I mentioned in my last column that even before I learned I was part-Jamaican, I already had a fondness for women from the country.
Relationship-wise, I must admit, it hasn’t always worked out well. In fact, more often than not, these affairs could be classified as broken, having involved broken hearts, broken promises, broken bottles, broken limbs — it hasn’t been pretty. That I managed to salvage a few friendships out of those fiascoes is nothing short of miraculous.
Nevertheless, my attraction to Jamaican women persists, and the conversations I had with Yvonne and Monique — two women who have built thriving careers and productive lives for themselves here in the Land of the Rising Sun, half a planet away from the Land of Wood and Water — only served to remind me of why I continue to be smitten with sisters from Jamaica.
Yvonne Goldson came to Japan with the goal of building cultural bridges, particularly linguistic ones. Before arriving, she’d found creative inspiration in the growing obsession among Japanese with Jamaican music and culture.
She observed some problematic tendencies, though, and this led to her first endeavor, a book titled “Let’s Speak Jamaican: Patois-English-Japanese Dictionary.” Though English is the Jamaican national language, Patois, a blend of English, Spanish, French and West African dialects, is the country’s everyday language. So, Yvonne came to Japan to find a publisher and market for her dictionary.
“Reggae was very popular in Japan,” she explained, “so I looked at this dictionary as a way for the Japanese people to understand what was being said in the music they adored so much. However, unfortunately, a lot of expletives appear in reggae songs.”
Back in 2003, I spent a few weeks in Haiti. During that time I noticed that the Haitian youths who, mind you, couldn’t speak a lick of English, were able to recite entire hip-hop songs. Unfortunately, though, they seemed to gravitate towards the ones with the grimier lyrics. Embedded in shells of heavily accented English was a barrage of N-words and B-words. As a youth, I used to be exceedingly proud of hip-hop, of how it empowered minds and inspired creativity all over the world. However, hearing these Haitians recite the seediest manifestations of it, I cringed at what it has come to represent, and at being considered an ambassador of that mind-set.
Yvonne’s concerns were similar. She observed that the Japanese were mostly enamored with a style of Jamaican music called dancehall, which she is not particularly fond of due to its liberal use of foul language.
“But the Japanese were promoting this stuff. And to this day they still do. So part of my motivation for writing the dictionary was I wanted them to know that they were basically promoting vulgarity.”
Little did Yvonne know at that time that the next 18 years of her life, in one way or another, would be spent on the front lines of raising cultural awareness about Jamaica here in Japan. As one of the founders of the Association of Jamaicans in Japan (AJJ), she has done exactly that on a grass-roots level. She and the other AJJ members would go out, on their own time, to various schools and festivals in and around Tokyo to show and tell students and adults alike about Jamaica’s positive contributions to the world.
“I noticed that Jamaica wasn’t being represented well within Tokyo at all,” Yvonne said, on her initial motivation for establishing and presiding over the AJJ. “I saw lots of different cultures doing lots of different things. One time, I went to the Azabu Juban Noryo Festival, which is basically a food festival. Many countries were there but I noticed that Jamaica wasn’t one of them. So I called up the festival organizers and asked how come, and they said Jamaica had never applied. So, I applied. Hell, I could cook! And from that time on, the festival included Jamaica, and people in Japan started becoming aware of Jamaican food.”
That soon lead to her becoming an entrepreneurial trailblazer. This mother of two sons and grandma to a bunch of lovable grandkids, the eldest of whom graduates from university next spring, opened the first Jamaican-owned and -operated restaurant, right in the heart of Harajuku. Today, she remains the only restaurateur in Kanto who can boast authentic home-style Jamaican cooking.
Monique Dehaney initially came to Japan as a university graduate to teach English, and spent her first couple of years in Kochi Prefecture doing just that with the JET Programme. Eight years have passed, and in that time Monique has completely reinvented herself, transforming from child educator to in-demand performing and recording artist.
Monique had been aware of her abilities as a singer for most of her life, but since she’d had no intention of becoming an entertainer when she arrived here, she attributes her initial successes to simply being in the right place at the right time.
“I literally just fell into it,” she told me. “One door opened, then another and another and another and I just kept following them.”
From wedding singer to hotel-lobby jazz singer to commercial vocalist to live concert singer and backing vocalist for artists such as Mika Nakajima, Atsushi Sato from Exile and Eikichi Yazawa, the doors have swung wide for Monique and she’s had the substance to sashay through. Her performance on the national talent show “Nodojiman The World” catapulted her from relative obscurity to the national stage. Monique is now perhaps the most famous Jamaican living here. She’s toured throughout Japan and Asia and she’s even, impressively, recorded an entire album of popular Japanese love songs and ballads, in Japanese.
I actually learned all of this after I approached her about this article. I should have known something was up when it took almost two weeks to schedule a phone interview. And even that was practically on a breather between performances. In the days prior to the interview I looked into the singer’s background, watched her videos and read her biographical material. Fascinating stuff, but it mostly had that fluffy feel of PR. I was curious about how she’d overcome obstacles.
Monique expounded a bit on the challenges of not only being black and Jamaican, but also of being a woman. She confirmed that it hasn’t all been grinning and winning by any stretch of the imagination.
“It seems people believe because you’re a black female you can sing as soon as you step in the door. You’re black so you’re supposed to know about music. I didn’t care if it was a stereotype or not, though. It benefited me so I took it,” Monique explained. “And as a Jamaican, there are certain sectors and groups in Japan that will willingly accept you more because they’re into reggae music or into Jamaica.
“But being a woman in Japan is like being at the bottom of the totem pole, especially in the music industry. It’s just ridiculous. The people you have to work with here expect you to be quiet and say nothing. That’s just how it works here. Women don’t get a lot of respect and they’re not expected to have ideas and go hard at certain things. But I definitely go hard so it freaks people out, sometimes.”
Yvonne expressed similar sentiments about the challenges along the way to her success here.
“Often when Japanese press come to interview me, they come with their preconceived ideas of what foreigners or Jamaicans are like,” Yvonne explained. “When the story reaches the media it’s nothing to do with what we spoke about. The meat of the conversation I had with the interviewer doesn’t seem to find its way into the article.”
Both of these women are clear examples of what can be accomplished in Japan, or anywhere really, if you have talent, aptitude and can keep your wits about you. With all the negative stereotypes that abound here about people of African descent — dangerous, criminal-minded, lascivious, etc. — one can only hope that positive stories like theirs proliferate as thoroughly and easily.
But there’s more to the Jamaican experience here than what these ladies had to say. Next month I’m going to delve in once again with two gentleman from Jamaica, a lawyer and a trainer. Among other things, they will be discussing what impact the exodus of some of the island’s best and brightest has had on that developing nation, and how the Jamaicans living here feel about this phenomenon.
You won’t want to miss it! One love.
More info on Monique Dehaney: www.youtube.com/lovemoniquemusic. Jamrock Cafe and Restaurant: www.jamrockcafeonline.com. The recently updated “Let’s Speak Jamaican: Patois-English-Japanese Dictionary” is available in bookstores and on Amazon Japan: www.amazon.co.jp/dp/4416714491. Black Eye appears in print on the third Thursday of every month. Baye McNeil is the author of two books and writes the Loco in Yokohama blog. See www.bayemcneil.com. Your comments and ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org