Some of you may know, some of you may not, that I partnered with Michael Thompson, aka ‘Freestylee’, to develop the Intl. Reggae Poster Contest and to support Freestylee, a brand of his own creativity. Over the last 7 years, ‘Freestylee’ created more than 500 posters. These visual narratives explore the many facets of global struggles of the underclass. ‘Freestylee’ believed in giving back to the community and the world through what he called Creative Activism and Social Design. His poster designs possess a modern liveliness, with exuberant and colourful imagery, accompanied by forceful illustrations. He used poster art to express solidarity with or protest against issues that he felt passionate about: global poverty, racism, anti-war, migration policies, peace and justice.
Michael’s sudden departure from life is an unfortunate loss not only for his friends and family but for the whole art community and the wider society. Michael taught us to give with our hearts and we would see trees blossoming. He taught us to care for each other and look beyond our neighborhood. To love without borders. His actions and artworks are a testimony of his words. Let’s try to continue what he started and pass this legacy to the next generation.
He was a wonderful friend and the best business partner I could ever ask for. He helped me to see within myself, he taught me LIFE. We spent countless hours speaking of reggae, Jamaica, Greece, Mexico, different civilizations, truths and lies of world history and the need to create a world without borders and discrimination. We met online in late 2011 and our friendship stood strong until the last day. His appearance in my life was a blessing, a beautiful song like those of Barrington Levy, one of his favourite artists. Your voice sounds still vivid in my ears Michael.
Carolyn Cooper is one of our best friends and supporters. Her words below couldn’t express my feelings better, bringing tears in my eyes. With her own blessings I lay below her article first published at the Jamaica Gleaner.
‘Freestylee’ Lives In a Universe Without Borders
When I saw the subject heading, “Bad news”, mi just kiss mi teeth. It must be one of those fraudulent emails from a friend in trouble abroad who desperately needed money. You know the usual incredible story: “I’m in Timbuktu where I came to view the wonders of this ancient university centre. I was captured by terrorists. Please send 500 US$ to this bank account in New York so that I can be released. I will repay you when I come home”. Your friend’s real trouble is that his or her email account has been hacked. When I did open the email from my friend Maria, I got the belly-bottom news that Michael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson had died that morning. Even then, the email seemed like a hoax. I refused to believe that Michael was dead. Nutten couldn’t go so. But it was true. Michael had had a heart attack. He had gone to a place from which no amount of ransom money could rescue him.
I met Michael online in May 2012 when I was looking for a funky cover for the Global Reggae book I’d edited which was about to be published by the University of the West Indies Press in their Canoe series. I saw his Soundman image on the Internet and immediately knew that was it. My very first email to Michael was brazen begging: “I’ve only just discovered your work on the Internet – I’m ashamed to say. It’s just wonderful. I’m hoping you’ll be able to do the cover”.
Michael’s response was typically generous, as I came to find out. Right away, he caught the vision of the book and confirmed his willingness to participate in the project – without even asking for a fee! And he introduced me to Maria Papaefstathiou, a Greek graphic designer (and curator of graphicart-news), who was partnering with him to develop the International Reggae Poster Contest. Michael said, “We will team up on it and get you a wicked cover”.
I got much more than a wicked cover. Over the last four years, Michael, Maria and I became very good friends, working together on several creative projects. I persuaded the UWI Press to contract Maria to design the Global Reggae book. The managing director at the time, Mrs. Linda Speth, was so pleased with Maria’s brilliant work that she asked her to design other books. Incidentally, Global Reggae just won the UWI Press award for the best-selling edited book for the period 2012-2015. I’m sure Michael’s ‘wicked cover’ sold the book over and over again.
What I admired most about Michael was his quiet eloquence. He wore his exceptional talent with simple grace. He was not full of himself. He was a modest man who produced brilliant work with apparent ease. Michael chose to take on a whole range of difficult global issues in his compelling graphic designs.
In an interview posted on the Jamaica Primetime website, published June 7, 2010, Michael highlighted the cultural and political messages in his poster art: “My designs are quite varied, depending on the poster type and whether it is political or cultural, regional or international. I tend to lend a voice to issues which I feel passionate about, such as injustice against indigenous people, environmental exploitation and poverty.
“However, I also touch on Jamaica’s rich historical and cultural past. Jamaica’s musical experience is a treasure I just cannot ignore; Ska, Rocksteady and Reggae. My style is also deeply rooted in Jamaican popular symbols mostly from the iconic years of the 1970s. I take those images from Jamaica’s urban visuals and turn them into cool posters of our time. Images include hand carts, skates, Honda 50s, s-90 (Honda motorcycle), Rastafarian lion of Judah etc; turning them into hip international visual icons, anything that is retro Jamaican was fair game”.
CREATIVE CITY OF MUSIC
One of Michael’s grand passions was to see the establishment of a world-class museum for Jamaican popular music in downtown Kingston. This is a primary mission of the International Reggae Poster Contest. Michael’s vision was broader than Broadway. He wanted an iconic building to house the museum. It should embody the inventiveness of Jamaica’s musical legends. His preferred architect was Frank Gehry.
Michael knew that the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain, designed by Gehry, had transformed the decaying city into a vibrant cultural and economic Mecca. He was confident that a music museum on a similar scale could do the same for Kingston. In December, 2015, the United Nations Educational and Scientific Council (UNESCO) designated Kingston as a Creative City of Music. This intensified Michael’s commitment to use his talents to advocate for a reggae hall of fame.
Michael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson described himself as an artist without borders. This was no exaggeration. He conceived a whole world of politically-engaged posters that addressed global issues. And ‘Freestylee’ signifies his remarkable freeform creativity. This is how he put it in a Reggaeville interview posted on February 1, 2011: “The absence of any direction drives the energy in my art. It pushes the boundaries of my creativity to grow”.
Last Sunday night, I stood on a bridge next to the Guggenheim museum in Bilboa watching the display of fireworks celebrating the city’s annual cultural festival. I said to Michael, “this spectacular show is for you, ‘Freestylee’. Your creative energy will continue to light the world”.
Carolyn Cooper is an international consultant on culture and development. She is the author of two influential books, Noises In the Blood: Orality, Gender and the ‘Vulgar’ Body of Jamaican Popular Culture; and Sound Clash: Jamaican Dancehall Culture At Large. She is the editor of the award-winning Global Reggae. She currently teaches at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, where she is a professor of literary and cultural studies.
Check out below some of the “Freestylee” amazing artwork!