Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Calypso’s no sacred cows

With Nermal “Massive” Gosein’s “Rowlee Mother Count”, chutney has definitively entered the arena of social commentary, a field pioneered and dominated for a century by the artform of calypso. Like so many of the most biting examples of the craft, Gosein’s 2018 offering has rattled T&T at its core, stirring a public controversy that is deeply polarising and far beyond what the lyrics actually say.

As far as calypso goes, Gosein’s composition is standard for the category of political commentary. It is irreverent, naughty and gleefully disrespectful of societal norms in pushing the envelope with a hefty dose of double entendre, a well-established technique favoured in kaiso.

Gosein’s play on words can therefore hardly be the subject of criticism, and certainly not the particular words of the refrain which have long been successfully employed to titillate audiences and get them screaming lustily along with the performer.

While one can only imagine the silent squirming of revellers named “Paul” when the DJ played Crazy’s calypso about “Paul’s mother”, the double entendre which would have been unequivocally offensive in polite conversation hardly merited more than the occasional comment about tastelessness.

In contrast, Gosein’s reference to “Rowlee’s mother” has turned into a national debate in which even the ruling party has put in its two cents’ worth of public condemnation of the singer. The question with which we must grapple is: why is it offensive now when it was not offensive then?

To Gosein and his supporters, the reason is obviously a case of partisan politics trumping the calypsonian’s freedom of expression; to critics, the reason is obviously a case of debased double entendre. Some critics have gone further to condemn the song as racist, citing, in particular, the music video portrayal of “Rowlee’s mother” in black face, a theatrical style that has become a symbol of racism in the United States.

In response, Gosein’s fans are pointing to calypso performances over the years, delivered in tents and on calypso’s biggest stage, the Calypso Monarch competition, in which Indo-Trinidadians have been presented mockingly and stereotypically, without objection from those now condemning Gosein.

While there may be some truth to all of these arguments, they are partial and lacking in insight about the evolution of calypso as a form of popular expression.

Forged in the depths of colonial subjugation, calypso emerged as the voice of the voiceless and unrepresented masses. While this mandate survives, the power of calypso has also been increasingly co-opted for the purpose of partisan politics.

Some calypsonians are frank in expressing their political loyalties in song; others are equally open about accepting paid commissions to use the power of kaiso against rival political interests. In the midst of change, a chutney song has come to further challenge our assumed norms.

As offensive and as inane as it may be to some, let’s resist the temptation to legislate good taste and to respond with knee jerk censorship. Instead, let us focus on the evolution of calypso and on ourselves as reflected in our reactions.