Born in Kingston, Jamaica – but with roots that run deep in the city of Easton – Michael “Freestylee” Thompson is a legend who left behind a powerful legacy. He died in August 2016. Now, four years after his passing, he lives on through his art, his family, his supporters, and his cultural impressions on the world.
The award-winning illustrator earned international recognition for his poster art. The pieces are expressions of solidarity and progressive ideas, intersecting with historical and cultural Jamaican influences. His work was often exhibited at the Allentown Art Museum, including his posters in solidarity with the Haitian earthquake victims in 2010. He held talks at the museum and visited local schools, including Roberto Clemente Charter School.
Carolyn Cooper, literary scholar, author, and professor of Literary and Cultural Studies at University of The West Indies at Mona in Jamaica, recalls that it “was love at first sight” when she met Thompson online.
“I was looking for a funky cover image for the Global Reggae book I’d edited,” she recalls. “[I] found Michael’s poster of the Soundman for the Dubwise International Hi-Fi and immediately knew my search was over.”
Over the years, Cooper and Thompson became good friends, working together on several creative projects. With an increased demand for illustrators, project designers, editors, graphic designers, and even science fiction book illustrator for hire, the scope of this profession also tends to be in high demand.
“Michael chose to take on a whole range of difficult global issues in his compelling graphic designs,” Cooper continues. When asked what piece exemplified his message the most, she replies that “Michael’s entire body of work manifested his vision of transformative social justice.”
To say Thompson was impacted by reggae and its political thrust is an understatement.
On his website, he wrote that reggae “is the music and the musicians I grew up hearing in Jones Town, Kingston, and it is not surprising these songs…are the soundtrack of my life.”
Reggae pervades his art: the colors – as vibrant as the music – the history, and the effort to thrive in the face of oppression and exploitation. His illustration Bob Marley R.093 is a polychromatic commemoration of Marley’s 70th birthday. He also captured the essences of “Queen of Reggae” Marcia Griffits, Jah Youth, Bunny Wailer, and many other artists.
“I didn’t realize how much impact my music had on other people until [Thompson] started to tell me how much people love and enjoy reggae music,” says Patricia Chin, co-founder of VP Records and better known as Miss Pat. “To me, my job was not that special until he brought that to my attention…and encouraged me to carry on with my vision.”
According to Miss Pat, Thompson was an inspiration for the Reggae Music Journey, a traveling museum exhibition. In February 2020, the exhibit popped up at the Jamaican Consulate in New York, featuring historic vinyl records and other artifacts commemorating Jamaica’s musical history. The exhibit moved to VP Records in Queens, a landmark that has sold and produced records by reggae, ska, and dancehall artists since 1979.
Michael was an activist… He wanted a better world. He wanted people to see political and social issues from another perspective.Maria Papaefstathiou
Thompson’s impact was huge, but he lived quietly. When moving to Easton, PA, his wife Maria Thompson said that he found the town “quaint and tranquil,” adding that the Lehigh Valley reminded him of Fern Gully, an area back in Jamaica. He thought the Easton art scene had great potential, and built a relationship with Connexion Gallery and artist Martha Whistler.
Later, Thompson conceived the International Reggae Poster Contest (IRPC), an initiative designed to celebrate reggae culture, highlighting the global impact of its message. Maria Papaefstathiou co-found the project with Thompson, noting that he “saw the IRPC as a way to brand Jamaica by showing the world-and Jamaica-the global impact of the country’s culture.”
Papaefstathiou, a graphic designer, is the curator and art representative of Thompson. Before she met him, she’d already designed posters on social matters featuring personalities from Greek tradition and pop culture. They were a perfect fit.
“Our collaboration played a big role in my life,” she says. ” I found new meaning in my creative work and more ways to help people.”
In December 2015, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (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,” explains Cooper. “It is up to us to ensure that Michael’s dream becomes a reality.”
A museum that showcased the history of reggae and Jamaican music was one of his biggest dreams. The Reggae Hall of Fame and Performing Centre would feature art from all over the world inspired by Jamaican culture. It’s at the core of the IRPC to make this dream come alive.
Michael Freestylee Thompson’s contributions are vital to the representation and preservation of Jamaican culture. His work pushed for positive thinking, collaboration, and education.
“Art is a vehicle for social change,” argues Papaefstathiou. “Michael was an activist… He wanted a better world. He wanted people to see political and social issues from another perspective and think, ‘What can I do to change this world?’ That’s why he dubbed himself ‘Freestylee, Artist Without Borders.'”
Lead image: Scooterska | R.030 by Thompson celebrates the Lambretta Ska Music Festival.