“Nobody Canna Stop Laughing”: Language, Cultural Anxiety and the Clifton Brown Commotion
Clifton Brown--photo credit TVJ


Several weeks ago, parts of Jamaica experienced extensive flooding after days of heavy rains that rivaled the deluge which set Noah’s ark afloat some millennia past. Bridges, roads, homes and businesses were washed away, leaving residents in various parts of the island stranded, unable to navigate flooded streets, swollen gullies, and overflowing rivers.

Jamaican television station TVJ covered the floods in the Mavis Bank area of Jamaica in the parish of St. Andrew, and reporter Dara Smith’s interview with a bystander and resident of the area, Clifton Brown, is now perhaps the most famous TV interview in Jamaica. In the interview Brown offers an earnest, thoughtful, and passionate explanation of the challenges being faced by residents of Mavis Bank and the surrounding communities, including Robertsfield and Davis Hill, and he elaborates on the dangers posed by the flooded Yallahs River. Brown’s colorful and animated conversation is further characterized by his attempt to speak with a foreign accent (in this case American), known in Jamaica as a “twang.” Here is the most comprehensive version of the interview I could find, despite the unexplainably interspersed images of Bounty Killer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xWIkX9c23M4 

In his now memorialized commentary on the raging Yallahs River, Brown states, “Nobody canna cross it, only a fishermen and a fisherwomen,” (no one can cross the river, only people very familiar with water). Brown’s unique and impassioned description of the difficulties being faced by his community is his effort to illuminate the perils of simply trying to survive and get to work or school in the face of extensive flooding. It is also his plea for help from a government that he perceives as indifferent to his community’s plight.

At another point in the interview Brown utters the second popular phrase associated with his perspective on the flooding when in an effort to explain which types of vehicles are able to navigate the heavy flood waters he says “The bus can swim,” meaning buses can make the treacherous crossing. In fact, the news report revealed that crossing the river had become so hazardous that residents had to pay vehicles and sometimes individuals to ferry them as human cargo from one side to the next.

Next, in the Clifton Brown saga comes Kevin-Sean Hamilton aka “DJ Powa,” a talented young student at Jamaica’s University of Technology who remixed clips of the interview, set these clips to music, and created a catchy music video. DJ Powa’s objectives in all this seem to be primarily commercial and have little to do with Brown or the floods. DJ Powa’s videos expose his talent and create economic opportunities for him. For example, by the time he appeared on television after his video had become super popular, he was wearing a T-shirt (surely available for sale) emblazoned with a line from the video. Watch his original video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hknVoAoyy-k&feature=related.  To date the video has garnered over a million hits on YouTube.

The third installment in this unfolding event, and the focus of this article, is a second interview with Clifton Brown after his sudden rise to fame. This interview took place on the popular Jamaican morning talk show Smile Jamaica, where hosts Simon Crosskill and Neville Bell spoke with both Brown and DJ Powa. Here’s that interview: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O13UzMTn-0o

Most striking to me about the Smile Jamaica segment is the overwhelming amusement the hosts found in Brown’s use of language during both the initial interview with Dara Smith as well as during their encounter with him on their show. Often doubled over with laughter to the point of near paralysis and tears, the hosts unabashedly laughed at Brown throughout the show despite Brown’s obvious surprise and discomfort that his speech could provoke such a response.

As I watched Smile Jamaica, I fully understood why the hosts, as well as many Jamaicans, found Brown’s linguistic faux pas amusing. Admittedly, I found the interview quite funny as well. This is no surprise since we Jamaicans are somewhat programmed to find amusement in our countrymen’s (and countrywomen’s, Brown might want me to add) attempts to reinvent themselves through language. For example, in Jamaican advertisements and theatre productions one of the most reliable ways to generate laughter is to have someone “twang.”

However, during Brown’s appearance on Smile Jamaica, watching Crosskill and Bell collapse into uncontrollable laughter in front of the country and an obviously confused and embarrassed guest was quite disturbing, particularly since many of us often privately engage in similarly mean-spirited laughter at people’s failed attempts to speak using some configuration of what they deem “proper” English. Crosskill and even more so Bell were doing precisely what many of us would do, except they were doing it in front of the entire nation. Subsequently, this Smile Jamaica episode has generated an onslaught of comments, including newspaper articles and editorials, social media feedback, and radio talk show discussions, many critical of Crosskill and Bell for their insensitivity, some to their defense.

But perhaps we can use this moment to venture beyond taking sides on the issue to instead interrogate the widespread national response of laughter to Brown’s interview. Why were his comments so humorous, his speech patterns so worthy of attention that they inspired a music video? What is this commotion over Brown?

What Brown engaged in when he set aside his usual patterns of speech and assumed what he understood to be a foreign/American accent is officially known as code switching, something we all do and which simply refers to our use of multiple variations of a language (or multiple languages) in a conversation. So if I am chatting with one of my Jamaican girlfriends, I may speak fairly standard English as I explain how my day is going, like my trip to the supermarket, blah, blah, blah. When I get to the part about a lizard that crawled into my car (while I was driving),  I may say something like, “When me tell say me did frighten, me mean say me was a go pass out!”  (when I say I was frightened, I mean I felt like I was going to pass out). That’s code switching.

So if this code switching happens all the time and we all engage in it, why are some forms of code switching, like Brown’s, quite hilarious, and other forms, like mine, inconsequential, rarely generating much laughter or notice? Perhaps one reason is because of the anxieties Brown exposes in some of us over our own efforts to successfully traverse class boundaries, which code switching helps us to accomplish.

Brown clearly thought that “twanging” was the appropriate code of choice for the moment. The camera and later the formality of the studio all signaled to Brown that something other than his usual mode of speech was called for, something that made him more understandable to his audience and that favorably situated him in a certain class and social space, perhaps other than the space in which he usually resides.

But from the middle-class eyes of the hosts, these language missteps marked Brown as a failure at faking an accent, an outsider unacquainted with the authentic rhythms of “foreign” evidenced by all of his mispronunciations and awkward cadence. So perhaps Crosskill and Bell’s laughter as well as the chuckles from all of us who found humor in Brown’s interview have less to do with Brown’s missteps but with the opportunity those missteps afford us to separate ourselves from him and what we may see as his lack of sophistication.

In other words, our laughter affirms that we know better than he does and we recognize that his effort to render an authentic foreign accent has failed, suggesting that we know how to avoid such failures and are competent in “proper” speech.  In other words, the laughers (the hosts of Smile Jamaica and those of us who found Brown’s interview comedic) are presumably able to successfully speak either American English or English English, while Brown cannot.

In his book, Leviathan, seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes suggested that we laugh at other people’s adversity in order to assert our own superiority. “Sudden Glory,” as Hobbes described this feeling of superiority, emerges from “the apprehension of some deformed thing in another.” This laughter, Hobbes contends, allows people to “keep themselves in their own favour, by observing the imperfections of other men.”

Another theoretical approach to humor advanced by psychologist Sigmund Freud has become known as “Relief Theory,” which suggests that we laugh to release pent-up anxieties and aggression. In other words, laughter allows us to express repressed emotion in a more socially acceptable form. With Freud’s ideas in mind, we may be able to understand the laughter generated by Brown’s interview as contempt towards the working class, their poverty, their struggles, and moreover their efforts to transcend their circumstances through acts like skin bleaching or “twanging,” which suggest that they are able to occupy an alternate (and presumably more privileged) social space. Twanging functions in a similar fashion to bleaching, as an effort to alter a signifier of class rank. See my blog post “Coloring with Cake Soap” all about bleaching and Vybz Kartel: http://blogs.jamaicans.com/ordinarya/2011/03/25/coloring-with-cake-soap/.   I argue that middle-class antagonism towards bleaching has to do with a resentment towards working-class people’s efforts to transcend their social spaces.

So what’s next in the Clifton Brown saga? In an interview with Jamaican poet and talk show host Mutabaruka, Brown claims that he now has an agent! I know that here at Jamaicans.com efforts are underway explore raising money to get a bridge built to prevent residents in the area from being marooned when it rains. Neville Bell, one of the hosts of Smile Jamaica, has apologized to Brown and has subsequently resigned from the show, although supposedly not in relation to the Brown commotion.    

If the furor over Brown did in fact prompt Bell’s resignation, I think that was an unfortunate and unnecessary outcome. What this incident presents is an opportunity for us to reflect on our own response to Brown, and to language in general, and perhaps what the Smile Jamaica hosts should have done was a follow-up show that contemplated just why they could not stop laughing about Brown’s commentary.