From The Desmond Allen Interviews
(My best bio to date – first published in 2004)
On August 17, 1951, three significant events took place in the life of Jamaica.
Event number one: Hurricane Charlie came huffing and puffing mightily and blew large numbers of houses down, killing 54 persons and leaving a trail of devastation hitherto not known to Jamaicans.
Event number two: Garveyites celebrated the anniversary of the birth of the man who would come to be hailed as Jamaica’s first national hero, Marcus Mosiah Garvey, the island’s gift of hope to the struggling black world.
Event number three: Michael Anthony James is born and, in time, would rename himself Leahcim Semaj, by turning his name backwards and incorporating the Swahili word Tufani, meaning “the one who came with the storm to turn things around”.
In several significant ways, Semaj’s life would mirror the turbulence that raged on that August day as his mother, Agnes Blake, a factory worker, brought her only child into an uncertain world. The cataclysmic events might also have foretold that here was one who had come to shake things up.
On his JobBank business card, Leahcim Semaj describes himself as a change agent, where others would have called themselves CEO, executive chairman or managing director. Colourful, controversial, articulate, possessed he is too of that Kingston College bravado, Semaj is above all a creative genius with an uncanny knack for reinventing himself to remain ahead of his circumstances and that of the nation’s. What is it that men will remember most about Leahcim Semaj? When the history of the Jamaican economy is written, we might well be celebrating his social activism that helped to bring about the establishment of foreign exchange cambios. But his magnetic personality and energy have lit up areas as diverse as education and media. He claims authorship of the name Television Jamaica (TVJ) but he will not soon forget the epilogue to his sojourn at the station when Marcia Forbes solemnly pronounced “You cannot serve two masters”, when he conducted a market survey for her arch-competitor, CVM-TV, while hosting the highly successful ‘Man Talk’ And then there are the ‘missing’ years spent in the United States where the steely character we know now was tempered.
These days, Semaj has been traveling the length and breadth of Jamaica, spreading the gospel of the new work order, harnessing the latest in information and communication technology to bring the island, if not kicking and screaming, at least by persuasion, into the modern world of the global workplace. It behooves us, once again, to begin at the beginning – at the ‘lying-in’ at the Victoria Jubilee Hospital in Kingston, as the fierce winds of Charlie howled outside.
Some years after Agnes Blake left the sleepy district of Desire, two miles from Frankfield in Clarendon, to seek a livelihood in Kingston, she met Vincent James, a policeman who hailed from Bramble. Near the Hanover capital of Lucea. James, at 19, was eight years her junior, but he found this good-looking woman very attractive. They began a visiting relationship that resulted in the birth of Michael James, now Leahcim Semaj. At the time, Blake was living in Allman Town.When Michael was seven, his father migrated to the US where he eventually had two more children: Courtney James, now a university professor and Patricia James, a nurse. James would meet his siblings nine years later when he too moved to the States.
Semaj’s earliest memories are of almost confinement in a one-room house in a tenement yard in Kingston Lane, west of King’s Street. His mother insisted he must not get mixed up and impressed upon him that “even though I was in this community I was not of here”. They moved next to Studley Park and then to Hitchen Street across from the St Matthew’s Anglican Church. All around poverty abounded. There was one bathroom in the tenement yard, and to beat the queue, he would have to get up at dawn to take his bath.
But Agnes Blake provided for her son, and the monthly cheque sent by his father helped considerably. She placed great importance on his education. When he started attending the Central Branch Primary School, she saw to it that he remained indoors after school and did his homework. “To this day, I can count on one hand how many times I have visited my neighbours’ homes in Stony Hill,” Semaj confesses. He remembers doing private lessons before Common Entrance, and being sent on every school trip. On his birthday every year, she would take him to the famous Morais Photo Studio to have his picture taken. Many years later, he learnt that his mother would do without lunch many a day, in order to afford him such luxuries.
‘Not raising any thief’
There is an incident that made a great impression on the young Semaj. One day, he brought home a red pencil from school. His mother asked him how did he get a red pencil, when he had left home with a yellow one in the morning. She told him to take it back to its owner and beat him all along the way, repeating that she was “not raising any thief!” He marvels today how some children are allowed to bring home bags that do not belong to them.
Semaj’s best friend at school was a boy named Michael Randall who lived in affluent Stanton Terrace off the Old Hope Road, worlds away from the teeming tenement yard in Allman Town. They exchanged visits on alternate weekends. Randall was the brightest boy in the class and Semaj was not yet aware of his own brightness, so when his friend chose Jamaica College as his school of first choice and Kingston College second, he did the same. But his mother, intuitively, he says, switched it around.
When Common Entrance results came out in the papers, Randall’s name was at the top. He had won the Marcus Garvey Scholarship for placing first. Semaj looked under KC and JC, but did not see his own name, and thought he had not made it. Later in the day, someone pointed out that his name was also at the top; he had won a Government Scholarship! This meant a great deal to his mother, with the help he now got for school fees, uniforms, books and lunch.
In September 1963, he started KC, along with two other government scholars. By now, he had begun to see himself as one of the brightest boys in the school. Throughout KC, he came no less than second place in the form. He recalls the names of some of the people in his class, such as Delroy Chuck, Gladwyn Kiddoe, younger brother of Garth Kiddoe and Donovan Germaine. KC shaped his intellectual and professional development. He came under the influence of people like S W ‘Zac’ Isaac-Henry who later went to head up the St Andrew Technical High School (STATHS) at Bumper Hall in West Kingston, Douglas Forrest, the KC principal and JAW Crick who was principal of the junior school. Isaac-Henry who was in charge of the cadet force, taught him discipline, self-respect and integrity, and in many ways, was like a father to him.
At O’ levels, he took seven subjects, including Physics and Add Maths, and remembers failing French, along with the entire school. He was set to fail Physics after getting 26 per cent on a test. But his teacher had told him to drop the subject and stop wasting time. Feeling offended, he went home and read the physics book from cover to cover and got a distinction in the O’ Levels! Semaj was like that. One evening, a friend showed him how to move the pieces on a chess board. He went to the library – one of his favourite places from the days his mother would leave him there all day every Saturday – read up on chess and beat his friend the next day.
Semaj, like almost every other KC boy, speaks glowingly of his alma mater, nothing how while he was there they won every major schoolboy competition in sports and academics. “You can’t help but have this superiority complex, given the level of dominance over the other schools. The motto – The brave may fall but never yield – became personal to us.”
He went on to lower sixth form. By then his mother had migrated to the States and he was boarding with a lady he called ‘aunt’Amy Miller at Mona Heights. Semaj says it became clear that he would not be able to afford the University of the West Indies. He persuaded his mother to let him go to school in America, rather than ‘waste’ a year in upper sixth and arrived there in the summer. His mother was working as a domestic help with a white woman, a psychiatrist. At her home one day, Semaj was in the library when he saw several books on psychiatry and read them up. That influenced his later decision to pursue psychology. During this time too, he recalls getting a job as a chemical laboratory technician, because he had done chemistry at KC. But two months late they found out he was not yet 17 and yanked the job.
He took the entrance test to the City College of New York and got in for September on a part-time basis, majoring in chemical engineering, while working full time. After a hot weekend of partying, he asked a Jewish student how he had spent his weekend and was told that he had spent the time solving 200 physics problems and 300 math problems. Semaj thought if only he could be as excited about what he was doing. Deciding that he did not like the life he saw while he worked at the chemical lab, the next term he abandoned the curriculum and chose to do subjects that excited him, things like classical music, Greek mythology, anthropology, sociology and psychology. It was then that he really discovered psychology and a future course. While he was working in the lab cleaning out the rat cages, he discovered a little known fact, that he could apply for the college’s honours programme, did so and was accepted. He graduated with a BA cum laude in psychology in 1974.
He went on to the Rutgers University in New Jersey to pursue a PhD programme in Social and Personality Psychology, completing the Masters in one year and all the courses towards the doctoral degree by the end of year two. About this time, Semaj was becoming racially conscious. In the third year he got a pre-doctoral fellowship, allowing him to do research work of his own choosing. He decided that his thesis would be on the development of white racism. No one would touch him after that, so he spent the year doing nothing, as one after the other, everybody declined to serve on his committee for the thesis.
A year later, after badgering from Semaj, the university asked Walter Emmerick from the Education testing Service (ETS) to serve. Emmerick, a gender specialist, suggested he changed the thesis from race to gender, advising him that his first objective must be to leave the university, otherwise, it would be sheer frustration. Semaj gives the same advice to students today.
He later met Curtis Banks, both of ETS and Princeton University and the first significant black professor who would help to shape and fine-tune his intellect. The meeting with Banks was to prove decisive in other ways. Semaj had decided that after his experience as a student at Rutgers, he would not write anything for white people to read and preside over. After his doctorate, he refused to associate with the main American Psychologists Association, choosing instead to make links with the Association of Black Psychologists (ABP). “I was now seeing black people as a primary population and not as a comparative group,” he says.
UWI never did it
Curtis Banks was invited to address the ABP to present the findings of a post-doctoral fellowship studying the identity of black children, on behalf of the group that included Semaj. He asked Semaj to present the findings. This marked a significant turning point for the Jamaican. It was 1977. A week after his appearance at the ABP, the invitations began to come for him to speak all over. He had arrived on the American stage. Semaj was later to reflect after stints at the UWI that he had never seen any senior do something similar for a junior. “All they will do is let them take their classes so that they can be free to go do other things,” he laments.
In 1979, he was offered a position as assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Cornell University, becoming the first black person in the department. Ironically, he had applied to Cornell five years earlier as a graduate student and was rejected. In 1980, he received the distinguished teacher award voted by students. In a deeply reflective mood one night as he lay in bed, Semaj reasoned to himself that if he could be the best at Cornell, why should he not go home to teach his own people.
With this in mind, he took an 80 per cent cut in earnings to return home to begin work as a Research fellow in Child Development at the UWI. This was 1981. The sojourn at UWI would be a mixed bag and at times unhappy. The contract was for one-year initially but was extended for three years. There came a time when it was being renewed on a monthly basis and Semaj, tired of the uncertainty, left the Department, saying he preferred not to have a job than to be in that untenable situation.
But he recalls a significant study funded by the Canadians when he looked at child development in Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua-Barbuda and St Kitts, using a sample of 2,500 grade-one children in the four islands. The study found that the parents’ attitude was the best predictor of the value a child placed on education. This was true for all the territories. By coincidence, a conference was scheduled on child development. Excitedly, he wrote to DRB Grant, the early childhood guru at the education ministry, announcing his findings and wanting to contribute to the conference. “He told me ‘no’ and that some foreigners would be coming to tell us how it is done and the Jamaicans would only participate. I asked him which foreigner had studied 2,500 Caribbean students!”
Before leaving the UWI, Semaj also wrote the first two proposals for a Psychology Department, noting that it was started two years later. He taught part-time introduction to psychology and physiological psychology. He also developed five Extra-Mural Department courses in child psychology; social psychology; developmental psychology; consumer psychology and personality psychology.
At this point, Semaj decided he would apply his knowledge of psychology to the business world. Students who had sat in his classes and were now signing the cheques at their companies, were increasingly approaching him to help solve work-related problems and issues, such as hiring the right person for the job; market research and consumer behaviour. Ten years ago he set up Leahcim Semaj and Company, with the JobBank as his main brand. They are now market leaders in hiring, staff training and staff development, he reports.
In 1989, his reputation spreading, he was invited by Joan Johnson to be a guest on her very popular “That Johnson Woman” show on the JBC Radio. It was her first personality profile and it was a big hit. On the show he played his own music, noting that at the time he operated a sound system called ‘Judgement’ and Mutabaruka one called ‘Black Music’, the only two that played predominantly CDs at the time. The show went so well that he was invited back the next night and the next and the next.
The Night Doctor
When it started getting embarrassing, especially after a writer referred to the show as “Semaj’s programme”, he did up a proposal for a “Night Doctor” show and RJR grabbed it. That too was an immediate hit. “The idea behind the Night Doctor was to use music to heal the mentally sick, raise the spiritually dead and set the cultural captives free.” It ran from 1:00 am to 5:00 am, achieving unprecedented audience size on that graveyard shift. It was during that show, that the celebrated Save-the-Dollar campaign was launched.
Semaj was listening to the morning talk shows in April, 1992 when he heard Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart, the hotel, airline and newspaper mogul, announced that he would put US$1 million a week into the system, at a rate of US$1 to J$25, to help stabilise the Jamaican currency. Semaj noticed how “some talk show hosts, especially Mutty Perkins sounded as “if ‘Butch’ was mad”. But the dollar had dived from $25 to $1, to $29 to $1 in four days and prices generally were spiraling to catch up. There was great uncertainty and volatility in the foreign exchange market. Bottomline, the poor was being hit hard.
Semaj came up with an idea based on Stewart’s act of patriotism. That night on his show, he challenged his audience, estimated to be 150,000 strong, to better what Stewart had done, by putting in US$10 a week into an account, at a rate of $24 to $1. This money would be on- lent to the productive sector. It was a masterstroke and it worked. After the then Mutual Security Bank president scoffed at the idea, Semaj turned to Rex James of NCB. He accepted and went one better. He suggested that the Night Doctor set the rate for NCB every Wednesday. Whatever was set, that would be the rate at which the bank would trade that day. Defying the skeptics, the bank someday drew in up to US$2 .8 million and the rate dropped to as low as $22 to $1. The rate remained stable until December that year when, according to Semaj, the central bank sold above the published rate.
When Power 106-FM started, Semaj was invited to host the mid-day slot. But when negotiations broke down, discussions were started with Perkins. Semaj was offered the night slot. Three days before the station went on air, talks with Mutty stalled and Semaj was again offered the mid-day slot. “We repositioned mid-day radio and it became the main revenue earner without talking about the usual fare,” he says. One notable feature was called “Report To Me” on which every cabinet minister was invited to talk about their portfolio and the related issues.
In recognition of his impact, the Government invited Semaj, along with Douglas Orane of Grace Kennedy, as the only two non-government persons to attend a behind closed door retreat in 1993. At that retreat, and with the help of Max Lambie, Semaj presented the prime minister with a proposal to introduce cambios in Jamaica.
Semaj claims authorship of RJR Group’s Television Jamaica, after the previous name Super Supreme TV (SSTV) flopped. Marcia Forbes, then general manager, called him in and he presented her with a list of names, including Television Jamaica, he discloses.
She later invited him to host Man and Woman Story with Dr Carolyn Cooper, but he subsequently resigned when he decided he did not like the direction the show was taking, because a series of different hosts were being used and he thought “the contrast was too great”. Some months later, he was asked to start Man Talk for two weeks, but remained with the show for six months. During this time, he had started his Drive Time surveys and CVM-TV invited him to carry out a market research survey for the station. Seeing no conflict of interest as he was only hosting a show on TVJ, Semaj accepted. “As a matter of professional courtesy, I told TVJ and I was told ‘you can’t serve two masters’,” Semaj recalls. He resigned immediately and did the survey.
Controversy has dogged the dreadlocked Semaj because of his outspoken nature and refusal to accept just anything. When he did not like how his young children were being educated, he pulled them out of school and started a home school called Sankore in his living room in 1986. That grew at one stage to 40 students. After Hurricane Gilbert destroyed his roof, he gave up the school, which is still operating as the Stony Hill Preparatory.
Semaj speaks like a man in love when he mentions his wife, the former Cecile Johnson, his third. As Solutions Officer at the JobBank, she is his business partner as well and the real anchor behind many of his media shows. He describes her as “one of the brightest persons I have ever known”.
His has three daughters with his first wife, Rraine – Njeri, Naita and Isis; a son, Mandela with his second wife, Patricia and a son, Hasani with Cecile.