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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Walk Good, Aggrey

Professor Aggrey Brown
 "Rather, in examining and assessing what the media are in the Caribbean, we came upon the question - Talking with Whom? Do we have infrastructures and channels for communication without communications processes in the Caribbean?" - from "Talking with Whom", Brown and Sanatan, 1987.

For hundreds of us in the Caribbean - the name meant, and means, so much. Aggrey.

Aggrey the teacher, Aggrey the torturer, Aggrey the brain, Aggrey the critic, Aggrey the angry, the sage, the visionary, the thinker, the talker.

Dare we see his like again?

I hope so. If any of his searing intellect, his fiery passion, his incisive and insightful criticism - and his caring about and for the West Indian Civilisation are anything to go by, then there are scores of Aggreys in the making, thanks to him, ever since 1974.

For 22 tumultuous years, he was Mr. CARIMAC, synonymous with the training school, research crucible, lab and temple for Caribbean communicators. This was the house that Aggrey built all through the storms of ever-changing technology, processes and people.

All through the era of the New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) - the era that gave birth to CARIMAC and CANA, all through the rise, decline and fall of the theories of media imperialism and cultural domination, all through the eras of the satellite, from analogue to digital, from the computer to convergence (ah, the good old days) and now into today's heady, bewildering, complex landscape - or wilderness - where social interaction, nanocomputing and telecommunications converge and also divide us - Aggrey was there. For some people, it was Aggrey the pontiff, the words flying from his lips with machine-gun rapidity, a man with so much to say and so little time to say it - for when was eternity ever enough for an Aggrey Brown?

So many of his students missed his boat, so many of them have foundered or yet flounder in the treacherous seas of cannibalistic capitalism, their mouths dripping with the words copied from Harvard Business School, the World Bank/IMF/WTO. So many of Aggrey's children have disappointed him, and us. For these were men and women on the make, children in a hurry to be adults, sticking around CARIMAC and the university that housed it only long enough to get it and get out. They left, so many without understanding not what Aggrey Brown was - I hardly think he gave a hoot what people thought of him - but what he was saying, man, what he was meaning.

Aggrey Brown is the Jamaica I knew and loved ever since my first visit... anywhere... as a teen. A people independent not just in bunting or birthday but in thought; where passion met intellect and set our provincial minds ablaze. This is particularly ironic for me as my contact with Aggrey Brown was more tangential than most media people. I did not study at CARIMAC and while one cannot study Caribbean mass communications seriously without seeing the oracle, I did Aggrey Brown 101. As I moved along in my career, I adopted the Aggrey Brown approach: don't just do it (whatever it is); ask yourself who and what led you to do it that way and why. I read him and I listened to him.

In short, I learned from him that you cannot escape asking the essential question that is contained in the text and title of his landmark 1987 study with Roderick Sanatan - "Talking with Whom?"

That book. The book that once and for all established the truth that stared so many of us in the face and eluded us at the same time; that the Caribbean is the region on Earth most penetrated by foreign television. "Talking with Whom" was the 20th Century's Genesis to the 21st Century's Exodus - so much has changed while so much remains unceasingly and unerringly the same. You simply cannot hope to consider yourself a student of Caribbean media and communication and not read, mark and inwardly digest "Talking with Whom". It isn't the Alpha and Omega, but as Alphas go in research on a subject still crying out for more indigenous research, it is the last word.

Yet, so many saw Aggrey Brown as the fossilized teacher, the fuddy-duddy, the didactic dinosaur, some sort of abstract manufacturer of the abstract. So many Caribbean media bosses slammed him and the institution as being 'inadequate for the needs of the real world'. Having seen what so many have made of that world - with copycat concepts, soaps and sitcoms in unworthy homage to Hollywood and Madison Avenue - I can see why so many of them thought that. Again, they heard Aggrey but they hardly listened to him.

And it was not as if Aggrey was this remote king of the ivory tower as so many portrayed him; here was a doer and a thinker - cameraman, columnist, call-in programme moderator, announcer, analyst. Aggrey Brown walked the walk long before he talked the talk.  And while so many saw him as a solitary figure, he was not alone. In very many, very similar, very different ways, Brown, the late John Maxwell, the late Wycliffe BennettWilmot PerkinsBarbara Gloudon, the late Rex Nettleford and others were these towering giants of media, communication and the arts who struggled with twin tides: Manley's oft-misdirected nation building and Seaga's misanthropic structural adjustment; tides that swept Jamaica and reached us all in the region. Brown and Co. were among Jamaica's first fruits of 1962 - often scattered aside by post-Independence politicians who soon found them unbought and unbossed.

And all the while, Aggrey, far from being stuck in an era, far from being the quixotic despot, was evolving, changing, thinking, moving. Dinosaurs don't do that.

It was because of Aggrey that a new breed of communication researchers carry on the struggle to help Caribbean media workers and managers engage brain before their gears slip into talk. We do a lot of talking in the Caribbean, we imagine scenarios but have a problem with gathering evidence. And Aggrey Brown's great gift is the creation of a cadre of people who think about why we are talking with whom.

So from "Talking with Whom" in 1987 to the excellent 1995 compendium, "Communication, Globalisation and Caribbean Identity", where you can read for yourself how Aggrey's thinking was evolving (Caribbean cultures and mass communication technology: Re-examining the cultural dependency thesis, pp 40-54), Hopeton Dunn and others pick up the essential, seeemingly eternal, question Aggrey and Sanatan posed. Even now, 16 years later, where gurus pontificate that no one knows how it will all turn out, where we are keen to disrupt because of these cool tools, the essential problem that Aggrey urged us to grapple with still gnaws at us - how much of it do we really own and control? Even when the New Media monarchs insist that in the virtual world, we need not own anything ("leave it in the cloud", "leave it to the developer", "just drag and drop"), so many of our people are being left in the dust - new elites have formed to talk with themselves... Aggrey was anything but elitist.

In 2011, within hours of his death, the head of the Press Association of Jamaica, Jenni Campbell showed just how much Aggrey Brown was ahead of us when he described him as someone who "foresaw the explosion of technology long before many, and helped journalists to look ahead and position themselves and the profession for the advent of social media and the digital age".

How many owners, managers and minions in the Caribbean media, so many of whom lobbed their poisonous darts at Aggrey, what he stood for, what he stood up against, what he meant and what meant us to do, will have that as either epitaph or entry point?

Walk good, Aggrey. We who listened to you will keep searching, reasoning and asking about who in our civilisation is "Talking with Whom", why, and why not.

The Essential Aggrey Brown Bibliography:

Barbados: Towards a Media Farm in 2012

 Caribbean Media Centre, Bridgetown (CMC)

A question mark need not follow that headline, as it so often appends itself to ideas on this and many other little rocks in the Atlantic pond.

I return to something I've been advocating and others have been talking about for some time now - a media farm: a single cooperative space where media artists and entrepreneurs can operate; a cottage industry in air-conditioned comfort; a one-stop shop for clients and creators - its eventual shape can be limited only by our imagination... and our resolve.

I know of many Barbadian producers and filmmakers who crave a place to lay their hats, grab face time in a conference room, 'hold a corner' for their creative engine room, get access to a decent printer/copier etc.

Picture a score of office enclosures, one-room suites and a central large space that's farmed out to occupants freely and at cost to outsiders - a soundstage or multicamera studio with audience bleachers, perhaps. Set builders could share backgrounds, cycs, screens, props, furniture - and ideas. Dozens of single proprietors and groups, one reception area, one watercooler, one green room, one peppercorn rent to keep the lights and the water on while the creators focus on ...well, creating.

With fellow creators in one shared space, one can envisage the networking (tech and social), the collaboration, the bartering, the real and tangible sharing that can leverage individual projects.

Sure, they'd all in one place doing their own thing but what if you as filmmaker were two doors down from an animator/illustrator, next door to a musician/composer, across from the guy with the green screen, with a copier (and coffee-maker) down the corridor?

For too long, too many media producers have been 'scotching' here and there, or shouldering rent and utility costs alone hoping that the bills will be paid with the next big... wedding? Commercial?

The Investment and Development Corporation, the government's industrial promotion agency and industrial estate landlord, only has 1.6 million sq. ft. of space with common services and half-decent parking. In the Harbour Industrial Park - one of a dozen in the country - much of the space was created for offshore IT firms, so many of whom have since deserted for Bangalore (it takes many more Indians than Bajans to screw in a light bulb for far less cost).

Imagine that many creators, freed of the distracting burdens of survival, can now leverage training, research and development, even funding for their projects. Rather than wait on the wealthy walk-in client, a creator can devote his time (he now has the space at his disposal) to create the content for which both risk and reward are shared.

So imagine 25 or 30 (I imagine many more) creative and productive Bajans sharing a space (and a nominal rent) that must surely be a lighter 'burden' on the state (for civil servants and politicians tend to see it that way, sadly) than waiting on the next Great White ICT Hope to occupy the space.

In 2003, the Barbados Government took the space recently vacated by one such fleeing hope - ICL Fujitsu - and created the Caribbean Media Centre for the not-for-profit, independent Caribbean Media Corporation (CMC). The centre was just an entire floor already cabled for networking with large rooms for editorial and commercial/administrative offices and a soundstage/studio/training room.

So they'd done it before for one organisation; it can do it again for scores of individual artists.

Who needs ever-declining FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) if the brothers and sisters are doing it for themselves? Bajans, contrary to popular self-belief, do cooperativism really well - if we really want to and are not limited by lack of imagination and drive. Just look at our billion-dollar credit union movement that can buy whole insurance companies - no wealthy expats need apply.

If we really want to.

And if all the above doesn't convince you, imagine the film and video association with its own home - provided by the State as evidence that it is really putting its money where its lipservice is in the 'cultural industries'.

And for the love of Jehovah/Allah/God/Man Upstairs, there's an old, old precedent of sorts - all those nice handicraft people beavering away a couple hundred metres from the IT-ready buildings; the Pelican craft centre that's 40 years old.

Competition and collaboration - like the human being and fish(?) - can co-exist peacefully. Sort of. Sometimes. If we really want to.