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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Indo C Fist Thought T shirt image

Artwork by Danielle Boodoo-Fortune. Layout by Kathryn Chan.

Post 214.

Once, I was among the youth voices in Caribbean feminist inter-generational conversations. Now, I’m bringing together young graduate students and activists with an older generation. Those I’ve been reading and learning from for two decades, and who I want to continue to thread, like matrilineal lines, through emerging thinking and politics.

That’s not as easy as it sounds, for intergenerational gatherings are cross-stitched by multiple tensions.

For one, older feminists need to trust that a younger generation has read what they have written or heard their words, and understand the commitments, especially across race, sexuality and class, which they have woven into their legacy. Like many mothers, they may need to reflectively work through which times to grow a new generation and which times to step back and listen. Also, how to advise in ways that don’t make daughters feel judged, disciplined or dictated to, and when to let go, recognizing that things may not look to those of a younger age and era as elders’ eyes see.

I thought about this while observing an absolutely historic first gathering, of three generations of Indo-Caribbean feminist scholars, almost immediately dissemble into a past generation’s disagreements. I suppose it was good for graduate students to see that those whose writings have defined their own seams of thought are also just people; fallible, passionate, likable, disagreeable, anxious, generous and, even, unkind. Path-breaking women who don’t necessarily share analyses, and who trace different and competing hurts, ambitions and lives to their stories.

That was when I also realized that time had shifted, and that there was value in nurturing a collective confidence that didn’t need matriarchal approval for newer interpretations and choices. We had the wisdom of their works, yet our own path to forge. We could and had come of age.

Such moments of renegotiation and redefinition occur in all social movements, but there isn’t much documented about generational leadership change in Caribbean history, whether in unions, NGOs, political parties or even mas-making families. Yet, generation was key to the Black Power challenge to an older order just as much as cyber-feminism is creating new forms of solidarity-building which some second wave feminists still don’t take seriously.

It’s important for the young to learn how ideas were formed, strategies conceptualized and past struggles waged. Our responsibility is to know our histories by asking those who came before. Their task is to give space to how a new generation gives those histories meaning, acknowledging that they might not have the last word, for the young may have stopped listening or, once the sync has gone, already moved on. Then, it only alienates them to emphasize how much they are failing or how much is being lost, those perspectives also likely failing to accurately assess the times they are navigating.

In the face of early rebuke and skepticism from some who established the intellectual tradition we were exploring, I instead saw the value of more careful consideration of those forty years younger. What were they offering to us about what it means to be Indian or Dougla, to become an immigrant, confront historical violence, imagine same sex desire, read books that connect the Caribbean to Mauritius or poetry to politics, manifest goddess possession, be a man or challenge men, and explore how education expands one’s identities and responsibilities to the region?

Caribbean societies are so hierarchical that there’s small chance of a younger generation, particularly of young women, really saying what they think and feel to those they respect and feel they owe loyalty. Yet, amongst themselves, they know when what was said made them uncomfortable and when they disagree. Distrust that they will be reprimanded rather than heard means they choose silence instead of dialogue, fear instead of engagement, and disappointment rather than connection.

How does that impact possibilities for true inter-generational collaboration? How, then, should those with older power wield their authority? What do the young learn about asserting themselves? For, sometimes we have to challenge even Indian elders, even feminist foremothers, lovingly and publicly. Social movements don’t just live on, but are continuously made. It’s important to record how we do this, and the gifts and risks sewn in at every stage.

For a reflection on the Symposium ‘Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought: Beyond Gender Negotiations’, organised by Gabrielle Hosein, Lisa Outar and the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, St. Augustine, see Krystal Nandini Ghisyawan’s review in the Stabroek News.