I came to the capital city of Trinidad and Tobago to conduct preliminary ethnographic fieldwork on rapso music, a genre indigenous to Trinidad that developed out of calypso music and the spoken word tradition. Music of the African Diaspora has long been associated with acts of resistance, often in reaction to the oppressive conditions of slavery and colonialism. Led by artists such as Brother Resistance and Brother Shortman, Trinidad’s rapso scene arose out of the Black Power revolution of the 1970s and advocates for confidence and self-awareness in the black Trinidadian community. Musically, rapso can be defined in many different ways. Brother Resistance defines it as de power of de word in de riddim of de word. I came to Trinidad to better understand contemporary rapso music both in terms of how it relates to Trinidadian identity and how it relates to other genres, such as calypso music and American hip-hop.
My fieldwork thus far has consisted primarily of interviews, observation of daily life here in Port of Spain, and participant observation of some great concerts. This being exploratory ethnographic work, one of my primary goals has been to get to get a glimpse of the contemporary rapso scene, and two events I have attended have helped me to do just that.
The first event was the Emancipation Day Street Procession that occurred on August 1, beginning in Independence Square and making its way through downtown before ending at the Queen’s Park Savannah. In the Savannah itself was “Emancipation Village,” an assortment of arts, music, food, and educational tents organized by the Emancipation Support Committee. The village opened the Thursday prior to Emancipation on Saturday, and all of these activities were to commemorate the abolishment of British Slavery in the Caribbean in 1834.
During the procession, I was able to walk alongside the rapso music truck and see musicians such as Brother Resistance and Karega Mandela, who are both key members of the rapso movement and very popular musicians. As a member of the Network Riddim Band in the 1980s, Brother Resistance is known as one of the foremost pioneers of rapso music. However, the first rapso song is widely known to be “Blow Away,” released in 1970 by Lancelot Layne, who later made it one of his missions to get Emancipation Day declared a national holiday. Trinidad now has one of the largest Emancipation Day celebrations in the Caribbean. It was a very new experience for me to see Emancipation from slavery commemorated in such a large, public celebration. It was also very valuable to my work to see rapso music featured, because rapso is heavily tied to consciousness, knowing oneself, and knowing one’s worth.
The second event I attended was 3canal’s “Beatout 2015,” one of a series of concerts leading up to Trinidad’s elections on September 7. 3canal is one of the most visible and active bands in the rapso scene, and have been so for over a decade. Much more than a concert, these shows also feature a rally from 3canal’s “political party,” the Big Love Party (BLP).
While deeply rooted in social commentary, the rapso scene in Port of Spain is very diverse, and I am grateful for the opportunity from CLACS to establish contacts and get a firsthand account of the music that is being made here. In building on this research, I am interested in conducting more fieldwork to understand how cultural policy affects local music, as well as how radio airplay is negotiated between local and foreign musics, all the while focusing on how rapso is positioned in these conversations.
Allie Martin is a Master’s student in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology at IU.