MOST PEOPLE WOULDN’T find the mug shot of a Jamaican man in prison particularly Christmassy. I do. The image of Ninja Man on his Out Pon Bail album has for a long time reminded me of the holiday season, the good and the bad.
Out Pon Bail was a Christmas present to myself in 1991, after returning from my first trip to Jamaica. My parents were born in Jamaica, but had spent close to 30 years in England without returning “back home”. Every year they vowed to take us (my two sisters and I) once they had enough money. In the summer of 1991, true to their word, they took us. I was 18 and didn’t know what to expect. It was the first time I’d left England as a teenager, but I met my half-brother, visited my parents’ birthplace, ate jerk pork for the first time, and grooved to Pinchers’ Bandelero and Shabba Ranks’ Trailer Load of Girls at the Reggae Sunsplash Festival. More than anything, I felt at ease, something I had never experienced in England. I recognized that, to Jamaicans, I was a foreigner. But for a brief time, I felt a sense of belonging, even if it was part romantic fantasy.
On my return, I ditched my hoodies for green, black and yellow string vests, abandoned Dr Dre for Cutty Ranks and started speaking in a dodgy cockney-Jamaican accent.
Out Pon Bail had been part of my Jamaican makeover. Ninja Man, who had once been known as Double Ugly, was unpredictable. He could switch effortlessly from spoken word to impromptu Michael Jackson impressions, from folk tales about Jamaican street life to glorifying guns. Ninja personified Jamaican ghetto youths’ struggles.
In 1990, Ninja battled Shabba Ranks at the Sting concert, which takes place annually on Boxing Day. Once Ninja Man sang Permit to Bury, Shabba, dressed in black, shiny MC Hammer-style trousers, ran off the stage. Ninja had sent some 20,000 patrons into frenzy, many who were celebrating by letting off firecrackers and probably firing a gunshot or two. Another Jamaican artist, Charlie Chaplin convinced Shabba to return to the stage although, by this time, Ranks was so distressed he was apparently in tears.
Sting established itself as the battleground for every DJ (Jamaican term for a rapper) rivalry. A show where Beenie Man battled Bounty Killer in ’93, where the unheralded Merciless defeated Ninja Man, Bounty Killer and Beenie Man in 2000, where Vybz Kartel physically attacked Ninja Man in 2003, a fight which landed both in jail.
Every Christmas, I’ll scan the Internet to find out what happened at the latest Sting. I’ll play Out Pon Bail on my record player, even though it’s a poor album with Ninja trying to shift from ghetto superstar to crooner. His reworking of John Holt’s If I Was a Carpenter (retitled True Love) easily ranks as one of the worst covers in the history of popular music, alongside Duran Duran’s version of Public Enemy’s 911 is a Joke. Still, I’ll spend hours on YouTube watching grainy clips of old Sting concerts. It’s intoxicating. Like a video game meets reality TV, stock holiday pantomime meets Ultimate Fighting Championship, Batman meets Scarface. The language is foul and often offensive. The atmosphere is hostile, the crowd testosterone-charged and sometimes violent. It is unapologetically male, rage at its most appetizing. Makes you wish again though. Wishing you were Zidane during the 2002 Champions League final, wishing you wrote Breaks of the Game instead of Halberstam, wishing you were Hendrix at Woodstock, wishing I had teen spirit again. Wishing. Now that’s a Christmas theme. Beautiful. Tragic. A reminder that what I am, in my mind, is not what I am in reality.