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.
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.
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.