Post 282.

Think of your love for lyrics, and how the right words can draw your attention, change your opinion or just cause your heart to pulse a little harder.

We know well the compelling wordplay of calypso and extempo, but are less familiar with the tradition of rapso or what the community refers to as “the power of de word in the riddim of de word”. Even lesser known, though long kept alive is a local tradition of spoken word. It has just as much to make a politician cringe. Strike poetry, like a match to the sulphur of your tongue, and watch how paper can turn to fire.

I sat in Sunday’s audience at NAPA, enraptured by the energy at 2 Cents Movement’s spoken word finals, and the sixteen voices of another generation continuing this poetry tradition.

Deneka Thomas, the winner of the competition, confidently flung fire like sparks from black, sharp, flint stones. Her piece described all that is contained in a closet, all that is hung in it besides clothes, haunting like monsters whose shadows fall out and reach for your bed, highlighting how unsafe one can feel and be even in our own bedrooms. Closets are where secrets are held and abuse is buried, leaving you no less afraid. Closets are where LBGTI youth exist in fear of hate just outside the door. Closets are places that many hide, hoping the dark will protect.

Deneka was brilliant, which is only to be expected from a young, but experienced poet, who has visibly gone from strength to strength over these last years. She championed over a slew of other pieces by both women and men which focused on consent, violence and equal rights across sexual orientation. Young poets also spent their three minutes on economic injustice, like poetry thrown to blow open the stereotypes and status quo of gang-defined zones.

Young women in particular highlighted changing aspects of childhood brought on by inter-generational addiction to electronic devices, represented the voice of the earth rebelling against our destruction, and described the experience of being asked for a dance that seems stilted, much like the democratic act of voting for a party that you mistakenly think knows the right steps.

These women, and Deneka herself, are part of women’s spoken word history. Cheryl Byron was the first woman to peform rapso in a calypso tent in 1976. Kiskadee Karavan famously burst on the scene, with the band Homefront, featuring Gillian Moor alongside Ozzi Majiq and Kinky Dan, and their hit, “Free Yuhself (Give Yuhself a Chance)” in 1992. Brother Resistance carried the movement for decades, supporting other rapso women like Sister Ava and her band, when they began to perform in the 1990s.

As I’ve written before, I know the story well from about 1997 when I ‘broke new ground’ with Brother Resistance’s movement, which trained young poets for the stage, bringing in the expertise of Ataklan, Wendell Manwarren, Brother Book, and Kareja Mandela. Deneka’s fearless and decriminalized woman power built on the first pieces about women’s sexuality performed as part of Izavibes, imagined into being by Lisa Allen-Agostini and her brother, Dennis, following the earlier ‘Holy Underground’. Izavibes was midwife to the Ten Sisters Poetry and Song Movement which produced the only CD collection of women’s poetry in the country. Conceptualised by Paula Obe and Aneesa Baksh, from North to South Trinidad between 2000 and 2004, same-sex desire was defiantly delivered alongside other women’s wise words.

Ten Sisters begat the Speak Easy, hosted by Dara Njeri, which was continued by Songshine, led by Gillian Moor. From there, UWI Speak, Writers’ Block and other young collectives emerged, nurturing another generation of women like Ivory Hayes, now a young veteran to the stage. Those young women on stage last night, and the young men continuing to use poetry to promote conscious lyrics and politics, are inheritors of this women’s history of protecting and performing poetry.

Poets love lyrics because words can be stripped, like torn sentences, to softly bind pain like bandages. As Deneka showed, words also provide the kind of glinting steel that make closets openings for more imaginative worlds and for subversive escape routes long mapped by underground passages.

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Post 259.

The story isn’t on stage. It’s in the applause. That moment when a spontaneous connection erupts, and interrupts something we can all recognize, with something new –  a reverberation in the air between actors and audience, and a sense of possibility about which they agree.

I was watching poets from 2 Cents Movement perform their spoken word play about gender-based violence to secondary school students. My attention was drawn to students’ shouts of support, squeals of laughter, and raucous identification with both scenes of gender-based violence and scenes of resistance, realization and transformation.

The play is set in a café, meant to be a safe space for everyone, both women and men who have experienced violence and those who need to let go of their anger and will to harm. There’s a simple, but disturbing scenario where a couple comes in for a drink and he tells her what she should have, even when she says she wants something else, even when she says no.

A confrontation results, because we all know that’s how easy it is, maybe not over a mauby, but maybe over some other decision a woman isn’t allowed to make if her man disagrees. You can feel the girls identifying. They’ve seen this before. It isn’t new. That’s just as disturbing.

The boys are also familiar, but there’s ambivalence. They want to identify with the man. He’s articulate and in charge. He’s taking care of his woman and demands respect. Yet, violence is always ugly. The negotiation between the couple plays itself out among groups of girls and boys. They are not only interacting with the play. They’re reacting to each others’ experiences, responses and emotions.

There’s another brilliant transition when the waiter serves up a moment of solidarity, and both boys and girls react, for we don’t see this enough either. The man wants his order. The waiter gives him something else. He tells him that he is the boss and he is the man and he decides what his customer drinks. First, the man explains this isn’t what he wants. Then, he gets angry, the way experiencing domination breathes a slow, focused, incredulous anger into you. Then, it clicks. This is what it feels like to her. 2 Cents will say that when poetry drops, it’s louder than a bomb, and you hear it right then when that lesson lands on the man. Boom. Noise fills the room.

The applause comes again and again, at points I didn’t expect, with emotional outbursts that surprise me. Laughter at a tension that shouldn’t be funny reveals, rather than hides, discomfort and uncertainty or maybe desensitization to what shouldn’t be normal. Given the paucity of local television shows, as the couple negotiates, those school children are seeing something rare. They are watching someone who looks like them or could be their neighbor or friend rewrite a dominant and toxic script, stand up for herself and be prepared to walk away. The uproar is loud when she exits because she sets the terms for her relationship, at least in this play.

This is what school children need to see: Safe spaces as common as your corner rum shop or café. Men and women challenging violence, individually and together. Information about how to manage all that hurt, fear and lashing out. Honesty about how early it is that harm begins. Individuals open to accountability and equality when old ways are wrong and need to change.

After it’s done, students write what they learned about how to end GBV. Currently a collaboration among Bocas Lit Fest, Courts, 2 Cents Movement and the IGDS, we want those messages, in students’ own words, to reach you.

This movement can never be too large and such joyful noise can never be too loud.

One secret.

Such applause can bring quiet tears to your eyes when you stand watching from the back of the crowd.