In 1994, Trinidad-born swimming instructor Michael de Souza gave up his job, working with the children of London’s elite, to spend quality time with his newborn daughter. While she slept, de Souza began to elaborate on poems and songs he’d created to help his young students overcome fear.
Deciding to stay at home was a bold move for someone whose clientele included such A-listers as the children of entrepreneur Richard Branson and fashion designer Stella McCartney.
“I gave that up to spend more time with my own daughter; to give her what I was giving those other children, which was a lot of love and a lot of time, a lot of care and nurturing,” says de Souza. “During that period when I was looking after her I’d put her down for a nap and write things. One of the things I wrote was about a little mouse.”
The story had humble beginnings. De Souza, 58, still remembers the original. He recited it, laughing.
“There was a mouse who lived in a council house. He had hard times. He got kicked out. He had no money to pay his rent, so he had to live in a tent. He used his wits and bought a van and went from house to house selling pizza…”
De Souza met his eventual co-author, English illustrator Genevieve Webster, at a pool in Kensington, where they developed a rapport while he helped her to perfect her stroke. De Souza asked Webster for advice on how to best develop his character, and she brought the mouse to life with a drawing.
That little mouse became Rastamouse, the crime-fighting, reggae-loving, Rastafarian star of a burgeoning children’s entertainment empire. De Souza and Webster self-published the first book, Rastamouse and the Crucial Plan, in 2005 through the company they founded, Little Roots. In 2006, they released Rastamouse and Da Bag-a Bling and Rastamouse and the Double-Crossin’ Diva.
But it was when he was turned into a TV show that Rastamouse became a star. Rastamouse was first aired in the UK on the BBC’s children’s channel, CBeebies, in January 2011, and since then, 52 episodes have been screened. There’s a stage show in the works, a record deal with EMI, a contract for the next three books, broadcasting in more than ten countries, including Canada, Israel, Poland and Thailand, and forthcoming Rastamouse merchandise.
De Souza sees Rastamouse as filling a gap in literature and programming for the UK’s Afro-Caribbean children, as well as building bridges between various cultures.
“There’s a lot of rhetoric about integration, but we’re not dealing with the rhetoric. We’re dealing with the reality of it.
“A lot of the children have said that they really do love it. Imagine a session at an all-white school, and when you’re leaving the session, 250 – 300 children are saying, ‘Irie, man!’ That is an uplifting thing and you know something’s working [when] you get all races embracing it. And not just embracing it, but really loving it,” says de Souza.
His two grandchildren also love Rastamouse. They were having a hard time growing up in a rural part of England that wasn’t culturally diverse, and de Souza says the series gave them more confidence in their own culture.
De Souza himself did not have things easy in London after leaving San Fernando, Trinidad, in the 1960s at the age of eight, to join his parents in England.
By the time he got to high school, de Souza was heavily influenced by Jamaican culture and found solace particularly in reggae music. This was predictable in a country where Jamaicans outnumbered all other Caribbean immigrant populations.
“It start off with the music. From secondary school, the influence was the reggae music. For young people at that time it was real conscious music. Later, because the reggae music was carrying the message of Rastafari, that became another influence,” said de Souza, who took the Rastafarian Nazarene Vow in 1979 and has not cut his dreadlocks in 30 years.
Becoming a Rastafarian did not make de Souza forget his roots, however. He says the first song he ever wrote was calypso and not reggae. Being invited to lecture at Trinidad & Tobago’s 2011 Animae Caribe Animation and New Media Festival in Port of Spain last November touched him deeply.
“The greatest reward [since publishing Rastamouse] as far as I’m concerned, is being invited to Trinidad & Tobago. That’s without a doubt and that’s in all sincerity.”
The screening of Rastamouse at the festival was the first time it was shown in the Caribbean. De Souza believes this will lead to future Caribbean broadcasting of the programme.
Combining the messages of his Rastafarian faith and such African-Caribbean political icons as Marcus Garvey in his publications is almost a no-brainer for de Souza. “There’s a perfect joining, inasmuch as the books have a certain moral in them. The tagline for the books is ‘Making a bad thing good’, so we have redemption as opposed to retribution. What we want [people] to do is be focused and say, we’ve all got skills, let’s utilise those positive things that we have in us, for the betterment of the African Diaspora.”
In fact, de Souza believes in Garvey’s message of empowerment for the African Diaspora so wholeheartedly that he now divides his time between London and the Gambia, where he is the patron of a charity, Ending Reliance And Supporting Empowerment (ERASE).
Commercial success and the opportunity to live in Africa have been some of the benefits of Rastamouse, but stardom has not been entirely pleasant. Within a week of the first airing of the series, the British newspaper The Telegraph reported that the BBC had received more than a hundred complaints claiming the programme was racist and teaching children incorrect English. The Afro-Caribbean population was divided: some loved it, while others believed the show perpetuated negative stereotypes. There were even allegations that the cheese featured in the series was a euphemism for marijuana.
De Souza was not perturbed. “People need to open up their eyes and open up their minds and realise that language is forever changing. Even in England, people from different regions don’t all speak the same, so I don’t know which one they regard as proper English and which not.
“I think some people are very prejudiced and they can’t hide their prejudice. They don’t really want to see a black character at the forefront of anything.
“But you can’t hold back progress, can’t hold back the times.”
Rastamouse and de Souza are moving with the times. In the near future, he hopes to see Rastamouse turned into a half-hour film.
De Souza, who still works as a swim instructor, appreciates the joy his little mouse is bringing to audiences.
“I’m realising more and more how Rastamouse is affecting people, but that’s ‘cause the message is universal that we’re giving. Caring and sharing: that’s a universal thing.”