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Bongreads of the Week: Jamaican Journalism Edition

In honor of Jamaica’s Independence Day, we’re sending you off into the weed-soaked sunset with a cache of some of the best Jamaica-centric longreads published throughout the past several years.

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This article is part of MERRY JANE's Jamaica Week. For more on this special series of articles and videos, visit our Editor's Letter here.

If you haven't noticed, this esteemed marijuana-centric website has been spending the entire week celebrating Jamaica's Independence day, which falls on August 6th of each year. We've delved into the worlds of Jamaican film and art, examined the nation's marijuana laws, and tried to understand why exactly why Jamaican KFCs are head and shoulders better than KFCs throughout the rest of the world. The convict turned true crime writer Seth Ferranti wrote about being the lone white dude on an all-Jamaican prison soccer team, and Andre Fowles of Chopped fame told the world about how to make a weed-infused rum cake.

Part of the reason why Jamaica is so special is because despite the country's relatively small size, its unique culture has impacted the world in ways that even exponentially larger nations haven't. Jamaican literature is no different. The groundbreaking cultural critic Stuart Hall hailed from Jamaica, as did the Harlem Renaissance fixture Claude McKay. The Jamaican academic Orlando Patterson has contributed significantly to the discourse surrounding race in America, Nalo Hopkinson has pushed the Afrofuturistic novel in new and exciting directions by adding an Afro-Caribbean sensibility to the style, and Linton Kwesi Johnson was first black poet – and the second living one, at that – to be published by Penguin's Modern Classics imprint.

So now that I've schooled the shit out of you on Jamaica's literary history, it's time for me to send you off into the weed-soaked sunset with a cache of some of the best Jamaica-centric longreads published on this here internet. 

"The Last Wailer"

John Jeremiah Sullivan for GQ

As a rule of thumb, most writers who practice "new journalism" – i.e., the type of magazine article in which the writer makes themself a central figure in their own story, a subgenre I like to call "dudes writin' shit about stuff" – is overwrought and terrible. One of the few modern exceptions to this rule is John Jeremiah Sullivan, whose 2011 GQ piece about tracking down Bunny Wailer remains one of the finest explorations – and celebrations – of the extreme beauty and jarring contradictions at the heart of Jamaica itself.

"A Massacre in Jamaica"

Matthias Schwartz for The New Yorker

If there's one thing that's true about the American government, it's that it has an unfortunate tendency to fuck shit in other countries up. Take the May 2010 massacre in the Tivoli Gardens neighborhood of Kingston, in which 74 people died in an attempt to capture the Jamaican drug kingpin Christopher Coke so that he could be extradited to the United States. As Schwartz writes, both the American and Jamaican governments refuse to disclose the details about the deaths that occurred during the raid on Coke, who ultimately evaded capture. The piece offers a fascinating breakdown of the power that organized crime holds over Jamaica, where drug lords such as Coke engender loyalty in the neighborhoods they control by providing badly needed services that the country's government does not. Though he might have been a murderous criminal mastermind, Coke also provided a sense of stability and safety to the residents of Tivoli Gardens, creating a balance that was thrown severely out of wack when America tried to extradite him. 

"Digital Rhythm: The Loopy Origins of Dembow and the Knotty Dancehall Roots of Reggaeton"

Wayne Marshall for Wax Poetics

The DJ Wayne Marshall – not to be confused with the extremely famous Jamaican DJ of the same name – also doubles as one of the sharpest and most knowledgeable thinkers about the genre, as proven by his 2014 piece for Wax Poetics tracing the roots of Shabba Ranks's twitchy 1990 single "Dem Bow," the track that served as the seed from which the entire genre of Reggaeton grew. Along the way, he points out Reggaeton's ties to Jamaican and Panamanian culture, as well as its origins in New York reggae studios. It's one of those pieces that, once you're finished reading it, makes you go "holy shit I'm actually smarter!" Which, y'know, is great.

"From Jamaica to Minnesota to Myself"

Marlon James for the New York Times Magazine

"I was 28 years-old, and I'd reached the end of myself," writes the Jamaican novelist Marlon James in this touching recollection of his journey to self-knowledge. He recalls the struggle of growing up gay in Jamaica and how he spent his 20s leading a fractured life, splitting time between the wild anonymity of New York City and the restrictive cultural confines of his home country. Finding the self is a lifelong project, and breakthroughs often occur in ways we least expect them. For James, it took relocating to Minnesota to discover his own inner continuity, where he discovered an identy tied not to culture or social pressures but to his own whims, desires, and sensibilities.

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