Arts & Culture

Calling all female dub poets

BY SADE GARDNER
Observer writer
gardners@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, August 27, 2018

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Jean “Binta” Breeze is no alien to accolades.

The celebrated dub poet was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom last year. Years prior, she was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for her contribution to literature. But her most recent honour, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jamaica Poetry Festival, carries a special sentiment.

“It's my first in my homeland,” she laughed almost triumphantly when speaking to the Jamaica Observer.

“It's just fantastic...to come home and get that...I'm really over the moon, you know.”

Not to get it confused, her other titles are just as treasured. As a matter of fact, Breeze, a former School of Drama student at Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, would have loved if she had a doctorate years ago to teach at her alma mater.

“Things like getting the doctorate was very important because for so long, when I was living in England, all I wanted to do was come home and teach at the School of Drama,” she shared. “I had done so much stage work all over the world, and I wanted to just come home and give something back to the school, but they wouldn't employ me without a degree. I thought, 'My God, how am I gonna get somebody to give me a degree?'. I was 60 when I got the doctorate and it's too late now to go and teach.”

Breeze left for England in the 1980s to perform with poet Linton Kwesi Johnson and soon found herself performing for thousands all over the globe. She relocatedto her home in Hanover in 2012 and closed the curtains on her last tour in February. Breeze is lauded by many in the literary community as a dub poetry heroine, having served as the first recognised female dub poet. Assessing the genre, she is proud of its growth, but would like to see more female dub poets.

“Jamaica is full of spoken word artistes at the moment, so that is good to see,” she said. “When I came back I started listening to Spoken Word Wednesdays on Irie FM with Elise Kelly, and hearing so many poets is amazing. I would love to see more females in it, yes. There are a couple I've heard on the radio, most frequently is Cherry Natural.”

Breeze pointed to other dub poets like Queen Majeeda and Canadian Lillian Allen. She also mentioned the work of Poet Laureate Lorna Goodison in helping to raise the bar in the world of poetry.

While Breeze does not have a favourite poem from her own catalogue, she does enjoy allowing the audience to navigate which poems she performs.

“I like going to places early so I can hear all the people who read in front of me. I like to get a feeling of what the audience is like and while I'm sitting there, I get an idea of what the conversation is that has developed between the stage and the audience, then I decide which poems I'm going to use.”

When she accepted her Lifetime Achievement Award, The Mad Woman was the poem of choice.

“I love doing The Mad Woman in Jamaica because everybody knows it and if you want audience participation that's the one,” she said.

Breeze credits her love for dub poetry to her mother who read poems to her as a child, and Rusea's High School in Hanover where she honed her craft.

As to what occupies her time these days?

“I'm working on a project now in England for the last few years. I've been spending a lot of time in a hospital in England, they have the National Health Service (NHS) there which helps its citizens. I have a lung condition and I'm on oxygen full-time so, approaching 60, everything was free for me. So right now I have written a series called Love Poems to the NHS because it's their 70th birthday. It's being read at their celebratory events and I have also recorded some of the poems which are played at the events.”

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