A part of my challenge with my black feminism is figuring out what to write about. What do I think is valuable to pay attention to and what is more valuable for me to ignore. I tend to ignore pop culture as a whole, but I think I’ve found something relevant I can speak about that ties nicely into the overall goal of this blog.
Due to discussions surrounding an article on soca from FADER magazine (which I refuse to link to here) as well as the release of Rihanna’s “Work” video, a number of thoughts and ideas regarding West Indian music and culture have entered my mind. I consider the two most popular contemporary genres of Caribbean music to be Dancehall and Soca. Calypso is of course, still around, but it has become more “Classical Caribbean” if you ask me.
In valid attempts to defend soca/dancehall from the attacks of outsiders, I’m worried that there is an un-nuanced view of West Indian culture being pushed that portrays both soca and dancehall as inherently feminist spaces. Now, I actually don’t think this is the intent of the West Indian men and women defending the genre; I have also spoken about important feminist spaces being carved out in both genres at length. You can read my older post on that here. However, in light of this, I do see a lot of Caribbean men on social media using West Indian women’s affirmations as a scapegoat to ignore their own sexism and the rampant misogyny in West Indian music and by extension, West Indian culture at large.
While dancehall and soca CAN BE affirming black feminist spaces, I do want to challenge the idea that they are inherently so. West Indian culture is tainted by misogyny, like most cultures in the West are. This means that every aspect of our culture is in fact colored by the existence of patriarchy. Just like rap songs in the U.S. or indie music reflect a culture of male entitlement to women’s bodies and emotional labor/energy, soca does the same. Additionally, it is dissonant to pretend that there isn’t a vein of homophobia in soca as well. West Indians are very much preoccupied with policing gender identity and expression as well as ensuring that women do not do anything to challenge the status quo.
Yes, there are quite a few songs by women that I would consider feminist anthems. But what about the songs by men? Do these reflect a culture that is free from the fetters of Western patriarchy. I don’t think so…
Here’s a series of lyrics by Peter Ram’s classic soca Woman By My Side
Him was the first man
Then He found Adam was lonely
And his companion
Was Eve a woman
Why should I go against myself
Thinking this is wrong
And it was written in Leviticus
Man shouldn’t lie with man
These are reflections of some of the dangerous homophobic ideologies that are prevalent in the Caribbean. These lyrics are also not random instances of homophobia. This is a beloved song that no one balks at, yet it beholds incredible violence for no particular reason.
The other most recent examples that I have in mind are songs that have been more popular recently in Saint Lucia and perhaps they don’t reflect the views elsewhere (but I doubt it.)
Listen to these two songs:
I don’t really need to tell you what the “property” is…
These songs don’t just imply that women are property, they outright say it. The more recent soca song in particular is eerie to hear sung casually by groups of people.
Considering the vast amount of entitlement that the majority of West Indian men already feel to West Indian women’s bodies as indicated by the outrageously high rape statistics, it’s undeniable that this sentiment is harmful to women and reflects a big problem in our culture.
Even some of the old soca songs that many of us love have misogynistic undertones to them. One of my favorite Mighty Sparrow songs Jean & Dinah. The lyrics really work best when you read all of them so I’ll just direct you to this link. Click here to read the lyrics. This is a song about how in the absence of Americans in Trinidad, now men can get away with treating women badly again and the women will have to “take what [they] get”. Inspirational if you think about it.
I don’t necessarily mean to discount the genre as a whole. Because despite the few songs I’ve dragged up off the top of my head for critique, I can drag up just as many that are loving and affirming. However, most of these songs are by women. Some people may point to songs like Rolly Polly as a counter-example but I disagree. I do not think a song can be loving and affirming of women lets say if the primary thing women have to offer is their ability to wine or having an appealing body. Aren’t West Indian women so so much more than that?
Overall, there is a lot of potential within soca for women to carve out feminist spaces for themselves and to carve out spaces that are loving and affirming. But this genre also allows for celebrations of the darker sides to West Indian culture. In the name of entertainment, we allow these celebrations to slide by unchecked and we allow them to slide by without critique. In the future, I really think that we can all examine as a culture what our music celebrates. When we do well, I think we should celebrate that. But when we do badly — when we disrespect women or when we behave violently towards the LGBT community — we need to speak out. If we keep up the difficult work of being vigilant about what we listen to and celebrate, we’ll be able to engage in a more honest appraisal of our culture and our values.