After initiating the International Reggae Studies Centre just over two decades ago at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Dr. Carolyn Cooper hosted a major conference in 2008 to document the global outreach of reggae.
The plenary lectures from that historic conference which traced the migration of reggae to the United Kingdom and the rest of the world form the basis of a new book, Global Reggae, which Dr. Cooper edited.
“I thought it was important for us to have a centre in Jamaica where we were taking the study of reggae seriously,” Cooper told Share while in Toronto last week for a book launch at A Different Booklist. “Even though there were local people who were writing about reggae, many of the books that came out were by non-Jamaicans. We felt that we at the university needed to reclaim reggae as an academic project and as something that we needed to reflect on.
“I believe that this book is a good example of the kind of vision that I have had over the years for us to really see reggae as something that’s important for us to reflect on. The illuminating essays highlight the ‘glocalization’ of reggae – its global dispersal and adaptation in diverse local contexts of consumption and transformation.”
Cooper has authored two other influential books – Sound Clash: Jamaican Dancehall Culture at Large and Noises in the Blood: Orality, Gender and the ‘Vulgar’ Body of Jamaican Popular Culture – and she’s regularly featured in the local and international media.
Two years ago, controversial dancehall artist, Vybz Kartel, accepted her invitation to deliver a lecture at the UWI. Delivered before an audience of nearly 5,000, the theme of the address was “Pretty Like a Colouring Book: My Life and My Art”.
Last April, in her guest column in the Gleaner newspaper, Cooper took some heat from sections of the population for suggesting that Kartel’s book co-authored with Michael Dawson – The Voice of the Jamaican Ghetto which provides a penetrating account of the myriad challenges many disadvantaged young people face in the Jamaican society – should be part of the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) social studies curriculum.
“I believe that somebody like Kartel is an important figure,” said Cooper. “He represents the brilliance of dancehall and the sort of seamier side of it that’s not so positive. Most of the people opposed to what I was saying have not read the book. I did and thought it was excellent.”
Last week, Kartel was acquitted of the October 2011 murder of a Jamaican promoter. Incarcerated since September 2011, he’s also accused of murdering a friend. That trial begins in November.
A 1968 St. Hugh’s High School graduate, Cooper did an undergraduate degree in English Literature at the UWI Mona campus prior to being awarded a Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) post-graduate scholarship at the University of Toronto (U of T) where she completed her Master’s and PhD in English.
Cooper said the four years she spent in Toronto were a very important period in her life.
“I should have been in Toronto for just one year to do my Master’s,” she said. “But after doing a seminar presentation for Professor Bill Keith, he asked me if I was planning on staying at the university to do my doctorate. When I told him I (wasn’t), he really encouraged me that I should reconsider.”
Keith was the graduate school secretary at the time.
“He was in an influential position and he said he would ensure that I get funding to remain here,” Cooper said. “He was true to his word as I received a U of T fellowship and a teacher’s fellowship that provided me with additional income. If had not come here for the year to do my Master’s, I most likely would not have had the opportunity to pursue a doctorate.
“The four years I spent at U of T up until 1975 introduced me to a whole range of ideas which have informed my development and influenced my work in popular culture. It was a great experience in addition to meeting other Canadian people and having the opportunity to really develop a sense of a Caribbean diaspora identity.”
Cooper is a professor of literary and cultural studies at the UWI Mona campus where she teaches Caribbean, African & African-American literature.
Global Reggae is available at A Different Booklist and the price is $43.50 plus taxes.