Visual Culture: The Caribbean Creative Renaissance Is Coming To A Screen Near You

Words by Sharine Taylor

2017 is a great time to be a creative. You’re only a like or follow away from connecting with other like-minded individuals, and your work has the potential to be seen by a much larger audience than the city, province, parish or country you hail from. But what does this mean for creatives in, or from, the Caribbean? It means they can finally be the ones to curate how they would like their stories to be told to the world. Whether it is making hilarious videos or creating a Twitter page to unite the region, Caribbean creatives are using online content to share their experiences and creations to an audience that is more global than ever.

“I feel like the Caribbean needs to have an authentic voice in mainstream media,” says Raena Bird, the Antiguan creator behind Chattabox. Chattabox is a New York-based, panel-style web talk show featuring people with Caribbean roots discussing a variety of topics. After being frustrated with the limited representation of the Caribbean in the content that she was engaging with, Bird decided to put her background in multimedia and communication art and design into action.

In less than a year, Chattabox has amassed over 11,000 followers on Twitter and plenty of subscribers on YouTube. Their second most-viewed video, W.I vs DEM, takes on the big question of what makes an authentic Caribbean. The panelists, comprised of people born in the Caribbean and the Diaspora, spawned a heated debate about the politics of citizenship and authenticity which was, according to Bird, unplanned. Including panelists who weren’t born in the Caribbean, but who have Caribbean heritage, was not intentional. But, through casting, the chosen candidates just happened to be of the Diaspora. “Everybody does need to be included because all of us have family that don’t live in the West Indies,” Bird says. “We all do…and I noticed that people outside of the Diaspora rep it even harder than we do.”

There is no stopping Bird. She is working tirelessly to ensure Caribbean creatives have a voice. She believes that the Caribbean as a whole is a severely underserved demographic and hopes to fulfill that gap with Chattabox, but not simply in the form of a YouTube show. Bird sees Chattabox eventually taking the shape of a network located in cities with large numbers of Caribbean people. Through this, Chattabox will serve as a hub for Caribbean content where Caribbean content creators can make content for each other, by each other. “I feel we aren’t visible, yet still, islands in the Caribbean are responsible for a lot of culture in America, Canada, England and these first-world English-speaking countries and there’s no real credit,” says Bird. “I think like the by-us-for-us model is just the best thing.”

Raena Bird

Her next step is taking Chattabox on the road—or rather, the air—through the show’s new miniseries Island Hop. Island Hop takes 50 people from each country and asks them questions about a variety of topics. Their first episode discussed the carnival rules of the road and forthcoming discussions will tackle the art of begging back. As she gears up for Chattabox’s second season, she is looking towards the broader Caribbean community for support to enhance the quality of the show’s production. “I don’t think we’re used to seeing ourselves on HD screens or just being ourselves,” Bird says.

Perhaps that’s what makes initiatives like Chattabox and Losing Patience so important.

Losing Patience is a mini web series chronicling the misadventures of Renee Patience, played by singer/songwriter Sevana. Patience is a young millennial woman navigating cultural annoyances within Kingston, Jamaica. Teeqs, the show’s producer, writer and director, along with co-producer Natalie Nash, want to change the dynamic of Caribbean representation as well as the local television industry in Jamaica. With many years of production experience to their credit, they used Losing Patience as a means to transform how people think about both Caribbean content and its content creators and to ensure that they were filling the gaps they thought were missing.

“People come to Jamaica, or wherever else in the Caribbean, and they tell our stories through their own gaze without understanding the things that inform the way that we operate within our society,” Teeqs says. After working on many films and documentaries, she wants Losing Patience to be on the frontiers of change. “It’s not a single thing that defines Jamaica or the Caribbean… We know that we need to be seen properly and, as Caribbean creatives, we are going to make that change now.” Nash adds: “Our cultural reach is insane for the smallness of our island. We appreciate that we have that kind of place in the world. But, just like with anywhere else, we have a multitude of stories…We’re ready to tell another Jamaican story.”

The series, filmed in just two days, required a certain kind of specificity to speak to a particular audience whose narrative is often left untold. “There’s this dichotomy in Kingston society where, yes, you have the poor, you also have the middle and upper classes existing but we don’t get to see that middle class and hear anything of that experience,” Teeqs says. “[In the middle class] you’re kind of riding that boundary between the two and I wanted to explore the weirdness in that space in Kingston society, because no one’s ever really addressed it.”

Sevana, as Renee Patience

Additionally, the show’s creators wanted to transform how Black womanhood looked on screen as they weren’t seeing their experiences through local content. “On one level, we wanted women to feel comfortable with getting angry or with being upset with the situations that we find ourselves in,” Teeqs says. “I also wanted to present dark-skinned Black women because I don’t get to see that very often.” Adds Nash, “Even though [Renee’s life] is a reality of Jamaica, it is not a reality of Jamaican content… There’s no canvas in Jamaica that talks about the struggle of being a woman, being a middle-class woman, being a Black woman in this island right now.”

Since its debut, the show has garnered a lot of attention. Though it was made strictly for online consumption, Losing Patience’s executive producer, Justine Henzell, was able to get the first two episodes aired on Television Jamaica (TVJ), one of the country’s largest television stations. Though Losing Patience was appreciative for the opportunity, Nash would like to see Jamaica’s television industry become more accessible for creatives to get to national screens. She also wants policy change from the government so the industry can grow. “Before you pick up a camera, if you want your stuff to be seen by people, you have to pay TVJ and CVM, first, to be on television,” Nash says. “So there is no way any creator in this country who doesn’t have two million Jamaican dollars to start with is going to get their shit out there.” “And if by some miracle they agree to give you money, they want to own your content in propertuity. They take away your rights as a content creator. So TVJ or CVM owns it and they’re going to do whatever they want to do with it.”

Nash notes that the “monopoly of cable television is over and done with.” Broadcasters need to adjust accordingly and understand the plethora of more-accessible options consumers now have at their fingertips. So, she and her team made all episodes under seven minutes, taking into consideration that much of their target demographic is consuming content on the go.

The Losing Patience team has huge aspirations for their series—and their industry. Nash believes that, with regards to Jamaica, there is limitless potential that needs to be capitalized on:[If] we want to have the kind of long-term growth that we need in Jamaica to become better than what we are, then we have to expand our repertoire,” she says. “We have to bring our brand to the world in lots of different ways and, to be honest, even with reggae and sports…we’re not benefitting from it in the way that we could.”

The good thing is that this kind of work is being done by people within the Diaspora, too, and that shows in the portfolio of one Jamaican-British filmmaker: Cecile Emeke. Emeke has a variety of credits to her name but most notable is her Strolling Series. Strolling Series is a YouTube-based webseries that follows people of the Black Diaspora around the globe as they share how their identities and geographic locations shape their experiences. Her last episode took her to Jamaica where she made room for two young adults from Kingston to tell their stories about what it means to be Afro-Jamaican.   

Caribbean content creators have a message: they want people from outside of the Caribbean to know that there are creatives within the region who can produce content that rivals theirs. And, most importantly, they want people within the Caribbean to know that their stories are worth sharing and telling. This period is, arguably, the Caribbean’s creative renaissance, and the time to pay attention is now. Nash captures this sentiment best when she says, “It’s important for us to…help fellow content creators, whether it’s here in Jamaica or Trinidad or they’re part of the diaspora in Canada, to come out of the woodworks and be proud in their Caribbean heritage, whatever that looks like, and tell their stories. Because their stories are funny and meaningful and dramatic and relevant and authentic, and people care.”