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For Calypso History Month in Trinidad & Tobago, #metoo does a double-take on empowering tunes

Categories: Caribbean, Trinidad & Tobago, Arts & Culture, History, Music, Women & Gender
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A screengrab from the YouTube video “Lucy” by Destra Garcia, in which the song's heroine manifests self-possession through Carnival.

In honour of Trinidad and Tobago's Calypso History Month [2], the Global Voices Caribbean team put together a (non-comprehensive) list of songs [3] whose lyrics empower women. The post drew a lot of attention, sparking wonderful discussion threads in which social media users added their own favourites, or questioned why one calypso or another was left out — or, in some cases, included.

Activist and cultural enthusiast Tillah Willah [4] disagreed with the inclusion of Kitch's “Miss Tourist” [5] and “Flag Woman”, as she thinks “they fall into the category of men giving women instructions about what to do with their bodies.”

True, much of calypso and its spin-off, soca [6], is quite instructional and often zeros in on what women should and should not be doing. In the case of “Flag Woman” [7], though, it could be debated that the woman is the one who holds the authority:

You have no band without an experienced flag woman
The band will have no control, the music will have no soul
The revellers couldn't play their usual mas’ on Carnival day …

Let's continue the conversation with a follow-up:

“Shift Yuh Carcass” — The Mighty Shadow (1976)

The Mighty Shadow [8], that one-of-a-kind calypso groove master, did not make the initial selection — and indeed he should have for this song, which tells the all too common story of a woman having to fend off unwanted male attention at a party:

Your hands around my shoulder like if you are de owner … shift yuh carcass, shift yuh carcass
I might pelt a big stone and mash up yuh jawbone … you better leave me alone, mister
Drink if yuh drinkin’, dance if yuh dancin'; leave me let me do my ‘ting …

The voice of the woman — her wants and needs — are given priority in this tune, and it is interesting that Shadow, who could have used any other synonym for the man's presence, chose “carcass”. The stark image of a lifeless body strips him of all power and places the emphasis exactly where it should be: on the woman's wishes [9].

“Rasta Chick” — Explainer (1983)

Suggested by writer and historian Kim Johnson [10], this danceable number by Winston Henry, whose sobriquet is Explainer, deals with the same issue as “Shift Yuh Carcass”, except the female character, as a Rastafarian, adds dimension with her “ras”, or dreadlocks.

But when Explainer, as the narrator of this tale, attempts to get more “familiar” with her than he should, “ras” becomes interchangeable with “rass” (note the additional “s”) [11], Caribbean slang for the derriere. That subtle pun, coupled with the song's danceable beat and underlying message, made this offering a really popular one at Carnival when it was released:

Doh touch meh ras, doh feel meh ras, yuh hand too fas’, mister run de grass
All all yuh brothers love to do, feel up, feel up
But I is a sister doh like to deal up, deal up

In other words, no permission? Stop the action.

“Runaway” — Singing Francine (1978)

One of Tillah's picks, Francine Edwards’ standout calypso deals with the issue of domestic and gender-based violence, which remains a glaring problem in Trinidad and Tobago [12], and in other regional territories [13].

When a relationship goes sour, women can feel trapped mentally, emotionally, and financially, but when Edwards sings the chorus, suddenly options present themselves:

Child does run away, fowl does run away, cat does run away when you treating them bad
Cow does run away, dog does run away, what happen to you?
Woman you could run away too …

While the lyrics, in isolation, may simplify the complexities involved in escaping a dangerous relationship, Edwards was brave enough to put the topic in the national spotlight in an era when discussing such things was still quite taboo.

“Women of the Land” — Poser (1979)

Veteran calypsonian Sylvester Lockhart sang this enlightened tune the very same year that he won the Road March competition [14] with “Ah Tell She” [15] which, like many calypsos, was instructional: “Find a party, smoke a watty, when you finish, drink a Guinness, find a corner, snatch a fella, now yuh head bad, squeeze de man hard…”

“Women of the Land”, however, was a complete 180-degree turnaround. The music had a chant-like, almost cinematic feel to it, which played up the importance of his message:

Women hold your heads high; to get respect today should be your cry
Let all the men understand: respect the women of this land.

“Lucy” – Destra (2015)

This is a pick from journalist Soyini Grey [16], who calls it an “incredibly empowering” song for women:

It is literally Destra [Garcia] singing about a sort of sexual awakening through soca, at a secondary school fête. Many Trini[dadian] women can relate. Rent-a-tile, sweaty schools fêtes are a tradition, so much so that many of my friends were calling themselves Lucy for that entire Carnival season.

Part of the potency of this soca song is that it takes the “bacchanalian” [17] behaviour usually associated with male entitlement and flips the script. Does a woman look sexy? Is she dancing sensually? Attired in skimpy clothing? That does not, and never will, equate to mean she is “fair game”. “Lucy” bestows power upon women to “free up”, while making it clear it's not an invitation to unwanted sexual advances. In the video that accompanies the song, the male characters are on the sidelines — they look, but they don't touch. Loosening up, in other words, is not a synonym for being promiscuous:

I grew up as a real good girl, always home, don't go nowhere
As soon as I was introduced to Carnival they say I loose
All down on de ground, wukkin’ wukkin’ up my bottom and it draggin’, draggin all over town and they say I ‘loosey’ […] when I drop it hot and I wining on top de speaker box and I grinding and I doh want to stop and they call me Lucy…

As Grey explains it, “The empowerment comes from self-discovery. That makes societal concerns irrelevant — she owns her body, she owns her pleasure, and you better come good if you coming.”