Calypso, Race & Political Allegiance in Trinidad & Tobago

The 2014 Carnival season in Trinidad and Tobago is heating up in more ways than one. The song “False Papers” by the calypsonian “Bodyguard” has been banned from the Kalypso Revue calypso tent by leader and veteran calypsonian Michael “Sugar Aloes” Osuana.

“Aloes” justified his move by explaining that he considered the lyrics to be offensive to Indians. Bodyguard, whose real name is Roger Mohammed, has countered that he was merely responding to a statement by head of the Maha Sabha, Satnarayan “Sat” Maharaj, that while “Africans were beating pans, Indians were beating books.”

Ironically, “Sugar Aloes” has, in the past, been a vocal supporter of the Peoples National Movement (PNM), one of the two major political parties in the country and traditionally voted for by Afro-Trinidadians; he publicly switched his allegiance to the People's Partnership in 2012 by appearing on a platform to serenade the Prime Minister, who heads the predominantly Indian-supported United National Congress (UNC), the main party in the coalition government. As a result, it has been suggested that his shift in political support is responsible for his decision to ban the calypso. Indeed, many have even pointed out that “Sugar Aloes” made a career out of singing acerbic, controversial songs – and that “False Papers” fell well within the tradition of social and political commentary in the calypso genre.

The first verse of “False Papers”, a song no doubt inspired by the increase in instances like this, goes:

It easy to say Sat will be Sat
And try to ignore people like dat
But Sat Maharaj controls a large group in society
So when he makes a definitive declaration
It carries a lot of clout
We feel he know what he talkin bout
But time has a way
Of recycling the tings we say
And holding them up against logic and reason
So when Sat say ‘Indian children beating book
While black children beating pan’
No cousin! Is better yuh didn’t say nuttin

The chorus follows:

‘Cause recently, one setta Indian people get caught
Wid false papers, false papers
I’m yet to see, one single African in the lot
And not one of them fraudsters ever face a court
So yuh theory have more holes than a water can
Like is better some ah dem Indian did beat a pan
When yuh feel dey was beating more book than the African
Dey was fabricating degrees, defrauding the land

Acclaimed calypsonian David Rudder had some fun with the situation:

There is a rumor coming through the African Fed Ex pipeline that claims that Sugar Aloes has declined the services of a Bodyguard. Hahahah! Is that true?
Ah mean,lol! I just had two.

Rudder continued with a parody of one of Sugar Aloes’ most famous songs:

I'M JUST BEING ME. (By Later Or Sooner)

I don't look like PNM, for your information
PNM doh look like me
So when come to survival,
I'm just being me

And I didn't get from PNM, for your information
Deh eh getting from me
So when come to survival, don't have no objection
I'm a UNC.

Kareen Stuart suggested that the song could inflame racial tensions:

This song, while the lyrics in it may point to truthful stories (fabrication of certificates), it can also lead to increased racial tension in Trinidad. If people are going to be concentrating on the lyrics of a song on its prejudiced approach as opposed to the melody, arrangement etc., the real message of the song will definitely be lost in a hoopla of controversy that will make…race…an even bigger issue

Wendy Howell felt that if calypsonians were to start pulling punches, it would damage the relevance of the art form:

By people not singing in calypso, what is actually occurring in the country would be to go against what calypso was created to convey. It highlights and pinpoints all that the citizens are experiencing and has (sic) to deal with daily. It gives them a voice that they would normally not have. To sing about only light stuff and not address the real issues that is (sic) eating away at the hearts of the ppl would be a terrible injustice to the artform that is our calypso.

Others, like Marla Dial Walker, condemned the song outright:

I do support culture; pan etc., but not Racisms’ (sic). And for those of you who commented on some of the songs that Sugar Aloes sang it’s all in the past. In this day and age we have no place for such behaviour. There is so much going on in Trinidad at this current time, why could he [Bodyguard] not sing a song about all the Killings, Rapes, and Druggies?

Bryan Dickson maintained that calypsos were meant to be provocative:

I thought the tent is where you go to hear the controversial, the smutty, political rhetoric, the hard facts. It is not where we look for the politically correct…we have enough censorship on the radio and elsewhere. Toughen up people!

Twitter was also rife with discussion:

@NotoriousDRE_H quipped, tongue firmly in cheek:

Stacy Raphael defended the freedom of the art form:

Finally, referring to one of the biggest calypso competitions in the country, which traditionally takes place in South Trinidad at the open air venue of Skinner's Park, and where the discerning and often tough audience often throws toilet paper at performers who don't meet their high standards, Jeffrey James pleaded:


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