We is a oil and water people.
A cocoa in the sun people.
A carnival people.
To soak this kingdom, yuh don’t need much—just some rain.
— a Mas Man
“Wherefore, my beloved,
as ye have always obeyed,
not as in my presence only,
but now much more in my absence,
work out your own salvation
with fear and trembling.”
— Philippians 2:12, KJV
“This is my story, this is my song.
Praising my Savior all the day long.”
— Frances J. Crosby, 1873
“You say you want a leader,
but you can’t seem to make up your mind.
I think you better close it, and let me guide you.”
— Prince, Purple Rain, 1984
People go fly.
The dead go rise.
The living go play them.
Iron go knock.
Bottle go break.
Knee go bend.
Tongue go confess.
Kingdom—a Soca Kingdom—go come.
Despers was my Damascus, once. All Stars, another time.
I have spun and spun at a crossroads in Port of Spain to Ella and Devon—Eshu, Ase.
I have seen a Blue Boy fly.
I have seen a Golden Boy beat a magic drum.
I have seen a Golden Calf become a Mad Bull.
I have seen things, so let me testify:
Jump high, jump low, it coming.
And the road will be your church,
the Savannah will be your cathedral.
And Soca will be your praisesong.
We, the people of moments and movements, of shame and of spectacle, will sing.
So sing, my people.
Sing a hymn to soothe your weary souls from the drudgery of everyday life. It will bring you peace, a peace you must also seek. You must go out in the road, put your hands up, close your eyes, breathe deep, and wine like hell for the salvation of your Carnival spirit. Even in the silence of streets you are afraid to walk, you will remember what it is like to feel. Wring the pan and drum from your spine, wring it from your shoulders. Wring out your heart. No one will stop you. Who will dare to tell you how to feel? Who dares to silence your grief? Or mine? We dance to save ourselves out of the abyss, chipping away at its walls.
Carnival coming, and people in fear will dance their terror in the hope that it will save their lives. People forced to numb themselves, who live in a country gripped with fear of death and unspeakable violence, will pulse and break open, dancing a hymn soaked in adrenaline and painted in blood. For them—us—a Road March is the theme song of a funeral procession. Public pain, set to music. We dance at funerals. We sing.
And so it will come to pass that a people on an island will forget they are in a wilderness. Rising waters lift all ships, the people will say, forgetting how to swim. A people who think themselves free will come to call themselves a “kingdom” without asking who among them is king. They forget the blind have no king. The dead have no kingdom.
But we’re still here, you and I. Neither dead nor blind. You and I. Still alive, in a way. Since we’re here, let us think together a bit. First, a couple basic points:
1. Machel is a boss. Late release is good strategy.
2. Popular culture is driven by the market.
3. “Soca Kingdom” might be shit.
Let us at least concede that. He may be easy enough to dislike, but he’s the hero in his own tropical Jungian matrix. In that matrix, Super Blue is the elder—his senex. Super Blue is also a boss, our hearts wrapped in blue. (He’s seen his share of falls and ascendencies. We love and respect him.) Bunji is obviously his shadow (the opposite is true in Bunji’s Jedi/Jungian references in “Vintage Garlin”). Faye-Ann is yet to be factored in (in public).
Archetypes aside, there’s no accounting for taste. And unless you play a song nonstop from now till Carnival, you can’t really force people to like something. (Can you?) It’s not like there’s a “Soca Mafia” silencing other artists, interrupting their competitors’ songs with drivel. (Right? Right.)
The song follows a well-worn formula, as far as songs like this go. The lyrics are also what we should expect them to be: basic. “Stamping” your name on the stage, for example, evokes that civil servant ethos, the standing in lines for hours at a time, only to be dismissed, insulted. But it also reminds us of our desire to legitimize our behavior (bad and good, if there is such a thing), to claim the space (personal), to own it outright. To own ourselves. Stamping the stage is how unfree people free themselves. We stage our liberation in such a way. We dispute squatter’s rights all the time, but squatters—and the landowners who despise them—always find a way to share the road when the time comes.
The fact that it’s “a process about a process” makes it at once a tautology and a metaprocess: a matrix not unlike the one he warns us about in “Take It Slow.” That, I suppose, is something to consider. Coupled with the reference to wining “in front of de people business place,” we could speculate on whether the “Rituals” 😉 of confrontation at the heart of Carnival can make a difference in the ways that matter to us. Or, are we on Charlotte Street, where everybody business is literally on the road? Or are we talking about people who have no business being on the road? Or is it just too late? Who can say? Double-entendres have their uses, though they can sometimes lose their sting—seeming quite numb (before numbing us).
I’m not so concerned with those things, right now, but with the beat. The heart of the matter, so to speak. It, too, is simple. This simplicity—what we may call its elegance—makes the song and the moment brilliant af.
Not “if you don’t hear, you will feel.”
No, Soca says, “Feel. Listen, if you want. Take apart the construction and the arrangement, if you must. But feel! If you do nothing else, feel!”
And I’m here for that. Simply put, if Calypso is the voice of the people, Soca is its soul.
According to Connor Towne O’Neill, when Ed Watson declared calypso dead in 1971, Lord Shorty was “determined to find a music that the young people could be part of.” He went in search of its soul. Led by the prophetic vision of what the soul of a sound might feel like, he went looking for us, feeling around for us in the dark.
It was a moment of existential and sensory transcendence. When he took the “so” from calypso and fused it with “kah,” he didn’t just connect a predominantly West African form to an East Indian one. He also orchestrated the completion of a sonic cycle that, in order to move, had to appear to simplify itself. Some would say too simple, but would follow eventually.
Shorty argued, with music, that to truly express its complexity, Caribbeanness (as he understood it) would have to transcend its form. It would have to transform. To evolve, the power of the word would have to shed its form for another—something more emotionally abstract. Not “soul calypso,” but something simpler and more elemental:
Soca is the afterlife of calypso, a praisesong for people in grief.
In this open yard of black, brown, bronzed, and blackened friars, each song is a hymn, an anthem for lovers, warriors, and heathens. It is a conduit to memory’s future. It is the sublime soundtrack of tormented people. A lovesong for people in search of themselves, a liberation that occurs in spite of themselves.
In a very real sense, then, Soca is a Mas—
and Machel may be its Minshall or its Minstrel.
He may be both. We have helped make him this way. Do we see our handiwork? Do you feel it?
Don’t worry. It coming.
Every rupture will bring forth a Messiah.
Every crisis will produce for us a prophet.
We are Carnival people; our prophets have always been different.
We’ve had Invaders and Executioners,
Stalins and Bombers,
Nelsons and Kitcheners.
We’ve had Sparrows and Swallows,
Roses and Rudders,
Melodies and Shadows.
If we fail to make a prophet, will he not make himself out of dust? Will she not carve herself from stone? Will they not make iron talk when the season comes, bending and hammering themselves into shape? Will we not try to summon that power now, when we need it most? We are a Carnival people—you and I—and our prophets have always been different. Let us chant the incantation like a chorus of our difference and desperate beauty, let us whisper it like a prayer:
We are a Carnival people.
We are a Carnival people.
We are a Carnival people!
Carnival coming, and it must not catch us sleeping. We must not say to ourselves that a kingdom without a king is just an incomplete colony—a colony of missing parts and missing people. We already know that. We must not wonder if Soca is a praisesong. For if it is, then for what are we giving praise? To whom? Through whom?
This pain is proof that we’ve made it to a new year. (Many did not.) To be alive in this dangerous and numbing time, who wouldn’t want to feel something real? We need it. We need something. Who can blame us? Who dares to? Who can judge us?
And who, but a prophet of our making, will lead us in our present libations? Who will decode for us the “Spirit in the spell” we find ourselves in? In the court of public opinion, I am a fool. Who am I to name prophets, to say whether a song is shit or not? What do I know?
What I know is that Carnival coming. And all kinda thing does happen. You just have to pay attention. I have seen a man call himself a rocket man, a minister, a monk, a god—with my own eyes, I’ve seen him descend from the heavens. Others followed.
Is this not something we ought to expect from ourselves? As grounded people—people who can no longer fly—don’t our traditions demand these transformations? Don’t we suspend our own disbelief to sacrifice our bodies on the altar of our misshapen histories? Don’t we turn to ash in this hot sun, mix our ash with water, and bathe ourselves? Don’t we know the feel of sharp sand on our tongues? Or, are we so starved, so desperate that we no longer see ourselves for who we are?
Are we so damaged that we no longer see Carnival for the Mas? Are we that lost? Have we forgotten how to pray, or forgotten what it is to be preyed upon and corrupted?
The answer to all of these questions is Yes.
We are starved and desperate.
We are damaged.
We are corrupt and corrupted.
We forget and have forgotten.
We are cynical.
We are tired.
We are lost.
We—every single one ah we—are in crisis.
So who will lead us?
To soak a kingdom, all you need is saturation. Rain. We were promised the fire next time, but we’ve had a lot of rain. We are soaked to the bone. And still, no king has come.
Who reigns when there is no king?A queen? (No, they beat women here.)
Will a child lead us? (No. We hunt and eat our children here.)
What kingdom comes of a future we have eaten? How can we breathe when our love and our rage and our sex are all so poorly staged? Will Soca reign, or will it rein us in? That, it seems, is the answer. But what is the question? What is the question, and who will come forward to ask it?
What is the difference between the prophets we make and the profits made of us? None.
The difference between a Road March and a funeral procession? None.
Who will lead us if we don’t know the difference between a monk and a Mas? We will sing and take the jamming, wining for our lives while we wait for an answer to come.
Kevin Adonis Browne (@drbrowne) is the author of High Mas: Carnival and the Poetics of Caribbean Culture (2018) and Tropic Tendencies: Rhetoric, Popular Culture, and the Anglophone Caribbean (2013).