“Yuh can’t do that!” my boyfriend said when I told him I was to sing in Trinidad’s Rapso week. Ignore him, I thought, but my man then was a member of 3Canal, Trinidad’s most well-known rapso group. Maybe he was right. A British, white woman experimenting with a Trinidadian art form? Was I mad?
The late Lancelot “Kebu” Layne established rapso, the rap of soca, in 1970. Unashamedly political, it uses local dialect and African rhythms to create music that aims to increase political consciousness. In the musical wilderness for years, one man, Brother Resistance, now known as the father of the movement, kept the rapso fire burning. In 1990 Resistance and colleagues established National Rapso Day in Trinidad. This developed into a week and then, as the art form blossomed, a month-long celebration. A staple of the annual festivities is the Breaking New Ground concert, a forum for new talent. It was this I wished to appear in.
To take part I had to attend workshops held in the old premises of Trinidad Theatre Workshop in Port of Spain. Established by Derek Walcott, its venue alone was intimidating, never mind the 30 Trinidadian faces that greeted me on arrival. I was the only foreigner and white woman in the room. As the audition began, I wondered whether I had any right to be there, but it was too late.
My legs shaking, my skin whiter than usual, I stood in front of the founding fathers of rapso. Would they laugh at me, dismiss me with, “white gyal go home,” or worse still, would I be ignored by those I admired? I sang of my frustration. Imprisoned in a color historically associated with prejudice. Fighting against “white lies,” with a call for racial unity. As I rapped, suspicious glances turned to welcoming smiles. Afterwards, fellow performers shook me by the hand. “I thought you’d come to steal our music, but I see you’re one of us, gyal. Respect,” said one.
Over the following weeks we were taught performance techniques. Most of us were new to the scene. Rapso for us was a method of empowerment, a way to use street dialect to voice our fears and concerns. Fellow performers sang of the African/Indian divide, the devastation of AIDS, incest and child abuse. In a country where foreigners are always regarded as “outsiders,” I was accepted because of the message of my rap.
The big day arrived. The Little Carib Theatre in Port of Spain, established by Beryl McBernie (a pioneer of Caribbean dance), was the venue. The stage was decorated with a red, gold and green banner featuring Africa and a raised black fist. The irony of my appearance in front of such a backdrop did not escape me. I was the lone white woman in a lineup of predominant