Month: January 2015

Musical Women: How Women in Dancehall, Soca and Calypso Embody Black Feminism

Author’s Note:

This post is a bit longer than the usual blog, so I politely request your patience as you read through!

Music is one of the most important aspects of Caribbean culture and probably even more important than I perceive it if it were to be viewed from an objective stand point. Besides dancing, food and beaches, it’s what the Caribbean is most known for abroad. American artists themselves have tried to capitalize on the popularity of Caribbean music (whether they are West Indian American or not). West Indian music as an art form and as a platform for social change therefore is valid and can have as many positive effects as negative effects. Women in Calypso, Soca and Dancehall practically apply different aspects of theoretical feminism in a way that has the potential to be a powerful tool against patriarchy by disseminating feminist ideals and thoughts as popular and culturally relevant through artistic expression.

Whether or not the idea of feminism is seen as “anti-Caribbean” is unknown to me. Most people don’t have the time or luxury to sit around theorizing about whether or not they are feminists and if discussions and meetings about such things occur at home, I am totally unaware of them. I perceive survival in a patriarchal environment as being paramount for the majority of St. Lucian women as opposed to coming to terms with the politics of their existence. I believe however, based on my cultural upbringing and what I think is culturally valuable to St. Lucian people, that the ideals of feminism have a place in Caribbean society. The undercurrents of feminist theory are present and bringing those feminist ideals to the forefront in conjunction with supporting, uplifting and empowering women within their communities can change our currently patriarchal society for the better.

Women involved in soca, calypso and dancehall tend to embody many feminist ideals through their lyricism, self presentation and their attitude with going into a male dominated genre of music. The most famous female artists have music that centers around having a good self-worth, pride in their identity, recognizing abusive cycles and other similar thematic elements. Their music is made for women and can have a positive impact if their messages are taken to heart. Their ability to become popular in a field that is dominated with messages from other artists that are either subtly or outrightly sexist in their hypersexualization of women, fetishization of different types of Caribbean women, and obsession with male sexual prowess (hinged upon female submission) shows that their words and music do have a place in Caribbean society. Their power to enact social change should not be taken lightly.

Music has an impact. We can say this because many of the homophobic messages from male dancehall artists have become wildly popular. Phrases like “bun b*tty man” and “kill b*tty man” that glorify homophobic violence have been popularized in nations where those phrases did not previously exist (note: this doesn’t mean the sentiment didn’t exist but the popularity and virulence of the message was likely expressed differently). If negative messages can have an impact, why can’t positive messages have an impact as well? Female artists have been changing the culture surrounding calypso, soca and dancehall and hopefully they will continue to do so.

Calypso Rose (Source: Wikipedia)

One of the most famous female Calypsonians, Calypso Rose, through her musical talent helped change the title of the regional calypso competition to “Calypso Monarch” as opposed to the exclusive term, “Calypso King”. The significance of a gender neutral term may not be initially recognized but it was certainly an important advancement. Women were present on the calypso scene and they demanded recognition for their talents.

The song “Manager” by  Sass! ft. Nadia Baston highlights some of the signs of what a modern day abusive relationship might look like. The tempo of the song is upbeat and quite fun, but the lyrics have a much deeper meaning. I honestly believe a song like this has the potential to allow a younger person to see something damaging in their relationship that they may not have previously seen. Sass! highlights things like: a man telling you what clothes to wear, controlling your whereabouts, isolating you from your friends and constantly checking your phone for “evidence” as negative things. Sass! doesn’t merely suggest leaving such a relationship but demands leaving it. And she does all of this without shaming people who do end up remaining in abusive relationships.

This song was a part of the Soca Gold 2013 album, showing that this message is relevant and being widely circulated. This shows that ideas of women’s empowerment can be spread through music and can be exceedingly popular. It isn’t quite progress, but it is perhaps an important step in giving women more of a voice about their experiences which is a first step in a sense. Knowledge that your voice and your experiences are valid and that you are not alone is the beginning of getting a generation of young people who can speak out.

We have a multitude of songs by other artists like Destra, Alison Hinds and Saucy (Denise Belfon) that speak about women’s agency and empowerment through dance. The idea of really owning your body and being beautiful, sexy and confident in the body that you have is important. This idea of our bodies being beautiful has been expressed in calypso, soca and dancehall and has been expressed physically through popular dances like wining, kotch, bubbling, wuk up etc. During Carnival season especially we can see this message being taken to heart. Old, young, fat, thin, shabine and dark skinned girls are ALL in costume, and proud of what they’ve got.

Lady Saw, 2013 (Source: GalleryHip)

I realize that I haven’t drawn much attention to dancehall artists which has in part been intentional because I think soca and calypso don’t get the recognition and attention they deserve as genres of music. However, women in dancehall have been important as well in challenging common patriarchal views of the world. Lady Saw, one of my personal favorite dancehall artists, takes many famous dancehall songs and flips the lyrics around to center on women’s sexual empowerment, and women’s independence from men. Her remix to the popular Gyptian song, “Hold Yuh” takes an unexpected turn. Lady Saw turns over the assumption that men are the ones who want to use women for sex and women are the ones who desperately want more. She talks about using her pussy to control men and explicitly describes her sexual wants.

This may not seem important from an American perspective, but in the Caribbean where sex, sexuality and sensuality are all around you yet strictly taboo, especially for women, it’s a powerful message. Lady Saw may not have the cult popularity of Alison Hinds (in the smaller islands at least) but her message and her music help shape the conceptualization of women in Caribbean music as independent, fearless and inspirational.

Our musical tradition is one of the most important aspects of our culture and I would be interested in seeing even more women who represent these same ideas and perhaps even stronger feminist ideals rise to regional fame. We need our women visible, we need them wining, screaming, wukking up, writing, singing and jumping for our freedom from society’s problems. We need the passion we have for music and movement to be a part of our activism and if we can use music to move us forward into a headspace where we are passionate for women’s equality,  I believe that should be explored.

How We Define Feminist & Why We Ignore Our Own

We may not realize quite how many feminists we are surrounded by in our daily lives. A part of that is probable because of how we define feminist. The word “feminist” makes us think of someone unusual in our communities; this ignores some of the feminist traditions alive in our culture and in a sense is a method in which mainstream feminism can exclude us, viewing us as the poor third-world country women who need to be saved. In the Caribbean, can’t we see feminism all around us? Although there is much work to be done, let’s first acknowledge our accomplishments and the ways “feminism” is naturally engrained in our culture.Soca artists and Calypsonians have been incorporating feminist messages into their music for ages. Calypso Rose, famous Trinidadian calypsonian, was the one to change the title Calypso King to Calypso Monarch to accommodate her prowess in the musical field. We have singers like Patra, Alison Hinds, Denise Belfon and Destra who sing powerful messages that give agency to women in our way. The song “Roll it Gal” by Alison Hinds is one of my favorite examples of how feminism is intertwined with some of our ways of thinking; the verse quoted below shows this.

Go to school gal, and get ya degree

Nurture and tek care of ya pickney

Gal ya work hard to mek ya money

Roll it gal, roll it gal

If ya know ya smart and ya sexy

Neva let dem abuse ya body

Show it off gal and let di world see

Roll it gal, roll it gal

This segment of the song shows a world devoid of the male gaze, one that exemplifies a mindset that has been present in the Caribbean. You can go to school, raise your child, work hard, but when it’s time to party, it’s okay to roll and shake and dance. Our bodies are not either sexual objects or asexual workhorses. The concept that women can be multifaceted has existed for a while in our culture.

In St. Lucia specifically, feminism has been happening on various scales since the slaves were first freed. In Dennery, when the black female wage workers made less than their freed male counterparts, they protested and demanded an equal wage. Caribbean women have been at the top of their educational and career paths for a while. The top secondary school in St. Lucia right now in terms of CXC scores is an all-girls Catholic school. In government, there are numerous women, from permanent secretaries, to ministers to District Education Officers. Jamaica and Saint Lucia are two of the top three countries where you are most likely to have a female boss. 

Families many times are led by women. Even if mothers may be unable to raise a child, groups of aunties, grandmothers and female relatives are often very involved in the child rearing process. The family unit, while still maintaining some patriarchal aspects (something I could make an entirely new post about) also has an aspect of female empowerment. Women are instrumental to the function of our region.

There are so many avenues where women recognize our own importance and demand our liberation. It’s about time we start demanding more. What are we missing? Where are we headed? In what ways can we dismantle patriarchal thought, action and structure within our societies? These are some of the questions we need to be asking ourselves and each other.

Black Feminism Means Calling A Spade A Spade…

… And putting a name to West Indian patriarchy.

Content Warning:

mention of rape, homophobia, violence, harassment

Black feminism allows us to acknowledge that patriarchy extends into all parts of our lives in the Caribbean. We may not even realize it is there for it is so deeply embedded in our thoughts, perceptions and beliefs. This does not make us culturally impoverished as first-world nations would like us all to believe. Patriarchy exists everywhere but its manifestation in the Caribbean is unique due to the scale on which it presents itself and the way it manifests.

Patriarchy here refers to a heterosexual male dominated power structure, for those of you who may not know the ins and outs of feminist theory but may still care to read this and perhaps learn something.

I’ll identify some examples of patriarchy that we probably see in our everyday lives as Caribbean women and hopefully explain why each of these things are problematic. Of course this cannot possibly be a comprehensive list without becoming a small novel.

Homophobia/Transphobia: Homophobia is consistently  justified by the excuse that homosexuality “not a part of our culture”. Sexuality and gender are not caused by culture. Homophobia is not Christian. Hate is not Christian either, so the excuses used to lay the blame on God do not apply. If you follow the book of Leviticus when it comes to homophobia, you should also see what Leviticus says on eating shellfish and on wearing two different kinds of fabrics. Homophobia exists and is perpetuated only to uphold the current power structure within our society.

Heterosexual, cisgender (those who identify with the gender assigned to them at birth) people feel like their identity is threatened when gay people exist freely and even more threatened at the existence of transgender men and women. Identities that oppose the status quo are discriminated against; this is a result of a patriarchal culture that only allows for one kind of masculinity.

Street harassment: From a young age, girls/women walking down the streets have been subjected to street harassment in the form of whistles, cat calls, kissing noises or a “pssst” sound. This is an exercise of patriarchal power not only because it is objectifying, but because it causes women to feel unsafe. That kind of attention is not flattering, although some perceive it as such. People who are not gender conforming or who are openly gay also experience street harassment, even if it is not sexual attention. This conveys the simple message: You are not safe.

Rape/Rape Culture: We think of rape as a situation when a man jumps out of the bushes and forces himself on a woman. Patriarchal oppression relies on this definition, when we think of rape as something that occurs between strangers we don’t hold male perpetrators accountable. Rapists are more often people who the victim knows. Rape can occur between a husband and a wife. It sounds abstract, but the system of male domination needs us to believe that rape is normal, not a problem or the fault of the victim. This allows the domination to continue, because we can never identify the problem.

Of course, there are male victims of rape too (with female perpetrators); patriarchy ensures their stories to go unheard as well.  The system of patriarchy causes male silence due to the fear of being labelled as gay (something that is only a fear due to homophobia).  There is also stigma against men/boys who face rape or sexual assault at the hands of other men. The survival of patriarchal rape culture relies on their fear about coming forward too. Male victims’ fear is born from patriarchal notions of masculinity and sexuality.

Strict Gender Roles:  Strict gender roles ensure a system of patriarchal domination by preventing women and LGBTQ individuals from having as much political, economic and social power as heterosexual cisgender men. A system with no room for flexibility where men “must” pay for the dates (for example) or where a “woman’s role” is housework ensures that we have a culture of inequality.

For more information on patriarchy and the damage it can have to our culture, I’ll point you to a few resources at the bottom of this blog post.

Also, click on my Feminist FAQ page for more information.

 

Resources:

Questions on feminism and patriarchy? Check out this great blog: finallyfeminism101

“Define Feminist” for the Caribbean

When asked to define feminist, it can be tricky to figure out what exactly I’m supposed to say. After all, the word feminist has different meanings depending on your audience. Famous black American author bell hooks offers a definition for feminism that I think applies wonderfully in a Caribbean context and will open the floor for more dialogue and acknowledgement of our successes and failures with regards to feminism and its place in our every day lives.

“Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression. This was a definition of feminism I offered in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center more than 10 years ago. It was my hope at the time that it would become a common definition everyone would use. I liked this definition because it did not imply that men were the enemy. By naming sexism as the problem it went directly to the heart of the matter. Practically, it is a definition which implies that all sexist thinking and action is the problem, whether those who perpetuate it are female or male, child or adult. It is also broad enough to include an understanding of systemic institutionalized sexism. As a definition it is open-ended. To understand feminism it implies one has to necessarily understand sexism.”
– bell hooks.

This definition is important because of the author and the context in which she is writing this. Mainstream “feminism” such as the type you may read about on Jezebel or other web sources tends to focus on the experience of the white American or British woman. Their definition of feminism tends to be exclusionary and ignores the different racial, class or cultural contexts that exist in other places around the world and even around the United States.

In the Caribbean, we operate differently. Our relationship to “patriarchy” is different, and we need to conceive of feminism and our feminist movement as something that is not reliant on ideals from white American culture. We must carve out our own space within the movement, however, in the beginning it will be helpful for us to educate ourselves on the work of our predecessors who may share our racial, class or cultural background.

Intersectional Feminism Means Addressing the Caribbean Mental Health Crisis

Intersectional feminism in the Caribbean means ending the stigma against mental health and actually addressing the mental health crisis as well as our culture’s ableism at large. I’ve tried to write a post about mental health and the Caribbean for months, continuing to draw blanks when I try to put a definition on our perceptions and attitudes towards mental health as a region. I struggle to portray the relationship succinctly in a way that would have the possibility to change the minds of those who believe that mental health is a struggle for the white, wealthy American.

West Indians who understand the problems we have with acknowledging mental health (much less treating mental health problems) doesn’t need to be told anything more. So, I figured that I would address the non believers in this post, in some desperate hope of breaking through.

Mental health is defined simply by a lazy author’s first hit on a google search as being “a person’s condition with regards to their psychological and emotional well being”. In general, I believe St. Lucians have pretty good mental health from all outward appearances (which may themselves be deceiving). As a whole the nation tends to be very relaxed, and possibly dangerously blasé about most issues. We maintain this lackadaisical cool towards near everything, letting neither poverty nor anything else bring us down.

intersectional feminism addressing mental health
Binge drinking: partying or problem?

However, these generalities exclude particular realities about our society that reflect a negative aspect of mental health, and that reflect a society with some fairly troubling undercurrents regarding emotional and psychological well being. There’s the common trope of the older West Indian man who spends all weekend nights drinking (and sometimes weekday evenings) only to come home piss drunk and beat his wife who has spent all day working alone to keep house and child. There’s the consistent presence of “crazy” people roaming downtown Castries as they move between the psychiatric hospital and the streets.

There is a lot going on at home and in the Caribbean diaspora that indicates poor mental health. We also know that poverty and the high stress of poverty are associated with conditions like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Not so much for the rich and wealthy. Of course conversations surrounding mental health are cloaked in vague language at best and at worst flat out denial that these problems persist despite the fact that they are quite common. We silence conversations on mental health and choose not to believe that they could possibly affect us.

Perhaps we believe that black suffering is normal. After all, our nations were born out of blood and trauma. What else do we know? Impoverished mental health feels so familiar, that we don’t realize that we don’t have to suffer. There are names for our “eccentricities”. There are treatments and therapeutic techniques that mean no one should have to endure suffering, sometimes to the point of suicide.

Suicide is too common.

Mental health is connected to physical health, whether or not we accept it. Taking care of our minds is not a white/American luxury; it’s a necessity. While understanding mental health through a spiritual framework may be culturally relevant, we also need to understand that making use of advanced scientific understanding of mental health is even more important to ensuring our nation’s health overall.

I find it troubling that we have so many people, often times young, able-bodied men, committing suicide in our country [x][x][x]. Other people seem to find it troubling as well and fall back on a spiritual understanding of this problem. While there’s nothing wrong with understanding various issues through spirituality, there is a problem when we ignore factual information about mental health to justify our preconceived ideas.

We need to learn about and destigmatize mental health issues. This needs to happen immediately so that we can stop losing our citizens to treatable problems. Mental illness is not a weakness that people can just “get over”. Mental illness is not just similar to physical illness. It is a physical illness. Would you tell someone to get over a broken leg? If not, you should never tell someone to “get over” a serious mental health problem.

There are resources available at the end of this post to help you understand common mental health issues better.

 

Resources: 

Depression

Bipolar Disorder

Schizophrenia

Anxiety Disorders

Borderline Personality Disorder

(Personality Disorders are different from the others, but consider this an introduction into some common personality disorders that we may also have in the Caribbean region but not have a name for.)

 

Black Feminism: Ending Normalized Violence in the Caribbean

A major part of black feminism is ensuring that the violence many of us grew up with can be undone within our communities. When we speak about intersectional feminism, many of us fail to acknowledge a major intersecting identity for black West Indian people — being victims of emotional or physical violence. Violence is normal and accepted in our culture. I’m not saying that this is something we should be proud of, but it’s true. From the time we are children we experience violence in the school system when we are beaten for wrong answers or misbehavior. We experience violence at the hands of our parents when we are hit for stepping out of line or delivering back chat. Violence starts young and occurs throughout our life. What solutions can we come up with to eliminate violence from our culture?

The sickness seems to be everywhere: fights on the streets of the capital, murders and attacks at fêtes. An even darker violence happens behind closed doors. Domestic violence, incest and sexual violence are all prevalent throughout the Caribbean. These untold stories have a giant impact, whether or not we admit it. (Speaking out about violence, especially regarding the specifics is taboo.)

black feminism - speak up speak out act now
Source: http://bit.ly/1ydjc1y

 

What steps can be taken to end violence then? Talking about ending violence seems to be a major priority, but what about action? Going to church more seems to be the working solution that many have come up with, but I don’t buy that it’s effective. Many domestic abusers attend church and many violent people come from devout families. The solution of simply attending more church services is not realistic, because with or without the church, violence remains a problem.

We need to identify and root out the source of violence in our culture. Violence still exists because it is normal. Acting violently is not in opposition to the culture. We accept it, so it still exists. In eliminating violence, I believe we need to start early in life.

We need to invent ways to discipline children that do not rely on violence. What message does it send when angry parents respond to their anger through violence? We don’t need to demonize the caretakers who came before us, we just need to choose a new way to exist. “It happened to me,” doesn’t justify inaction.

black feminism ending domestic violence button
Source: http://bit.ly/1axjzsP

We need to work on eliminating the social inequalities between men and women. Patriarchal cultures that rely on strict gender roles are at risk of higher rates of domestic violence according to the CDC. By eliminating inequality, we have hope of deconstructing stringent patriarchal culture and lowering the rates of domestic violence.

We need to stop blaming the victims of sexual violence, rape and incest. Girls who are under the age of legal consent or who are significantly less emotionally mature than their male counterparts are not to blame for inappropriate sexual behavior. We need better sexual education and conversations on consent across all genders so that sexual violence, rape and incest are better understood. This will allow us to stop blaming the wrong people as the source of these violent acts. Focusing on perpetrators is a more effective way to stem this kind of violence.

We need educators, teachers, health professionals and politicians who are truly committed to a violence free Caribbean. We need people in positions of political, social or financial power who are committed to learning about these injustices and cutting them at the root. While it may be difficult to change the opinions of those already in power, young people are especially capable of becoming the change that we wish to see.

Before we remove violence from our culture we need to acknowledge that not only is it there, but all of us accept it by not actively working to fight it in one way or another. The occasional anti-domestic violence program is not enough. We need a cultural overhaul that will begin on an individual level.

You can take action now to eliminate this normalized violence.

Individuals who are able should seek to educate themselves more. We can change our actions and reactions to reflect lives free from violence. (This does not apply to responding to oppression with violence, which sometimes can be our only choice.) If we change ourselves, and our immediate community, we will have taken valuable steps towards a collective consciousness that does not accept violence from those who have institutional power and eventually does not accept the perpetration of violence at all.

Feminist Meaning in the Caribbean: 6 Issues We Urgently Need To Address

How can we find feminist meaning or significance in our lives as Caribbean women? What would need to change for feminism to be not just a concept, but something that influences our culture as a whole. In the Caribbean, we are accomplished in some of our philosophies towards family, women, work and sexual agency. Unfortunately, our problems do outweigh our accomplishments and it is our responsibility as Caribbean women to recognize these problems and work to the best of our abilities and within our range of these abilities to create change within our region. Of course our issues and problems are probably far more expansive than the ones that I shall list but the list below will encompass what I see as our most glaring and pressing problems.

  • Homophobia and Transphobia; denial of rights and equal treatment of non-cis and non-hetereosexual individuals.
  • Economic disadvantages that women suffer across the Caribbean
  • Poor access to educational resources (which really boils down to education reform)
  • Rape, incest, sexual assault and all forms of sexual violence
  • High levels of domestic violence and improper support groups
  • Problems with alcoholism and addiction (can affect women in a number of ways!)
I may definitely be missing a few and I would encourage anyone reading to add what they think in the comments. I think the major themes of our region’s feminist issues are economic disadvantages, high rates of violent behavior and high levels of intolerance (at best and violence at worst) towards non-cissexual and non-heterosexual individuals. We must begin working and taking steps within our communities to educate people of the issues we are facing and to implement solutions that will effectively assist us in improving our different communities and our society.