Post 363.

Kes’ 2020 hit, “Boss Lady”, is a catchy representation of men’s current negotiations with sex, labour and power.

It describes a time when our society considers itself in a crisis of masculinity typified by men’s lower enrollment in tertiary schooling, their turn away from the formal economy, and a shrinking, male-dominated industrial and energy sector. “This economy”, Kes sings, “have meh looking for wuk”.

By contrast, over decades, women have capitalized on educational opportunities and, to the extent they are available, secure jobs. They have also mobilized traditionally feminine skills in beauty, catering, sewing, jewelry-making, suitcase trading and childcare to survive in the informal economy in ways that enable greater economic empowerment and more say over their lives.

Women still experience unemployment at higher rates than men, but the educational trends will eventually shift the income trends. This won’t topple patriarchy, but it will make men contend with their role differently, offering their labour, including sexual labour, to women on renegotiated terms.

We’ve long heard this narrative in UWI principals and prime ministers’ worry that women wouldn’t be able to find suitable husbands. Yet, neither of these authorities considered that women may become more interested in men for sex and labour than marriage, or that sex and labour may ultimately be what men are most able to offer.

This is a fascinating twist, for women, such as secretaries, were the ones historically sexualized by a boss man, and were eroticized in pornographic fantasies of a willing maid providing both domestic and sexual service. What happens when men start offering themselves for such “wuk”?

As early as 1935, Attilla’s calypso, “Women Will Rule the World” warned that, once, women only wanted to be a mother and wife, but now there is “no limit to their ambition”. He lamented that women would become “tyrants” expecting men to scrub floors, wash clothes, and mind the baby when women go out at nights to roam.

By 1987, amidst an economic decline, Tambu’s “Yes Darling” expressed similar dread about changing sexual relations. The song is about Tommy who was once breadwinner, and used to boast about how hard he had his woman working. But, “One day he lost he wuk and end up home/ Now she turn breadwinner, and he become housemaker/Man she have him working, the way he had she doing/Each day as a rule, she have Tommy working like a mule”.

Simultaneously, women seized on the theme of “Woman is Boss” when it comes to excelling at “caring, sharing and achieving”. From Denyse Plummer to Destra’s “Independent Ladies”, this has been a feminist narrative of doing as well as or better than men, but also doing well without them if women had to earn, save and also raise their babies on their own. A “real woman” echoes Patrice, “own house, car and land” and “take charge of yuh man”.

Women also began to respond to men’s anxieties by expressing desire for a worker man; a play on the sexual pleasure of a cocksman, but one who also provides satisfying manual labour. “I want you to take your broom and sweep my yard/You better brush it good or we go fall apart/Don’t give me no shortcut thing, you have all day and night/I had to satisfy, so you better do it right”, thus sings Denise Belfon in the 2001 song, ‘Work It’.

No surprise, then, that Kes offers his physical and sexual labour to a woman boss with a job vacancy, who is looking for a flawless resume, guaranteed proper ‘wuk’, and a #1 employee.

It’s not coincidental that, after decades of apprehension, up to Blackie’s 2009 ‘Ah Hook’ where the fellas considered him a “mook” for doing his lady’s laundry and ironing, men may be re-considering what they offer to well-educated, financially-capable and successful women.

To that end, in a sexual economy with changing relations of gender and power, well-equipped men will always have a job which women want done, whether it involves a broomstick or a hose to water their garden.

What’s fascinating is that the double entendre isn’t simply about sexual suitability, but also about an ability to meet a boss lady’s domestic needs.

Derrick Seales’ 2020 tune, ‘House Husband’, nails this moment by circling back to Attila’s fears. However, man-woman relations have changed so much, he now sings about proudly washing clothes, cleaning the house, vacuuming and making up the bed night and day.

“Put that wuk in front of me” concludes Kes, “and I go come in right away”.

Post 350.

As Carnival takes over airwaves, we can explore its representations of music, culture and sexual pleasure. These representations are often contradictory, drawing us into debate. They are sometimes more important than first appears, charting a historical moment, or highlighting generational change or US influence, or showing what adolescents, tuned in on Instagram and Youtube, are learning from us about empowerment and gender.

Destra’s recently released ‘Rum and Soca’ video is an intriguing mix of representations that signal much about our time. The video’s narrative is basically like the African-American movie, ‘Girls Trip’, which is a story of women’s friendship and a wild weekend of dancing, drinking, and romancing to excess.

This narrative is at home here in Trinidad and Tobago, with its long history of “girls’ limes”, and women drinking and wining with each other in fetes and on the road. It’s a welcome story as there are far too few videos of women enjoying themselves without performing at men’s command or for men’s pleasure or to attract men or as backdrop to a dominant male voice. “Party done” may have been the last time women were out like this on their own.

There are almost no men in Destra’s video and none on the mic. Those in the scenes are mere background to the social intimacy that affirms a right to woman-centred fun. The take up of a particular brand of consumer and celebrity feminism in Port of Spain is symbolized by the wealth and status of a limo, mansion, long blond wig and closet full of clothes combined with the Carnivalesque bacchanal of bam bam, and its emphasis on women’s licentious freedom as empowerment.

There’s much to say about such empowerment. It seems to be symbolized by drinking to excess, a privilege traditionally reserved for men. Destra herself has at least eight drinks, and I found myself wondering about the messages to adolescent girls. Such drinking has historically costed those who may find themselves assaulted and then blamed for getting to a point where they can’t remember their last name. Such risks of victim blaming are real and I wondered about the counter warning to young women that excessive alcohol consumption easily turns a sense of power into vulnerability.

The drunkenness is simply Destra keeping up. Men have been triumphing such excess for decades, from “Drunk and Disorderly” to “Rum till I Die”, and it’s debatable whether it’s fair to hold women to a higher standard. Indeed, one can argue that the video is also an Afro-creole version of a matikor, the Caribbean’s longest and most iconic historical expression of rum-drinking, women-only wining and queer potential in a safe space created by women themselves.

Yet, one can’t be naïve about alcohol marketing in the Caribbean. Only four brands are visible in the video. It’s almost blatantly an extended Angostura ad, following in the footsteps of Machel, who introduced advertising for his own rum into his repertoire of songs, because scraping the barrel in this way as an artist makes good business sense. Company branding conflated with cultural production should compel us to question the role that alcohol companies play in sponsoring and profiteering from fetes, bands, artists and videos, and encouraging young adults to become drinkers.

The video’s major intervention, however, is its erotic intimacy among women. Women’s same sex sexual attraction has been going mainstream with videos by Rihanna and Shakira, Shenseea, Rita Ora and Cardi B, Kehlani and Teyana Taylor, Janelle Monae, and more.

In these videos and in Destra’s, women are also holding hands, near kissing, and touching bodies in ways that blur the line between heterosexuality, bisexuality and lesbianism, or in ways that ‘queer’ being straight. Whether it’s alcohol, or sexual experimentation, or sexual fluidity, Destra’s video can be simultaneously read as straight and gay, as deliberately ambiguous, and as defying easy identity labels.

Such queering has a long history in the region. Yet, for lesbians in Trinidad and Tobago, same-sex desire isn’t something that happens when you’re drunk or that is about a night out. It’s an identity that isn’t taken on and off, and still carries great social stigma. One can only hope that women celebrities’ openness to ambiguity, play and enjoyment normalises challenges to homophobia and an inclusive world for women beyond its rules.

Cultural representations of empowerment, sexuality, womanhood and feminism in the Caribbean can be problematic as well as emancipatory, but shouldn’t simply be dismissed. Signs of our times, and their shifts and debates, continue to come in Carnival music.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Post 272.

Typical of Carnival for every one of her seven years, Ziya has been falling asleep hearing soca on loop through day and night, as loud as the chorus of crickets, frogs and barking dogs outside, but drifting through and from under the studio door across the hall.

Before roadmixes hit airwaves and all-inclusives, she’s heard them produced from beginning to end; the experiments with hooks, cowbells and synths, and their ability to add dramatic crescendo, breaks and pace. For weeks, she’d been going to sleep with ‘hello’, ‘hello’, ‘hello’ on repeat. This past week, it was ‘start’, ‘start’, ‘start’, rolling over added drums and vocals.

I’m thinking of the soundtracks to her childhood memories and how she’s inherited an experience I’ve had for almost half my life. Stone began to invent Carnival roadmixes twenty years ago, before producers started regularly sending a tune for something extra and more extended than needed for fetes and radio.

I’d go to sleep while he moved coloured lines and bars around on a computer screen, fixing vocals, pulling out buried horns, sweeps and strums, and re-arranging pan notes. Turning over in the night, I’d hear a section of sound being moved back and forth, back and forth, as he edited songs the way a DJ would, with breathing space for smooth openings and endings that could cut and mix.

Meeting other producers, remixers and DJs, I wanted to write a book about these men working from home, so different from the women’s home-based labour documented in scholarship and in poems about Caribbean mothers working as seamstresses, cake-makers or weavers while children played about them.

Did men working from home have the same experiences? Did they do as much care work while also earning income? Was there a playpen in the studio for those times when they were on parental shift and on creative deadline? Where they always ‘at work’ or did they plan times specifically for family? What was it like for their partners and children for men to be breadwinners at odd hours of the night and in their pajamas? Did music always pay the bills? What could we learn about Caribbean masculinities and labour from these studio guys?

Stone’s own history in first editing tapes before transitioning to hardware such as cds, drives and computers, and then finally ending with software, tones and sample libraries, highlighted the technological shifts that enabled these home studios to impact Trinidad and Tobago’s musical sound. It made these a lens for tracing how globalization’s wider shifts in knowledge, products and capital impact local culture even in small, near-equatorial soca kingdoms.

When we think technological shift, we think ‘Big Truck’, but it probably started with drum machines and four track tapes in these fellas’ teenage bedrooms and, later, in their home-based music studios, even more common today when all you need is a laptop and headphones.

The baby came and the book idea, titled DJ in the House, took second place, but I remembered it as Ziya began to dream to 2018 tracks not yet publicly released. Between us, we had fallen asleep and woken up to various stages in official mixes for Kees, Destra, Rikki Jai, Machel, Sherwin, Dil e Nadan, Andre Tanker, Ultimate Rejects-MX Prime, Patrice, KMC, Trini Jacobs, Bunji, Faye-Ann, David Rudder, Treason, Alison Hinds, Mr. Vegas, Chinese Laundry and even, now deceased, Rocking Randy.

She has more of a subconscious sense of the ‘cutting floor’ or final cut, a reference to unimaginably obsolete days of splicing thin reels of tape, than most of the nation dancing to versions that appear effortless, rather than debated and negotiated.

From today, extended road mixes rule the road. Thinking about their production, and not just consumption, you’d be surprised who could tell us their backstory.