Post 332.

On Sunday, in front of an audience of over a thousand, three young women topped the annual First Citizens National Poetry Slam Final for the first time in eight years.
Remember their names, for often we don’t remember our own poets, despite poetry’s power to save lives, inspire action, and document history as it is being lived.

Alexandra Stewart, whose piece last year represented the voice of our planet advocating for ecological conservation, placed first this time. I thought she well deserved the big prize of $50 000. She was my choice of winner for her poem had a clear message, didn’t over-use rhyme, felt authentic, was well-paced, kept within time, and showed straight up good writing and delivery.

Ironically, it was about the disrespect shown to poets when they are asked to perform for free, or for less than they need to even make ends meet. This is real and all artists in T and T can relate to budgets that include all the costs, but none for musicians and poetry. Her delivery kept it to the point. Artists also have to eat.

Earning second place, Shineque Saunders wrote an emotional piece about being separated from her mother who migrates to help her family survive. Shineque played her mom’s different voices in creative ways, creating a British accent and different name for the woman who migrated and a Trinbagonian accent for the one who remained, eventually bringing the stories of the two together to highlight the sacrifices mothers make again and again for their children. It spoke to a common reality for many today, represented confidently with both drama and flow.

Finally, Deneka Thomas, last year’s winner, placed third with a poem about the character of La Diablesse, showing us how rape can turn women into supposed-monsters. La Diablesse’s typical characterization as seducer of men isn’t just a story of sexuality and danger, but also one of negotiating power out of sexual violence and trauma, one we little hear because this character has remained so demonized and yet so silent in folklore. Redeeming such voices, through style and play, is a feminist act of turning words to power.

As a younger generation stepping in where Paula Obe, Lisa Allen-Agostini, Dara Njeri, Carol Hosein, Ivory Hayes, myself and others once held stage lights, it’s brilliant to see young women nurtured by 2 Cents Movement and, soon coming out of the school tours, setting the standard for spoken word on stage.

The story of young women championing at performance poetry has reasons for capturing our attention. The stage in the Caribbean has always been male-dominated, the lyrics “man” is still a resilient archetype, and so many women who have carried the spoken word movement over these decades and their very names have disappeared from its history.

Spoken word spaces have always been progressive, with young men also advocating an end to violence, speaking about tumultuous or disappointing relationships with their fathers, highlighting child sexual abuse, and analyzing poverty and injustice and much more. Yet, these are also spaces where young women can point to continuing politics of male privilege and the resilient nuances of a boys’ club.

On and off stage, there’s a story of women’s experience as performance poets that remains to be negotiated, transformed and told. That they exist in a community of young men also willing to challenge patriarchal religious authority, ego and silences speaks to the potential of another generation to right earlier wrongs.

The National Poetry Slam is a gathering of another generation’s politics and vision. It’s a gayelle of their lyricism. It feels youthful and fresh, leaving you, not just alive, but hopeful that others care enough to put the world’s challenges to pen and then to perform their call at a microphone.

As part of the wider NGC Bocas Lit Fest’s readings from poets and writers of all kinds, it’s a signal that out there, regardless of your class or sex or sexual orientation or age or race, all you need are words and, like one of those from among us who have been published or are young veterans of the stage, you too can write.

You too can step up to the mic.

 

 

 

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Post 331.

We-Mark-Your-Memory_web

THIS EVENING, Bocas Lit Festival and Commonwealth Writers will be launching the collection, We Mark Your Memory: Writings from the Descendants of Indenture, at the Writers’ Centre on Alcazar Street, Port of Spain, from 6.30 o’clock.

The collection commemorates the centenary of the end of indentureship and includes writing from South Africa, Sri Lanka, Fiji, Mauritius and Samoa. It’s powerful to be included in a space with those from other places where indentured workers turned exploitation into opportunities, making new lives and birthing new lineages and stories.
Indian indentureship has transformed our landscape in the Caribbean, and these voices evoke its afterlife 100 years on. Writers in the collection from TT include Patti-Ann Ali, Kevin Jared Hosein, Suzanne Bhagan, Stella Chong Sing, Fawzia Muradali Kane, and Jennifer Rahim, diverse voices marking different kinds of memories.

My own piece, titled “Chutney Love,” was written in 1996 and I used to perform it in my younger days in the rapso movement. The year 1995 was a richly complex moment in our recent political history. The rise of the UNC evoked the dashed hopes of 1986. For some, “it was Indian time now” as chorused by graffiti on the bus route, seen every time a maxi passed by.

It was also the year of chutney music continuing to “douglarise” Carnival, following the boundary-breaking entry of Drupatee Ragoonai in the 1980s and then others, from Chris Garcia to Sonny Mann, to Brother Marvin who continued the mixing of Indian and African rhythms and music started by those like Ras Shorty I.

Finally, Indo-Caribbean women’s writing and scholarship blossomed in these years. Theirs was a turn to words that at the same time turned away from ideals of purity as, in both bodies and in lyrics, women began to play up feminist politics of power and pleasure.

The poem’s lines, written when I was inspired by these developments at just 22 years old, bring together rapso’s commitment to performing poetry in the language we speak everyday with my own negotiations with Indianness, femininity, sexuality, political consciousness, and cross-race and anti-imperialist solidarities for “we both cross water for empire/ And ever since we lan up here together/ Is with only one history that we grow.”

“I ent nobody bowjie/ No promised dulahin” are the opening lines in the second verse, “But when de tassa start to roll up/ Beta, dem lyrics yuh have, I done write myself in.”
This tradition of Indian women writing themselves into Indo-Caribbean culture and history can be traced at least as far back as Indian women’s arrival, but was brought with them from India, through the depots and onto the ships.

These women’s voices can be heard in everything from letters to court documents to ship records, all leaving an echo in our own contemporary pressing against imposed roles and rules, and in our continued aspirations for self-determined lives.

As one example, just this Saturday, rolling through Plum Road with Prof Brinsley Samaroo, pre-eminent historian of Indo-Caribbean experience, Ziya and I ended up at St Isadore Estate, and stood in the very places where Bheeknee once stood. Born 1869, Bheeknee came to Trinidad on July 31, 1874, on the ship the Golden Fleece, with her mother and her baby brother. Her father had died aboard. She was just five years old.
When she was 13, George Kernahan, a sailor on the Golden Fleece, who had later begun working as an estate manager, found and took her to live with him, fathering several children. He was a spendthrift and alcoholic who eventually became blind. Meanwhile Bheeknee went on to frugally manage their money and to eventually purchase 500 acres of land – what became the estate we were now standing on.

She was so astute that she had ponds dug from natural springs, installing huge pipes and ensuring a fresh water supply while running a successful cocoa estate. Later, when Kernahan lost the estate to debtors, Bheeknee moved the family a few miles away where she had bought more than 30 acres without him knowing. Her house still stands there today. A jahaji bahen with no education who accomplished brilliant achievements through will to survive before her death in 1934. I’ll be remembering her today, and how history lives in words as much as in our landscape.

As we mark memories, whether from 1917, 1934 or 1995, come hear pieces read by their authors, all descendants of indenture, writing ourselves in. Like most Bocas’ events, the launch is free and all are welcome.

 

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.

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.