Denyse Plummer, Trinidad & Tobago's unlikely calypso queen, leaves a legacy of passion, praise and patriotism

Screenshot of calypso queen turned gospel singer Denyse Plummer taken from the YouTube music video ‘Highest Praise.’

At about 5:00 p.m. Trinidad and Tobago time (UTC-4) on Sunday, August 27, Denyse Plummer — a singer whose career started with pop music, crescendoed with calypso, then came to lovingly settle on gospel music in her later years — died at the age of 69 after a long struggle with cancer.

After inaccurate rumours of her demise a month prior, her family made the announcement on social media:

It is with a heavy heart we confirm the passing of our beloved queen, Denyse Plummer-Boocock. Denyse was a wonderful mother, grandmother, wife, friend and an exemplary example to the younger generations. She will be missed by many, especially her family. She will live on through her music, literature and the beautiful impressions she left on everyone she met.

We love you Denyse, thanks for the magic you brought to this world 🌷

That magic began in 1953, when she was born to Dudley and Joan Plummer, an interracial couple (her father was white, her mother Black). Her father played guitar in the folk group La Petite Musicale. His musical influence was so great that by the time Plummer entered secondary school at the Holy Name Convent she was singing in its folk choir and won several competitions. After graduation, she worked a few office jobs, but eventually left to pursue music full-time.

Plummer became a mainstay at Trinidad's most popular nightspots during the 1970s and '80s, singing mostly covers of popular music and recording a few singles. Her entry into the calypso arena came in 1985, when the legendary Phase II Pan Groove steelband arranger Len “Boogsie” Sharpe invited her to sing two calypsos. One of them, “Pan Rising,” would be Phase II's Panorama tune the following year. Never having sung that genre of music before, she was hesitant but decided to take the plunge. That action very quickly had a ripple effect: after the well-established calypsonian Superblue heard the recording, he invited her to perform in his calypso tent, through which Plummer became eligible to enter the 1986 Calypso Monarch competition.

The national calypso contest's semi-finals are traditionally held in south Trinidad, at Skinner Park, San Fernando. The event is not for the faint of heart, not just because of the size of the crowd, but also because of its hecklers. Plummer took to the stage expecting to be judged on the strength of her songs and her ability to perform them; instead, she was pelted with toilet paper and greeted with placards that read, “White people don't sing calypso”.

Instead of retreating, however, Plummer stood her ground and treated it like a rite of passage: she picked up the toilet paper and waved it in the air, incorporating it into her performance and winning over many of the naysayers in the process. According to sound engineer Robin Foster who spoke with Global Voices by telephone, “She showed them that she had belly.”

Each year audiences found themselves looking forward to both hearing Plummer's songs and seeing her “look” for that season. She would always lean into the pomp and spectacle of Carnival, making its flamboyance part of her stage persona via bold hairstyles and elaborate costumes.

Plummer's star continued to rise. In 1988, she made it to the National Calypso Monarch finals and won the National Women's Action Committee (NWAC) Calypso Queen crown with the song “Woman Is Boss,” a collaboration with “Boogsie” about gender inequality that resonated with women both at home and in the diaspora. It was a title she would win eight times over the course of her career and, in 1990, as if to underscore the fact that women were indeed the “boss,” she became the first woman to win the Young Kings Calypso Competition.

Her songs became consistent crowd pleasers, with some of them — most notably “This Feelin’ Nice” and “Woman is Boss” — winning the annual Panorama steelband competition in 1987 and '88 respectively. Always one to stretch her creative muscles, in 1988 she even made a foray into the Chutney Soca Monarch competition — a contest that celebrates music that is a fusion of Indian folk with calypso and soca — with the song “Carnival Queen,” which she co-wrote with Calypso Rose.

Her crowning glory in the calypso world eventually came in 2001, when Plummer won the coveted Calypso Monarch title with the songs “Heroes” and “Nah Leaving.” The former lamented the nation's tendency to only honour its heroes after they're “dead and gone”; the latter was a homage to Trinidad and Tobago in that, despite its many challenges, nothing would make her migrate as so many others had done: “Is here whey conceive me, is here ah go dead.” She was only the third woman in history to win the crown.

Later in life, Plummer turned towards gospel music. In this genre, she was in the company of at least three other former calypso practitioners — Michelle Sylvester, Morel “King Luta” Peters, and Chris “Tambu” Herbert — who all testified to getting a religious calling to use their talents towards “something greater.” In following this new path, Plummer melded the danceability of soca beats with praise messages. Always one to practice what she preached, Plummer put her celebrity to good use, starting the Denyse Plummer Foundation, through which she helped the less fortunate.

Upon her death, members of the local music fraternity honoured her on social media. Rapso music artist Wendell Manwarren posted on Facebook:

Denyse Plummer was a Real Boss, a Real Queen, a Real Patriot, a Real Artist, a Real Professional and above all else a Real Beautiful Human Being. Thank you for your contribution to our cultural heritage. Fly high and rest well, your work is done but your music will live on. Rest In Peace 🕊️🕊️🕊️

The Trinbago Unified Calypsonians’ Organisation (TUCO) noted:

Denyse Plummer's legacy is etched in the annals of Trinidad and Tobago's musical heritage. […] She shattered barriers and paved the way for female calypsonians, demonstrating that the power of one's voice transcends gender and background.

Plummer's unique ability to infuse diverse musical genres into her performances, from calypso and soca to gospel and chutney, showcased her artistic versatility. Her music resonated not only within our twin-island nation but also resonated globally, gracing stages across the Caribbean, North America, Europe, and beyond.

Steelpan aficionado and president of the National Gas Company of Trinidad and Tobago Mark Loquan remembered Plummer's tenacity, saying she was “fun to work with” and “highly professional.” Chris Arshad Hosein felt that Plummer “made us all feel proud to be Trinbagonians,” while singer Vaughnette Bigford thanked her for “showing us grace, consistency and resilience.”

Plummer was also remembered as a role model and mentor to younger women. The Facebook page Angelo Bissessarsingh's Virtual Museum of Trinidad and Tobago hailed her as a national icon who, “through her music, proved herself to be a true Patriot of T&T.”

The state obviously agreed; in 2011, Plummer was honoured with the Hummingbird Medal (Gold), a national award, for her contributions to culture. Her autobiography, “The Crossover,” was published in 2015.

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