The COVID-19 era and audience size

Social distancing floor sticker
Social distancing floor sticker (Photo credit: Elizabeth McDaniel)

For a few years before COVID-19 put mass in-person events on pause, I consistently attended one day of Jamaica’s national athletics trials. There I was with a Mother’s fish patty, peanuts and a novel in the bleachers, but I cannot say I am a track and field enthusiast, despite my emotions being stirred (mostly positively) by Jamaica’s showing at the top-tier senior international meets. But, the Olympics are every four years, the World Championships biennially and only a few of the annual Diamond League series catch my attention. These meets feature only the elite athletes – a true enthusiast supports from the lesser leagues to the top. A case in point is that I do not pay ‘Champs’ that much attention.

However, the day on which I attended the trials was another matter. I enjoyed it all, but my attention was really on Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce in the women’s 100 metres. It was not only because she was winning and the charming way Fraser-Pryce carries herself publicly, whether she crosses the finish line first or not, but the manner in which she decided to close off her career. After having a baby in 2017, Shelly-Ann returned to the track with the stated intention of running faster than her personal best and joint national record (with Elaine Thompson) of 10.70. She achieved that in June this year, running 10.63 at trials and went even better in August, running 10.60 in Switzerland. And there was the matter of a couple Olympic medals in between.

Most of these performances were done in front of very small audiences, because of COVID-19 restrictions. I was reminded of two lines from another person whose public persona has given me immense satisfaction. Tanya Stephens deejays “star no burn out/No matter how much people don’t turn out” and in an era where many times the audience is prevented from coming for fear of coughing, sneezing, salivating and transmitting, those who depend on an audience to perform at their best are lost. As I watch deejays and singers in virtual performances, delivering to a screen with perhaps a couple persons around to make sure the transmission goes right, I am reminded of another of mine and Jamaica’s favourite singers and songwriters perhaps lesser-known Iines – Beres Hammond sings “don’t watch the crowd/It’s their duty to be loud.” It is not his most striking or original couplet but coming from a man who has performed in front of huge crowds and also did an extended virtual performance to cap off this year’s Reggae Month celebrations it has a different impact.

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In 2013, I saw Wyclef Jean get very annoyed at the persons in the VIP area directly in front of the stage at Sting, held at Jam World in Portmore, St Catherine. The persons who had paid the highest price (or, perhaps, had been given a great complimentary opportunity) were moving the least and an incensed Wyclef pushed his way through to get closer to his real people in the general area behind the VIP fence. They loved it. But now everyone who is performing in a situation where the restrictions have not been lifted to allow large crowds (and this does not include Mocha Fest and Dream Weekend in Jamaica) will have to figure out just how they will pursue their craft without a crowd’s energy to feed off. I once saw Vybz Kartel do a version of that at the now defunct Weekenz venue on Constant Spring Road, St Andrew, performing for over an hour mostly to a video camera being moved around him by the operator, the audience being mostly (appreciative) bystanders. Of course, now Kartel is using his voice only to make a huge impact, while the appeal process will determine if he will be seen as well as heard anytime before space travel becomes affordable to lesser money mortals than billionaires.

In the pursuit of excellence, the audience should matter very little. It is a lesson that those of us who do not perform for large (or small) crowds to earn our daily keep need to take away from those who do, who COVID-19 has separated from those who love them and those who love to hate them (how Justin Gatlin has become less polarizing as he heads into the 100-metre sunset). The fact is that most of us do what we do for a salary and/or satisfaction without the glare of the public gaze. That is with or without COVID-19.

Mel Cooke covered Jamaican entertainment as a print journalist for almost two decades, overlapping with his MPhil research on dancehall and experiential marketing with the Institute of Caribbean Studies, UWI, Mona, where he is now working on a PhD while lecturing in the Bachelor of Arts, Communication Arts and Technology (BACAT) programme at the University of Technology, Jamaica (UTech, Ja.).

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