It’s a moody Tuesday evening in Kingston, two hours before a pandemic-induced curfew. Traffic is building up. People hustling home before the police takes to the streets looking for those daring the dreaded COVID-19 virus.
I’m driving against traffic, nodding to Nigerian Hip-hop music inside the car of my friend and newest brother, Steven Golding, the man who today sits on the chair the great Marcus Garvey once sat as the President of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Steven breathes and lives black history, reparations and legacy. Steve is taking me to a man who embodies Jamaican history.
Driving through Kingston reminds me of my beloved Ibadan before the age of social media. It’s warm, drips with history and embracesyou. It has hills like we had hills. An ocean encircles it just as the Ogunpa river runs through Ibadan. Most times both bodies of waters are blessings. Sometimes they grumble, dousing Kingston with hurricane floods just like the Ogunpa river floods the city they once called Eba Odan.
Jamaica has a chunk of Nigeria in it. Jamaicans look very Nigerian. I was in a bar one evening before curfew, looked around and marveled at how this could be a bar in Maitama, Abuja or Lekki, Lagos. We all looked the same. We even share some traits, like that extra bit of aggression and a penchant for talking loud. No wonder they call the Jamaicans the Nigerians of the Caribbean.
Steven and I are going to see the man they call “Mr. Jamaica”. You would expect that moniker to belong to Bob Marley or Usain Bolt. But no. It belongs to the man that both icons adore. Mr. Jamaica is a man that straddles the world of sports and reggae music. Going to him is like taking a mini-pilgrimage.
The winds from Trench Town blows behindthe back of the car as we barrel down Lady Musgrave road, wind down a few streets and shoot down a side street until we pull up in front of a house with an open gate at the end of the street.
And there he was, sitting on a chair like an elder in an African village. Allan “Skill” Cole, the man they call Mr. Jamaica. He looks oddly simple in his shorts and bare chest. But he has a magnetic pull that draws you as you get out of the car.
“Welcome, brother,” Mr. Jamaica greets me with a smile that shows he’s excited to meet this visitor from the homeland. I may have traveled from California but everywhere I go in the black diaspora, the connection is always Nigeria, Africa – the homeland, the breast from which our ancestors all sucked in unison.
I sit beside him, marveling at a man over two decades my senior and fitter than I was three decades ago. He speaks in measured tones and strokes his grey locks like the bards from the old times. He grabs a machete, chops off the top of a coconut with a practiced precision and offers me a drink. Growing up in Ibadan, we had no time for the coconut water. All we wanted was the sweet coconut. Turns out the real juice is the water. People drink coconut water religiously in Jamaica. I discover it has several nutrients that helps fights diseases like diabetes, kidney stones and heart disease. I am now a coconut water drinker.
I take a gulp and settle down to listen to the man they call Skill because he was so skillful as a soccer player, Jamaica called him up to the national team when he was 15. He played against the great Pele. He played professionally around the world. He still coaches kids in Jamaica.
And that is only one part of his life. I had come to find about that man that was a big part of his life. I had come to listen to his relationship with his best friend, Bob Marley. Skill is the one man who knows Bob Marley more than anyone. He was Bob’s idol before Robert Nesta Marley became Bob Marley. He was Bob Marley’s manager. Bob Marley loved soccer and wanted so badly to be a soccer star. Skill was his channel into soccer stardom.
I told Skill about my introduction to reggae as a kid in primary school as Bob Marley neared the end of his life, listening as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff stirred the soul every morning on the turntable and radio in my ancient city a world away from the hustle and bustle of Kingston. He tells me about the end of Bob Marley’s life, from America to an eight-month search for a cure in Germany and finally death in Miami.
Roger Steffens, the renowned reggae archivist and expert on everything Bob Marley wrote that if football had not stolen Skill from Bob’s side, Bob Marley would not have died when he did. In those eight months when Bob Marley battled cancer, Skill was the one with him night and day. I ask Skill about that. He strokes his grey lock and grey beard, mumbles something that is a cross between a prayer and regret.
I tell him about my two “Rasta” friends. When we were younger, Nwachukwu Osuagwu blabbed about reggae so much I thought we may have to save up to keep him in an asylum. He even insisted we call him “Stich”. When I thought I had escaped Nwachukwu’s rasta-madness, I ran into “Rasta” Simon Kolawole at the University of Lagos and he was on a whole different level. Strange thing is, Simon and Nwachukwu didn’t grow enough hair on their heads to have dreads!
Skill tells me about some friends from his younger days. About Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer as they sang their way up the charts, about the spiritual guru who channeled their vocal energy and renamed them the Wailers. Singing wasn’t just about chorusing. It was about channeling deep emotions that comes from a history of pain and fighting for survival. “You don’t sing, you wail,” he told Bob and the others. So, they became the Wailers. Skill got Bob Marley and the Wailers their first #1 song. He was the other wailer.
I wanted to tell him how my friends and I used to woo girls with reggae songs when our pockets were dry as leaves in harmattan. But I didn’t. You don’t compete with the real thing. You see, while Bob Marley married Rita in the I-Threes Skill fathered three children with Judy Mowatt. Skill is such music royalty he shares grandchildren with Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff. I tried bragging about escaping armed robbers in Lagos and he tells me about the night Bob Marley was shot, an attempted murder some claim was aimed at Skill.