Post 97.

More than a decade ago, when Lauryn Hill’s first solo album came out, she was my heroine. The woman could write, fling lyrics and vibrate your heart strings with her voice, and her music blended the personal, emotional, feminist and political with a head-pumping mix of passion and power. A whole global generation of us in and out of relationships, in long term love affairs with beats and rhymes, and searching for inspiring female icons in mass media, re- and re-played that Mis-education album to articulate youthful heartache and healing, and to survive coming of age.

I have flat mates from UWI who I’m still apologizing to for running that album on continuous rotation while I dug myself out from weakness to strength and from despair to confidence. There are songs from that album I can’t listen to anymore because they can’t escape that time that I managed to. There are also songs that still say exactly what I would to people in my life today.

That time in music followed an era of unapologetically feminist bands, singers and musicians, who broke through sound-proofed ceilings and walls that kept women’s music off the radio.

The turn from politically-radical rap to gangsta hip hop, and Britney and Beyonce pop, mostly let in those female artists willing to shake some ass rather than those who knew that unless women shook down Babylon, only race and class would be rocked free while we remained everywhere garlanded in chains.

Mainstream music gives girls too few resources for remaking the terms of what it means to be smart, sexy, good, bad, angry, emotional, vulnerable and even ahead of the game. We have to search beyond the radio dial, actively remember and even invent the soundtracks for running tings our own way.

At that time, the Ten Sisters poetry movement, a group of us singers and spoken word performers, came together to, like Lauryn Hill, interrupt air waves with women’s words that were more complex and critical than what we hear. Ten Sisters included feminist and non-feminist women, straight, lesbian and bisexual women, mothers and grandmothers, atheists and Catholics, Indians, Africans, part-Chinese and full calalloo. From Lisa Allen’s ‘Isahvibes’ to Paula Obe and Annessa Baksh’s ‘Ten Sisters’ to Dara Njeri’s ‘Speak Easy’ to Gillian Moor’s ‘Songshine’ to Sister Ava’s tireless commitment to the Rapso movement, these women mothered Trinidad and Tobago’s vibrant spoken word culture for more than a decade. Yet, like Lauryn Hill and that earlier phase of US feminist music, it’s easy to forget their impact and to wonder what happened to them today.

Hill made six children, confronted continous adultery, fought for her artistic freedom against the music industry, and had to live in a world where racial stereotyping about Black women makes them easy prey. Separately, each of those could be too much for any sane person. Together? Are you going to judge? Being powerful can be hard. Being a mother can be overwhelming, Backstage beyond the microphone can be unforgiving. To see someone so path-breaking not be able to hold her family and her struggle together is terrifying. It’s any woman’s everyday nightmare to publicly appear to fail.

Hill remains my heroine because real life heroes are also only human. Maybe she went crazy like gossips say, maybe the world makes us all crazy sometimes, maybe women are more easily labeled crazy for not handling societal and patriarchal downpression the perfect way. For me, there’s no vicarious juice in her imprisonment. She’s a voice from a time when I came into my own power. As they learn the rewards, risks and re-education of conscious girlhood, that album still remains one of only too few for our daughters.

Post 93.

Every year for my anniversary, bridal mehendi is etched on my hands and feet. It’s a ritual symbolizing more than the marriage. My wedding mehendi was first done at my matikor, organized and attended by women of all hues and mixes, religious beliefs, sexualities, feminisms and politics. This was no ordinary matikor, though it did draw on the divine and feminine in Hinduism and in the ceremony itself, and it did feature women and sisterhood, song and rhythm, ritual decoration, invocation, fire and, of course, educational dancing with a baigan. The women who attended all came as goddesses and warrior women from various mythologies and histories. Athena, Gaia, Poolan Devi, Oshun and more descended in dress and spirit to mark my transition.

 That night called upon more than one tradition, and did so in ways that were creative and invented. While some might look askance at such unorthodoxy, it also brilliantly showed how cultures combine and emerge with new meanings as each generation makes them their own in relation to their time. In no way do these inventions replace those enactments that seek consistency and continuity, but they do open spaces for resistance, reinterpretation and even rejuvenation, which are how we have formed the sacred practices that distinctively represent Trinidad and Tobago today, whether it’s the hybrid blessings of Siparia Mai or the high mass of Jouvay.

 What followed was a wedding whose rites equally combined the old and authorized with the imaginative and unsanctioned. At ten am in the morning and wearing a wedding kurta suit and a red sari, Stone and I were married in our back garden by his godmother, who is a Reverend in the Church of the Nazarene. Muslim blessings were also given. Because he’s a music producer and I’m a poet, we walked down our aisle to our own beats and rhymes, which we hoped would remind us that after nine years of bliss, promises kept don’t need a wedding to be declared.

 In the evening, we held another service whose steps I devised for no other reason than they mattered to me, like amulets strung around not only the bride and groom, but the whole occasion. One Wicca sistren drummed as we joined our friends and this time I wore my aunt’s sari from her wedding thirty-five years ago along with my great grandmother’s earrings. Another Carib sistren lit sage and chanted, mentioning all the corners of the country that hold indigenous value and within which we live today. Our friends wrote our vows and then read them to us, giving us the blessing of their collective hopes and wishes. We jumped over a cocoyea broom, hand-made with cowrie shells by another sistren. That’s when it all became complete.

 Maybe it’s being feminist that makes me feel empowered to choose the traditions and rituals that feel right regardless of whether others agree. Maybe it’s being just sort of contrary. Maybe it’s being from a country where our greatest legacy is our inventiveness, which has enabled us to not only survive, but also to thrive. Maybe it’s being an anthropologist and knowing that culture is always being made anew. Maybe it’s learning from a generation of women around me who draw on every religious and cultural resource of the land regardless of their race or creed. In sweet T and T, you can have a dougla matikor and wedding which draw on diasporic and local beliefs, generations of female collectivity and generous amounts of love. Beyond being a bride, this is what I remember as the mehendi is being drawn on my body. All histories are ours to claim and make sacred, uniquely.

 

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