“Tessanne Represents Something Deeply Emotional,” Writes The Celebrated Novelist 

“To us, Tessanne is more than her talent, more than an exemplar of range, timing, and vocal control,” the noted Jamaican novelist Colin Channer wrote in a piece for the Wall Street Journal‘s website just before Tessanne Chin was announced as the winner of Season 5 of NBC’s The Voice and celebrated by singing a duet with Celine Dion. “It’s the sense that we’ve always been good, great even, but have often had to accept second or third position, because that’s just the way of the world.”  More After The Jump…

The Voice, like all talent shows that involve fan voting, is a populist revel,”  And it’s easy to dismiss such programs. Mostly I do. In fact, when I’d read in the Jamaica Observer some months ago that Tess had auditioned for “The Voice” I was a bit annoyed. My sense was, “Why is this news?” I slipped into an automatic position against her. I wanted and expected her to not go very far in the competition. I’d written her off as “an uptown singer,” good enough but able to have a moderate career because of privilege, because of Jamaica’s only partially dismantled connection between what you get to do and how you look.

To some Americans, Tessanne may be seen as a Jamaican, or a Jamaican with some Chinese ancestry and other ethnic links. In Jamaica, some people who view the world through a racial prism see her as a “browning”–a lighter skinned Jamaican whose color translates crudely into class privilege.

Popular music in Jamaica is one of the few spheres dominated by the black majority, downtown people. So uptown “brownings” in Jamaica have a complicated station in the local reggae/dancehall scene. Perhaps because of this those who’ve been successful like Tessanne, Sean Paul, Shaggy and Junior Gong, have had to work through suspicion, insults, slights.

What the world saw on stage last night, and has seen for the last three months, is a brilliant, diligent singer, who has served a tough apprenticeship in one of the most competitive music industries in the world. She’s come through trenches dug by machismo. She has sung reggae, dancehall and commercial pop as if all of them are her birthrights. And they are. She has amazed all who’ve heard her, shamed all who’ve judged her background and graciously ignored those who’d like to make her some unclassifiable extra-ethnic exotic for their own needs and reasons.

She’s great and she’s Jamaican and is confident but not arrogant about her talent, for she was raised right, is a good girl from a solid family, and knows that pride is not the same thing as boasting. She is proud in the sense that she knows what she can do—reach any note she can imagine via thousands of routes. But she is not boastful. She is down to earth, what we call in Jamaica a roots (and yes, it’s always in the plural).

Yes, people, Tessanne is a roots. Bob Marley was a roots. He was also a browning. And his voice started in Jamaica and reached out to make a soul connection round the whole wide world.

Tessanne, 28 year-old woman with the baby face and mummy arms, the voice you sing in means as much to the planet and your people as the one in which you speak.

Jamaican-born novelist Colin Channer is the father of Addis and Makonnen. He’s also a professor of English, the founder and artistic director of a literary trust, and the author of such books as “Waiting in Vain” and “The Girl with the Golden Shoes.”

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