Masculinity and Performativity in Soca music

Machel at the 2008 Best of the Best Concert. Great show!!!!

Most people seemed to be buzzing about the way in which 2008 saw the return of Bunji Garlin (Ian Alvarez) as one of the forerunners of the art form. Similar sentiments echoed off the lips of friends of mine and the general word on the street was that “The Fireman” is indeed back, fresh off the honeymoon phase of things, as he blazed a fiery path to Soca Monarch glory and a successful year this season.

Now, I’ve been paying attention to the thematic concerns running through many of Garlin’s more popularised hits this season and came to a conclusion. With my feminist sensibilities intact, all the while soaking in this glorious carnival season, I decided that his vocal points in verse, had as much to do with everything else. It’s not that Bunji Garlin ever “fell off” so to speak, don’t get me wrong, it’s Bunji we talking about and his talent has never really waned. What he has been able to do quite well this year I think, (outside of “Fiery”) is capitalise on embodying the voice of “The Man,” and he does that very well.

Female singers do this voice — for women, quite often as well. That’s why “ladies’ anthems” exist across many musical genres. I don’t know if as many “men’s anthems” exist but some of the males I know have tended to rally around a few popular premises in songs, from hip-hop to dancehall and soca. While I will not disagree with anyone who lauds Garlin as a modern day “chantwell” (as a Trinidad Express columnist recently did), because he truly is. Lyrically masterful as he is, Garlin exemplifies where soca meets a contemporary midnight robber, a Bard if you will, for this generation.

And though he has been cited as the “voice of the ghetto people,” never failing to big up and connect with the various experiences in the lives of the many people stretching across the socioeconomic landscape of Trinidad and Tobago, I would also add that the way in which he appeals to men, as a representative of a particular kind of Trini man masculinity on stage, also adds to his appeal. He is also then, “the voice of the Man.” The scope of West Indian masculinity and identity and how we came to “be so,” is a tricky road to navigate.

We live in a society formed on a backdrop of slavery and colonialisation. A society that is largely governed  by extreme heterocentric norms and Catholic-Christian doctrines; all these too, help to shape the way in which “masculinity” is acted out or performed. Unless of course, you are some kind of essentialist thinker, then we might all agree that masculinity (or what is perceived to be masculine at any rate) is to some extent, performed and learned behavior. (Shout-out to a brilliant Dr. Sara Crawley who first introduced the ideas of gender performativity to me in a class.)

Anyway, so too is “femininity.” Females, we too, do “femininity” and it is not necessarily something innate. When we joke that we will “be” feminine today or girly, we are tapping into this very notion. Masculinity then, becomes coded through a series of behaviors, attitudes etc. that I am not going to delve into deeply here. These attitudes are of course shaped by cultural norms and performers, like the rest of us, are products of these factors too. Of course, there may be many other variables at play as well. It is not enough to just be “ah man” or a Trini man for that matter. What matters most is the way in which one projects this identity and in the process, may or may not connect with a variety of people who identify with the same attitudes in the audience.

For example, we can compare Bunji Garlin’s performance of masculinity with, say, Machel Montano, and come up with some interesting comparisons. I also think that I need to point out that to what extent the element of mindful consciousness plays into artistes’ presentation of themselves is debatable. I don’t know if Bunji goes on stage thinking, “well, I is ah man — and this is how we do.” The audience though, drinks in the images and personas presented to us via the stage and other pop cultural outlets. Some with a more critical eye than others, admittedly so.

People do notice though and this is why there’s a reason that large numbers of men are fans of Bunji’s (and Machel) for different reasons. Furthermore, women are fans of them both for different reasons than men are. This year, Bunji Garlin had some hit songs that were immensely popular especially with all the men and young boys. All these songs epitomised a particular stance with regard to masculinity (again as perceived in our society) and a man’s perspective in a variety of ways. That’s a lot for one short season. Originality though, does give someone a lot of added leverage.

All of these songs connect to Trini men on many levels in many ways. They seemed to resonate and address specific manly concerns in the Trini man’s psyche, whether it’s about “getting horn” (re: “help”) or being chased by girls because of the size of your rims or the car that you own, the pleasures of drinking rum (on the Hunter remix),  or professing why he is “ah bad boy,” or by that token, simply “ah Trinidad boy.”

Machel Montano, likewise, represents a brand of Trini man masculinity on stage and his is markedly different. If Machel is the veritable sweet-man and “winer boy,” allowing the ladies “one more wine,” then Garlin is his foil, as the badman who is just posed off in the dance, chanting upon a mic. A Machel performance is imbued with a kind of sexuality, accentuated by a hard wine, which is what some ladies especially love (and even some men, I am sure). Ladies love Bunji too, but again, it’s different. Most significantly, men are their fans for different criteria as well.

A key notable point in stage performativity of masculinity is to look at who “wines” and who does not. Not everyone it seems, is comfortable with or interested in gyrating on stage. I am sure that Bunji “wines” and does — somewhere. But that is not a part of his stage repertoire. KMC is another soca artiste among others who doesn’t visibly wine. Apparently “bad men doh wine.” Well, I’ve learnt that men wining is not exactly as prevalent in all West Indian cultures. Now there’s also a difference between this and being wined on or wining on someone.

Take most Jamaican men I’ve encountered for example. You would be hard pressed to see one wining solitarily in unbridled exuberance anywhere. A Trini man — not so much, even more so with some Johnnie in his hands. Seeing as vast numbers of young men in the West Indies take their primary cue on masculine identity from dancehall culture and artists anyway, this is significant to keep in mind. Some West Indian cultures are tentative about the “wine” and what it means for their representation of masculinity in their particular environment. Some people are downright disturbed by it.

If you ever have the chance to watch a “real yardie man” take in a serious Machel performance, you will see what I mean (generally speaking). He will probably squirm as someone I know does and it’s always when Machel starts the oscillations. The discomfort may be quite evident. Otherwise take a “bad man” friend from Jamaica (if you have one), plop him next to you in a big Trini fete and gauge his reactions on the male winery. Many will quicker do the willy-bounce than gyrate their hips jus’ so.

Some of Bunji Garlin’s prominent themes this carnival season related to the male experience (this list is a sampling and by no means exhaustive!) :

1. wayward women who get pregnant by an outside man

2. promiscuous young women

3. women propelled by material gain

4. superficial women who run down man for their cars

5. women who will do anything to ride in that car

6. women who have compromised their morals for gain

7. the versatility of rum

8. a man must hold his liquor within reason though

8. being regarded as “mad” and moreso “bad”

10. professing his bad-man-ness.

Don’t think that pop culture, music and all these cultural factors have no part to play in how we all shape our world view because they do. They all play a huge role in informing people’s sensibilities about attitudes and what their identities should be.  Young men and young women are especially susceptible. That’s why young men and older ones the world over, clamored around Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” and still today, many young men frequently quote Bell, Biv, Devoe’s famous, “never trust a big butt and a smile.”

I worry though, about young boys deriving all their ideas from these outlets and thinking every female is either a Jezebel out to seduce and destroy him, is ready to drop and spread out and “hot wuk” at his command, use all his money and wants him just for what he may own, is out just to get what she can or that every female wants a “passa passa” move behind close doors. What about tenderness, consideration, reciprocity and understanding for example? Can’t these become facets of masculinity and manliness as well?

Of course these qualities are there sometimes, but male performers “doing masculinity” dare not show this. Real men hide that side of themselves supposedly. That’s why you will probably never hear of Bunji doing a passionate love song duet with his lovely Fay-Ann. This wouldn’t go with the image. When men push up their gun finger salute — it’s akin to an affirmation of masculinity, one that they all agree with and allows them them to say, “yeah, ah hear yuh — cause yuh talking about me.”

Related links, references, further reading and works cited.

Alvarez, Ian (with Hunter). “Bring It Remix.” VP Records: Soca Gold 2008, 2008. MP3 file.

–. “Bad and Famous.” Fiery, 2008. MP3 file.

–. “Beep Beep.” Fiery, 2008. MP3 file.

–. “Help.” Fiery, 2008. MP3 file.

–. “Pretty Hott.” Fiery, 2008. MP3 file.

–. “Bad So.” Fiery, 2008. MP3 file.

Connell, Bob. “Hegemonic Masculinity.” Gender: A Sociological Reader, New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Montano, Machel. “One More Time.” Book of Angels, 2007. MP3 file.

–. “WinerBoi.” Heavy Duty, 1997. Audio Recording.

West, Candace and Zimmerman, H. Don. “Doing Gender.” Gender: A Sociological Reader, New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.

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5 Responses to “Masculinity and Performativity in Soca music”

  1. anonyjw Says:

    Did not know you wrote this….

    I could swear that I’d read it in a local Newspaper or that someone’d emailed this to me!!!

  2. soyluv Says:

    really? wow. well yes i did. 😉 when i came back from carnival, i was struck with that notion and it was interesting cause it was the first year that i attended a truly wide range of fetes, like “army” where certain friends of mine were aghast and said, “you mad or wha? i eh going there!” and the usual fare of pricey all-inclusives, with the usual cast of characters. it was interesting too, to take in the line-up of say an army fete, coupled with the crowd demographics and juxtapose that with other higher priced fetes, and gauge the crowd reaction to certain performers, and the sometimes differing ways in which, they interacted with the crowd. interesting stuff. bunji struck different chords with people for different reasons, and so did machel, it was fascinating to me, to think about and explore why.

  3. anonyjw Says:

    well, that’s trinbago for you.

    the army fete is a really nice fete, and I’ve only been about twice.

    i miss the times when fetes weren’t marred by violence. i used to go to WASA, Brass, Fire and Flour Mills’s fetes without a care when I was younger… but I really wouldn’t do that again today.

    when you come up in de dance with ah icepick in yuh socks and ah cutlass in yuh waist, you eh really come to fete…

  4. How Sweet the Sound « creative commess Says:

    […] course, offers no end of fodder —whether it’s sex and dancehall; kaiso feminisms, the performance of masculinity by male soca stars, peripatetic postulations around black women’s derrieres or, whether palancing is good for […]

  5. Roll It Boy: On Men, Masculinity and bringing the winery « creative commess Says:

    […] of all, it makes a lot of people, men and women, uncomfortable. I’ve contemplated before how masculinity is sometimes performed inside soca and the ways in which wining is coded inside the performativity of the stage persona (or perceived […]

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