As Carnival takes over airwaves, we can explore its representations of music, culture and sexual pleasure. These representations are often contradictory, drawing us into debate. They are sometimes more important than first appears, charting a historical moment, or highlighting generational change or US influence, or showing what adolescents, tuned in on Instagram and Youtube, are learning from us about empowerment and gender.
Destra’s recently released ‘Rum and Soca’ video is an intriguing mix of representations that signal much about our time. The video’s narrative is basically like the African-American movie, ‘Girls Trip’, which is a story of women’s friendship and a wild weekend of dancing, drinking, and romancing to excess.
This narrative is at home here in Trinidad and Tobago, with its long history of “girls’ limes”, and women drinking and wining with each other in fetes and on the road. It’s a welcome story as there are far too few videos of women enjoying themselves without performing at men’s command or for men’s pleasure or to attract men or as backdrop to a dominant male voice. “Party done” may have been the last time women were out like this on their own.
There are almost no men in Destra’s video and none on the mic. Those in the scenes are mere background to the social intimacy that affirms a right to woman-centred fun. The take up of a particular brand of consumer and celebrity feminism in Port of Spain is symbolized by the wealth and status of a limo, mansion, long blond wig and closet full of clothes combined with the Carnivalesque bacchanal of bam bam, and its emphasis on women’s licentious freedom as empowerment.
There’s much to say about such empowerment. It seems to be symbolized by drinking to excess, a privilege traditionally reserved for men. Destra herself has at least eight drinks, and I found myself wondering about the messages to adolescent girls.
Such drinking has historically costed those who may find themselves assaulted and then blamed for getting to a point where they can’t remember their last name. Such risks of victim blaming are real and I wondered about the counter warning to young women that excessive alcohol consumption easily turns a sense of power into vulnerability.
The drunkenness is simply Destra keeping up. Men have been triumphing such excess for decades, from “Drunk and Disorderly” to “Rum till I Die” and it’s debatable whether it’s fair to hold women to a higher standard. Indeed, one can argue that the video is also an Afro-creole version of a matikor, the Caribbean’s longest and most iconic historical expression of rum-drinking and women-only wining in a safe space created by women themselves.
Yet, one can’t be naïve about alcohol marketing in the Caribbean. There are four brands visibly identified in the video. Indeed, it’s almost an extended Angostura ad, following in the footsteps of Machel, who introduced advertising for his own rum into his repertoire of songs, because scraping the barrel in this way as an artist makes good business sense.
Company branding conflated with cultural production should compel us to question the role that alcohol companies play in sponsoring and profiteering from fetes, bands, artists and videos, and encouraging young adults to become drinkers.
The video’s major intervention, however, is its erotic intimacy among women. Women’s same sex sexual attraction has been going mainstream with videos by Rihanna and Shakira, Shenseea, Rita Ora and Cardi B, Kehlani and Teyana Taylor, Janelle Monae, and more
In these videos and in Destra’s, women are also holding hands, near kissing, and touching bodies in ways that blur the line between heterosexuality, bisexuality and lesbianism, or in ways that ‘queer’ being straight. Whether it’s alcohol, or sexual experimentation, or sexual fluidity, Destra’s video can be simultaneously read as straight and gay, as deliberately ambiguous, and as defying easy identity labels. Such queering has a long history in the region. Yet, for lesbians in Trinidad and Tobago, same-sex desire isn’t something that happens when you’re drunk or that is about a night out.
It’s an identity that isn’t taken on and off, and still carries great social stigma.
One can only hope that women celebrities’ openness to ambiguity, play and enjoyment normalises challenges to homophobia and an inclusive world for women beyond its rules.
Cultural representations of empowerment, sexuality, womanhood and feminism in the Caribbean can be problematic as well as emancipatory, but shouldn’t simply be dismissed. Signs of our times, and their shifts and debates, continue to come in Carnival music.