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“Hands in de Air”: Identifying a Black Caribbean Feminism in Soca Music

“This article is a part of series of work by Shauna Rigaud, a doctoral student at George Mason University. Shauna’s work centers around nation forming and cultural practices”

When Fay-Ann Lyons stepped onto the Soca Monarch stage in 2009, I was transfixed. Watching from my bedroom, I was glued to the pay-per-view cast of the competition from the Hasely Crawford Stadium in Trinidad. While Fay-Ann Lyons, had competed earlier in the evening for the groovy soca competition, it was the power competition that I had been waiting to see. The Power Soca category was where artists would spend the most time in theatrics and energy, and it was my favourite type of soca. As the beginning instrumentals of the song began and her dancers ran to the stage for her performance, the crowd started to chant: “Fay-Ann, Fay-Ann”. Just as excited for her entrance, I started to chant from my own bed. Her says her signature adlib, “let’s go”, while she stands just outside of the audience’s view. The bass and drums of the uptempo soca beat drop and an 8-month pregnant Fay-Ann Lyons struts onto the stage in a blue cape and pants suit. She danced and whined across the stage belting out the words to her song “Meet Super Blue”: an ode to her father, soca legend Super Blue and proclamation of her stardom.

Dey trying to flop me/Tell them ah keep moving doh stop

Ah know they cya stop me /Tell dem ah keep moving doh stop

Long time dey wah drop me /Tell dem ah keep moving doh stop

So dey underrate me/Tell dem ah keep moving doh stop

Let these people know/Tell them I am not my fadda

Bad like him but de truth be told/Like me there will be no other

Dis is not a sham/Who god bless don’t put asunder

If you doh believe that this is true/Meet Super Blue

Lyons’ lyrics mark her very active engagement grappling with gender norms, stereotypes and persistence to disrupt the stereotypical notions of others. She resists attempts by those who “try to stop her”, underestimate her and compare her to her father. Through this soca song, she asserts her ability to carve her own path, placing her body literally and figuratively on stage as a site of resistance.

It’s in the Rhythm of Soca

Soca is most often concerned with ideas of pleasure, excess and escapism. As the genre that accompanies the carnivals of the West Indies and its diaspora, soca songs typically describe partying, drinking and the revelry associated with the season. Despite its origins as activist and resistant, soca music is overlooked in its ability to do the same political work that its older sister, calypso is most often noted for. Here I’d like to reclaim the political work of soca music as resistant, particularly as it relates to the experiences of Black women in the English-speaking Caribbean. Fay-Ann Lyons’ pronouncement of her talent, individuality and strength as a female soca artist reflects a type of Black Caribbean feminism that can be identified through the work of other female artists. In Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women, Brittney Cooper utilizes what she calls a Cooperian approach to analyzing the lived experiences of Black women intellectuals (3). She says that there are two critical commitments to this approach, the first is to see the black female body as a form of possibility and not a burden and the second is to center the Black female body as emotionally invested in Black social thought (3). It is with this approach in mind, that I would assert that within the rhythm of the drums, guitars and horns of soca music, Black feminist intellectual work is happening.

Soca music was created in 1973 by Trinidadian calypso artist Lord Shorty. Lord Shorty wanted to create new energy amongst listeners of calypso music that reflected and responded to the political climate and history of the twin-island nation. Trinidad’s history as a Spanish, then French then Dutch, then French and then finally British colony, created a revolving door and constant influx of enslaved Africans and colonists to the island from the mainlands. 

In 1833, when slavery was abolished, new demands for workers came in the form of indentured labourers from India. This mix of Europeans, Indians and Blacks started Trinidad and Tobago on its journey as the land of “callaloo” – a local dish made by the blending of different ingredients. Its history, ethnic makeup, and economic challenges as a Caribbean country helped to set the stage for the political unrest of the 1970s that became the catalyst for the creation of soca music.

On April 21st, 1970, the government of Trinidad and Tobago declared a state of emergency following Black power protests against the wealthy Indian and European groups. In creating soca music, Lord Shorty was responding directly to this political crisis in the country. He says that “The purpose of soca…was to bring the East Indian and the African of Trinidad together” (GBTV 1995). He wanted to create a new sound that incorporated the youth and one that was distinctly Trinidadian. To do this, he would create a new genre that combined musical instruments of classical Indian music with calypso creating a fusion that he hoped would unite Blacks and East Indians (Kitt).

The new sound, Lord Shorty originally named, “Sokah” – “so” for the soul of Trinidad (not American soul music as is often thought) and “kah” representing the east Indian influence as it is the first letter of the Sanskrit alphabet (GBTV 1997). Later a journalist interviewing Lord Shorty mistakenly spelled the new genre “soca” and it stuck. As Lord Shorty recorded his first album with the new sound, The Love Man in 1974, he received criticism by other Trinidadian musicians saying that his new music was ruining calypso and disgracing Indian music. Responding to those critiques, Lord Shorty’s next soca album, Endless Vibrations, in 1975 removed the traditional Indian instruments, replacing the dholak with the drums, the dhantal with the triangle and the mandolin with the guitar, and included disco elements while still maintaining the structural integrity of his creation (O’Neill). With these changes, soca was quickly picked up by other Trinidadian artists and grew to become the music of the Caribbean, and in particular the music of Carnival. Over the last 40 years, soca music has continued to evolve with its own subgenres: groovy soca, power soca, ragga soca and chutney soca (it is chutney soca that closely mirrors the original sound that Lord Shorty created). In that time, just as the people of the Caribbean migrated throughout the world, soca has followed, telling the stories of Caribbean people.

Locating Women in Calypso and Soca

Scholarly work on music and performance in the Caribbean often notes the ways that soca and calypso are viewed as public space and as such women are often underrepresented in the industry. While early colonial and patriarchal ideals would see women as unsuitable to participate in this very public space, and designated them to the private sphere, scholars note that it was in fact the artistic work of poor, lower-class women that contributed to the art form that would give birth to calypso in the 1800s (Hughes-Tafen 55). The tradition of creating and singing songs to transmit stories of their lives and the lives of members of the community would come through in witty, vulgar and comedic storytelling to melodies of female Jammettes and Chantuelles. As calypso grew as an art form and became paramount to the Carnival tradition in Trinidad, women would be removed in public performances. Respectability politics would emerge embedded in a black nationalist agenda that looked at black women as icons of virtue, while simultaneously inscribing onto them ideals of white supremist and colonial gender roles.

As Hughes-Tafen notes

Underlying the colonial and national agendas was thus the issue of control that attempted to keep women out of public spaces such as calypso performance in favour of confining them to the realm of the private as homemakers, faithful Christians and wives. This desire did not fit in with the realities of non-white women living in slave societies. (60)

The genre of calypso would articulate the lives of men in Trinidad and Tobago, leaving little space for women to voice their experiences. Women would become “a topic to be spoken about rather than to be actively included” (Billy). Lady Trinidad, known as the first woman to record a calypso album in 1934, would eventually stop performing after a few years, due to critique concerning her gender and whether it was appropriate for her to participate in calypso as a woman (Billy). 

By the 1960s Independence, Black Power, and feminist movements in the Caribbean would start a shift in calypso music and performance. Male artists would begin to celebrate the Caribbean woman in the song, rejecting European standards and seeking to instil a new sense of pride in the nation’s women (Smith 41). But it would be the female calypsonian that would ultimately edge herself into the scene and speak to her own experiences. We would find this work in the calypso monarchs, and then later soca monarch competitions. 

Here, I’m much more interested in interrogating soca as a site for resistance, as calypso has long since held the claim as a place to communicate grievances toward the state and address social issues. Soca, as it developed however, would be seen as party music and the soundtrack to carnival. What I would posit is that not only does soca remain a site for resistance, but in the songs of female soca artists it articulates a particular type of black feminism that expressed the social and material experiences of black women in the Caribbean.

A Black Caribbean Feminism

Black feminism centers the experiences of black women. With it comes a type of knowledge production that addresses the ways in which black women live in the world under a system of white supremist capitalist patriarchy. Addressing issues of oppression, it seeks to forge ideas of “self-definition of self-reliance and independence” (Collins 1). In the music of soca, female artists are able to articulate this type of feminism that draws on their experiences as subjects of a postcolonial patriarchal nation-state. Patricia Hill Collins goes on to say:

U.S. Black feminist thought and practice respond to a fundamental contradiction of U.S.

society. On the one hand, democratic promises of individual freedom, equality under the

law and social justice are made to all American citizens. Yet on the other hand, the reality

of differential group treatment based on race, class, gender, sexuality and citizenship

status persists. (23)

Similar contradictions can be found in the Caribbean, despite independence movements that would mark the populace an indigenous state. Neocolonialism would replace white colonialists with native agents to continue imperialist systems, leaving these remnants of oppressive systems behind. Black Caribbean feminism is grounded in the distinct experiences of Caribbean nations that take into account these experiences with race and gender that create specific colonial, patriarchal, racial and socioeconomic realities that intersect with politics of identity in the region. With this in mind, I believe that female soca artists express several distinctive features of Black Caribbean feminism through their music by addressing gender norms and control; expressing ideas of community; and representing a postcolonial identity.

Woman is Mas

Eudine Barriteau states,

…gendered relations define Caribbean women. You are born female and in the course of your experience, you learn to be a woman. First, you learn to be a girl, and then a woman and you become that because of your journey through relations of gender…within our society there is a particular understanding of what it means to be a woman, so we do not escape relations of gender. We are always women. Irrespective of how we define ourselves, there is an expectation that society imposes on us, and society maps a gendered identity on to us. We either accept it or reject it or negotiate a compromise with it. (Providence 64)

In soca music this gendered norms and identities are explicitly rejected. Female artists renounce the ideas that would deny their sexuality and relegate them to the private space. The ideas of womanhood constructed through a Eurocentric, colonial lens are quickly tossed aside for new images of the Caribbean woman in full control of her own body. In Patrice Robert’s 2015 song, “Old and Grey”, she professes her love of carnival through her active participation long after those would find it appropriate. She says:

I outta mi mind, looseness in mi waist /Not ah ounce ah shame

Mashing up mi spine, making up mi face/Not ah ounce ah shame

They done know me a’ready/Wen it come to party

I does wine ‘n go down, wine ‘n go down, wine ‘n go down

Full stop/Now everybody/They does talk about me

With mi hand in d air /’N rum in mi head

Now i doin it/’Til ah ole n grey

Roberts fully embodies this rejection of the ideal respectable women. She asserts that she does not have “an ounce of shame” during her participation in the revelry of carnival. She urges others to look on as she dances to the music and ignores what one could assume are disapproving looks because she is engaging in this act of public pleasure. Similarly, Destra Garcia sings about her participating in the pleasure of carnival and soca. 

I grew up as a real good girl/Always home, don’t go nowhere

As soon as I was introduced to Carnival/Dey say I loose

All down on di ground/Wukkin’, wukkin’ up mi bottom and it

Draggin’, draggin’ all ova town/And dey say I Lucy

Was neva a partiah/My school bazaar I used to go

But since I was introduced to Bacchanal

Dey say I loose/When I drop it hawt An I winin’ On top di speaker box/An I grindin’ an I don’t want to stop And dey call me Lucy/I looser than… Lucy I sweeter than juicy/ Dis carnival have meh so damn loose, hey Get loose, ah weh yuh get loose Desta’s alternate personality as “Lucy” manifests after learning about carnival and participating in its bacchanal. As “Lucy” reminisces about her indoctrination to carnival, she recalls that “she grew up as a real good girl”, reminding listeners that soca and carnival was not suitable behavior for respectable women. Hughes-Tafen explains that early Public ordinances prohibited the participation of women calypsonians and social pressures restricted their participation (59). In participating in carnival, “Lucy” embraces the stereotypical images of “loose” women and harkens us back to the “vulgar” woman of the Jammettes and Chantuelles that were part of early carnival celebrations.

Come Together as One

In Beyond Respectability, Brittney Cooper notes that throughout Black women’s intellectual work, there is a specific type a care for black communities. She says this care is specifically motivated through the experiences of living in a “world where non-black people did

not find value in the lives and livelihoods of these communities” (2). This type of care can be found in soca as well. In “Togetherness”, Alison Hinds, along with her band Square One, addresses violence and seeks to promote unity. She sings: 

Posse/Lem me see yah raise yah hands/And put them in the air/Put them in the air 

Jump and let dem see love and unity/One big family, togetherness

Jump and let dem see love and unity/One big family, togetherness

Wine and let dem see love and unity/One big family, togetherness

Wine and let dem see love and unity/One big family, togetherness

The fussing and the fighting and the war must done

The war must done/The war must done

The fussing and the fighting and the war must done/Come leh we live as one

God say to put down drugs/He say the knife and the gun

The knife and the gun/The knife and the gun

God say to put down drugs/He say the knife and the gun

And let we all have fun.

Hinds uses “Togetherness” to comment on this issue in the community. For her, it is not only the individual island, but the whole of the Caribbean’s responsibility to combat social ills and unite. Additionally, Alison Hinds 2016 song, “Parade” does similar work both lyrically and visually.

It’s a wonderful feeling/Feeling I know 

It’s a wonderful feeling /There is something bout this place right now

Have me burning up like heat /Beautiful colors on de main road

Blocking up the street/When the truck start to move

You would feel to wuk up/When the truck start to move

You would feel to wine down/If you want to groove

Put rum in your cup /And get in the mood

This is not a joke now/It’s a parade

Behind the truck/Getting on nonstop

Wining all day/And we not giving up

And even if the rain come down/That don’t bother we

And even if the rain come down/That don’t bother we

Because we dress up in we costume

We pay to come out and play/We pay to come out and play

On stage/We jamming /Wining in the sun whole day

We pay to come out and play/We pay to come out and play

We jamming /We wining/We liming

Here Hinds invokes the community through the performance of carnival. Unlike “Lucy” and “Old and Grey”, where the participation in the carnival is an individual act that responds to false options of womanhood, “Parade” showcases carnival as a communal activity. While reinforcing ideas of the pleasure associated with carnival, Hinds hails to the listener that they are a part of the carnival, the community. She further appeals to the soca fan during the song’s music video. In scenes of what looks to be the Labor Day carnival in New York, Hinds’ video captures participants holding up handwritten signs with words like “One people”, “together”, “joining” and “every step can make a world of difference”. Even Hinds is shown writing out the word“care”.

Violence Against Women

Violence against women has long since been an issue globally, as in the Caribbean. Ideas of patriarchy are often reinforced through the use of violence. Kamala Kempadoo notes that Caribbean men, in seeking to maintain patriarchal power use sex as a primary means to exert control over and to inflict physical harm on women (3). Further, she explains how musically language assists in this type of violence in the uses of the terms, “stabbing”, “nailing”, and “slamming”, all metaphors for male sexual acts that double as dancing in soca and dancehall music (3).

In 2012, Antigua’s biggest soca band, Burning Flames, released the song Kick in She Back Door. It quickly became a hit across Antigua, winning Antigua’s soca road march and was quickly picked up by the rest of the Caribbean and to soca lovers overseas. The song was a catchy groovy soca mix that incorporated the storytelling style of so many other soca and calypso tunes before it. But the story that it would tell, seem to promote domestic violence and rape and would receive heavy push back by women’s agencies in Antigua. So, in 2016, when Calypso Rose would return to the soca scene with “Leave me Alone” many would see the song as an anthem for women and an anti-violence against women campaign.

Boy doh touch me/Like you goin crazy.

Let go me hand/Lemme jump up in d band.

I dont want nobody/To come and stop me.

Leave me let me free up/myself let me jump up.

So leave me alone/I aint goin home.

The over-sexualization of black women and carnival would make woman open targets on carnival day for unwanted harassment. Kamile Gentles-Peart shares that the sexualization and globalization of carnival often acts to empower women and reenacts male patriarchal stereotypes of women as sexually available (18). This is eerily reflected in the 2016 murder of Tiarah Poyauat New York city’s jouvert carnival mas because she refused to dance with a man. Her murder would send shockwaves through the Caribbean community and would further emphasize the need to respond to this type of violence through soca music. Calypso Rose’s “Leave me Alone” would be a direct response to the type of harassment and violence that would often meet women under systems of patriarchy. The song would reaffirm the right of women to enjoy carnival harassment-free. 

National Identities Imagined

Denise Hughes-Tafen writes that “nations have typically sprung from masculinized memory, masculinized humiliation and masculinized hopes (51).” In the soca of female artist, they have an opportunity to rewrite those memories. As postcolonial nations, Caribbean countries are in constant work to create, define, reproduce and convey nationalist identities. Here, the female soca artist often helps to do this cultural work. Artists Natahlee Burke and Shontelle’s 2009 Barbadian anthem “Colours” signals to the Barbadian (also known as Bajan) subject. 

If ya proud to be a Bajan/Put all ya flags up/Put all ya flags up 

And if ya represent we nation/Let me see flags up/Let me see flags up

We representing blue, yellow, blue, yellow, blue, yellow, blue

We representing blue, yellow, blue, yellow, blue, yellow, blue

Ya hear de riddim of de tuk/See people jumping up

Dem down behind de truck/And de big band up pun top

We come here to be free/So jam in unity

And let de whole world see/That we proud of we country

Throughout the song, they gesture to very particular objects that signify a Bajan identity and implore Bajans and presumably visitors to the Crop Over festival (Barbados’ version of carnival) to celebrate in their national pride. This conjuring of ideas of nation is part of the work of female soca artists to help to articulate the nation with a new lens. Songs such as Fay-Ann Lyons’“Iron and Steel”, Nailah Blackman’s “Iron Man” and “Dame Lorraine” use the images of folk characters to imagine nation. The idea of an African past is also critical to the postcolonial Caribbean. In Frantz Fanon’s analysis of the postcolonial subject, he suggests that colonized intellectuals often look to creating a common black culture as a way to challenge the colonized ideas of Africa as being “dark” or “uncivilized” (150). Recalling this African past is a way to renegotiate stereotypical images of Black people, and songs like Alison Hinds’ “Faluma”, Calypso Rose’s “I am African” and Nikki Brooks “Africa Inside of Me” help to achieve that.


Brittney Cooper reminds us that to understand the work of Black women as intellectuals we must look in unexpected places (12). Black feminist thought is found in the everyday experiences of Black women to reflect their lived experiences and help to combat oppressive

systems. In Denise Hughes-Tafen’s analysis of carnival she says that Calypso performances offer an example of the ways that theatrical forms and practices are deployed for resistance to colonialism and its continuing aspects (54). The same can be said of soca music. For female soca artists, music allows them the opportunity to embody a Black Caribbean feminist perspective that allows to address ideas of gender inequality, care for the community and reimagine their nation through their own eyes.

*Works cited available upon request* 

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