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Post 324.

IT WAS a brief, breath-held moment of unexpected confidence. As a mother, I felt as if I had managed to do something right. This rare feeling wasn’t dependent on her marks or good behaviour. It came as I watched her be brave as if that’s what she was born to do.

Ziya’s typically a little shy and hesitant, but Friday was her fourth calypso monarch competition at her primary school. We never understood how she agreed to go up on stage in the first place. The last thing she wanted was the awkwardness of public performance and attention, what she described as “too many people watching.”

We figured that, somehow, being the daughter of a DJ and a poet maybe had genetic influence. We thought that maybe growing up in a production studio made her edge a little closer to familiarity with music. There isn’t a clear answer, but she was up there when she was five years old expressing a self that seemed unusual for a girl who would still hide behind me when she met strangers. She stood on the school’s auditorium stage then; small, focused and fixed to the spot, remembering her lyrics.

We sent her up twice more, finding topics that filled a space for children in Carnival and focused on the little ups and downs of their lives. So, her first song, Mosquito, complete with a dance and drawing the interest of the Ministry of Health in their fight against dengue, was followed by a composition about losing her pot hound, Shak Shak, when she ran away one day.

True story: Shak Shak was found a week later far away in Las Cuevas, inexplicably distant from Santa Cruz, and well looked-after. She had, somehow, hopped a drop to the beach and the song found the humour in searching high and low, almost from Tobago to Toco, calling and calling. The chorus, “Where’s Shak Shak?,” got the whole audience to participate in solving this mystery.

Last year, we decided to start experimenting with soca, bringing calypso story-telling to pace and production which children could dance to. Have you ever noticed that there’s no music just for children at Carnival, their own soca genre that draws from the best of call-and-response refrains, and exuberant happiness? We began to aim to create that content.

Though Zi would alternately agree and refuse to compete, as shyness recalibrated with the push of coming second place, in the end she was there singing, Pencil Cases in the Air, a tune about packing your school bag. “Before the school bell rings, every morning check your things: erasers, sharpeners, rulers too, scissors, pencils and your glue,” she listed. Now in her third year, she was bouncing a bit more, tapping her foot on the stage’s wooden floor, but still contained like a child successfully performing what she had rehearsed, not yet able to leap into connecting with an audience.

This year, it’s like she grew up, as children so quickly do, one day more capable at a particular skill than they were before, as if the cumulative effort of years of parenting suddenly met with the right age for another step in life to be conquered.

Singing about the tribulations of having to learn times tables, we wrote lyrics for eight-year-olds, about the pressure of having to know the answer to two times eight, about revising for tests and being up late, and about it being true for every child that, “times tables coming for you.”

It isn’t often that you get to tell a story of Carnival as a space for growing up, whether for children singing, stilt-walking, playing pan or playing mas. On stage this year, she moved like an experienced performer, channelling the humour of Rose and Sparrow, the populism of Iwer and Machel, and the sweetness of Shadow’s horns.

I had never seen her this confident. One day, children grow into a lesson and get it perfect, maybe in English, math, music or sports. Then, if you are a mother who often doubts if she’s making the best decisions or one who quietly regrets her many mistakes, you exhale because such bravery was all you had hoped for, and you give thanks with wonder, rather than pride.

Although this is a story of Carnival, calypso and growing up, and of finally winning through many tries, such momentary magic of together getting it right is one with which parents anywhere in sweet T and T can perhaps identify.

 

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Post 322.

Sunday’s semi-finals provided annual bliss of sweet pan. As night fell, I rolled up on the dusty asphalt of the track, loving the tradition of rich and poor rubbing shoulders.

This is always my favorite place to be. As the bands move toward the savannah, all and sundry stand up close and in between the pans, holding on and swaying in suspension of tensions of sex, race, class and creed just for those minutes of high mas, and watching the players practice like anointed spirits that descend back into ordinary life once the last note is played.

You could close your eyes and safely get lost right there, for around you others also seem lifted by sounds of iron and steel dissecting and combining and jumping up into the air.

Wandering toward the stage, I meandered through children and babies playing amidst families and friends drinking, eating, talking and leaning back against muted sounds of soca from food vendors, for this wasn’t a fete in here, with its distorted bass and its bawling DJs, this was social space for communities of pan players and lovers to congregate over finer points of music.

To see the police walk through, maybe twenty strong and parting the crowd the way Two Face Crew once – a long time ago – used to, showed an approach at odds with its own cultural context.

People are happy for policing that makes society safe, but that effort doesn’t always have to appear more badjohn than the bandits. There’s an embeddedness in the local rather than a separation from people, that if conveyed, would make police presence more welcomed, and more respected.

I thought about how much more accepted police would appear if they walked through dispersed in smaller groups, acknowledging those around them, rather than seeming at odds with or distrustful of informal cultures of togetherness.

Seeing them, these blue-uniformed women and men who are indeed our own, I didn’t feel safer, I felt criminalized and infantilized, like the relaxed intergenerational joy I had been experiencing was sternly told to keep within bounds of good behavior. I felt like when old school teachers walk into a classroom of talkative students and hush descends as they menacingly take out a hard ruler, and you get frighten even if you haven’t done anything wrong.

Threats are everywhere and police have their job to do, but policing isn’t just swagger, it’s engagement with multiple representations and strategies. It requires an assessment of the present and an understanding of the past.

During Carnival, there are tensions around policing itself for completely valid historical reasons. It was police, in keeping order, who kept oppression in place, and Carnival revitalizes significant memory about why such force should be resisted. At the same time, levels of gun crimes, murders and feelings of insecurity also provide valid reasons for police visibility. Still, the whole country doesn’t need to be intimidated as if it is a criminal gang.

We’d all have felt their presence, and all have appreciated that could mean deterrence of crime and quick response when required, but we would have felt this way even without such a mass show of strong-arm force. There’s skill in asserting the professional authority that connects to what publics expect and what makes people feel reassured without overkill.

In my decades on the track, I’ve seen how spaces of public safety and artistic connection, and family feeling and national togetherness do exist. These are a resource for policing which should be embraced, rather than dismissed.

Part of pan bliss is the collective energy of people pushing steel bands on stage in a powerful metaphor for the idea of taking care of our own, and putting a hand in with beloved and stranger alike to press ahead, in pace with sweetness, ambitious camaraderie, and excitedly beating hearts.

As I crossed with All Stars, the phalanx of police appeared again, burly with stern faces, set jaws, helmets and big guns, to hurry us off stage, for such togetherness has to be kept on time and in order by the threat of a lil rough up for not listening quick enough.

I would have exited just as quickly if such anti-riot assemblage was replaced by nice ladies in bright t-shirts, without guns in competition for power with all that steel. As the band began, I looked on thinking about what Carnival taught us long ago. There’s fear and there’s love, and no power can govern legitimately through the first alone.

 

 

 

 

Post 321.

In his 2005 hit tune ‘Ah hook’, Blackie sings about how he and his lady living so nice. In the video, he’s washing and hanging panties on the line, ironing clothes, giving her exaggerated amounts of money for cinema, and hugging her all about town.

The aproned depiction of washing and ironing represents a man publicly losing his manhood in the eyes of other men. Tricked by sweat rice, he tells other men that all the housework he does and all he spends on his woman isn’t their business.

Men say he’s a chupidee, and a mook, but he doesn’t care. He’s ready to do whatever it takes to make his lady happy. He’s so hooked, his feet (and shoelaces) are literally tied and he is unable to leave.

Without having to resort to sweat rice and tied shoelaces, I want a man hooked like that. More importantly, I want him to hook me.

I imagine if he’s looking and cooking the way he does, if he is smart and knows how to spend, and is so good about looking after the children, he could hook me back. He’ll know a hard-working woman wants a man to share, not just the costs, but also the labour and care that goes into everyday living. For, relationships require more than love and lyrics alone.

I want to be hooked because he sees how I’m feeling, and asks me questions and listens so he could try to understand. In his eyes, I’m more fire-hot-empress, more one-and-only than mere trophy, the best in his success story, and his daily inspiration to become a better man.

He’s hooked me through his commitment to giving whatever it takes to the life we are building. He knows apology comes with accountability, and can be trusted to make promises that don’t end in a garbage bin. Because he wants to grow on his own from his, and our, mistakes, he keeps hooking me in.

Relationships are hard, but things don’t mash up just so. He’ll know that if my love is disappearing, many times I’ve already said something, and there’s been reason after reason, each one a little more heart-breaking.

He’ll think for himself about all that I’m feeling so if I’ve decided to leave him, he’ll look into my heart, right where it needs mending, and see how he was taking his woman for granted from long, long ago. He takes responsibility for his choices and his reliance on our relationship inequalities. He knows not to beg to come back without a plan. He won’t force me to have to be so strong that I say no to yet another chance.

I want a man hooked enough to step up and honest enough to step back because being hooked is not enough, and he knows that a woman needs no reason to leave other than that she wants to go. Ending a family is never an easy decision, but a woman can’t stay when she feels better on her own.

Blackie might have been a mook, but he’s not the one put out in the road. It’s not about being unable to leave. It’s about making it worthwhile for someone to stay. It’s about respecting when she’s done with less than she’s worth, and becoming better or walking away. It’s about self-reflecting as a man without relying on a woman to justify and explain. What is remorse if it doesn’t heal hurts? What value is sweet talk if things remain the same?

Without putting panties in a pot, what does it take for him to pay attention to what’s happening before it all falls apart? I could do without the begging. Where’s the man who can hook me everyday with his loving? He’s washing and looking after the children, and we are a partnership with connection and communication where my needs and emotions matter too. Anything else is too lonely and even children suffer in this story while he’s out on the pavement without a clue.

While Kenneth Salick still wondering why Radica left him alone, like a dog without a bone, Farmer Nappy can’t believe the bridges his woman is burning despite his love so true. These songs of men’s heart-break show incomprehension about how women experience men and why they eventually leave them. They show insufficient attention to how and why to keep hooking her so two of you could live nice. I want to be hooked too. Maybe, Blackie could give them some advice.

Post 269.

Carnival has always been about negotiation of gendered and sexual power. Think of jamettes long confrontation with middle-class and religious expectations of respectability. Think of a cross-dressing mas tradition long enabling performance of transgressive identities.

The charge has historically been directed at women ‘wining like that’ with century after century of commentators repetitively raging about (women’s) vulgarity and the potential for bam bam to make all social order bend over.

Ignoring the hysteria of such emasculated morality, women increasingly came together in movements tens of thousands strong to declare a desire for sexual freedom and pleasure, and an expectation of state responsibility for protection of these, as ‘rights’.

Commentators who bemoaned Carnival’s loss of political punch completely misread decades of bikini mas because they were not the mouth-piece for Afro-Trinidadian working class men in the tradition of pan and calypso. They missed the significance of year after year of multi-class and multi-ethnic bands of bubblicious women in agreement about such rights as a modern Caribbean feminist politics predating ‘Slutwalks’, ‘Life in Leggings’ or ‘Me Too’ responses to sexual harassment.

‘Carnival is woman’ on the one hand was about commodifying and marketing women’s bodies as the nation’s economic stimulus package, but on the other it marked a decisive shift to a contemporary social order in which jamette resistance had become fully nationalized.

TTPS’ public position on consent in Carnival is the jamette’s desire and right to sexual autonomy and freedom from sexual violence, both denied by the very foundations of colonial authority, now articulated by law.

It’s a historically significant signal of change and power not to be by-passed, a legacy of Carnival becoming woman, now penetrating into state authority. It should stop anyone from declaring that Carnival is no longer political because the renegotiation of power in the democratic density of a ram fete or in the middle of rough wine on the road is politics itself, from rather than in ‘yuh pweffin’.

A debate with all expected hullabaloo followed the police press statement. Iwer declared, “If you look at all the history about Carnival, we never had an issue with anybody wining on anyone”. Not true. Thousands of women can tell you about fellas not taking a ‘no’ or a ‘move away’, others pulling your wrists or your waist when you on the road for Jouvay, needing to roll with a crew of fellas for protection, and playing mas within ropes and with security precisely to be free of being pursued and grabbed.

Fay-Ann’s concern was about the right to consent being abused by ‘a lot of women in the stations’ falsely claiming a man tried to wine on them, though reports of sexual violence have never worked that way. Machel was criticised for his instructions before his management instructed him to back back. The police were above the fray and dead clear. It’s assault to touch someone without her or his consent.

Police Service Asst. Supt. Michael Jackman went further than advising permission to wine: “Even when a person is already engaged in dancing or wining or gyrating with another person, with a partner, a friend, family member or stranger, at some point in time that person says, “Okay, I want to stop”, and they indicate that verbally or by action, that action may be by stepping away or saying, “no”, verbally, “I had enough”, then the person who they were engaged with at that point in time ought to respect that decision and stop”. In his statement were echoes of Explainer’s ‘Rasta Chick’, Singing Sandra’s ‘Die with My Dignity’, Destra’s ‘Wrong Bam Bam’ and even Sharlene Boodram’s, ‘Ask It’.

Wining is an old jamette language now brilliantly informing interpretation of law by police brass. The body talks, and the lesson is to become literate in woman-centred traditions of lyrical and waist skill, or Dan is the man in the van on his way to make a jail.

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Post 137.

It’s hard to know where young women’s empowerment begins and ends.

Take Patrice Robert’s recently released ‘Hold on Tight’ video. It attempts to show her as sexually commanding, her stilettos shaking the ground, her youthful body taking control of men’s minds whether awake or asleep.

The video highlights what kinds of language are available for young women, especially young Black women, trying to turn sexuality from a source of vulnerability to authority.  It highlights, just as Carnival does par excellence, that there is no pure place for such resistance and assertion of young female selfhood.

Executive produced, edited and directed by Afro-Caribbean men, the video shows Patrice through the eyes of a white man’s wet dream, including his vision of her as first winer girl, then leopard, then native in a forest. We shouldn’t be naïve. Black women came to be seen as naturally hypersexual and animalistic because hundreds of years of slavery mixed White dominance with such desire. It’s unthinkable violence that made it normal and everyday.

This very fantasy justified slavery’s rape and pimping of African women, and the definition of them as less than equal, less morally respectable or civilized than White women, less valued for their minds than their bodies, and less concerned with their political and economic rights than their freedom to be promiscuous. Streaming such a fantasy 50 years after our independence says much about what Carnival’s possibilities for decolonization can and must continue to mean.

When Patrice broke onto airwaves, coming from the calypso arena, she spoke publicly about not wanting to have to expose her body more than she felt comfortable. In those first years, she sometimes even performed in long sleeves and tight three-quarter pants. I’ve watched this change because, almost inescapably, celebration of women’s sexiness defines soca on stage, on screen and on the streets, and increasingly such sexiness is about skin, bikinis, beads, and even high heels. There is validation and joy in it all, just as much as not fulfilling the right ideal can shake women’s confidence or break their career.

I’m not writing against sexiness, nor Patrice, but thinking about young Black women in the politics of Carnival and the Caribbean. How can they challenge sexual passivity and the tyranny of morality without giving greater life to exploitative or stereotypical images of themselves? How can Afro-Trinidadian young women use Carnival and soca to thoroughly trouble both male dominance and desire by playing with irony, parody and mimicry all at once in the ultimate bikini mas, a mas that takes historical dehumanisation and turns it into contemporary emancipation, meaning being able to move in your body and in control on your own terms?

The point isn’t to blame young women for their choices, but to understand how those came to be the choices available, and their implications. It is to challenge the myriad forms of violence amongst which all women carefully thread, or chip, wine and get away without a care. It is to turn the camera on men’s continuing power to determine how young Black women see and display themselves.  It is to question how much feeling powerful can transform systemic inequalities.

Women’s empowerment in Carnival and the Caribbean visibly remains also a story of how colonially inherited racisms, sexisms and other isms still set the terms for femininity, sexuality and power in the twenty-first century. Is Patrice’s performance as a primitive playing a mas or is the animal her mask? Carnival muddies all kinds of politics and pleasures, inviting us to look twice at young Caribbean women’s realities and our gaze at their bodies.

Post 125.

Et tu, Bunji?

There’s been a disturbing trend since 1990s gangsta rap began to globalise ‘the club’, meaning the strip club, as the site par excellence for cultural and sexual expression and exchange.

Caribbean women’s sexuality was taking over the road, but across the hemisphere primarily male performers, producers and video directors were disciplining this disorder with fantasises of brown bodies whose power lay in shaking their ass for men’s money.

Sharlene Boodram went from singing ‘Sweeta Sweeta’ on a beach to singing ‘Ask It’ in the strip club. Bunji Garlin’s new hit, ‘Red Light District’ extends this, big pimpin the Caribbean as a sexual and leisure playground for any men who want to come.

Strippers are a category of workers, and mostly women, whose femininity and sexuality are defined primarily by men: what men want to consume, what bodies they desire, and what performances they will reward.

Strippers are not the same as skettels and sluts, labels assigned to women whose sexual expressiveness and power is defined by their own unruly pleasure.

What Bunji hails as the “feminine gender” are a larger group of persons whose sexuality, including when they wine dong at Jouvay or when they have consensual, safe and pleasurable sex out of marriage, may not be represented by any of these terms. Women are more than strippers, skettels and sluts. Even strippers, skettels and sluts are feminine and sexual in wider, more complex ways than social hypocrisy allows.

Women who express their sexuality, who are sexy, and who give and receive pleasure in one way or another are everyday women, amazing and compelling just because we are.

What is disturbing is when we are reduced to narrow categories, especially those that exist to service male demand and command, often not in empowering conditions of women’s own choosing.

I’m not putting down sex workers, I just think women’s sexuality should have visibility and value in Caribbean pop culture beyond the provocative compliance of exotic dancers and ‘young hos’.

Such hypersexuality retains its vulnerabilities to violence and exploitation. I’ve been to red light districts in Thailand where you can see fully dressed men holding a beer in one hand and the breast of a young women half their age, with none of their economic power and clothed in only a thong, in the other. I’ve watched men sell sex shows where women put balls or needles in their vagina, whatever you will pay for, where they have asked whether you are looking for a ten year old boy or girl.

When you are feting to Bunji’s big tune or pole dancing for exercise, because for empowered women that’s trending and cool, be glad that woman or girl isn’t you.

I’ve been to red light districts in Amsterdam where Surinamese immigrants, our Caribbean women, work under conditions of race, class and gender inequality. Women doing jobs that society looks down on, without legal protection, unions or rights to respect in police stations is what goes on in red light districts in most countries. Not the delusion of girls just having fun.

Wining adults fail to take seriously how the airwaves both represent and produce existing realities. We will, however, blame girls when they upload videos of themselves, play sexy too early or look for status with their bodies, when they get shamed or violated for enacting the very femininities these songs rotate on the radio.

Where’s the girls dem darlin that chanted down rape? Like Bruno Mars with his pole dancer at the VMA Awards, he’s mainstreaming conflicting messages about sexuality as freedom, but not as women’s complete violence-free, economic, legal, moral and reproductive control over such sexuality.

Red Light District could mash up place whole night, but we are more than a pimper’s paradise.