Cooper Challenges Status Quo with Culture, Words, Analysis

Barrington M. Salmon | 2/20/2013, 1:21 p.m.

Volkswagen put the tiny island nation of Jamaica squarely on the map with its Super Bowl commercial featuring a white man with a Jamaican accent trying to cheer co-workers.

The commercial is just one clear example of the power of Jamaica's cultural brand and the impact of the island's music, language and other cultural idioms on people and countries around the world, said Carolyn J. Cooper, Ph.D.

Cooper is one of Jamaica's most well-known cultural experts and her lectures, books, blog posts and columns in the Jamaica Gleaner are rich with discussions about issues that sit at the nexus of color, race, status, power and language.

"Jamaicans are an island people with a continental outlook who are not bound by the island," said Cooper in a recent interview. "We're just not limited by the sea. I also believe that the size of Jamaica, its rocky terrain and physical landscape give us a sense of being on a bigger island."

Cooper, an author and longtime lecturer at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica, credits the development and explosion of reggae music, Rastafarianism, Jamaica's success in track and field, literature, and academic and other endeavors as the by-products of a people who won't take no for an answer and who by their very nature have woven the African part of themselves in everything they do.

"The Jamaican aesthetic is, at its root, African. The culture of the people is African and it manifests itself that way," said Cooper, who calls Jamaica a superpower because of its cultural heft.

That aesthetic is expressed, for example, in the colors of the dress of market people and the colorful wrappings of their skirts.

"We have carried ancestral memory, the bright colors, a lot of the movement, the riddims of dancehall, all this is an updating of the African aesthetic," Cooper explained. "I see the move from gold material to gold chains as a return to the African aesthetic. The National Gallery of Art could stand up anywhere in the world."

Cooper was a special guest of the Jamaican Embassy in Washington, D.C. recently as a part of their Jamaica 50 Lecture series where she discussed a melange of Jamaica's social, political and cultural issues in a lecture titled, "Stuck in Traffic: Jamaica Culture Outta Road."

In his introduction, Ambassador Stephen Vasciannie described Cooper as a "wily, bold and frank purveyor of cultural ideas."

Cooper used the proliferation of vehicles on Jamaican roads as a metaphor for the often fractious state of affairs in the country in general, and also used it as a launching pad for deeper discussion about Jamaica, class and culture.

Fifty years ago, she said, there were 43,508 motorcars, 11,710 trucks, buses and tractors registered and traveling on Jamaican roads. In 2008, there were 270,000 cars on the road and a profusion of other vehicles which represent a 600 percent increase of vehicles.

"Some would say it's a clear sign of development in Jamaica but there are treacherous roads, potholes which stretch out before you, bad mind, malicious potholes," Cooper said, tongue in cheek. In Jamaica, the car is a status symbol not just a mode of transportation and as such you can't be a person of status and drive certain vehicles.