Noises in the Blood: Orality, Gender, and the Vulgar Body of Jamaican Popular Culture / Edition 1

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The language of Jamaican popular culture—its folklore, idioms, music, poetry, song—even when written is based on a tradition of sound, an orality that has often been denigrated as not worthy of serious study. In Noises in the Blood, Carolyn Cooper critically examines the dismissed discourse of Jamaica’s vibrant popular culture and reclaims these cultural forms, both oral and textual, from an undeserved neglect.
Cooper’s exploration of Jamaican popular culture covers a wide range of topics, including Bob Marley’s lyrics, the performance poetry of Louise Bennett, Mikey Smith, and Jean Binta Breeze, Michael Thelwell’s novelization of The Harder They Come, the Sistren Theater Collective’s Lionheart Gal, and the vitality of the Jamaican DJ culture. Her analysis of this cultural "noise" conveys the powerful and evocative content of these writers and performers and emphasizes their contribution to an undervalued Caribbean identity. Making the connection between this orality, the feminized Jamaican "mother tongue," and the characterization of this culture as low or coarse or vulgar, she incorporates issues of gender into her postcolonial perspective. Cooper powerfully argues that these contemporary vernacular forms must be recognized as genuine expressions of Jamaican culture and as expressions of resistance to marginalization, racism, and sexism.
With its focus on the continuum of oral/textual performance in Jamaican culture, Noises in the Blood, vividly and stylishly written, offers a distinctive approach to Caribbean cultural studies.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Noises in the Blood is a highly original and important study that will change the direction of literary/cultural studies in the Caribbean. Fascinating and forcefully written."—Stewart Brown, Centre of West African Studies, University of Birmingham

"Noises in the Blood theorizes aspects of Caribbean popular culture in an exciting and new manner."—Selwyn R. Cudjoe, Wellesley College

"Carolyn Cooper’s book is lively, stimulating, challenging, witty, and skillfully-written. Noises in the Blood is the kind of text that a range of scholars and specialists and general readers in oral literature, cultural studies, African diaspora and Caribbean studies, popular culture, and cross-cultural literatures will find useful, helpful, and necessary."—Carole Boyce Davies, State University of New York, Binghamton

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822315957
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 1/28/1993
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 214
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.70 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Carolyn Cooper is Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica.

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Read an Excerpt

Noises in the Blood

Orality, Gender, and the "Vulgar" Body of Jamaican Popular Culture

By Carolyn Cooper

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1993 Carolyn Cooper
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-1595-7


'Me know no law, me know no sin': transgressive identities and the voice of innocence: the historical context

Me know no law, me know no sin
Altho' a slave me is born and bred,
My skin is black, not yellow:
I often sold my maiden head
To many a handsome fellow.
My massa keep me once, for true,
And gave me clothes, wid busses:
Fine muslin coats, wid bitty too,
To gain my sweet embraces.
When pickinniny him come black
My massa starve and fum me;
He tear the coat from off my back,
And naked him did strip me.
Him turn me out into the field,
Wid hoe, the ground to clear-o;
Me take pickinniny on my back,
And work him te-me weary.
Him, Obisha, him de come one night,
And give me gown and busses;
Him get one pickinniny, white!
Almost as white as missess.
Then missess fum me wid long switch,
And say him da for massa;
My massa curse her, 'lying bitch!'
And tell her, 'buss my rassa!'
Me fum'd when me no condescend:
Me fum'd too if me do it;
Me no have no one for 'tand my friend,
So me am for'cd to do it.
Me know no law, me know no sin,
Me is just what ebba them make me;
This is the way dem bring me in;
So God nor devil take me!

'Me Know No Law, Me Know No Sin', an eighteenth-century Jamaican popular song recorded in print by the bookkeeper, J. B. Moreton in his West India Customs and Manners, is an appropriate introduction to this collection of essays on orality, gender and the 'vulgar' body of Jamaican popular culture. Reproduced in the recent Voices in Exile: Jamaican Texts of the 18th and 19th Centuries, this song-text exemplifies in the very process of its transmission the interrogations of oral/scribal discourse in the body of oraliterature that is the subject of this study. 'Me Know No Law, Me Know No Sin' also illustrates the correlation of issues of orality and gender, and the confluence of these with issues of language, class, 'race' and nation. The feminisation of oral discourse engenders parallel hierarchies of marginality and subversion: Jamaican:English :: folk:'ristocrat :: oral:scribal :: female:male. Moreton, '[a]pparently a nonnative of Jamaica', includes this female-centred song in a collection of observations on 'customs and manners' the title of which encodes the perspective of anthropologist/voyeur in quest of exotica. The vo/localised text, refracted through the multiple densities of the scribal sensibility of the non-native, white, male, recorder, becomes subject to transformation.

Of Moreton's rendering of 'Me Know No Law, Me Know No Sin' D'Costa and Lalla note that 'the systems of Jamaican Creole and Standard English mingle in Moreton's version as if to satisfy the more anglicized audience of the writer. The English meter of the poem promotes interference from the standard language.' A fragment of this song which seems to have been very popular is also reproduced 45 years later in Michael Scott's Tom Cringle's Log, an acknowledged fiction. Scott, himself an expatriate recorder of West Indian customs and manners, presents a version of the song in which there is more English interference (in lexicon, grammar and syntax) than in Moreton's, as illustrated in the passages below.

Moreton: Him, Obisha, him de come one night,
And give me gown and busses;
Him get one pickinniny, white!
Almost as white as misses.
Then misses fum me wid long switch,
And say him da for massa;
My massa curse her, 'lying bitch!'
And tell her, 'buss my rassa!'
Scott: Young hofficer come home at night
Him give me ring and kisses
Nine months, one picaninny white
Him white almost like missis.
But missis fum my back wid switch,
Him say de shild for massa;
But massa say him —

This truncation of the verse which erases the switch/bitch, massa/rassa rhymes is yet another deformation of the text to accommodate the supposedly delicate sensibilities of the British reader to whom the narrator apologises for including the verse at all: 'I was turning to go to sleep again, when a female, in a small suppressed voice, sung the following snatch of a vulgar Port Royal ditty, which I scarcely forgive myself for introducing here to polite society.' The pornographic impulse to simultaneously expose and conceal the pruriently exotic facts of native life is barely suppressed. Travel-writing of this age is essentially a colonising fiction, civilising savage landscapes – but only so far. Domesticating difference by making the strange intimately 'familiar' and acceptable, the travel-writer feeds the eroticised conquistador fantasies of the voy(ag)eur/reader safe at home, and tames the feminised, alien landscape. Ernest Rhys, in his 'Introduction' to Scott's fiction, recommends it thus: 'Tom Cringle's Log is so true to its subject that when one puts it down, the West Indies have become a region familiar as Strathclyde'. A dubious distinction.

The narrator explains away the fracture in the song-text thus: 'The singer broke off suddenly, as if disturbed by the approach of some one.' In the written narrative it is the woman's husband who intrudes, asking foolish questions which she quickly dismisses. In a nativist re-reading of the imperial sub-text of Tom Cringle's Log, the break conveniently emblematises the penetration of the discursive terrain of the Caribbean ur-text – the woman's space – by the conquering master text.

Similarly, Moreton, who seems to have fancied himself as something of a poet – his compositions are liberally sprinked throughout West India Customs and Manners – may have 'improved' the original 'Me Know No Law, Me Know No Sin' from mere song to 'poem', the context of performance thus shifting from oral to scribal discourse and the weight of the language from Jamaican to English. Commenting in general on the mode and mood of Jamaican songs, Moreton notes that '[w]hen working, though at the hardest labour, they are commonly singing; and though their songs have neither rhime nor measure, yet many are witty and pathetic. I have often laughed heartily, and have been as often struck with deep melancholly (sic) at their songs.' Moreton, who may have attempted to give rhime and measure to the song, introduces the transposed text thus: 'I shall annex the song of a young woman ... : – it is in the negroe dialect, and is no less true than curious.' Though 'annex' primarily means 'append' we may speculate that the imperial resonances of appropriation are perhaps signalled in Moreton's curious truth.

But the transformation of the song into written text seems largely cosmetic: English grammar and metre are imposed on the Jamaican text but the essential meaning of the song – its subversively vulgar intention – seems to have escaped intact. In the absence of the audio-visual technologies that can now record purely oral discourse without the interpolation of patronising angloscribal editorialising, any record at all, however vagrant, is valuable. Thus D'Costa and Lalla affirm that '[e]ven in the novels and travelogues written by white visitors survive echoes of the voices of those who, having neither quill nor printing press, left the mark of their exile upon the minds of white observers.'

As written text, 'Me Know No Law, Me Know No Sin' is preserved and regenerated through the combined efforts of the curious outsider and the scholarly indigenous participant–observer. The perspectives of tourist and native share a rare point of convergence. As oral text the song functions as a trope of orality itself: the oral text that is not successfully transmitted orally becomes extinct, or so it seems. But the multiplicity of versions of the oral text embodies the multifariousness of oral transmission. There is no single, definitive text; the text is made on each occasion of its verbalisation. Thus the text, and its meanings are constantly made anew even when the mute 'form' of the text appears to be extinct. In late twentieth-century Jamaica we may not be able to readily identify a 'vulgar Port Royal ditty' named 'Me Know No Law, Me Know No Sin'; but we can trace its genealogy in that vibrant tradition of contemporary Jamaican dancehall music in which women, in the spirit of the persona of that song, vigorously celebrate their freedom from the constraints of law and sin: echoes in the native bone.

'Me Know No Law, Me Know No Sin' is a relatively early literary expression of those often subversive noises in the blood that articulate the preoccupations of a people and define the particular cultural contexts of their verbal creativity. The official, written histories of enslavement, voicelessness and erasure that seem to have absolute authority in neo-colonial societies such as Jamaica are continually contested by alternate oral discourses that reclaim the self and empower the speaker. In the case of the persona of this song the issues of gender, race, class and voice intersect: the transgressive black woman, bearer of the composite burden of master, overseer and mistress, is triply oppressed – or so it seems. Reduced to the function of mere sex object, she signifies both the dehumanisation of the black person and the disempowerment of woman in a slave society.

But kisses go by favour and in the inverted hierarchies of her deformed society the black woman is often the preferred sex object. 'The Sable Venus – An Ode', recorded in Bryan Edwards' The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies is a sentimental apostrophe to the idealised, interchangeable black woman:

O Sable Queen! thy mild domain
I seek, and court thy gentle reign,
So soothing, soft and sweet
Where meeting love, sincere delight,
Fond pleasure, ready joys invite.
And unbrought raptures meet.
Do thou in gentle Phibia smile,
In artful Benneba beguile
In wanton Mimba pout
In sprightly Cuba's eyes look gay
Or grave in sober Quasheba
I still shall find thee out.

Despite the prevailing tone of supplication the insistent final line above seems more rapacious threat than chivalric promise. With no apparent irony, Barbara Bush comments thus on this hyperbolic ode in Slave Women in Caribbean Society 1650-1838:

The 'Sable Queen' was one of the more pleasant contemporary images of the black woman. Part of white male mythology, it reflected a common and often near-obsessional interest in the 'exotic charms' of African womanhood. Not all European impressions of the black woman were so favourable. The plantocracy ascribed to her two distinct and, in many senses, contradictory functions. Whereas the male slave was valued solely for the economic contribution he made to the plantation, the woman was expected to perform both sexual as well as economic duties. Childbearing fell into the former area, but also sexual duties performed for white masters.

Michael Scott's 1833 Tom Cringle's Log records a John Canoe/Jonkonnu song that traces Massa Buccra's gradual path from the soft, silken dove of his white love, to the brown girl, and, ultimately, we may presume, to the black devil herself:

Massa Buccra lob for see
Bullock caper like monkee –
Dance, and shump and poke him toe,
Like one humane person – just so.
But Massa Buccra have white love,
Soft and silken like one dove.
To brown girl – him barely shivel! –
To black girl – ho, Lord, de Devil!
But when him once two tree year here,
Him tink white lady wery great boder;
De coloured peoples, never fear,
Ah, him lob him de morest nor any oder.
But top – one time had fever catch him,
Coloured peoples kindly watch him -
In sick-room, nurse voice like music -
From him hand taste sweet de physic.
So alway come – in two tree year,
And so wid you, massa – never fear -
Brown girl for cook – for wife – for nurse,
Buccra lady – poo – no wort a curse.

This Jonkonnu song, fascinating in its nativist account of Massa's prurient love of the near-human bullock capering like monkee, turns the masquerade into a metaphor of transgressive sexuality. The newly-arrived white man in the tropics brings with him the border-crossing meanings of the masquerade as it functioned in England. In Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century English Culture and Fiction, Terry Castle confirms that

Not surprisingly, English masqueraders typically impersonated members of national or ethnic groups with fashionably romantic associations. The fascination with exotic peoples was often indistinguishable from a fascination with their clothes; those groups considered most excitingly foreign in the eighteenth century were invariably those with the most unusual costumes. The spirit of Orientalism suffused masquerade representation: Persians, Chinese, and Turks remained exemplary subjects for sumptuous reconstruction throughout the century. American Indians, Polynesian islanders, Siberian Kamchatkas, 'blackamores,' and other supposedly savage races also offered interesting possibilities for impersonation....

A primitive ethnography is at work here; one should not be surprised at its crudeness. A similar impulse informed the masquerade itself. Granted, one might see in foreign costume a mere displacement of imperialist fantasy; the popularity of the masquerade coincided after all with the expansion of British imperialism, and the symbolic joining of races could conceivably be construed as a kind of perverse allusion to empire. Yet at a deeper level, such travesties were also an act of homage – to otherness itself. Stereotypical and innaccurate (sic) though they often were, exotic costumes marked out a kind of symbolic interpenetration with difference – an almost erotic commingling with the alien. Mimicry became a form of psychological recognition, a way of embracing, quite literally, the unfamiliar. The collective result was a utopian projection: the masquerade's visionary 'Congress of Nations' – the image of global conviviality – was indisputably a thing of fleeting, hallucinatory beauty.

This beauty is disputable. The (sexual) congress of nations in the Caribbean was quite literal, as the Jonkonnu song illustrates. This almost erotic commingling of the English with the alien often reflected the racial/sexual politics of the times: exploitation of the savage native. The celebration of sexuality and death/life rites of passage that is naturalised in native masquerades like Jonkonnu, assumes pathological proportions when appropriated for entertainment by the slumming tourist/visitor.

Edward Long, in his History of Jamaica, notes that the Jonkonnu masquerader, 'carrying a wooden sword in his hand, is followed with a numerous crowd of drunken women, who refresh him frequently with a sup of aniseed-water whilst he dances at every door, bellowing out John Connu! with great vehemence.' In a malodorous account of these carnivalesque Jonkonnu festivities, Edward Long exposes his fearful fascination with the contaminated body of the feminised Other. This dilatory passage, with its ridiculed aetiological tale, is a 'complication of stinks', worthy of full quotation:

These exercises, although very delightful to themselves, are not so to the generality of the white spectators, on account of the ill smell which copiously transudes on such occasions; which is rather a complication of stinks, than any one in particular, and so rank and powerful, as totally to overcome those who have any delicacy in the frame of their nostrils. The Blacks of Affric assign a ridiculous cause for the smell peculiar to the goat; and with equal propriety they may well apply it to themselves. They say, 'that, in the early ages of mankind, there was a she-divinity, who used to besmear her person with a fragrant ointment, that excited the emulation of the goats, and made them resolve to petition her, to give them a copy of her receipt for making it, or at least a small sample of it. The goddess, incensed at their presumption, thought of a method to be revenged, under the appearance of granting their request. Instead of the sweet ointment, she presented them with a box of a very foetid mixture, with which they immediately fell to bedaubing themselves. The stench of it was communicated to their posterity; and to this day, they remain ignorant of the trick put upon them, but value themselves on possessing the genuine perfume; and are so anxious to preserve it undiminished, that they very carefully avoid rain, and every thing that might possibly impair the delicious odour.'

This rancid exhalation, for which so many of the Negroes are remarkable, does not seem to proceed from uncleanliness, nor the quality of their diet. I remember a lady, whose waiting-maid, a young Negroe girl, had it to a very disagreeable excess. As she was a favourite servant, her mistress took great pains, and the girl herself spared none, to get rid of it. With this view, she constantly bathed her body twice a day, and abstained wholly from salt-fish, and all sorts of rank food. But the attempt was similar to washing the Black-a-moor white; and after a long course of endeavours to no purpose, her mistress found that there was no remedy but to change her for another attendant, somewhat less odoriferous.


Excerpted from Noises in the Blood by Carolyn Cooper. Copyright © 1993 Carolyn Cooper. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Preface: Informing Cultural Studies,
Introduction: Oral/sexual discourse in Jamaican popular culture,
CHAPTER 1 'Me know no law, me know no sin': transgressive identities and the voice of innocence: the historical context,
CHAPTER 2 'Culture an tradition an birthright': proverb as metaphor in the poetry of Louise Bennett,
CHAPTER 3 That cunny Jamma oman: representations of female sensibility in the poetry of Louise Bennett,
CHAPTER 4 Words unbroken by the beat the performance poetry of Jean Binta Breeze and Mikey Smith,
CHAPTER 5 Writing oral history: Sistren Theatre Collective's Lionheart Gal,
CHAPTER 6 Country come to town: Michael Thelwell's The Harder They Come,
CHAPTER 7 Chanting down Babylon: Bob Marley's song as literary text,
CHAPTER 8 Slackness hiding from culture: erotic play in the dancehall,
CHAPTER 9 From 'centre' to 'margin': turning history upside-down,
APPENDIX I: Proverbs from Louise Bennett's Jamaica Labrish and Selected Poems,
Appendix II: Jamaican proverbs: a gender perspective,

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