“Exposure is not currency.”
The friend sitting next to me was ecstatic. The crowd went for it with shouts of agreement in the middle of the performance and a resounding applause at the end. It was as if eleven hundred artists were sitting in the auditorium that evening at the National Academy for the Performing Arts.
Alexandra C Stewart’s rendition won first place in the competition, a piece that seemed timely from where I sat. In a time of job losses, a higher cost of living and in what I might describe as a very dishevelled economy that has been wearing its loafers on the wrong feet, the artist plays on, speaks on, paints on, creating shelter for those who seek refuge in their work. Yet, the refugees fail many times to realise that their refuge is not as easily constructed as they perceive it.
With a commentary on the treatment of the artist and the calls from clients to ‘do it for the exposure’; crying out against the perception that art can be free and artistes didn’t really need to be paid; that the creative arts are not ‘real’ jobs, that artistic work is just a hobby, the young woman called for a re-evaluation of that vision, a re-visioning of traditional concepts of jobs.
Shineque Saunders’ piece on her two mothers, the migrant mother and the resident one, speaks to the sacrifices and conflicts of motherhood. Told in two accents, British and Trinidadian, the poet shifted skilfully between them to provide a heartfelt piece on motherhood – the iron woman torn away from her family in order to build a life versus the guilt she experiences with this distance. It is a two-toned voice that accuses even as it simultaneously questions and defends a position.
Deneka Thomas, last year’s champion, returned to defend her throne with a piece on the la diablesse. Commenting on rape culture, an issue explored by a few of the male poets that evening as well, her piece examined the making of the seductress, the devil woman, made thus by society’s cruelty and selfishness. Victims of rape are often forced into the position of defending themselves mentally and emotionally, often acting out their anger and hurt in ways that are perceived negatively and with moral judgment.
This year’s slam once again displayed the abundance of talent in this island. The young poets are the voices of a new generation, challenging traditional perspectives. Among the topics covered last Sunday were rape culture, LGBTQ+, religion and politics. I maintain: this is our replacement for calypso. Unlike calypso however, as a fellow musician and I were discussing during the intermission that evening, the work is very personal. Many speak from their own experience, often exposing their abuse, sexual orientation, family dysfunction and other issues that make an identity. And why not? This is the age of the personal essay, the biography, an age where there is a call to embrace our vulnerability in order to heal, a novel concept now gaining popularity in the person of Brene Brown, whose Netflix show Call to Courage is a must see for those interested in self-development or curious about how vulnerability works.
One cannot but hold these young poets in high regard, respect their work even if your own experience may not be similar or if we may not always agree with them. Nevertheless, the spoken word stage is a stage of mirrors, mirrors in which we can all stand as individuals and look at ourselves. This is an internal stage unlike the calypso stage that focused outward. It was a different context then. Today, in a time when the world is opening up further, we retreat inward in order to ground ourselves to receive this influx of data. As much as we step out, we also step in constantly (at least for those who are aware of their surroundings), fleshing out ourselves in order to live in this expanding world. And what better time to explore this, a time when we feel, despite the luxuries and ease of life that we have, that something is still missing. And so it may be. After all, the surge of personal essays in the last decade tells a story.
It was historic that this year’s slam saw females cupping the top three places in the finals. It is incredible for the reason that in a largely male space, here were the women appearing to claim and tell their own stories. Perhaps this is one way in which we shall rewrite the social history of the island. Congratulations to all the performers!