Cultures clash after release of Trinidadian soca music video featuring cricketer Ali Khan

Screenshot from soca songstress Destra's “Me Gusta” video, featuring cricketer Ali Khan, via YouTube.

Few soca music videos have gone viral to the degree that singer Destra Garcia's “Me Gusta” has. The song — one of Destra's offerings for Trinidad and Tobago's upcoming 2020 Carnival season, which has been viewed over 400,000 times on YouTube — generated quite a few memes and sparked a lot of lighthearted conversation online.

Released on November 24, 2019, the video features a provocative dance scene between Destra and Pakistani American cricketer Ali Khan, who has become a sensation in Trinidad and Tobago since he began to play for its Knight Riders cricket team in the annual Caribbean Premier League (CPL). In the video, Destra “wines” on Khan, a hip-swivelling movement that is a signature of Trinidad and Tobago Carnival.

Fans loved the video but Khan’s parents were allegedly not pleased with Khan’s appearance in it, prompting Khan to issue an apology video, in which he explained that while he approved the final cut, he did not realise that the choreography for “Me Gusta” would “be too much” for his family. While Khan did not specify exactly why they were unhappy with the video, many netizens assumed it was because of the suggestive dancing.

In an interview with the Trinidad and Tobago Newsday, Garcia said she wanted Khan in the video because of his local popularity. She didn’t expect Khan's appearance to lead to controversy.

Khan's close friend and cricket colleague, Dwayne Bravo, also posted an apology video to Khan’s family on his behalf, because Bravo had helped coordinate the collaboration. Destra Garcia responded by saying that both men showed “great courtesy” in handling the situation.

But once Khan made a public apology, the initial lighthearted banter sparked by the video soon gave way to larger discussions around cultural norms, gender and race relations in Trinidad and Tobago.

Why apologise?

Trinbagonian culture treats suggestive dancing like Destra’s as normal — many reactions to the video that were posted online were tinged with humour. But the lion's share of online comments derided Khan for his decision to apologise, which came across to some netizens as “unmanly” — especially when seen through the lens of “macho” Caribbean society.

One Facebook user could not understand why Khan felt he had to make a public apology.

Another netizen on Twitter insisted Ali Khan must have been aware of the consequences of his actions:

Another was incredulous as to how several social media users could somehow blame Destra Garcia:

This Twitter user summarised the whole controversy this way:

Some social media users went so far as to dismiss Khan altogether as no longer worthy of attention — a trend seen often in online “cancel culture”. Very few netizens displayed sensitivity toward Khan during what appeared to be a difficult situation for him.

Comments that cross the line

But the comments surrounding Khan’s choreography controversy continued even after his apology was released — and some seemed to cross a line.

An attorney who spoke to Global Voices by phone, but preferred to remain anonymous, confirmed that privacy rights for celebrities get diminished when information circulates in the public domain; however, the risk of libel or defamation is significant for social media users who comment on situations like Khan’s.

Trinidad and Tobago's long-standing Libel and Defamation Act, as well as its more recent Cybercrime Bill, aim to protect people, whether celebrities or not, from harmful online content. Even if social media users did not author the posts they share, they can also be held liable.

In Khan's case, while his appearance in the video is public, the wider comments that it has sparked about his alleged religious beliefs or his sex appeal are personal.

Black woman, South Asian man

Perhaps Destra Garcia and Ali Khan’s “swivel” garnered so much attention because it conjures the historical tensions surrounding Indian and African unions in Trinidad and Tobago. Destra is an Afro-Trinidadian woman and while Khan is of Pakistani heritage, to Trinbagonians, he represents the larger South Asian diaspora.

In Trinidad and Tobago, people of Indian and African heritage represent the country's two biggest ethnic groups.

The children of Indian and African unions are known as “Douglas”. The term is derived from the Hindu word Dugola (दुगला), which means “many” or “a mix”, referring to inter-caste unions in India. In the Caribbean, the term is only used to describe people of Afro-Indo ethnicity.

Speaking with Global Voices by phone, Amilcar Sanatan, who teaches behavioural sciences at The University of the West Indies’ St. Augustine campus in Trinidad, says that he was struck by the local reaction to the concept — even if it is just a video storyline — of displayed sexual interest between people of African and South Asian backgrounds.

The concept has been explored before by other soca music artistes: Olatunji's “Wining Good (Bharati Laraki)”, in which he extolled the virtues of an “Indian gyal [girl]” (perhaps inspired by Destra's “Come Beta”. Sally Sagram's “HandyMan” video, meanwhile, featured an Indian woman interested in Afro-Trinidadian men.

Sanatan told Global Voices:

I'm not sure who's fetishising who, but what's really interesting to me is that when videos like these, which are often sexually empowered and racially ambiguous, are consumed by non-European or American audiences, the values of those societies — like India and its diaspora, for instance — begin coming into play in a nuanced way. Usually, the discussion of such differences happens between the Global North and the Global South, but now we have an opportunity for it to be a South-South dialogue.

Sanatan suggests that the more Caribbean countries play cricket in the Indian Premier League (IPL), for example, and the more that players from other countries play in the Caribbean Premier League (CPL), the more the region will have to come to terms with such narratives — issues to which he also believes Trinbagonian music responds.

“In ‘Me Gusta’, Destra is trying to represent something global, and other cultures are reading it in different ways.” Trinidad and Tobago, he explains, is accustomed to the discourse around douglarisation, which often raises issues of purity, appropriateness and even morality. “We love the product of an African-Indian union,” says Sanatan, but the process still shocks us somehow, and that's something we need to grapple with,” he said.

While he doesn't think the online response to the video was racist, Sanatan did not discount the racial undertones that drove much of the negative commentary about the video.

While Khan remains out of the spotlight for now, Garcia has since released a new soca tune, entitled “Permission Slip”, just a few days after the release of “Me Gusta”, much to the amusement of her fans.

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