Trinidad James and Cultural Respectability Politics

February 27, 2014

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Full disclosure: this post was started a long-ass time ago and has been languishing on my WordPress dash since forever. I just never bothered to finish it earlier for no particular reason; I also got sidetracked by other projects along the way. The last draft was dated quite April 2013. I figured I might as well go ahead and post it anyway — finally.

If a beauty queen from a small Caribbean island appears in a rap video, does she cause a ruckus at the behest of respectability politics? Apparently, yes. And if said video includes shots in a low income community on the island, are some folks crowing in unparalleled indignation? Also, yes. On Facebook, folks lamented among other things, that “she’s in Trinidad James’ music video about being a hoe. So not becoming of her” and Metro Magazine (among others) had long running threads on Facebook dedicated to whether it was “beneath her and unbecoming for her to be in a video for a song that calls women hoes.” All this after Trinidad James visited the land of his birth before Carnival and shot this video for “Females Welcomed.” Look, what Athaliah decides to do with her own self is her own decision and how we can make the leap from appearance in a rap video to “hoe” is beyond me. Just stereotyping on top of stereotyping.

I disagree with the notion that by wearing the Miss World Trinidad and Tobago crown, this means that her autonomy becomes null and void. She also doesn’t become a slave to national respectability politics either. Especially not after a slew of us were disparaging her looks and her background. Oh, no, you don’t. (Google search Athaliah Samuels — go ahead do it. See what Google asks you.) A beauty queen is not an emblem of a living, throbbing West Indian culture and its diaspora and she doesn’t have to lug around the weight of your expectations and unending demands of respectability on her back. She’s just a beautiful young lady, probably doing the best she can, that is all. To quote Trudy from Gradient Lair, “I am NEVER gonna be here for respectability politics meant to intraracially police BW who are already intraracially policed.” Furthermore,

Now some will argue that if someone is beautiful (or “ugly”), famous and/or in a field where their sexuality is a part of their image, they no longer deserve respect from Whites or anyone else. They lose their right to discern who may touch them. I’m fully aware of how the politics of respectability and Eurocentric beauty myths manifest for Black people, especially Black women. However, I don’t agree with this. I will NEVER accept the faulty logic that if anyone perceives someone as “not respecting themselves,” everyone else has the “right” to disrespect them as well.”

I eh here for that either. Athaliah herself, would eventually have to take to Facebook in the form of an open letter to nicely read the widespread hypocrisy of Trinidadians for utter filth and claim her space to negotiate her own future and decision making. Enter Trini Trent‘s rant about respectability, Trinidad James, and most of all, the representation of the country, which of course, is rooted deep inside cultural respectability politics.

About that, first off, a Trini living in Trinidad vexedly lamenting all the national symbol waving by folks no longer living in Trinidad is really a pointless harangue. Yes, we all love the country, but of course, people who migrate go a bit extra with that. Understandably so, they left or their parents left with them. Some of it is all psychological really: I will rep this place so damn hard because I don’t want to ever lose sight of the fact that this culture is a part of who I am; even though, I am not physically living there anymore and may never be. How and why is Trent’s use of the “Trini” moniker more legitimate than James’ usage and claim of “Trinidad?”

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Glitterlove

February 23, 2014

glitter

I kind of love glitter. Most Trinis probably have an ambivalent relationship with glitter. You love it or you hate it. But like plumage, feathers, sequins and all things great, sparkly and iridescent, it often evokes images of carnival. Glitter is to carnival as mud is to J’ouvert. I feel a similar way about gold or silver lamé fabric, its scratchiness and rustle taking me back to kiddies carnival and all of the attendant memories. Snow cones topped with condensed milk. Orchard juice boxes, popular soca blaring, and strapping on parts of your costume. And my mother, and all the (mainly) mothers chipping along the route, toting snacks and sandwiches wrapped in aluminum foil and beverages that will not stay cold; fixing costumes, fastening safety pins and making sure hair styles stay in place.

Fantastical local lore or deep sea waves, I have been all of this and more. I have been a hooved La Diablesse, a bolt of lighting, Thumbelina, Blight, and one of the Israelites leaving Egypt, among others. There was always some glitter involved. Glitter is the ultimate tactile reminder, to me. Back in the day glitter was rough and made our tender skin itch. The pieces were bigger too, sharply squared and worn by the pound, layered on top of generous smears of petroleum jelly. Carnival meant glitter. Gold or silver, and there was always someone’s mummy or aunty or other mother figure with plenty to share liberally and sprinkle on everyone in the section.

In the 90s, glitter became in vogue again. Club kids and ravers wore glitter. It was always symbolic of revelry and good times — even outside of Trinidad, and a willingness to be celebratory. Glitter embodies a kind of spectacle of the body when worn. Glitter is otherworldy. The disco era worshiped at the high altar of glitter. They say no one would take you seriously wearing glitter but there it was, a kind of style again, outlasting many other trends: suddenly, glitter gels were everywhere, scented and non-scented alike, and rolls-ons. Perfumes and body sprays released shimmery editions. Of course, I wore and continue to wear my fair share, gravitating to the shimmer like a moth dancing towards flames. I was the girl slathering something glimmering on me, just because. I was the girl who rocked starry glitter pieces at the corners of my eyes.

Glitter is stupidly gendered. A friend once famously noted that “Badman doh wear glitter” when I offered to sprinkle some on him, but glitter doesn’t care. If you wine on me, you will get glitter on you anyway. Glitter is deliciously queer. And genderqueer. Glitter is femme. Ethereal. Our attempt at stardust on earth.  Glitter is a fabulously good time. Glitter is subversive on the bodies of men and masculine of center folks.

There was a popular meme passing around once observing how “glitter was the herpes of craft supplies” (no shade to those living with an STI) — but it’s true. Glitter doesn’t go away, not easily at any rate. It clings to your skin like a needy lover. You wore it and it wore you. You’d find remnants of glitter on you, days, maybe even weeks later, on a part of your scalp or in the soft crease of an elbow. A lone, reflective speckle could resurface when you least expected it.

The ground outside of my apartment is a testament to the glitter boots I made for Miami carnival last year. The glitter may never leave. Glitter has trouble letting go. It is the last person to leave the fete. Glitter is waiting for the next event, the next carnival and the next party. Glitter is adding vibes — to poster board or bodies. Glitter is here to stay, maybe for always. I am more than here for that.

Image by Amelia Fletcher via Glorieuse Désordre on Tumblr.

Feminist Kaiso and Soca Playlist

February 11, 2014

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Because you needed this in your life and the carnival season is upon us and because wining (without an “h”) is totally a feminist act. And some of allyuh need to be schooled in some classics.

Do note: for the purposes of my personal analysis, a feminist calypso or soca song can be feminist regardless of whether the performer has explicitly called themselves feminist. So, no, Destra may or may not consider herself feminist (I have no idea about that) but that doesn’t prevent a feminist lens from being applied to her work.

I’m also aware that male songwriters have penned some classics for women, but unless we are going to completely erase the agency of the women performers who bring the songs to life, then that too, doesn’t detract from meaning and implications. All shared art: musical, written and otherwise, is liable to interpretation, which may or may not collude with the artists’ agenda. Additionally, all songs sung by a woman aren’t implicitly feminist just because a woman sings it. Case in point: Patrice’s “Give Him (Bam Bam).” Yeah, no eh.

Anyhow, a soca or calypso song may be feminist if it advocates for women’s autonomy and agency, interrogates and or celebrates women’s sexual agency (in soca and calypso, this is often symbolised by the free movement of and “ownership” of the bam bam as well as wining); reinscribes social mores, or advocates for or examines gender (in)equality, or complicates how we think about gender or gender roles in society. Or just sounds good to the feminist ear. Basically, if feminists can flex out to it and not cringe inwardly, then we might be on to something.

Without further ado, some of my favourite feminist chunes in no particular order. (List is not at all exhaustive. List is also, arguably, very Trini soca/calypso oriented.)

“Die With My Dignity”: because you shouldn’t have to bull for a wuk. Unless of course that is what your work entails. Voluntarily, safely and with personal agency of course. (We don’t slutshame or invalidate sex work in these here parts.)

Also, because Singing Sandra was part of The United Sisters, the first ever all-woman kaiso soca group and she’s a legend!

Sample lines: “Well if is all this humiliation/ to get a job these days as a woman/ Brudda, dey go keep dey money/ I go keep my honey and die with my dignity!”

Which leads me to “Whoa Donkey” by The United Sisters because of soca sisterhood and the no-attempt-to-hide-sexual-innuendo coupled with a dance that is nothing short of classic. Sample lines: “Tonight in de fete/ Is ride until yuh wet/ climb up on ah back. . .”

Saddle up, fellas! And ladies.

“Obsessive Winers.” Denise, Alison and Destra. Soca Queen Triad who doh deal with outta timers. That is all.

Calypso Rose’s version of a classic, “Rum and Coca-Cola.” She is a Tobagonian by birth from the sister isle and the first woman to ever win a Road March title!

Drupatee Ramgoonai for rewriting social, gender and racial expectations as the first female, East Indian, soca star. (Also see the equally classic “Mr. Bissessar.”)

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2013 in review

December 31, 2013

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 7,200 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 6 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Strength and powers tee

December 16, 2013

Strenth and powers tee

Reppin’ for our Caribbean and West Indian women writers.

Click photo if you want one!

Late emotional writing

November 27, 2013

Posted this on my Tumblr a while ago and I figured I’d share it here — just ’cause.

I told him, “I just need someone to remove you from me” sweeping my fingers from the swell of pussy, over the navel, up along the length of my torso, to my throat. He looked tortured like the words cut welts into his skin. Me, splendidly triumphant for a moment or two. He recovered his composure as only a young man, smug and sure and deft in the ways of emotional disconnect can. The warmth in his eyes dim; embers flickering, fading, blinds closing in the dark. Me, scrambling with nubs of matches. The muggy Florida rain clanging on your car. Inside smelling like him and Jack Daniel’s from my cup. He take sips too as I rest my foot on the dashboard. He talks about how all he wants to do right now is kiss me, but he knows he shouldn’t. So he doesn’t. And we sit there and we talk. He has no filter. The asshole gene only minutely deactivated if it means he won’t have to see me cry which breaks his heart after he breaks my heart. And so on and so forth. Cyclical. Sisyphean.

Black girls like me are made of words and water.

All I want to do is talk sometimes. Conversational intimacy for air signs like us is magical. Our words enter each other, sit in the moist crevices of skin and joints of bones. You said you are afraid of being vulnerable, of succumbing to the unknown. You and I, we scare each other profoundly at times. I hear your voice in my head when I least expect it: that Trinidadian baritone pouring out of my subconscious, startling me away from what I am doing. You said I remind you of the best parts of home. Like a lot of guys, you want to be nurtured but can’t nurture anyone because you barely know how. Who am I to demand reciprocity? You gathered me in bunches once and laid me down to rest against you, wrapping your legs around and through mine like they were the most precious things right then. Your feet, large, sand papery and in need of some lotion (always). And the ways that we know each other: from breath to breath, the shape of our fears, laughter and anguish. I wanted to scream at the sky some days (and maybe I did).

You texted and I texted. I called and you called and we fell upon each other: sad and angry and hungry and disappointed, cowering under all these burdensome emotional energies. You said you came to help me move that Sunday because you gave me your word once and you couldn’t not come. And you made sure to leave me with a whisper, so cruel and unkind. You wanted to break me which tells me a lot about your fears. And still, I couldn’t hate you then.

And what is it we are meant to learn after all? I suppose it can come down to this: how do I tell someone that sometimes at night, when it’s all quiet in my head—all I want to do is crawl into the base of your throat and sit there, listening to you breathe. And how do you say to someone who is afraid of love and loving that that is exactly what you want to do with them? And what do you say when they tell you no? That they have no courage to love you. Now. Maybe ever.

Emotions aren’t rational. And there is a fissure in my heart caused by you. (Insert the saddest sigh ever.)

More to the point, “What kind of fuckery is this?” (Universe, yes, I am looking at you.)

And what can I say about the end? The bitter taste—betrayal, or was it something else? A lesson forgotten, soft skein slipping away because you had no grip? “Sorry”—but not really sorry, touching but not really touching. We have let the cosmos down or they have let us down. And between us grew spaces we could not fill, fruit fell before it was ripe and our spirits made promises we could not keep to each other.

Epiphany: He has no salve to rub into my raw, tender spots; I will have to do it myself. And I will.

The Problem with Red Woman (And Red Man)

October 23, 2013

The problem with “red woman” isn’t really an issue of individual red women, per se, but rather it’s a response to, and emblematic of the ways in which we, as a society, process skin colour, beauty and desirability. In the end, it ends up muddled into an expression wrapped in humorous observation that puts folks of the lighter-skin persuasion on the defensive but really, it eh have nutten to do with you on a personal level. What’s really taking place is a quasi-examination of desirability privilege and beauty privilege (conversations not often had on the Trinbagonian pop cultural landscape) via these observations, but the observations themselves are rooted in the historical and social capital many of us tend to place on colour. These are systemic concepts not meant to attack individual red people, though individuals are complicit in the ways in which these ideas remain rooted and passed on.

Two popular videos currently trending in the Trinbagonian social media network, “Top 5 Worst Women to be with in Trinidad” and the “Top 5 worst men to hook up with in Trinidad” both posit individuals of a “red” skin tone–the only skin tone singled out by shade on both lists–as people to be wary of getting romantically/sexually involved with. The subtexts  of both vids, with regard to colour are fascinating and revelatory. Fascinating, perhaps more so if you get the subtext. Responses by red-skinned individuals on social media, particularly women, fell into the existentialist “what allyuh have with red woman so?” and “why the hating on red woman?” categories, as though the listing themselves indicated anything less than a preferential inclination toward light skinned men and women–the irony being that this was cast (ironically) as a bad thing, but clearly, obviously, it’s not (that’s in the subtext).

I mean, the biggest problem with red men (according to the vid) is that you will have to fight other women off yuh man. And for red women, “their attributes allow them to stand out in a crowd, thereby drawing attention.” This woman also has multiple men, allegedly, doing her financial bidding. And why is this woman standing out? Among other things, Trudy at Gradient Lair informs us that: “When people speak of “traditional beauty” and those considered attractive, several factors come into play. For women, it’s Whiteness in general, or light skin for women of colour, its thinness, it’s height/weight distribution (i.e. curvy but not too curvy), it’s length of hair, it’s texture of hair, it’s hair colour, it’s eye colour, it’s facial symmetry; it’s how these all interact with class and overall appearance. (It’s also time. Different eras in time meant different conceptions of beauty.)” Trinidad and Tobago, like much of the diaspora, as a product of colonization, imperialism, slavery, indentureship and Eurocentric norms means that we also grapple with similar notions of what it means to be beautiful and “stand out” because of that perception of beauty.

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Race and Desire on a Fantasy chat line

April 1, 2013

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For a few months shy of a year, I worked part-time, then full time at an adult chat line business in the United States. Much to my friends’ chagrin (those in the know), by day, I went to grad school; by late evenings and over night on others — I was having conversations with and getting random dudes off. I did so in the chipper, (so-deemed) all-American-cheerleader-type sound that I was required to employ. On top of it all, as a person with a pronounced non-American accent, I had to actively work at feigning a strong American accent alongside the requisite  chat line “sound.” I took a cutlass to the Trini inflection of my words, chopped my accent out and blunted the sound on consonants like the “t” in party that was typical of the American accent. And I became an expert at orgasmic breathing over the phone and recreating the sweet squelch of wet pussy inside an ear.

The adult phone chat industry is a sub-set of the larger sex and pornography industry in the US and elsewhere, and on its own, accounts for a “4.5 billion” dollar revenue of the overall sex market that brings in “57 + billion [in] world wide business annually.” Certainly, it’s another one of those places where race, desirability and perceptions of desirability underscore many facets of the very workings of the industry, similarly, inside the adult film industry.  The chat line too, is also a place where sexual desirability is reflected in and revealed through the “products” of this industry and the ways in which they are marketed. Because of the pervasiveness of sociopolitical, cultural and historical constructs of race, the insidious effects of racism, internalized and otherwise,  and white supremacist heteropatriarchal norms, it’s no wonder that who we deem desirable or want to date becomes informed by a variety of these norms.

On the phone, you are able to engage with various individuals in a unique way: through the medium of the analog and or the caller’s mobile phone. You hear voices and nuances, you talk, flirt, share and arouse and release through language and sound. And if we can gauge anything by what some people are willing to profess via online postings and/or online personals — anonymous folks calling into an adult phone chat line are just as revealing, and potentially just as problematic in conversation.

Unsurprisingly, fantasy phone chat is rife with gross generalizations, misogyny, ageism, racial and ethnic stereotypes; in fact, problematic frames of almost every kind, to say the least. There were many times that I cringed inwardly, reflexively, while doing a call — while panting, “oh yes, big Daddy!” salaciously on a call. Most interestingly, playing the default “white girl” character and assuming that role as a black West Indian woman was a fascinating juxtaposition with calls involving men of all colors.

As per my job description, the role of the phone chat operator is to play a stereotypical (usually) heterosexual female “character.”  We were effectively “fantasy girls”.  A kind of dream young woman, between the ages of 18-24 (unless otherwise specified) that a (more often than not) man could pick up the phone and connect to for conversation and sexual pleasure. We were always available, always perky, ultra stereotypically feminine, submissive (unless otherwise specified), always ready to indulge and utterly capable.  And the default character was always white. Always, again, unless otherwise specified. The collusion of whiteness with ultimate fantasy female presupposes that this is what the majority of male callers are looking for (especially regulars), and expect — and seemingly, they do.

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March 6, 2013

soyluv:

Check out our new prezi on lipstick resistance and The Two Lips Collective!

Originally posted on Two Lips:

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You might have questions and we’re trying to formulate answers! The new Two Lips Prezi answers why Two Lips? Why Lipstick resistance? See link below:

The Two Lips Project

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Makin’ Style: Trinidad James and Saga Boy Aesthetics

January 5, 2013

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The cultural shadow is cast when someone from your own cultural background or heritage does something noteworthy or cringe worthy — Trinidad James is currently casting one. Depending on who you ask, the responses range from shame to staunch or begrudging West Indian pride. The eyes of the twin-island republic (and its diaspora) that carries the name of his moniker have been watching especially close. So amidst all the hoopla, I finally sat down near the end of last year and watched the video for “All Gold Everything.”

I wasn’t terribly offended at all (surprisingly) but I was rather intrigued by the imagery, after I took several minutes to process it all. From the time the beat started thumping and the camera pans to the flag ring next to James’ gold laden fingers, the gold handlebars, the leopard print (crushed velvet looking) shirt, the crisp Trinidad and Tobago bandana clutched like some kind of scepter, the puppy and the sawed off shotgun; this interspersed with scenes of James’ crew on the block, James up in the club — I was relegated to sorting out my piquing interest.

While trying to order my thoughts around the visual imagery, the sparse lyrics and the criticisms I’d heard and read, I was struck by Trinidad James’ style aesthetic and why it seemed to strike a culturally familiar chord. And I’m not the only one talking and thinking about the way he dresses.  In an interview on New York’s Hot 97, when asked about his unique fashion sense, James acknowledged that he “ran a boutique in Atlanta for like, three, four years.”

Trinidad James Of course, indie rap is hardly a strange place within which to indulge a different kind of fashion sense. Other rappers like The Based God (Lil B) and A$ap Rocky also help reinscribe the boundaries of what rappers, black men and black men rappers could dress like. A$ap also has a penchant for gold but then again, few rappers don’t. What makes Trinidad James of curious note is where his aesthetic converges at the intersection of nationality and cultural emblems. As any visit to any major North American carnival would show, flag bandanas and nation colors have long been imbued inside the fashion sense of folks who are part of the nostalgic West Indian diaspora. I see more Trini flags in Miami carnival, than I do on the streets of Port of Spain, like, ever.

At the Ft. Lauderdale airport this holiday break, when I said to my new friend (we were on the same flight up and back) that I liked an older gentleman’s hat, a straw fedora with the colors of the Trinidad and Tobago flag wrapped as a neat side band around the crown, my friend commented derisively that he didn’t because he used to don “all kinda flag ting when I first came up” and he didn’t like any of those things anymore.

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