Dara Healy writes a weekly column for the Newsday.
“Soca is a combination of East Indian and African rhythm. The purpose … in the 70’s … was to bring the East Indian and the African together.” Lord Shorty, speaking during a television interview.
We were talking about the direction in which our music is going. It was in the context of Carnival, soca, calypso, the viability of the calypso tent and the influence of young bloods like Voice.
It occurred to me that in every era, there is music that, not only reflects the time, but influences the course of history. In the 70’s, the haunting lyrics of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On encapsulated the sense of pain and futility of war, while seeking a better solution.
“Mother, mother/There’s too many of you crying/Brother, brother, brother/There’s far too many of you dying/…You see, war is not the answer/For only love can conquer hate/You know we’ve got to find a way/
To bring some lovin’ here today …”
As if in direct opposition to war, artists live Stevie Wonder, the Bee Gees and the Jackson Five, were also filling the world with music for dancing, alongside concepts of love. In Jamaica, Bob Marley was creating his own personal revolution, addressing issues from relationships, to poverty and emancipating the mind. In Get up, Stand up he satirises, “Most people think great God will come from the sky/Take away everything, and make everybody feel high/But if you know what life is worth/ You would look for yours on earth…”
At home, the Black Power movement of the 1970s created tectonic shifts in arts, politics and society. Artists like Brother Valentino turned his attention to the issues that plagued our society. His mournful Life is a Stage captured some of the mood of the time and drew attention to the most vulnerable – women, children, families. “Life is a stage/And we are the actors/And everybody have a part to play/… But some of us fathers my friend/Through some wicked women/Never saw our baby
Although abortion is just an act/Believe me friends I don’t like that part at all/
Plenty women go bawl when the curtain fall.”
How effective is music as resistance? How can it translate to community action or policy implementation by politicians?
Blogger Barrett Martin makes the point that powerful music has “always been the engine behind the greatest social movements … in South Africa, the indigenous Mbatanga music helped bring about the end of apartheid and it spread a message of peace and reconciliation in that nation”. Martin also points out that in the 70’s in Nigeria, “Fela Kuti invented Afro Beat music as a way to protest the oil company regime of Nigeria. His song Zombie became a global hit that railed against Nigeria’s military dictators.”
In fact, the song ridiculed the tendency of the military to just follow orders, and led to Fela Kuti paying a terrible price. Global media reported that eventually, about 1000 soldiers raided his compound, killing and raping as they raged. Kuti was almost beaten to death and his 77-year-old mother thrown out of a window. Even when he fled to Ghana, the regime resented the youth there shouting Zombie at the military and he was forced to go back to Nigeria.
Do artists therefore have to choose between being politically correct and political? Not necessarily. Sparrow, Chalkdust, Shadow, Duke and others of that period dealt head on with crime, an inadequate education system and race. Indeed, Peter Blood writes that “prior to the mid ’70s, before the advent of soca music, local composers and musicians produced a plethora of excellent local pop and R&B↔music. Back then … calypso music was wrapped in mothballs at the start of the Lenten season …”
So, thankfully, Lord Shorty significantly altered the local and international landscape when he created a musical artform grounded in social purpose. Not only did he succeed in putting the focus back on local music, but he provided an outlet for younger artists to express themselves, earn a living, and yes – make a statement through the music. Decades later, the debate over whether Soca has fulfilled the mandate of its founder continues, justifiably so.
For me, the work of the artist must inspire, transform. And it should echo the mood of the times. Like Fela, Bob, Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, our calypsonians knew that their words were important to a nation trying to find its way. 2018 finds us at the crossroads once again; which road will our artists choose?
Next week – The 80’s.
Dara Healy is a performance artist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN.