kaya collection so that I could brush up on my reggae. The theme for the IFest, an annual event similar to the Detroit Arts Festival, was Jamaica, and, quite frankly, my Detroit-born, calypso-soca ears aren't always in synch with the gentler reggae beats. I'm almost always translating those dance rhythms to the faster and definitely more anarchistic style of body grinding characteristic of Trinidad dancing.

Not that I anticipated much dancing in Houston. After all, I was going there for the literary portion of the IFest. But I felt obligated to represent, to let them know Detroit was in the house and we know our music. And in honor of Bob Marley's island, I knew I would have to slow down the head-nodding and the foot-tapping before arriving in Houston. The hips would have to swing wider just in case a dance broke out. You understand.

But way more than dancing broke out at the IFest, way more than the fabulous poetry and fiction presentations at the debut of the IFest Literary Stage. Much more than the jerk fumes and colorful garments. Bob Marley broke out. Yes, he was in the house. I swear it. I heard his music up one aisle of vendor offerings and down the other. I saw him peeking around corners on the faces of teenagers, giddy with the festival excitement. I felt him in the movements and songs of the various dance troupes straight from the motherland. And pictures of him were everywhere.

In downtown Houston, Texas. Imagine.

And then for the first time at that same Literary Stage, home girl experienced a truly transforming event — a serious analytical panel discussion of Bob Marley's lyrics, music, spirituality and politics. My hips didn't move from then on.

Jamaican-born Bob Marley is loved around the world for his pioneering reggae rhythms, as well as his spiritual and political themes and his love songs. He is the reggae icon whose pictures are as much a part of the landscape of Brazil as Jamaica. He succumbed to a brain tumor in May 1981. He would have turned 62 this Feb. 6.

On Feb. 15, one of the participants of that distinguished Houston IFest panel, Kwame Dawes, comes to Detroit to lecture on Bob Marley at the University of Michigan Dearborn and then read from his own work later the same day at Wayne State University. Dawes is the distinguished poet-in-residence at the University of South Carolina, where he is director of the South Carolina Poetry Initiative and the University of South Carolina Arts Institute. He is also the programming director of the Calabash International Literary Festival.

According to Dr. Gloria House, director of the African and African American Studies Program at U-M Dearborn, "I'm certain students and the general public will be enlightened by this scholar and artist who has transcended borders and integrated in himself the awesome breadth of the African world."

Indeed, Kwame Dawes, born in Ghana and raised in Jamaica, brings oceans of perspective to his prolific and prize-winning poetry, 14 collections in all, and to his works of fiction and his theatrical plays, in which he has at times acted as well as directed. His many scholarly works include Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius, World Music Icon, the most important work to date devoted solely to studying Bob Marley's lyrics.

And he sings. He was the lead singer of the Ujamaa reggae band and still often breaks out in song while performing his poetry. Says Nouri Gana, assistant professor at U-M Dearborn, "The versatility of Kwame under the combined capacities of critic, actor, musician, playwright, poet and novelist will certainly excite the imaginative impulses of our students and the public at large."

Dawes first heard Bob Marley's music in his late teens when his brother introduced him to the Kaya and Exodus collections. From his book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius: "I heard them in a way I had never heard Marley, because, for the first time he was very much a lofty presence in my imagination."

Dawes had been introduced to the music after the 1976 assassination attempt on Marley in Jamaica. Shortly after, Marley honored a previous commitment to perform at a large concert in Jamaica but heroically bared his gun wounds to the audience at the close of the event. Dawes began to realize that he himself was a product of reggae. Even though he had never personally met Marley, it became his dream to study Marley's lyrics and write about them. In an interview posted on his Web site, Dawes notes that the reggae song Marley chose as his poetic form is distinctive. "It draws on poetic traditions that are as diverse as the blues, jazz, Negro spirituals, the Holy Bible, American folk songs, Jamaican rhythms, Rastafarian chants, the speeches of Marcus Garvey, the preaching of Jamaican preachers and the griot tradition of West African poetry."

Also in the interview, Dawes asserts that his analysis of Marley's lyrics is significant because it is from "the unique Jamaican perspective required to fully understand the most fascinating of Marley's lyrics." And, he says, the analysis is at the hands of an "experienced poet's understanding of the complicated universe of words."

As a product of reggae, Dawes has created characters that reflect Marley's politics, spirit and love sensibility interwoven with his own multi-immigrant experience. But his characters are much like Detroiters: gritty, lusty, fearless, fun-loving and soul-searching.

For example, in his short fiction collection from 2004, A Place to Hide, the characters confront love, sex, religion, identity and the vagaries of interpersonal relations in small communities. There is no place to hide except within self. From "Burdens":


He was sweating so that no one could see that he was crying too. He remembered that night standing in the blue light of a thin moon, that night when he so wanted to have his father or his mother to comfort him, the night when he became a man but felt simply like someone who had gone across a river to another country that he did not understand and where he was not sure he belonged.


These days Detroit is replete with this same sentiment from the immigrant and homeless experience, a longing for home and not feeling welcomed here.

In Wisteria, his most recent collection of poetry, Dawes bases his work on interviews gathered from women who lived under Jim Crow in Sumter, a small town in central South Carolina. Dawes' words free the voices of the women who supported themselves and their families variously as domestics, beauticians and teachers. The full agony of their lives during that time spills onto the pages.

His debut novel, She's Gone, takes its title from a Marley song. Its characters traverse settings as diverse as Jamaica, the American South and New York, as they explore cross-cultural relationships across the sea and the ocean.

This is great fare for Detroit readers. According to M.L. Liebler, from the WSU English Department, "Dr. Dawes' visit will bring world literature to life right here on our campus in the center of the city of Detroit."

We are all familiar with "One Love," the Marley classic that first appeared in the Exodus collection. In spite of its subtextual plea for global unity against oppression and exploitation (or am I reading something into it?), "One Love" has become the theme of the Jamaican tourist industry on TV spots featuring happy people lolling off on her beaches.

OK, we have a beach, too, right there on Belle Isle. On any given warm sunny day, Detroit parades through the island wearing the features of all the nations of the world. We've got everything in Detroit that Kwame Dawes writes about: heart, soul, diverse characters. Oh, are our characters ever diverse.

So how about one love for us too? For those of us who hope for Detroit and are ready to fight for her survival? One love! Why not? We deserve it. We've crossed oceans and mountains and many borders to arrive in this hardscrabble place. Then again, so has Kwame Dawes. And he'll be in our house. One love.


Perry Henzell's Harder They Come, a 1973 film about life in Jamaica and reggae, shows at noon and Kwame Dawes lectures at 4 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 15, at the College of Arts, Sciences and Letters (CASL) building, University of Michigan - Dearborn, 4901 Evergreen Rd., Dearborn; 313-593-5000. That same day, Dawes reads from his poetry at 7 p.m. at the Bernath Auditorium, David Adamany Undergraduate Library, Wayne State University campus, Detroit; 313-577-2424. All events are free and open to the public.

Lolita Hernandez is a poet and fiction writer whose latest book, Autopsy of An Engine and Other Stories from the Cadillac Plant, won a 2005 PEN Beyond Margins Award. Send comments to [email protected]
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