Joy and revolution: Michael St George’s Fight Your Fears (or Die) by Brent Clough

As Bob Marley sang in 'Talking Blues', "I've been down on the rock so long, I seem to wear a permanent screw." For plenty of people faced with the madness of contemporary life, pain can become a kind of reality. In the absence of better options, pain (and the self-damaging ways to relieve it) can feel like Bob's familiar old rockstone.   
So it goes with aspects of contemporary culture. The most dramatic aspects of our times - greed, murder, paranoia  - are marketed back to us as entertainment. We see a world that's violent, competitive and hateful and we hunger for more images of it. In a mainstream culture that offers up a billion commodified versions of mayhem and death, alternatives can feel like a trick, like attempts to cover up the realness of things.
Given the bleak characteristics of current life, when you encounter a cultural product that's full of joy you're entitled to feel wary. An album like Fight Your Fears or Die by the Jamaican-Canadian singer and dub poet, Michael St. George forces you to pause and re-consider your worldview. For instance, from which dimension does a song like 'Life is Special' emanate?  With its steady One Drop reggae pulse, triumphant horn line and relentlessly upful lyrics reminding us, "how magnificently wonderful life is" and encouraging us to "grow as intended", you could imagine the artist is stuck in a peace 'n' love 1970s time warp. That vibe's long gone, right? Or how about a lightly stepping reggae tune called simply, 'Beautiful Woman' in which the singer, rather than being cute or smart about the woman he fancies, declares simply, "it's all about your kindness and your beauty/your vibration in space/you're a real blessing to the human race." 'Ramping Shop' this is not.Fight Your Fears you're conscious of the varied perspectives of someone who's prepared to offer his listeners a rare commodity - wisdom. 

The MSG & Brent Clough in Sydney, Australia

Michael St. George's particular wisdom is born from a youth spent in the August Town section of Kingston, the experiences of a Jamaican migrant in cosmopolitan Canada, his life as a global activist and the ever-strong guidance of Rastafari ('Life is Special' contains the memorable lines, "Looking for the messiah/don't forget we are the message, Iah").

Some of the most potent cuts on the album are first-hand accounts of personal struggle and change. In the piece 'One Suitcase', over a jazzy roots reggae arrangement Michael unfolds a poetic testament to the migrant's journey: "I start/ I stop/ I am the pick up before the beat drop/ I have been called out, plucked out, picked out/ could have remained bitter but with each blow I get better." Lyrics derived from hard lessons learnt over long years are tempered by the unquenchable fire of hopefulness. Yet in recalling home-places where hope might be less abundant there is keen insider's observation. In 'A So', using a deceptively smooth hip hop-inflected arrangement with some well-placed sound effects, MSG offers an account of August Town, wryly checking the local runnings which seem mired in violence: "two more shotta and two more duppy". Yet he never abandons a loving gaze at the environment that formed him, "love, confrontation, skill and bravado meet in the street/and the selector belch out another tune". No matter the dark visions, MSG doesn't offer the closure of easy moralism; his narrator is not a judge, but a fellow sufferah: "you ask me but really I don't know/ all I can say is 'a so'".
   Politics for MSG is a matter of analysis and commitment despite the odds. 'Dream Martin' is a staunch indictment of the soured state of Dr Martin Luther King's dream, delivered in the form of a one-sided conversation with the departed leader. Placing the prophetic words of Dr King into the context of dashed dreams of the twenty-first century MSG points out, "some of us have seen the mountain top/ but effort, knowledge and skills still can't seem to get us there". Further, he admits, "the peace is in pieces/ red hot and melting" and even, "Martin, oh brother Martin, your killers celebrate you". He asks the kind of question many repeat to themselves whenever the I Have a Dream speech is invoked: "when will freedom come for some?" This piece, maybe the strongest cut on Fight Your Fears, blends a militant roots bassline with a vocal chorus drawn from native American chants and I Three-style harmonies. This is a song-poem that speaks truthfully in its critical even dour observations but also rises up in the most moving way to re-ignite Dr King's vision to call for justice for Indigenous people and so-called ‘minorities’ (in fact, the global majority). The chanted chorus summons, for this listener at least, that brief electric moment of recognition when Africans and Indigenous people sight each other in Steve McQueen's film, 12 Years a Slave.  On a more direct level, in 'Political Fanatic' the tallying up of the crimes and the outright rejection of political warfare in the Jamaican context is urgent and impassioned, "as the day dawn and the children born, you're at it".
Returning to the aforementioned joy of Michael St. George's work, sung and spoken pieces like 'Doom and Gloom' bounce in with its guidance for daily living encapsulated in the chorus that can be summoned up at will, just like the best pop music ‘ear-worms’. 'Mama Afrika' is a collaboration with kora and hand drum players, Amara Kante and Mosi Conde - a celebration of living African roots and a fresh take on ancient traditions because, for all the Jamaican songs invoking Africa and interpolating the New World African heartbeat of Rastafari drums and chants, there are precious few Jamaican collaborations with musicians, traditional or modern, from the Motherland. 'Mama Afrika" should be celebrated for that musical adventurousness alone, but then the voice of MSG calling out, "you visionary, you creator, Afrika!" takes the track up to another level of sublime.
Throughout Fight Your Fears the vocal arrangements are subtle, thoughtful and complex. Take for example 'So Cold' which showcases MSG's ability to place voices in creative ways. A dialogue between a spoken voice and singer begins as a chat between friends and moves to a kind of commentary on the song itself, with the spoken voice disputing, chiding and urging the singer to be bolder. The singer replies in ever more philosophical ways. The content is about politics, war, peace, religion and racism yet never stops being a compelling conversation.
Fight Your Fears is a deeply unafraid album. It is innovative without worrying about fashion, conscious of tradition and able to deepen that tradition. It's an album made by a man not frightened to be gentle and thoughtful but one who’s willing to say what most other ‘controversial’ artists shy away from. For plenty of reasons the tenor of the times resonates with Michael St. George’s seasoned voice. In this serious time we need strong, intelligent communicators who are capable of being joyful and revolutionary. Michael St. George manages to be both and more.
© Brent Clough 2014

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