Trinidad James and Cultural Respectability Politics


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?”

Some observations about Trent’s observations:

1. “Slums” are valid places of abode and existence. Cash poor and low income communities exist and have validity by existing (even in Trinidad!) which is not at all said in order to romanticize or trivialize life, survival and struggle in the ghetto.

2. “Nobody goes to Nelson Street” is actually a kind of problematic assertion especially when it’s done to add leverage to the fact that the community is somehow unworthy of having a music video shot there. People do go there, everyday. People who live there and I am sure, others too. The fact that it’s bad, trash hip-hop and not quality hip-hop (according to the vlogger’s tastes) runs counter to the fact that he has a problem with this video taking place there. If it’s crap, why you mad son? (More on that later).

The amount of time this vlogger takes to paint Nelson as a kind of no-man’s land where nobody “goes” or “skips” in and everyone must “run” from is quite representative of many (not all) Trinis’ notions of economically depressed communities. I guess it’s supposed to be funny to some but incessant contempt for the cash poor is too readily acceptable and not all that hilarious as far I am concerned.

3. The classicist attitude stinks to the highest heavens, as if the only reason Trinidad James would fathom shooting a video in a “slum” is because he or his family must be from there (which is then appalling because Nelson Street — no one goes there remember?).

4. I went to secondary school with people from different parts of Trinidad and I visited (and visit) with friends who live in all kinds of communities. You really can’t know a lot about someone primarily based on stereotypes about the community they live in. Community stereotypes very rarely reflect the nuances and complexities of the lives of people who live there. If Trent avowedly doesn’t “go” into Nelson, then how the hell is he such an expert on Nelson?

5.  Slum tourism and its variations are real and do exist but I don’t think that is entirely what James was doing. I actually think what he’s doing is a bit more complex than that. It’s also, definitely voyeuristic in some ways, but James is hardly Othered in the video. We can imply this because he already publicly claimed a Trini cultural identity and the choice of a local bar scene means that James could just as easily be hanging out in there with some hot girls on some day that he wasn’t shooting a vid. It might be a reach to say he is of there but he is undeniably from Trinidad and as Trent admitted, we are not privy to the full extent of James’ family history — so who knows? But it’s safe to say that now, as a famous rapper, perhaps he is some worlds removed from life there and yes, he might have also said, where is an area with a stereotypical grimy Caribbean aesthetic that I can locate my video in?

We could say a myriad about some of James’ choices (without denigrating a community’s existence): even the choice to have Athaliah as a prominently placed video lead in the opening scenes, dark-skinned with full lips drenched in metallic gold — the Ms. Trinidad and Tobago steeped in controversy about her looks who is from a community not too unlike Nelson Street and nearby environs. Furthermore, between Trent’s postulation about how awful Nelson Street is and his implicit dissing of cash-strapped communities therein, I hardly feel as though  the people in there are actually any of his concern — rather it’s the representation and how that reflects badly on the country and by extension him. So actually, it’s all about him.

6. Why on earth should/would James paint and spruce up Nelson Street apartments before he shoots a video there? It’s not his responsibility to do so and the suggestion is patently ridiculous. Helping out is one thing and a separate issue altogether if that’s the case, but so is authentic rendering.  Trini Trent lives in Trinidad. If he is so concerned, why doesn’t he go lead a drive to go paint around Nelson instead of bemoaning that Trinidad James aired the dirty laundry of the country.

7. The whole 15 minute rant was primarily a rail against the aesthetics of the video shoot and I get that on the one hand, the reach of a Trinidad James video versus a local artiste is a very different range and complexity is vital in the images that get exported. I am also aware of the socioeconomic prejudices that are imbued in our societies and govern everything from last names to schools some of us go to and the assumptions that are made throughout the rest of someone’s life about such factors.

I am also aware of the anxiety of over-exploited small island nations to show-and-prove to the world at large that we also have rich people and fancy cars and cool technological gadgets and anything beyond coconut trees and hammocks (though those things are fine too). Cultural respectability politics are just as annoying and harmful as racial ones. Cultural ones can be steeped in race too.

At the same time, Chimamanda was right. We need to be careful about perpetuating a single story or image of a nation. But it’s ultimately not your responsibility to educate foreigners about the diversity of socioeconomic life of your island because it absolves them of the work to do so. And they can if they damn well want to. We especially can’t do so at the expense of the vibrancy, humanity, beauty, pain and difficulties of the lives of the people who form the communities inside of Nelson Street and others like it around the world.

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