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The UK was only three days into national lockdown when Jason Weatherman – a well-known DJ, promoter and media entrepreneur from London, popularly known as Mr Fox – died following a period of non-Covid-19 related illness.
He was 49 years old, of Jamaican heritage and, thanks to his work on local radio and sound systems, hugely popular among inner city Black communities across the UK. Unable to gather to mourn him in person, Weatherman’s loved ones decided to hold a traditional ‘nine night’ in his honour – but online.
DJs played music across many genres from reggae to gospel through a live stream across local radio and social media. Musician Roger Samuels, a former contestant on The Voice UK, said prayers and spoke of how Weatherman helped the local community and churches. His favourite Psalm 91 was also read, and some of his favourite songs were played.
Family, friends and listeners called in to pay tribute, but they weren’t alone. Some 25,000 mourners watched on Facebook live, while a further 10,000 people followed live streams across YouTube and Instagram.
In the event, Weatherman’s nine night was a communal celebration – as it always should have been.
The nine night – alternatively called a ‘dead yard’ or ‘set up’ – is an extended wake that is practised across the Caribbean diaspora. For nine nights following a person’s death, friends and family typically gather at the home of the deceased, sharing their condolences and memories, playing music and sometimes singing hymns, while consuming lots of food and drink.
Traditional Jamaican legend has it that the journey from this world to the next is not complete until the nine nights after the death of the body, which is cause for a party or send-off. That night is when the biggest gathering takes place, a grand celebration of that person’s life – before their funeral and burial.
Weatherman’s nine night, which took place on April 4, was a joint effort between his friends Brandy Lee and DJ Touch T, and his family – brother DJs Zekie, sister Samantha and eldest daughter, Jay, 21, who describes it as “incredible”.
“It was significant because nine nights are so powerful in our community, bringing everyone together and showing an undeniable love for my dad and support for the family,” she tells HuffPost UK.
“When we could not gather together in a venue to host a nine night in honour of my dad, we all felt a huge sense of disconnect and helplessness. Being so far apart and not being able to take comfort in each other due to social distancing and isolation would make mourning even harder than it already is.”
“The feedback we received after from both family members and friends was overwhelming positive, having thousands of people watching and listening over all media platforms,” DJ Zekie tells HuffPost UK. “This made me extremely happy and also meant that, through this, Mr Fox’s daughters could be helped to be given some comfort and hear the wonderful tributes about their dad.”
The following day, tributes continued from DJs in the community. DJ Brandy Lee, founder of the iconic After Dark sound system, said the concept came from a need to honour his late friend’s memory and all he had accomplished as a DJ. “The virtual nine night enabled us to acknowledge and honour Mr. Fox – he deserved the accolade. He was popular and loved beyond measure,” says Lee.
There was a wider “sense of duty and purpose” to Weatherman’s nine night, adds Lee – the cultural celebration had to go on despite Covid-19.
“Jason attended many nine nights and contributed to each of them in terms of helping to make the event happen,” he says. ”The nine night is a way of everyone coming together for the first time in terms of mourning, comforting, being there for each other, praying, exchanging stories, playing music. It’s something we do culturally and there’s a history around that culture.”
Being virtual allowed the event to reach people who wouldn’t have normally been able to attend: the elderly and vulnerable, people living out of London or not in the UK. It was also an opportunity for those who didn’t know Mr Fox closely to connect with others at a time when many people are feeling isolated.
“Everyone is on lockdown, we’re all being affected by the Covid pandemic,” reflects Lee. “I think there were people who may not have known Mr Fox’s personally but still tuned in to the show because they liked the music played on the radio station; it was also a distraction in these difficult times.
“They too may have lost loved ones and been in a similar situation or, being cooped up in the house, just needed to connect mentally.”
Though the nine night practice is less centred around folklore these days, it remains an important Caribbean funerary custom. Amid the ongoing pandemic and national lockdowns in different countries, mourning families across the world have taken to hosting virtual nine nights during quarantine.
Using online radio, social media, mobile phones and video conferencing, well wishers have found solace in paying tribute to departed loved ones in this way. This has become all the more important, given the statistics around Covid-19 – with Black people four times more likely to die from the virus in the UK than white people.
After contracting coronavirus early on in the pandemic, Douglas Sparks died in London from related complications on March 27. The 58-year-old was a much-loved reggae artist, known for his work with UK Pressure Records, a London-based musical imprint. He often toured Europe and had a loyal fanbase in the UK.
On April 6, Darren Skinner, one of the label’s CEOs, hosted a nine night for his friend and colleague on UK Pressure Radio.co.uk. The broadcast included live telephone tributes from friends and family, including Sparks’ mum, brother, children and grandchildren, and further tributes in the form of poetry readings and song. An online flyer spread the word to a wider audience.
“Douglas was a great man who meant a lot to me and also the record label team; we felt it was only right we should give him a tribute night,” Skinner tells HuffPost UK. “His death was a huge loss to us all. Not only did we lose a member of our team but a friend, a brother, plus a leader in so many ways.
Sparks always made a point of supporting other artists on the label, he says.. “Due to circumstances beyond our control we would have loved to have celebrated his life in the conventional way – with people attending a venue, artists singing – but we had to find another solution and we did.”
Broadcasting the nine night was something he’ll never forget, says Skinner, who goes by the DJ name of Mista Stylee. “This was the first time I have ever hosted a nine night live on air and so many people tuned in.” It inspired Sparks’ friends to stage another celebration of his life a few days later, on what would have been his 59th birthday. “What a lovely night it was,” he says.
Another virtual nine night was held for Beverley Muir – fondly known as Lady Bev – following her death from Covid-19 complications on April 1. The Londoner was the sister of late Jamaican community leader Willie “Haggart” Moore and grew up on the island before migrating to Britain.
Along with her brother, Beverley was an original member of the dancehall entertainment collective known as the ‘Black Roses’ crew – led by Gerald ‘Bogle’ Levy – which counted Grammy award-winning rapper Beenie Man and singer Barrington Levy among its supporters in the late 90s and early 2000s.
“It’s testament to the importance of the nine night tradition that during these challenging times people are still finding a way to mark the ritual,” says playwright Natasha Gordon who made history in 2018 when she became the first Black British woman to have a play in the West End. The critically-acclaimed Nine Night, which began life at the National Theatre, followed a Jamaican-British family’s observation of the funerary tradition.
Gordon, herself of Jamaican descent, has experienced her own bereavements during the crisis. Shortly after the lockdown was announced in the UK, Gordon’s maternal grandfather and father died within weeks of one another – with a virtual nine night held for her father who lived in the US.
“For my grandfather, my family set up a Zoom call and were able to enjoy the virtual experience with many friends and family, playing music and toasting him,” she says. “A lover of music and Dragon stout, my grandfather would definitely have approved.”
“I chose a smaller affair, celebrating with my immediate family in the house, though my sound system played just as loud,” she adds. “I don’t mind sharing that when my father’s nine night came around I was emotionally exhausted and felt like anything but celebrating.”
That afternoon, Gordon says, she fell asleep with a heavy feeling in her chest “like a tight knot.” When she woke a couple of hours later, she “couldn’t face” greeting a community of faces online but her partner and children assisted her in capturing the event by creating a digital flyer to send to family and friends.
“I asked them to participate by sending any photos they had of him, and by raising a glass and, if they felt like it, to send me a picture of themselves with their chosen beverage,” she explains. “The response was immediate. I couldn’t have imagined the buoyancy I’d feel as picture, after message, after picture began to arrive. Slowly, slowly, the pain in the centre of my chest started to lift.”
With New York City suffering from a higher coronavirus death rate than some countries, it has been the locus of more than one virtual nine night. Howard Beckford, 33, a Jamaican man living in New Jersey, recently helped to arrange a virtual nine night for his late father-in-law who hailed from Guyana.
Archbishop Hodge died in New York on April 10, aged 68, from coronavirus complications. He was the head of Lotus Unity Sabbath Church of Higher Consciousness INC church in New York.
“My wife and I came up with this idea because it was impossible to physically meet with the other family members, so we did it online where the family members and friends could participate,” Beckford told HuffPost UK.
“People were initially surprised about the concept because this was the first time that many of us were seeing and doing a virtual nine night,” he adds. “But they were excited and supportive, as they were able to be apart of something we would normally gather to do in person. It was well received”.
Howard feels that virtual nine nights will now become the new normal. “For now, online nine nights will be the norm. And, in the future, I believe those who are distant will be using this as a way to observe this tradition.”
Natasha Gordon cannot disagree. A week and a half after her father’s nine night, the playwright is still feeling comforted by its sense of community and compassion. “I’m under no illusions about the capricious nature of grief; past experience has taught me how it creeps up on you,” she says.
“But if there were any teachings left unlearnt about the importance of this tradition, then I have discovered even more over these past few weeks than I knew when I wrote my play.”