GABRIELLE JAMELA HOSEIN
THINK OF your love for lyrics, and how the right words can draw your attention, change your opinion or just cause your heart to pulse a little harder.
We know well the compelling wordplay of calypso and extempo, but are less familiar with the tradition of rapso or what the community refers to as “the power of de word in the riddim of de word.” Even lesser known, though long kept alive, is a local tradition of spoken word. It has just as much to make a politician cringe. Strike poetry, like a match to the sulphur of your tongue, and watch how paper can turn to fire.
I sat in Sunday’s audience at NAPA, enraptured by the energy at 2 Cents Movement’s spoken-word Poetry Slam finals, and the 16 voices of another generation continuing this poetry tradition.
Deneka Thomas, the winner of the competition, confidently flung fire like sparks from black, sharp, flint stones. Her piece described all that is contained in a closet, all that is hung in it besides clothes, haunting like monsters whose shadows fall out and reach for your bed, highlighting how unsafe one can feel and be even in our own bedrooms.
Closets are where secrets are held and abuse is buried, leaving you no less afraid. Closets are where LBGTI youth exist in fear of hate just outside the door. Closets are places that many hide, hoping the dark will protect.
Deneka was brilliant, which is only to be expected from a young but experienced poet, who has visibly gone from strength to strength over these last years. She championed over a slew of other pieces by both women and men which focused on consent, violence and equal rights across sexual orientation.
Young poets also spent their three minutes on economic injustice, like poetry thrown to blow open the stereotypes and status quo of gang-defined zones.
Young women in particular highlighted changing aspects of childhood brought on by intergenerational addiction to electronic devices, represented the voice of the earth rebelling against our destruction, and described the experience of being asked for a dance that seems stilted, much like the democratic act of voting for a party that you mistakenly think knows the right steps.
These women, and Deneka herself, are part of women’s spoken-word history. Cheryl Byron was the first woman to perform rapso in a calypso tent, in 1976. Kiskadee Karavan famously burst on the scene, with the band Homefront, featuring Gillian Moor alongside Ozzi Majiq and Kinky Dan, and their hit, Free Yuhself (Give Yuhself a Chance), in 1992. Brother Resistance carried the movement for decades, supporting other rapso women like Sister Ava and her band, when they began to perform in the 1990s.
As I’ve written before, I know the story well from about 1997, when I “broke new ground” with Brother Resistance’s movement, which trained young poets for the stage, bringing in the expertise of Ataklan, Wendell Manwarren, Brother Book, and Karega Mandela.
Deneka’s fearless and decriminalised woman power built on the first pieces about women’s sexuality performed as part of Izavibes, imagined into being by Lisa Allen-Agostini and her brother Dennis, following the earlier Holy Underground.
Izavibes was midwife to the Ten Sisters Poetry and Song Movement, which produced the only CD collection of women’s poetry in the country.
Conceptualised by Paula Obe and Aneesa Baksh, from north to south Trinidad between 2000 and 2004, same-sex desire was defiantly delivered alongside other women’s wise words.
Ten Sisters begat the Speak Easy, hosted by Dara Njeri, which was continued by Songshine, led by Gillian Moor. From there, UWI Speak, Writers’ Block and other young collectives emerged, nurturing another generation of women like Ivory Hayes, now a young veteran.
Those young women on stage Sunday night, and the young men continuing to use poetry to promote conscious lyrics and politics, are inheritors of this women’s history of protecting and performing poetry.
Poets love lyrics because words can be stripped, like torn sentences, to softly bind pain like bandages.
As Deneka showed, words also provide the kind of glinting steel that makes closet openings for more imaginative worlds and for subversive escape routes long mapped by underground passages.