Who’s Laughing? (and Why?): Race and Identity in Trini slap chop

OK, the problem with “Buhwamoder” isn’t that  he’s not funny, allegedly, to many people — it’s what makes him  funny that’s interesting to unpack. (And for the record, I personally don’t think Buhwamoder is all that hilarious — must be my off sense of humour — but clearly, hordes of people do think so).

“Buhwamoder Latchmanerpersadsingh” is a hugely popular alternate persona enacted by a one, Dominique Elias hailing from out of Trinidad. Rocking his get-up of ultra-dark shades, (“ah darkers”) and a wig that’s often perched low onto his head — sometimes a link chain slung around the neck  — completes the final look.

The wig, a cross between “janx” (aka starter locks) and small box-plaits or partially done twists, morphs Elias into “Buhwamoder” — a fast-talking, self-professed lover of “shit” (talk, that is); Trini slang dropping, jokey-catch-phrase-making-entity who easily climbed to the highest heights of internet and local notoriety with his now infamous slap chop parody video. Then came the Jamaican answer. Then came the video where the two (the Jamaican and the Trini) negotiate a mock war of sorts, over the rights to claim best originality for their respective vids — which further propelled the internet cult following of their videos.  (Inciting a real cyber war in the comments section meanwhile, but oh wait — it’s Youtube, West Indians inter-argue on there all the damn time just for so. Re: ‘my island better, no, MY island better!’)

In the midst of all this are two white West Indians spoofing race at the same time that they grow more (in)famous and race is a huge component of the way in which their “humour” hits the mark in many, many ways. In fact, in the “Jamaica Trini war” video, Buhwamoder specifically (and ironically) calls “madwhiteJamaican” out as a Jamaican who is “ah white boy” who doesn’t even “smoke weed”. In the original videos, race is the unspoken subtext — the underlying context underscoring not only some of the “punchlines” but acting as a main ingredient in their presentation of (alternate)self and identity and this is revealed as soon as their identities almost simultaneously became increasingly public.

And this alternate self gets reinscribed through their particular use of language and accent, most noticeably; although, as stated before, Buhwamoder’s use of a kind of costume prop/s also contributes to the presentation of his “character”. It’s funny partly (or largely) because of the contrast in who they really are, and the ways in which they present their cultural identities in their videos. In other words, a black or Indian Buhwamoder would not be considered as funny or be nearly as popular.

I say alternate self and identity because to my ears, Buhwamoder is obviously doing an exaggerated kind of Trini accent — and it’s also ethnically and class coded too in a way that doesn’t really reflect himself. Clearly. Because language can be class coded in a multiplicity of ways, just as accents can be, for better or worse. Now, I’m the last person to police anyone’s use of language and local language but what I am saying is that madwhiteJamaican’s sound for example, is undoubtedly complicated by his race as a white Jamaican and this is a crucial part of the ironic humour of the whole spoof, of him celebrating “Gaza, Gully, the whole nine yards”; all this interspersed with scenes and footage of angry people from the predominantly black, socioeconomically depressed communites in Jamaica who were actually pissed the hell off about something that had nothing to do with Trini vs. Jamaica slap chop.

It’s like, yeah yeah I get it, but it’s all kind of problematic too.  Because even smart humour falls flat (or worse) when people don’t get the critical sub-texts inside of it or worse yet, when the laugh tracks don’t even support any sliver of critical thinking — which when you’re playing with race, identity and stereotypes, can be especially crucial. As I kept trying to sort out some of my slight discomfort with the whole Buhwamoder creation, I saw he was diversifying and doing soca too as Buhwamoder, apparently making girls bend right over from Carapachaima to Morvant (evidently sections of the country that he must often frequent in his everyday life)  — I kept revisiting that powerful Dave Chappelle quote about that defining moment when he realises that people were in fact missing the sub-text in much of his humour. They missed his critiques on race through the medium of humour and just laughed at the caricatures and stereotypes. Maybe they believed he believed them. Maybe they believed they were real. He saw acutely, the stark difference between people laughing at you and with you.

What happens when your schtick embodies a racial/classist stereotype that isn’t your own? Like in a diametrically opposed, kind of way? Then what are people supposed to think? If they think anything at all, about it? (Understanding also, that race in Trinidad is a tricky, sometimes grey area, where social capital can trump actual variegated ethnic mixtures and “whiteness” is both a semi-broad colour as well as a socioeconomic spectrum.)

Of course, different artists have different agendas. And different aesthetics. Dave Chappelle’s self-reflexivity isn’t Buhwamoder’s and they’re different people — and who exactly is this Buhwamoder character anyway? Well, obviously a particular East Indian caricature for one. One Facebook page lists him as from Couva, another from upper Carapichima (sic) — both considered primarily East Indian communities in Trinidad, though by no means, exclusively so. His interests on both pages range from “liming by the river with puncheon”, “coal pot assembly” to “Basdeo Panday”, the “UNC” and “chutney music”. His speech, inflection and accent punctuated by the ubiquitous ‘normel’ are all coded in ways to reflect this racialized persona.

The ways in which class is coded in race and socioeconomics (among others) through speech, means getting into deeper notions of hegemonic language and I don’t plan to do that a whole lot in here but suffice it to say that Buhwamoder’s presentation is definitely playing into some of these notions, in contrast with his own class status as a “local-white” Trinbagonian young man and where that intersects with perceived sounds and accent of that kind of person. So, for Trinbagonians —  maybe if you closed your eyes and heard his inflection (not knowing anything about who it was) — you’d surely have a kind of picture in your head of who the speaker might be, and it would probably not be Buhwamoder sans costumed wig and shades. That’s one way how hegemonic language works contemporaneously inside a post-colonial, multi-ethnic society.

Of course, while funny to some, caricatures** always run the risk of veering into the region of dangerous and becoming kinds of tropes: awful to shake off but incredibly far-reaching and widely understood, thanks to systems of oppression, kyriarchy, mass media, historical legacies and now, social media and the like. Meanwhile, Buhwamoder’s parody sketches also aptly embody Trinidadian society’s ultimate imaginings of utopic plural Trini identities where a white Trini — because he is one — can don a wig and a comical Indocentric surname mash-up, with matching perceived cadence and be a hit with it. And it’s okay — because he’s one of us.  And we don’t draw lines (supposedly).

The thing is, we do though. And part of deconstructing Buhwamoder’s comic creations, success and popularity means understanding that. It’s not so much about line drawing as understanding how the lines function and being honest with the fact that they are in fact there and actually do exist. It’s also about understanding privilege and access and realising who gets to say what about whom — and in what ways. That’s why he can parody a racial and ethnic stereotype and we all get it. We laugh at the sound and the implicit stereotype inside the sound, simultaneously — that’s the real joke. The other thing is too, as David Mura has succintly noted:

This issue of stereotypes or projection is a tricky and complicated area. Oftentimes we regard stereotypes as simply falsehoods and there are times when stereotypes are simply false. But stereotypes can involve facts or actual behaviors. The real problem with stereotypes may involve either generalizations or conclusions based upon those facts or actual behaviors. Or the problem may lie with the way the stereotype interprets facts or actual behaviors.

Furthermore:

Like many aspects of race, the way we view and talk about stereotypes is entirely too simplistic. Stereotypes should be viewed not just as accidental distortions which appear by chance or because of the stupidity or ignorance or hatred of a few distorted individuals; instead they should be seen as a fictive resolution of irreconcilable contradictions within the structure of a society. To call stereotypes fictive does not mean that they do not exist, nor that there are not people who seem to resemble these stereotypes.

Rather, it means recognizing among other things: “that they are constructed by human beings in a given society at a given historical moment; they are not natural or biologically determined; they generalize about a specific group of people and are inadequate in their ability to describe or recognize the diversity and individualities that exist within that group; they are not formed by a disinterested or neutral social process or by disinterested or neutral people.”

And, “the stereotype then, cannot simply be looked at in isolation; it must be considered against a specific context and interpretation; within a different context and interpretation the use of a stereotype can have a very different purpose; for instance, the use of stereotypes of a group by members of a stereotyped group is generally quite different from the use of stereotypes of that group by those outside the group.”*

Overall, I think I’d probably be slightly more impressed by the whole thing if Buhwamoder showed that he could be funny outside of an empty stock caricature who is a fusion of certain bad Indo Trinidadian stereotypes — with a fake ras on his head. Though, no doubt, I am certain that it will continue to make him very, very (in)famous.

 

*Quoted excerpts From David Mura’s essay “On stereotypes.”

** See the historical evolution of: Mammy, brute, Tom, pickaninny, coon, jezebel, tragic mulatto and other caricatures here http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/menu.htm

** Speaking of bad caricature, also see, Shirley Q.  Liquor—a white gay man who dresses in blackface and drag doing a black welfare mother schtick with multiple (19) children with names like “Chlamydia” (among other problematics).

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4 Responses to “Who’s Laughing? (and Why?): Race and Identity in Trini slap chop”

  1. Kevin Says:

    He (Buhwhatever) is not funny because he’s funny. He’s interesting because he’s the first to make a video that isn’t about trini’s fighting or winein down the place. and he does it in a thick trini accent. Not a yankee one.

    The sad thing is, every thing that follows will have to name him as the pioneer by default. I mean there will obviously be better but it would be said that he was the first.

    All in all the young man made something out of it and is well liked by some… so i give him that.

    Could he have done something else other than the “Ben rite ova” and “Slap Chop” ???? YES…. Would he have been so popular? NO.

  2. derevolushun Says:

    Fully on point.

    I was sooooooo disappointed when I saw him. The slap chop video was mildly amusing but when I saw him in person I was very disappointed.

    I have to remind myself every time I hear the song, either in a fete or listening to the radio that it’s a rich white boy from West Moorings who is getting richer off making fun of Indo-Trinidadian and a class far removed from his own.

    The Dave Chappelle reference is quite on point and I think it’s going to be how I explain to people (in addition to this article) why he’s not funny. It would be much like a white person making Dave Chappelle’s jokes- not quite as funny.

    And I actually think that’s where Buhwamoder shows that he fully knows what he’s doing. For though he adopts an Indo-Trinidadian persona he’s rebelling Indo-Trinidadian culture with the hair, choosing a soca song over a chutney song etc.; so Indian people can laugh presumably comfortably, b/c it’s not really them; Afro-Trinidadians can laugh comfortably, b/c it’s not about them either; all other ethnic groups can laugh as well b/c it’s really really not about them.

    This post was fyah!

  3. Updates: On life, living etc. « creative commess Says:

    […] of wits at least. The woman has no voice here. I’ve noted before how even inside supposedly “jokey” soca — there are always problematic elements of truthtelling about who we are as a people and who […]

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