Social exclusion and cultural creativity

by - John La Rose

For tens of millions of the world's people, especially during the period of colonial- ism in their histories, "social exclusion" from regular work and income has been a long term and dire experience. Yet social exclusion was not social death; social exclusion, with its enforced leisure, produced forms of cultural creativity which engendered marvels of reality, "le realisme merveilleux," in Jacques Stephan Alexis's phrase or in the words of Alejo Carpentier: "lo real maravilloso."

Looking back at the Agora in ancient Greece, we see the outlines of this process. The Greek skole or leisure, from which words like scholar and scholarship originate, allowed for time, for discussion, for debate and interaction, which underlined the development of philosophy, drama and democracy. It was the rigor of slave labor which made all this leisure possible.

In the Caribbean the unemployed, in their enforced leisure, created Calypso, the famous mass popular Carnival and Steel-band. It was the unemployed from Behind the Bridge in Port of Spain, Trinidad, who created the language, the music, the dance, the instruments, the organizations, which gave birth and originality to these institutions. They were like any other artists - with time for withdrawal into intense moments of creativity, working for hours and hours at their art form and producing brilliant episodes of invention.

Each of these marvels of creativity also engenders extensive forms of productive activity: carnival bands, calypso tents, carnival tourists, more hotels, the invention and production of unique instruments for a wholly new type of orchestra, work for tuners who tune them, compositions, studios, agents, concerts, exports, travels for orchestras, tours internally and abroad, arrangers, cassettes and CDs, programs for the radio, TV, books, journals, the press.

The same is true for the genius of the unemployed in Kingston, Jamaica, who, in their leisure created Rude Bwoy and Reggae, of whom the most famous exponent was Bob Marley. No one, in the original moment of creativity, would have dreamt of such marvelous creations, especially coming from such excluded sections of society, from Frantz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth.

We have only to think of the massive popular creativity of African Americans in their world of social exclusion and segregation: their Negro spirituals, the black church with its sustaining spirituality, its inspired and influential musical forms, its foundations for oral expressiveness and invention, its inspiration for, literature; and then the blues, jazz and now rap, and the constant inventiveness in language, dance, music, art, style and fashion.

This creativity, provides a praxis of transculturation, profound in its world impact and interaction among the peoples of our planet. (It) provides a different apprehension of social exclusion beyond the negative function of social death.

Excerpts from "Unemployment, Leisure and the Birth of Creativity," The Black Scholar, Volume 26, No.2. Copyright John La Rose.

Back to the Archive