Breeze, Jean “Binta” 1956–
Jean “Binta” Breeze 1956–
Jean “Binta” Breeze was a political activist from Jamaica who made her mark on the world through her writings and more importantly though her performance of poetry, She started out as a youth performing other people’s poetry, and eventually came to write and perform her own. She was best known for her dub poetry, a fusion of reggae and spoken world that before her time was done primarily by men.
Breeze was born Jean Lumsden on March 11, 1956. She was born in Patty Hill, Hanover, Jamaica. Her father was employed as a public health inspector, and while her mother studied to be a midwife, Breeze spent much of her young childhood in rural Jamaica where she was raised by her grandparents who were peasant farmers. Breeze attended Rusea High School in Hanover and earned her A levels in Spanish, Geography, and English Literature. After completing high school, she married one of her former teachers, a Welshman named Brian Breeze, in 1974. They had one child, a son, before separating in 1978. During her marriage, Breeze taught at a secondary school in Hanover, and also worked for the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission, planning the annual Jamaican festival.
After her marriage ended, Breeze moved to Kingston, Jamaica, something that would dramatically change the direction of her life. The first step in creating this new life was to enroll at the Jamaican School of Drama, where she studied for one year. After this year, she moved to Clarendon Hills for three and a half years, during which time she had her second child, a daughter. The two moves and the birth of a second child occurred within a very short space of time, and they created extensive changes in Breeze’s life; but there were other changes, even more crucial, on the horizon.
As Breeze changed her life and she also became more involved in other activities. She became a member of the Rastafarian religion, a religion that originated in Africa but that later became very popular amongst the poor in Jamaica. This religion is a commitment to a way of life, since it demands of its followers that they speak out against oppression and poverty. The ideology of the Rastafarian religion fits well with another important interest for Breeze: the status of Jamaican women. Her interest in women’s issues led Breeze to become an early member of the Sistren Theatre Collective. Sistren began in 1977 as an organization of working class women, and Breeze was there to help its formation. The focus of Sistren’s efforts was the oppression of Jamaican women and the effort to improve their economic and legal condition. With its emphasis on using drama to teach, Breeze found a comfortable fit for her own talents as a writer and performer. This period, with its involvement with both the Rastafarian and Sistren organizations, brought into focus Breeze’s commitment to social issues, especially those involving the exploitation of Jamaican women. More than twenty years later, in a 1999 interview with Henry Palmer of New Internationalist, Breeze reminded
At a Glance…
Born March 11, 1956, in Patty Hill, Hanover, Jamaica, West Indies. Education: Jamaican School of Drama, 1979.
Career: Author: Answers, 1962; Ryddim Ravings and Other Poems, 1988; Spring Cleaning: Poems, 1992; On the Edge of an Island, 1997; Song Lines, 1997; The Arrival of Brighteye and Other Poems, 2001. Recording Artist: Tracks, 1991; Hearsay, 1994; Riding on de Riddym, 1996. Director: Moon Dance Night; In and Out of the Window. Actress: The Love Space Demands.
readers that “her art is rooted firmly in social and political conflict.” Her commitment to women’s issues, to combating poverty and the exploitation of other human beings was something that extended beyond her writing and into her personal life.
With more than just the written world as a talent, Breeze found her voice in performance and it was in performance that she was at her strongest. Breeze started performing early in life and while she might not have known the title for what she was doing, it was performance poetry that led Breeze to the stage. She used the annual Jamaican festival as a forum for her performances of women’s writing, especially in her use of the work of Louise Bennett. In a brief autobiographical entry that she submitted for inclusion in the Rout–ledge Reader in Caribbean Literature, Breeze described what drew her to perform Bennett’s work: “I had read and performed works from other women writers in Jamaica, but Miss Lou had not only drawn on the characters, experiences and languages of the people, she had also managed to give the people’s poetry back to them in a way that made the nation celebrate itself.” Breeze felt that Bennett had opened doors for every other Caribbean women poet and thus in performing her poetry, Breeze forged an important connection to every woman’s poetry. This love of performance continued, as Breeze became an adult, where it became more focused on the performance of her own work.
After the move to Kingston, Breeze became closely connected to other performance poets, such as Mikey Smith, Oku Onuora, and Mutabaruka. In her sketch for Routledge, Breeze related the importance of these connections, since they eventually led her to record her performances. It was a 1981 stage performance with Muta that led him to decide to record her work. Breeze credited this recording with leading to “the acclaim of being, as one magazine termed it, ‘the first female dub poet in the male–dominated field.’” Dub poetry was the fusion of reggae music and the spoken world. It was also a form of social commentary. Breeze told Palmer that dub poetry “is a public voice, a political voice of social commentary that works to a rhythm.” Breeze removed the music that typically accompanied dub poetry and permitted the words to speak for themselves. Instead of using music, she used the rhythms of reggae to create rhythm in her poetry.
Dub poetry satisfied Breeze’s personal political concerns, while performance took her poetry from the printed page and turned her voice into an instrument for social change. In an essay published on the Contemporary Writers web site, James Proctor suggested that Breeze was “one of the most important, influential performance poets of recent years.” Proctor called Breeze’s poetry “rich and varied,” in part because she stretched the dub formula in different ways, moving beyond its limitations. But Breeze’s poetry was more about people than about genre. And as Palmer reminded his readers, “it is about the powerful emotions of real people’s lives.” Moving her poetry from the page and into sound made clear how important the real people’s emotions were to Breeze.
Breeze had begun to write her first poems while still in high school, and within ten years she was to see her first book of poetry, Answers, published in 1982. Breeze soon met another important poet, Linton Kwesi Johnson, who encouraged Breeze to go to Britain with him in 1986. Johnson was himself an important force in reggae, dub poetry, and the promotion of Jamaican artists. His influence can clearly be seen in Breeze’s life and career. For instance, in England, Johnson worked as a reporter for Britain’s Channel 4, the British Broadcasting Company, which produced a series of documentaries, The Bandung Files, aimed at Britain’s black community. One of these documentaries, “Mood and Moments,” focused on Breeze’s career. Johnson also helped her get a second book of poetry, Ryddim Ravings and Other Poems, published in 1988. The publication of this book led to Breeze being asked to write the script and screenplay for Hallelujah Anyhow for the British Film Institute and Channel 4, a critically acclaimed film that was screened at the British Film Festival in 1990 and shown at the Sundance Film Festival. Johnson also worked with Dennis Bovell’s Dub Band, with whom Breeze recorded a successful album, Tracks, which was recorded in 1991 on Johnson’s record label.
This initial success with poetry, recordings, and film led to even more success. Over the next several years, Breeze published several more books of poetry and prose, including Spring Cleaning (1992), On the Edge of An Island (1997), Song Lines (1997), and The Arrival of Brighteye and Other Poems (2001). Several of these works were greeted with critical praise. In a review published in World Literature in Review: Jamaica, Kwame Dawes noted that the poems and short stories in On the Edge of An Island “are largely involved in the drama of living and reflect her [Breeze’s] remarkable ability to capture the nuance and depth of the spoken voice while still offering works that are layered nicely with multiple meanings.” In a review of The Arrival of Brighteye and Other Poems, Bruce King noted that Breeze’s technique and range are impressive, and observed that her work in this book “meant to represent the Caribbean female experience.” King suggested that Breeze’s “politics are now likely to be vague appeals to sisterhood and race” and that her work was less aggressively political than in the past. Reviews of Breeze’s recent work indicated that she has continued to evolve as a poet and that her talent was not limited to only one formula.
In the past, Breeze was asked to make her stage femininity more masculine, to disguise her femininity in a male–dominated forum. She recounted in the Rout–ledge self–portrayal that she has occasionally been viewed as too sexual to be a dub poet. Her movements suggested a “sexual image rather than a radical one.” In response, Breeze chose to wear clothing that she hoped would disguise her sexuality. She began to wear military khaki uniforms, but this change did not last, since she admitted that eventually she came to understood that she was simply unable to reduce the sexual energy that would become “a source of creative energy on the stage.” As King noted in his review, Breeze has changed as her talent has matured. She worried in the Routledge piece that dub poetry was becoming stagnant, that “there is not enough experimentation with the form and it… [was] becoming as constraining in its rhythms as the iambic pentameter” of other poets. But as Breeze later noted in the same article, she liked not having rules, and so it seemed fitting that her poetry matured and changed, just as her life has changed from the rural Jamaica where she wrote her first poems.
Although busy writing, Breeze has also been directing theatrical productions, performing, and recording. She directed productions of Moon Dance Night and In and Out of the Window and has starred in another theatrical production, The Love Space Demands. Breeze has also kept busy working on two recordings, Hearsay, (1994) and Riding on de Riddym, (1996). She was much in demand as a performer and traveled throughout the world performing her poetry, including to locations in Africa, Asia, and North America. In spite of all the demands of her career, Breeze has committed to being a good parent to her son and two daughters. She has also committed to her continued growth as a writer and performer.
Ryddim Ravings and Other Poems, Race Today, 1988.
Spring Cleaning: Poems, Virago, 1992.
On the Edge of an Island, Bloodaxe Books, 1997.
Song Lines, Gecko Press, 1997.
The Arrival of Brighteye and Other Poems, Bloodaxe, 2001.
Tracks, Shanachie Records, 1991.
Hearsay, 57 Productions, 1994.
Riding on de Riddym, 57 Productions, 1996.
The Routledge Reader in Caribbean Literature, Routledge, 1996.
World Literature in Review: Jamaica, Summer, 1998, p. 669.
World Literature Today, Winter, 2002, p. 123.
—Sheri Elaine Metzger
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