ALL AH WE IS ONE: Censored calypso
The censored calypso is an oxymoron. The calypso is either the unmuzzled voice of the normally voiceless, or it is nothing. The calypso is, according to David Rudder, “the people’s newspaper”. In other words, it is precisely the view and perspective which will not get any airing in the formal sections of the Press, which is the calypsonian’s raw material.
In a free and democratic environment, the powers that be are expected to grin and bear it and thank their stars that this period of free expression is short-lived. Indeed, the more perceptive of the ruling class would be aware that it provides a “safety valve” against more violent forms of social protest and thus, far from repressing it, would encourage and allow it. Eric Williams was smart enough to respond to Chalkdust with a curt and dismissive “Let the jackass sing”.
These lessons seem to have been lost on the Barbadian ruling class and the cultural police who run the National Cultural Foundation (NCF). The idea that a calypsonian must subject his lyrics to an inquisition made up of a jury – not even of his own peers – makes nonsense of the art form itself.
Even in the most repressive medieval kingdoms, there was a role for the “court jester”, who could poke fun at royalty with no fear of losing his head. The value of the “spectacle” as a means of releasing pent-up political tension was clearly understood by the supposedly undemocratic medieval rulers.
The insistence that the NCF must have the final say on the “appropriateness” of the lyrics of calypsonians performing at the NCF-managed events cannot therefore be divorced from a wider discussion of the state of Barbadian democracy.
Barbados is a heavily-policed society and the ordinary Barbadian speaks openly of the existence of a “culture of fear”. It is the role of the cultural artiste to push back the boundaries of freedom. It is for the same reason that Barbadian reggae artiste David Kirton has had to insist in song on his right to wear the “green camouflage”.
Interestingly, although it is never openly stated, the issue in question is not one of lewdness, or smut, but the fear of the “political content” of the calypso. Indeed, built into the calypso art form is the ability to sing smut and protest songs without overtly doing so. How effectively this is achieved is what separates the good from the mediocre.The adjudication of this is the role of the calypso judge, not those who sit on the judiciary.
Ironically, the institution set up to promote Barbadian culture now seeks to limit it. No subject should be off limits to the calypsonian. What is off limits is how he expresses it. The governors must learn to trust the intelligence of the folk.