Herstory 18: Calypso Rose and Carnival Consent
Calypso music can be traced back to Trinidad and Tobago
Calypso music stems from Kaiso, a tradition brought to the Caribbean by West African slaves. Social commentary is offered through its lyrics, mixing praise, satire, and lament in the message. In the genre’s early days, lyrics mocked slave owners and they were recited at Canboulay. When Trinidad & Tobago gained independence in 1962, lyrics were directed towards politicians.
Calypsos would be recited at Canboulay, the precursor to Trinidad Carnival.
Canboulay was created because slaves weren’t allowed at the harvest festival held by plantation slave owners. The pre-lent festival held by slave owners was considered a Christian ceremony - indentured labourers and slaves were seen as pagans and not allowed to join the celebrations. This led to the creation of a new harvest festival: Canboulay. The name comes from the french phrase “cannes brulees” which translates to burnt cane. Festival goers would light sugar cane and march in the streets of Port of Spain. Dancing, drumming, chanting, and singing were central to Canboulay.
Canboulay evolved into what we know as Trinidad Carnival. While Canboulay was condemned by the colonial elite, the festival is recognized as art in present-day Trinidad and Tobago. In fact, it’s the country’s most popular cultural event - celebrated by locals and foreigners.
Meet Calypso Rose
“When I first started, my father, who was a Spiritual Baptist minister, told me that calypso music belonged to the devil. A lot of church organizations used to call me into meeting after meeting asking me why I was singing calypso, and saying that calypso doesn't belong to women, that it was a man's domain.” - Calypso Rose
Calypso Rose has a musical career that spans six decades and she still tours internationally. Despite initial pushback, her music resonated with many in T&T and beyond. Calypso Rose wasn’t the first womxn in the calypso scene but she reached a level of success that was revolutionary. For example, she won the annual calypso competition held during Trinidad Carnival. The competition was originally called “Calypso King” but Calypso Rose’s victory in 1978 led to a gender-neutral name-change. The competition has been called “Calypso Monarch” ever since.
Calypso music is inherently political but, as Calypso Rose mentioned, it was also considered a man’s domain for a long time. This meant that the politics of Calypso weren’t a true reflection of the entire community, only a subset. Calypso Rose’s commercial success helped to shift the narrative is a very significant way.
Calypso & Carnival Consent
In 2016, Calypso Rose released a collaborative album with French singer manu Chao - the project was a collection of calypso-based, Latin-inspired songs. The lead single was “Leave Me Alone.” Just like Ivy Queen’s Yo Quiero Bailar was all about dancefloor consent, Calypso Rose is singing about consent on the road (remember, Carnival happens on the streets)
To the untrained eye, Carnival may seem like a carefree street party - calypso music still plays a big role but soca plays an even bigger role. Soca music is an offshoot of calypso and revolves around rum, partying, and dancing. The message behind Leave Me Alone struck a nerve with many fans. The fun of Carnival can be compromised when carnival-goers equate dancing & the “bikini & beads” costumes for invitations to dance or even sexual consent.
Around the same time as Calypso Rose’s album release, Port of Spain’s then-mayor came under fire for slut-shaming & victim-blaming. During T&T Carnival 2016, Asami Nagakiya was found dead - she was a musician in a Carnival orchestra and her murder went unsolved. The city’s mayor mentioned that the victim’s outfit could have contributed to her murder. These comments led to the #leaveshealone movement.
The phrase “Leave She Alone” is a spin-off of Calypso Rose’s lead single. The song became the sondtrack for the movement created by a collective of artists and feminists in Trinidad & Tobago. The movement was spearheaded by Anya Ayoung-Chee, a Trinidadian fashion designer and winner of Project Runway (Season 9). Leave She Alone aims to change perceptions of womxn during Carnival time - it also goes beyond Carnival and speaks out against violence towards womxn in the Caribbean.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Anya explains that the carefree vibes of Carnival can align with activism:
“Coming out in the streets in the tens of thousands, owning your space, owning your freedom, what is that besides activism?” - Anya Ayoung Chee
The Washington Post also interviewed Gabrielle Hosein, head of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad. She shares similar insights to Anya.
“It’s the largest movement of women in Trinidad and Tobago seeking autonomy and self-determination around their sexuality and their bodies, in opposition to a particular kind of respectability politics . . . purely for the joy and pleasure they experience. One can see those goals as highly political in our world today.” - Gabrielle Hosein
Thanks for reading! This blog series is brought to you by Solidarity in Sound, an educational platform for the global, music community.
For our Herstory Lessons blog series - we're retelling the stories of womxn in music that have been misheard, mislabeled, or erased completely from our history books.
If information looks incorrect, please let us know! When we're retelling stories that are left out of our history books, finding info can get tricky. We want to make sure we're portraying these stories as accurately as possible!