Randy McLaren | The Artist as Activist
Randy McLaren is a 20-something Jamaican creative dynamite. He is at the forefront of a vibrant resurgent modern movement that employs a genre of poetry called dub-poetry – to protest conditions in his native Jamaica and mobilise support for various causes. An award winning performing artiste; actor, youth activist and creative social entrepreneur, Randy delivers provocative spoken word performances and dub poetry. He is the 2013 recipient of the Prime Minister’s Youth Award for Excellence in Arts and Culture, and named finalist in the Commonwealth Youth Award for excellence in development work. Randy is also Jamaica’s youth ambassador for culture and vulnerable youth. We caught up with Randy to talk more about his activism work with Jamaican youth.
Connect with Randy McLaren
Watch Randy’s performance of “Jamaica World Class’ here – – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IpZtrvxqL-o
RJ: Hi Randy. Welcome to the Re:Imagine Jamaica Project. Tell us – In a country where Reggae is the dominant creative expression, can dub poetry compete?
Randy: I think there is room for “dub poetry”. Over the years Jamaica have not had a lot of dub poets and even the main proponents try to distance themselves at times from the tag. I don’t want people to box me in solely as a dub poet either. I am first and foremost a performing artiste. So if you see me performing with a band as I have done before, do not be surprised, Mutabaruka has done it, Linton Qwesi Johnson has done it. There is a direct market for performance poetry and the traditional humanitarian messaging that it allows for. Some have called what they do reggae poetry as well which is basically the same thing. Our cultural expressions are so loved by Jamaicans and people overseas, I have no doubt that there is a market for this art form judging from feedback that I have been getting. Also, sometimes people don’t know what they want until you give it to them. If one is properly organized as an entity or a brand then more people will start taking the work seriously. Our creative industries require form and structure for us to earn or others will take what is ours and benefit more than we do. Besides, culture is the way of a life of a people. Once we have life then culture will always be relevant and if culture is relevant, then the expressions thereof will also be important. Dub poetry was born out of a need to speak up on behalf of oppressed people, the masses. People are still facing harsh socio-economic situations [in Jamaica] so in that regard poetry is necessary; it a voice for those considered voiceless.
RJ: Tell us about your background and how you came to focus on a career in the arts.
Randy: My mother gave birth to me on my grandmother’s bed in a small rural district called Garden Field in St. Thomas. Growing up I was shy but heavily involved in school activities at primary School. I can remember being exposed to the arts from then. My real mission to become a performer started when I entered Excelsior High School and continued at Wolmer’s Boys’. The first “Dub Poem” I ever did was “Echo” by Oku Unuoro (Dub Poet). Through my performances I have been able to merge two of my passions namely leadership and culture. I realize that I had a gift that young people and others connect with and appreciate. I also know that we [Jamaicans] are a creative people and perhaps the best chance we have of inspiring, empowering and effecting change is to do so creatively. A career in the arts, as a cultural practitioner allows me to have fun while making a positive impact and I love that. I have always tried to live an exemplary life. The arts are my way of engaging others, sharing, learning and earning; that is the ultimate aim! I am working on the earning part.
RJ: What should people understand Dub poetry to be?
Randy: Dub poetry is a form of poetry with an in built rhythm and is sometimes performed or recorded with musical accompaniment. However, a great amount of attention is given to the lyrical content. Traditionally, Dub Poetry has been a form of protest art, a vehicle for social commentary but if one tracks the evolution of the art form, it is now being used to address a range of issues and is not always trying to be controversial or only focusing on political or social issues. I have watched and listened to the work of all the proponents of the genre such as Mutabaruka and Linton Kwsei Johnson and have been influenced in some way or the other by all. I stand on their shoulders.
RJ: What is it about performance poetry that is so important to you?
Randy: I use performance poetry to engage the youth population and those underserved communities. I believe it is a good vehicle to make your voice be heard on different subjects and keeping people engaged and entertained. One must also make a living from it. I do not subscribe to the notion that art must be done for art’s sake because everything takes money. Dub poetry is important as a cultural product which many people are interested in consuming just as much as reggae. But it also has the potential to lower the unemployment rate if taken seriously and the spin of live music and poetry events also provide other income generating avenues.
RJ: You describe yourself as a Creative Activist. What are some of the issues in Jamaica that propels you into a life of activism?
Randy: Of the many things I aim to do with my art, I strive to represent different social issues and add my voice to such issues. I describe myself as a Creative Activist because I am about awakening consciousness and empowering while at the same time being entertaining and engaging. The Armadale incident has been the main trigger for me to start this mission. [7 young women wards of the State perished in a fire at the Armadale Children’s home in 2010]. The broader areas that I focus on include child rights, abuse and responsibilities, our political culture, rural neglect and gender realities.
RJ: What has been the response to the causes that you push in your poetry?
Randy: People have really connected with the Armadale issue that I have been following in a serious way from 2010. I have consistently sought to use the arts as a vehicle to empower our youth and the feedback has always been great. I have done a lot of work in the educational sector, with youth groups and so on. I have only received encouraging feedback. I will continue to do my part using my talents as a source for good. We are creative people, I think that if change is to be had then it must be a creative process especially when it comes on to engaging our youth.
RJ: You’ve recently acquired some success. One of your recent projects was endorsed by the United Nations Children’s Fund and you participated in Jamaica’s 50th Independence celebrations.
Randy: I was very happy when UNICEF decided to fund the entire production of the piece in time for the 4th anniversary of the incident. The video has received tremendous feedback with people calling, emailing and otherwise to find out how they can become a part of the cause, how they can make a difference. I am not about controversies but about us making a positive change. In 2012 I was a part of a touring party where I did several performances both in Birmingham and London as a part of the Jamaica 50th celebrations. It was a great experience and confirmed to me that yes, I can take on the world. The performance at the O2 Arena on the morning of August 6th will go down as one of the best and proudest moments of my life. I hope to make a positive mark not just in Jamaica but also across the world. I have been doing ok but there is much room for growth. I am learning and understanding things more and working to put together a solid team to make the dreams a reality. With a professional approach, more intervention can happen and more bookings can be secured for general events, corporate, school etc locally, in the diaspora and beyond. [Watch Randy’s performance of Armadale: Children on Fire here – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9tgV6lBS5tQ%5D
RJ: Is Dub poetry catching on?
Randy: My performance approach is definitely catching on. The live music, conscious vibe is once again being celebrated and this will definitely help to propel the art form whether we call it dub poetry, reggae poetry, spoken word or performance poetry. It lends itself to dealing with the serious issues as well as lighter stuff. Many of my pieces I do address issues pertaining to Jamaica but the diaspora would readily understand. My focus is not on Jamaica alone as we now live in a global village where new media and communications technology make it a lot easier to get content out. I have always tried to conduct business in a professional way, having the right persons around you to guide the career is also very important so getting that team together is one the front burner at the moment.
RJ: Words or performance – which do you spend more time perfecting?
Randy: I spend time on both but when I put on the Kriativ Aktivis (creative activist) cap the words take on added significance. Take Armadale for instance, I wanted to ensure that everything in the piece was accurate so I read the entire 158 page document that was published after the enquiry. When I write I use the same approach you would take to writing an essay, brainstorm, research, write, get reviews, edit and more edit. Rehearsal usually comes in before the performance and even in this phase adjustments are oftentimes made. The performance has to be solid to ensure that the message and the words are believable. So if the aim is to empower and provoke thought the words and the performance energy must be in line. If it is a poem about love, a piece about food, like “mi love mi breadfruit” then a different vibe is required. Again, it is the duty of the performer, the artiste to connect with a piece and connect with the audience. It is hard to say categorically which I spend more time perfecting.
RJ: What pieces are you currently working on?
Randy: I have a piece called “The Kreative Aktivis” that I want to re-record and do a video for as an official introduction to Randy McLaren the “kriativ Aktivis” and “country yute”. I also want to do a video for my breadfruit piece. High up on the list is to finish writing and recording a piece called “Missing” which is about the many reported cases of missing children daily in Jamaica. “Jamaica mi heart and soul” should also be ready in time for August. I clearly have some work to do in the upcoming months but all of these will have costs attached but we have never been daunted by challenges.
See a performance of the ‘Kreative Aktivis’ here – http://www.youtube.com/user/RandyMcLarentv
RJ: What do you hope is the outcome of the work you are doing?
Randy: My creative activism, my art is targeted at everyone who has a heart. From our political leaders, policy makers to the general citizenry and the people of the world. I view all the institutions as being connected in one way or the other. I deal with different topics and the different topics will be geared towards different stakeholders. It may be a call for change in policy, it may be a call on the citizens to hold our leaders accountable or for they themselves to be responsible in their individual lives. In all of this, balance is important as I am not always seeking to address any serious social issue. Sometimes it is about sharing or evoking a smile, a laugh and making people enjoy themselves. My aim is to see Jamaica as a country of empowered young people; a country of responsible leaders and citizens who can drive this country forward. I would like to see us do the best that we can to secure a brighter future for our children…less child/sexual abuse, quality juvenile correctional facilities where rehabilitation really takes place if they absolutely have to be sent to these facilities. It is not all about politicians, each and every one of us has a tremendous role to play in making our homes, communities, country and the world a better place.
RJ: If you could change one law in Jamaica, what would it be?
Randy: I would want an adjustment to be made to the Child Care and Protection Act to remove the tag “uncontrollable child’ from document. This has caused many young people to be placed in juvenile correctional facilities after being deemed “uncontrollable” and there is no clear cut definition of what this means.
Thank you Randy, We look forward to following your progress. We wish you the very best.