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Cultural change, resistance since independence

Sunday, August 19, 2012

This is the seventh in a series on what 50 years of independence has meant for women’s rights and gender equality. The engagement between the “gender movement” (women and men involved in the struggle to end gender-based discrimination and inequality) and post-independence society has seen both gains as well as resistance to cultural change. Popular culture can transform a society’s values.


During the 15th to 20th centuries, Caribbean people’s struggles to practise their cultures represented an important subversion of the colonial project by its ‘subjects’. According to the late Prof Rex Nettleford, Caribbean resistance found strength in popular cultural forms, and mass support was mobilised through the “culture of the ordinary people.”


By the early 20th century, calypso, stick fighting, carnival, the steelband and hosay played a critical role in challenging colonialism, racism and classism in T&T. Calypsonians such as Growling Tiger and Atilla the Hun, among the first professional calypsonians singing political satire, were joined by Lord Kitchener, Mighty Spoiler and others in the 1940s.


UWI’s Louis Regis observed that at the height of the independence movement in the 1950s, calypsonians sang about political matters and swayed public opinion to the extent that people said of the Mighty Sparrow, “If Sparrow say so, is so!” On the achievement of independence in 1962, calypso played a crucial political and social role in articulating the deep-seated aspirations of the nation, particularly the marginalised and voiceless.


Women were active in shaping a definably Caribbean ‘high culture’ from historical roots, spanning literature, dance and theatre. Veronica Gregg of Hunter College, New York charted how women established cultural and literary organisations and began to experiment with Creole forms in their short fiction. This was no easy path for pioneers like Louise Bennett of Jamaica who spoke and wrote in Jamaican creole or patois, the language of the masses.


In discussing Beryl McBurnie’s contribution to the “nationalist ethos of the period,” Nettleford commented that “the idea of a … dance idiom rooted in the traditional life and lore of a Caribbean which is the creation of ordinary men and women in the region, was revolutionary.” McBurnie also founded the Little Carib Theatre, where the plays of Derek Walcott, Nobel Laureate. In Jamaica, reggae music began to engage in spiritual and political matters from the perspective of the masses during the 1970s. Bob Marley rose to become one of the most popular and powerful artistes of this genre.


However, according to Jamaican feminist, Joan French, Marley did not view discrimination against women as an issue. He condemned women’s sexual freedom while defending his own sexual libertarianism. In “No Woman, No Cry”, he expressed gratitude for women’s support to men and families and the discrimination against them as black people, but made no mention of the discrimination and inequality they faced as women.



While calypso, reggae and their derivatives have given voice to political and social concerns of ordinary people, they also represent sites of misogyny—or “hatred, dislike or mistrust of women.” In the 1990s and 2000s in particular, calypso and reggae have seen an increase in misogynistic messages at the expense of political commentary, which some argue has caused the art forms to deteriorate.


However, Cal State’s Hope Smith suggests that “the misogyny of such calypso lyrics is merely the by-product of the culture of survival present in a grassroots urban environment.” Given that the calypsonian sings about issues other than gender relations, eg, poverty, war, local politics and the labour movement, “bringing down women only underscores the fact that … this [is] one of the few sources of power and domination available to him.”


Perhaps partly in response to this, in addition to their continuing storming of the Bastille, women calypsonians have been entering the calypso arena. A post-independence women calypsonians hall of fame would include Calypso Rose, Denise Plummer and Singing Sandra, among others. A number of new women calypsonians performed in a 2011 show dubbed, “Passing the Baton: Young Women in Calypso”. And six women have been named among the ten calypsonians to compete in the Lord Brynner National Independence Calypso Competition, which takes place on August 25.  


Carnival has allowed women of all ethnicities and social classes to express their bodily autonomy. For some analysts, women’s exposure of their bodies in skimpy costumes on the streets is a logical extension of their new identities as “modern, assertive feminist subjects.” However, others argue that during Carnival, a “period that is licensed for the reversal of social order, women’s subversion and appropriation of male-identified forms of sexual display may actually serve to reinforce the patriarchal structures that it otherwise critiques.”


Similarly, the emergence of dancehall music in Jamaica has provided a space for urban working class women to express themselves though dance. Dancehall has been described by Prof Carolyn Cooper as “the site of an ongoing struggle between respectability and riot, propriety and vulgarity, slackness and culture”, “simultaneously resisting and enticing respectable culture.”


The phenomenon of chutney music and dance, which caused a furore when it stormed the T&T cultural scene in the early 1990s, has provided a similar space for Indian-Trinidadian women. Chutney music and dance forms originated in the women-only matikor and laawa ceremonies of the Hindu wedding, where women of the family and community have and continue to portray the sexual act through folk dance. These cultural forms have created sites of resistance for Caribbean women of all ethnic groups and social classes, breaking socio-cultural barriers and invigorating popular culture.


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