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.”
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.
Most Trinis in foreign of a certain generation and or mindset absolutely despise fashion motifs with flag colours and nation emblems and that includes Trinidad pendants, earrings, bags and shoes etc. There’s this notion that an evolved Trinbagonian in foreign doesn’t need those cultural trappings and is more secure in his or hers cultural identity than that person with the flag bag on their back and the big Trinidad pendant at their throat.
Still, I understand the annoyance of some Trinidadians with James’ perceived cultural commodification and how some of us are uncomfortable with seeing the red, white and black used this way by someone who allegedly left so long ago. Though, so has Ms. Minaj but there are differences. Whatever folks’ thoughts are on her, Nicki (allegedly) wooed us, declared allegiance more than once and showed up to “showcase” us, more than once.
Trinidad James just popped up out of (seemingly) nowhere, creeping onto everyone’s radar with gold encrusted teeth, going on about gold — and reppin’ for us. Trinidad (the country) is a part of his stage persona — clearly. His name and simultaneously, his use of the national colours indicate this. Initially, some people weren’t sure if he was a gimmick, reducing a whole multifaceted culture to a stage name and costume prop but I daresay, it might be a bit more complicated than that.
The rules we use to measure and accord cultural acceptance (and to whom we give a cultural pass) are ever shifting and that yardstick can differ from person to person, even inside our figurative (and literal) nation space. Some people aren’t easily sold on the idea that location at birth is sufficient alone to render someone one of us. Some people just don’t like the music and that alone is enough for them. And there are always postcolonial notions of identity and nationhood that make us — nationals from small island states — ever conscientious of being in the psychological shadow of the West and former empire, so we take everything personally. We are butt hurt when we perceive someone reflects badly on us,* in ways that many Americans (those not lumped into people of color monoliths) with their society’s deeply entrenched notions of American individualism, may not know.
Whether unconsciously or not, James’ open button, patterned shirt and dark body dripping in gold appears to embody and echo a redux “saga boy” aesthetic for someone at the nexus of a unique (though not singularly so) diasporic juncture. Born in Trinidad and Tobago and living in Atlanta (by way of other places) and coming to rap notoriety in the dirty south. His style aesthetic in this video is a melding of them all but it is also expressly Trini, in the way of an old school (and new school) saga boy aesthetic. We’ve all seen it before, that one uncle, those old school West Indian men in their wildly printed shirts and a soft pants, rocking their gold — still with that slow crawl in their walk or that rhythmic bounce in the step. The yellowest gold from Guyana or Frederick Street, adorning their necks in chains, their wrists in thick watches, cocoa pod bracelet and their rings.
Like the badjohn, lovingly attended to in much of Earl Lovelace‘s fiction — the badjohn, that thuggish figure of Trinidadian society who was tied to “notions of masculinity,” where “the term itself has early and strong associations with the yard, the ghetto and lower-class Afro-Trinidadian life” (Reddock 313); the saga by definition, swaggers in very close proximity. Calypsonians Sugar Aloes and Baron both employ the saga boy aesthetic in certain ways. And of course, there’s the gold — you have to have gold. Preferably loads of it. Of his own extensive gold, Sugar Aloes one year (for clarity’s sake) reminded us that, in fact, he possesses more gold than Baron.
Historically, the saga boy is the stylistic merger of West Indian dandy and thug (and this includes the professional gangstas, the sometime gangsta, the pimps, and street hoods) which is not to say all saga boys are involved in illegal activities but this is where the aesthetic is rooted. The saga boy might be a sweetman too, a ladies’ man, a veritable “gyuls man” and juggling more than one woman but style is a lot more important to the saga. And again, gold is always crucial. It is swag remixed and “creolised” — West Indian style. For saga boys, “dressing in fact was a key activity” and “dressing was innovative and competitive” (Stuempfle 48).
Harvey Neptune notes that inside occupied Trinidad of the 1940s, saga boys came into being inside the scociocultural consciousness by “putting on performances of elegance and excess, saga boys challenged that which was prescribed for their race, class and gender.” Of Boysie Singh, a legendary saga boy of his time, Neptune (quoting a biographer) describes how:
“he wore a different-colored suit for every day of the week. . . . His accessories were still more startling. From his fob pocket a gold chain swooped dizzily to within inches of the floor, almost tripping him as he walked; this chain had cost him fifteen hundred dollars. Another gold chain with a gold star hung around his neck. On each finger were two gold rings, each ring worth eighty or ninety dollars.” (165)
Furthermore, the anxiety and social distress produced by the saga boys, their fashionable braggadocio and their resistance to colonial notions of respectability of behavior, comportment and dress ensured that their “makin’ style” was sufficiently frowned upon by many. Similarly, Stephen Stuempfle quotes a member of an old steelband who described the old-school saga boy modus operandi as thus, “he look for the most expensive shirt, the most expensive pants and shoe. And every time you see him, he clean. Well-shaved. Every two days he going for a fresh mark. And he does nothing more than pose. Just go, let’s say Green Corner. That was the headquarters for posing” (49).
Trinidad James has culturally repurposed the saga boy aesthetic. Along the way, he added some grit and copious amounts of “nigga” for good measure. He’s the hood dandy from the West Indies, giving a nod to hipsters, wearing loafers, throwing up the bird on each finger and try as I might, I can’t seem to stop looking to see what he comes up with next, style wise. Somewhere on Green Corner, the spirit of some saga of yesteryear is watching too and wondering why this young fella sullyin’ their signature look so. Still, he might, if given a chance, reluctantly reach out and give James a bounce (Trini daps). Surely, he’d have to give James props for doing what he does. Like the fabled Rumpelstiltskin, the big labels have come knocking and James is steadily spinning straw into more gold.
*I don’t personally feel this way but I am surmising and extrapolating the sense that I get from some of the people who are annoyed with James’ existence on the musical landscape and the connection to Trinidad (the country and the people).
Neptune R. Harvey, “From Barefoot Men to Saga Boys.” Caliban and the Yankees: Trinidad and the United States Occupation
Reddock, Rhoda. Interrogating Caribbean Masculinity: Theoretical & Empirical Analyses
Stuempfle, Stephen. “The Emergence of the Steelband.” The Steelband Movement: The Forging of a National Art in Trinidad and Tobago
Images via the Trinidad James Facebook page.