The Soca Monarch preliminary judges sat stone-faced in the National Lotteries Control Board corporate booth at the Queen's Park Oval in a pre-Carnival meeting in Port of Spain.
But they perked up when a smiling, effervescent Simon Baptiste popped in for a meet and greet before the judges ploughed through 175 pre-recorded power soca offerings and 90 pre-recorded groovy soca songs to kick off the annual competition. The new creative director of the Play Whe International Soca Monarch noticeably lifted the mood in the room. Now his job would be to lift the level of competition in the Soca Monarch.
It’s a tough and thankless job rife with singers possessing tender egos, but Baptiste, a very young-looking 47-year-old former entertainment manager, felt eager to plunge into the job. Baptiste bowed out of managing any singers before his appointment as creative director.
“I have always been able to see potential in people and events. This event has taken some hits over the years, but I think the potential for this show is global,” he says, excitement rising in his voice. Baptiste is always upbeat and optimistic.
“I know over a million people are watching Soca Monarch because it allows them to connect with our diaspora, but it can be so much more."
With anyone but Baptiste, these lofty dreams would seem quixotic. But Baptiste has a plan.
“Understanding the power of the brand and what it represented, I didn’t want to see it falter,” he says as he dashes from the Oval to his office. Outside, he greets the street sweeper with the same enthusiasm as he greeted the judges. There is no doubt that managing the Soca Monarch kingdom is what Baptiste should be doing. After attending the University of Miami, he worked in a US-based entertainment firm that hired Boys 2 Men and Janet Jackson.
“I decided I had enough of that life, and I had this love for Trinidad and my people,” he says. Two young artistes, Vanessa "Precious" Thomas and Edghill "Maga Dan" Thomas (now MX Prime), propelled his venture into local entertainment management.
“Precious had the hit song, Riding It,” he proudly proclaims.
His first interaction with Soca Monarch was with Precious in her 2000 performance. Since then, he had many dealings with Soca Monarch’s founder, William Munro.
“Such a charismatic figure. So passionate. Such a leader, and like me, when I believe in a brand, I champion that brand. Seeing how he operated over the years, a lot of us emulated him.”
Baptiste has his own brand of charisma. He is the son of legendary former Trinidad Express newspaper editor-in-chief, Owen Baptiste, a tough, creative and astute journalist. Dealing with adversity might just be in Baptiste’s blood. He says he once asked his father, “How do you deal with the backlash you get when you write a story that people don’t like?”
In true Owen Baptiste, blunt style, the journalist said, “You do your job and deal with it.”
Baptiste says, “I learned from my dad you have to believe in what you’re doing and what you represent. From dad, I learned to stand up for what you believe in. He was always fearless. He taught me that money should never be the priority. It never compromised his integrity.”
Without hesitation he names his mother, Rhona, as “one of the strongest people I know.” His mother and godmother, Sister Marie Therese, are people he most admires most.
“My mother has survived everything – the good, the bad and the ugly – and my godmother is over 90 and still writing books. There’s a level of tenacity those women have. I have so much respect for women because they are just so much stronger.”
He believes competition can be “healthy and allow people to push themselves to excel. It has to be positive and it has to enable people to grow from it.”
That’s a noble sentiment in a bitter world of competition where anger and pomposity often reign. He has always enjoyed the pageantry of Soca Monarch “…the energy it brings, the ability to be a mecca and bring performers from other islands.”
His initial dream was to uplift the quality of the Soca Monarch productions.
“The production value has to match everything we see anywhere else in the world." As he plunged into the competition, he felt his first year would be successful if he could discover a way to go beyond the show.
“What is more important is what happens afterwards. If we can get into communities after the show and do workshops in communities. To me, that is where Soca Monarch has underachieved. It must be a 365-day job.”
Ultimately, he believes the event must be a learning experience for artistes.
“The production quality has to step up, but that can only happen if we offer the tools and guidance that makes artistes more professional.”
This is where Baptiste’s tough side emerges.
“Because you may be popular, doesn’t mean you can just run on stage and have last year’s costumes and a couple of dancers. This is about more than fighting for a prize. I think helping less experienced artistes has to be the job. You have some artistes who have deep pockets. I have seen people who don’t have the means to develop the best show and performance. It’s a David and Goliath situation.”
The true test of Baptiste’s chutzpah came on February 12 with a brouhaha featuring last year’s monarch Hollice “Mr Killa” Mapp relinquishing the fight to keep his crown. Mr Killa did not feel he was being treated regally enough. But he couldn’t kill Baptiste’s spirit.
“The incident was a bit unfortunate. I felt it could have been handled differently by him and his team. It almost felt like everything that was said was our fault, but I felt there were a lot of other factors in there. I think when you release a story to the public, it must be in a way to make people understand both sides of the situation.”
Baptiste says he met with Mr Killa and his management team after the Grenadian artiste’s withdrawal from the competition.
“It was cordial. We heard each other’s side. Although he didn’t re-enter the competition, there was a feeling we could work together in the future. There’s no bad blood between us. It’s just understanding things didn’t go the way he wanted or the way we wanted.”
Heading towards the finals, Baptiste said, “We’re developing a good bond with singers. I feel we can talk about issues that exist without an air of hostility. The competitive feeling sometimes gets overblown. Now, there’s a feeling of let’s support each other and gets the message out into the world rather than think of this just as a rivalry.”
Baptiste says, he still sees, “every day as a blessing. I learn from everything.”
He accepts that there will always be controversy.
“Some purists question the decision to let young people and their dancehall music into the show. But why should we deny our youth and this movement the chance to use their voice? I feel good about being all inclusive.”
In the end, excitement outweighs the problems. His friend, renowned choreographer Christopher Scott and his team are coming to work with the Soca Monarch show “.. for practically nothing because he loves soca music. So there is good,” Baptiste laughs.
The work may be challenging and fun, but it is no joke.
“I have always had a passion for great movements that create change,” says Baptiste.
Expect to experience those changes in the Soca Monarch finals.