I’m sitting in Starbucks, listening to a jazz rendition of “Sponger Money”. I must admit it sounds good. And it feels good to hear an international take on a Bahamian song. But I’m also wondering a couple of things.
The first one is what the thing is called. Is it called “Sponger Money” on the label, or does it have a different title — Spanish, maybe, or something unrelated in English?
The second one is who the song is said to be by. Now I don’t know the answer to that one, as I have not done the research necessary to find out who wrote it. I can hazard a guess — perhaps it was Charles Lofthouse, who wrote several songs in the first part of the twentieth century. More likely, it was an anonymous person, maybe a man on a sponge boat, or a woman clipping sponges on the wharf. I do know of at least one person who arranged the song: my father, E. Clement Bethel.
The third one (correct, this is a Bahamian “couple”), intimately connected to the first two, is who’s getting the royalties for the song.
Now I know (as well as one can know these things) that the song is Bahamian. It makes sense, after all; sponging was a major Bahamian industry for the better part of a century, from the mid 1800s to the late 1930s, and the song tells the story of the industry. The version I know was the one we used to sing when I was growing up:
Sponger money never done, we got sponger money
Sponger money is a lotta fun, we got sponger money
Laugh gal laugh
Laugh gal laugh
Laugh gal laugh
We got sponger money
But the question I have to ask is this. Even though the song is Bahamian, what Bahamian is getting the revenue from the song?
It’s a serious question, and one that I have to ask, given the kind of debate that followed the postponement of The Bahamas’ hosting of CARIFESTA from 2008 to 2012. That debate, and the general dismissal of culture in general (and, by extension, of our culture in particular) made me realize that most of us — from the man and woman in the street to the politicians in the highest offices — are missing the point when it comes to cultural discussions. It made me realize, once again, that our society is locked into a mentality that is jammed firmly into the third quarter of the twentieth century, and that will hinder us not only from developing in the 21st century global economy, but also from maintaining our current economic position as the economic leader in the Caribbean.
It’s a mentality that is regressive on a number of fronts. In the first place, it continues to imagine — despite ample evidence to the contrary — that culture is dispensable, something that you do in your spare time if you can afford it, but not something that has any right to exist on its own. This is the mentality that has led to the removal of music, dance and art programmes from primary schools, permitted adults to regard creative activities as optional, not central, elements in children’s development, allowed teachers to divorce the use of language from thought itself, and criminalized self-expression. It’s also the mentality that suggests that the enjoyment of life is a waste of time, and that having a unique perspective on the world is sin.
It’s a mentality, in short, that creates a fertile breeding ground for negative activity. By stifling the ability of people to respond creatively to their environment — whether that environment is pleasant or difficult — it leaves them with only the option of a negative response. When you have no room to contemplate or create, you will fight.
And so our attitude towards culture is hurting us in several ways. On the one hand, it’s rendering us less competitive on the economic front. While we continue to invest in things that became obsolete twenty years ago — in sun, sand and sea, in gambling, in resort-based tourism, in cruise ship arrivals — our neighbours are diversifying their tourist economies and creating experiences for their visitors and their citizens alike that will bring the same people back again and again.
On the other hand, our dismissal of things cultural is hurting us socially. Not only does it mean that the vacuum that is “Bahamian” society of the 2000s has left us vulnerable to invasions from north and south alike; but it also encourages the development of a criminal sub-culture. Young people who have no sense of self, no outlet for their frustration, and no way of affirming their existence in a country that ignores them will inevitably resort to violence and anti-social behaviour.
And this should be no surprise to us. After all, Langston Hughes, the great African-American poet, put it in fairly simple terms. What happens to the dream deferred? he asked.
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags —
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?