In 2013, feeling creatively stagnant in London, I made a poorly-thought-out plan to go and shoot gang culture in Kingston. Embarking on a three month-journey to New York, Bermuda and Jamaica with my assistant Jay, I arrived on the last leg of my trip feeling fragile and a little hesitant, having left Bermuda with my arm in a sling.
Within fifteen seconds of arriving at our apartment in Kingston – steel-gated, smack bang in the middle of a run-down, busy street in Kencot – a man screeched his motorbike to a halt right in front of us. He introduced himself as Mr Right Now (his real name was Erroll Williams), and we could see that he was gentle, funny and genuinely interested in the new tourists that had landed on his street, Central Road. Telling us that he could “get anyting ya need, Right Here, Right Now,” he walked us down to his street-side shop – a place that would eventually become the epicentre of our experience at ‘Jamaican Corner.’ After selling us a couple of Red Stripes to take the edge off travelling, Right Now – who was always smiling like a Cheshire cat – took us to meet the boys.
It was pitch black by the time we walked on pock-marked terrain in search of weed, with Right Now’s best friend Cloud leading the way. We paid five US dollars that night for a “box a weed” that was enough to last us a week, with a little bit of grabba (raw tobacco leaf) thrown in for good measure. Cloud, who will tell anyone that “mi one true love is marijuana,” walked us back to Right Now’s shop where he started cutting up the bud with a machete on a wooden block. We had a heady first night smoking back in our apartment. As we listened to the rest of the street carrying on over the other side of the gate, the thought of spending the next sixteen days there was thrilling and paralysing.
Throughout our stay, the boys did everything and more to make us feel welcome. They rewound the song if they saw us jamming to it and made sure their guests had a chair and a drink at all times. If ever I fell asleep in the yard, my head wouldn’t drop without finding the comfort of Cloud’s shoulder. As I melted in the 40-degree heat, the boys moved my chair through the day to chase the shadows, telling me: “Fluffy, ya skin a burn! Sun is hot like fiyah! Keep cool, Fluffy!” In Kingston, you SWEAT. Suddenly the humble bandana made a lot of sense; the boys all seemed to have one tucked in their pocket or tied round their head, something on hand to mop up their brow. I had gained the nickname Fluffy Diva (I thought it was about my curly hair, but fluffy is an affectionate word for ‘big’) and pretty quickly I vetoed the ‘Diva’ so we all settled on ‘Fluffy Empress,’ a name to which I still answer.
During our time in Kingston, Jay and I bought things from Right Now’s shop or locally at Jamaican Corner. If we were thirsty, we had a ten-cent Bagjuice (a soft plastic triangle full of sweet fruit juice that you bite off at the corner and drink straight from the bag), which Right Now kept cold and slushy in the freezer. Every morning one of the boys gave us a jelly (coconut) to start the day, “fi cleanse the belly!” Right Now’s big brother Dutty, the alpha male of the group, worked at the carwash across the street from the shop and I swear I never saw him leave work except to get a jelly from Right Now. Even in a torrential downpour (during which the boys praised Jah for the rain – a welcome break from the heat) Dutty would still be there, working away.