Posts Tagged ‘masculinity’

Makin’ Style: Trinidad James and Saga Boy Aesthetics

January 5, 2013

james

The cultural shadow gets cast when someone from your own cultural background or heritage does something noteworthy or cringeworthy — Trinidad James is currently casting one. Depending on who you ask, the responses range from shame to staunch or low-key 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 highly 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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Roll It Boy: On Men, Masculinity and Bringing the Winery

December 10, 2011

There are few things I love more than men wining in wanton abandonment. Maybe good food and a select range of other things excite me more. I love men wining because of the ways in which it disturbs the mask of heterosexual masculinity. It flexes, disrupts and discombobulates with a swivel of the bamsee — most 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 actual persona) of some male soca artists.

As a Trinbagonian from a wide ranging Caribbean & West Indian background reaching into Guyana and even further up the archipelago, seeing men dance completely unhinged is nothing new to me. Luckily, among some of the young men I know, seeing men wine down the place and bend over in front of a woman is also nothing scandalous to me and though I love to see it myself personally, I understand that it’s still a revolutionary upending of masculinity in some ways. Consider for instance, this video of Congolese singer (and newly crowned wining-god by me) Fally Ipupa’s stage performance with his band and dancers:

Predictably, under the video comments, there is one lamenting “why will a guy dance like a women [sic]” in addition to “this shit is SO gay…omg!!” The sexism and homophobia of these two comments underscore the power and meaning of the hetero (and/or assumed hetero) men who dance employing their hips, refusing to be constrained by context and widespread socio-cultural policing of acceptable vs. non-acceptable expressions of hegemonic masculinity.

What I really appreciate in this performance is the way in which the men’s gyrations seem to be performed fully, unapologetically with gusto by men, almost as a means to its own end — there are no women backup dancers bouncing around with them, and there are no women even seen in the audience within the camera’s range and this centers the men’s sexually suggestive hip movements in a uniquely singular way that I rarely see some black men do anymore.

Across the diaspora, men are allowed to be sexually suggestive in dance within reason and are even allowed to make people uncomfortable, within reason — so “daggering” might make some people uncomfortable but it’s an acceptable form of male sexually suggestive dance. R&B singers can slow wine at certain select moments, usually involving a lap dance on stage and a woman pulled from the audience or something of that nature. Wining, and men wining without women as props — not quite as acceptable.

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Brams, Fete-ishness and the Female Form

October 13, 2011

One day during the summer, I went into a Jamaican food spot to politely ask if I could leave a stack of flyers for my friend’s party. Caribbean party flyers are usually always hella interesting to peep. They’re fascinating snapshots into male centered flights of fantasy, and gives a look at what will presumably sell an event to the masses (read: cisgendered hetero men). The average event flyer is full colored, about 6″ x 4 ” on average, bordered or highlighted by images of female bodies in various levels of sexy (or scant undress).

When was the last time you saw, er, Tyson Beckford or a bevy of half-dressed men advertising a party? Exactly. Even though, on average, the soca & other Caribbean parties I go to, seem to be predominated by women — usually. Men are there for sure, but young women frequently run the route. And while not all women care about whether men are on a flyer or not, some of them just might appreciate it. Meanwhile, said flyer images will be plucked from just about anywhere — so you end up with a picture of Stacey Dash advertising a soca party in Florida. Or a random photoshopped still of Vivica Fox with a vacant stare looking back at you.

Which is fine; women on flyers don’t deter women from parties and they shouldn’t, but it all points to gendered notions of event marketing and what’s acceptable and the norm, especially in West Indian themed events. And because it’s only fellas I know who seem to have connects who do flyers (always another fella) and the party promotion circuit seems to be overwhelming male around here — advertisement reflects this. The agouti look-back, the stereotypically pretty women armed with unrelenting come-hither eyes. In fact, the only men I ever see on Caribbean party flyers are ubiquitous dancing crews, local-famous types celebrating a birthday bash or some other seminal event, performers that are male or sound systems that are always all male. You’ll see a whole flyer teeming with men then.

“Wow. It’s Stacey Dash! Is that really her body?” I asked my friend, the party-thrower. I’ve only known Stacey Dash from “Clueless” (as if) in her box-braids and fabulous knee-highs and I have not really been keeping myself up to speed with her current manifestations. On this flyer, she looked over her shoulder back at you, bronze skin glowing, ass-cheeks like full breadfruits beneath an ivory colored bikini swimsuit, beckoning you to come the shorts pants and summer dresses party. And as it turns out, the event went well. Perhaps Stacey had a lot to do with it.

At every Caribbean restaurant and small grocery in the area, posters and flyers can be seen lining some of the windows and layered thick on the appropriate counters. All use the bodies of black and brown women to entice the masses to come rockaway and bruck out to reggae, dancehall, soca, chutney and calypso. And they really completely turn a blind eye to any notion of pandering to the tastes of straight women who might be looking for beefcake.  The formula I’ve heard before is that fellas go parties for ladies — ladies will either come regardless, or not — so  marketing to the men is key to get them to come.

Women in the West (especially in North America) are already inundated with a media market that is saturated with the female form to sell and push products or ideas. So, it’s not too surprising that other parts of the English speaking world follow the same models. The same or similar models of masculinity get disseminated far and wide too, which is why no straight man wants to see shirtless males advertising an event that he might be thinking of going to — even if it’s not on there for him, per se. Men on a flyer would disrupt the straight male, fantasizing gaze — and West Indian men, on average, wouldn’t like that. Women (straight or otherwise) are expected to filter through or past the images and extract info about the event but the images are not there to titillate them. Even though, conceivably, some lesbian or bi lady might be watching a flyer and thinking, “Waaays, Stacey Dash have more forms than a secondary school. Bram sounding nice — I up in dat!”

But really, male centered event promoters aren’t thinking about them in the slightest. Even though, clearly, the extent to which any  Caribbean party is considered successful is based on whether both men and women show up and show out at  your party.  A ‘stones party’ is one of the worst things you can have — as a straight man promoter. Yet party advertising finds it all too easy to erase women attendees from the equation, with their primary focus on tantalizing and luring the men with visual bait, like carrots on a stick, hoping or knowing that women will invariably follow suit.

words to live by…

September 16, 2011

speaking of masculinity…

July 28, 2010

When I’m semi-lost in DC, looking for the right bus (a city that I don’t even know) while trying to do some sightseeing, I really don’t need a random man to say, “dang, it’s not that serious! Smile!” in a growling command like he’s more vex at me that anything else, a pitch that almost makes me jump out my skin ’cause I’m busy trying to sort out where the heck I am and most certainly, not smile.

Before that,  a bus driver told me I must have an attitude because I wasn’t a bundle of perkiness and presumably, coy smiles, when I boarded (and I could see him giving me The Eye). He assumed that I was one of  those females with my “defenses up”. On the bus! Yeah, it wasn’t even that serious. I just don’t do perkiness. That’s not me. So I humor him and once he heard my accent, I ended up hearing a tirade about ‘Trini women’ and how we are ‘trouble’ though ‘beautiful’—apparently he is allegedly familiar with “us” in some capacity. Cause all of us are all the same. (Then, he switched off his shift and passed me his number as he left. I kid thee not).

And anyway, who the hell commands someone to smile?

Why?

I was instantly triggered to think about Renina’s blog post where she talks about black women and street harrassment and this famous phenomenon:

From Friendly to Hostile to Bitch in 10 Seconds

Hey, why so serious, honey? Give us a little smile.” My sense of humor, he didn’t know, was temporarily out of service, so of course I didn’t give him a little smile. But in not smiling, I had again violated the code, provoking another seizure of silent suffering that became verbal. As I passed the sleeve on the street, it hissed a word at me, with the edge of anger to it, with a sharp rebuke in it: “Bitch.

This account describes a common pattern, in which the target’s failure to response results in escalation and a superficially friendly interaction is transformed into one that is transparently hostile.

So not feeling any of this. Not one bit.

When was the last time you saw a man cry?

July 2, 2010

As a rule, I don’t watch heaps of American football or certain other kinds of popular American sports but one thing the World Cup does for me, besides providing a welcome abundance of  The Beautiful Game, is the ability of the games to show the range of masculinity and expressions of masculinity throughout the world.

This of course, coupled with the asinine criticisms of certain males online and elsewhere about the Argentine men freely kissing on the cheek while hugging each other, or Maradona, because they are not used to these alternate expressions of masculinity with touch inside their own culture.

And men crying. Not just tears of joy—or for the game, but tears of anguish for moments lost, sadness and utter despair. Soul wrenching tears that rack a man’s shoulders and begs the camera person to look away.

All beautiful, beautiful expressions of the game and the men who play it on the world’s stage.

Masculinity and Performativity in Soca music

August 2, 2008

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.