Recently, Bajan Vibes sat down with ten-time calypso monarch Red Plastic Bag at Three Houses Park in St Philip, his home parish, to speak to him about his journey over the last three decades. Below is an excerpt from the interview with our Reporter Davandra Babb.
What year did you start your calypso/Crop Over career?
started singing calypso in 1979 at a domestic competition in this area. After winning this competition in 1979/1980, people from the area asked me to get involved in a tent called Conquerors Calypso Tent. That was my first entry into what would be considered a Crop Over tent. To me it was a big step, I was actually afraid to get involved. But having done my first tent at St George Secondary School, I enjoyed it and continued. That would have been in 1982 singing a song called Mr Harding and Sugar Made Us Free, and went on to take part in the calypso competition that year; and my life changed forever.
Before you were encouraged to get involved in Crop Over, what did you really want to do?
When I entered the calypso arena, yes I had a love for calypso; I never thought that I would have been a calypsonian. I wanted to be a teacher or policeman. I guess God wanted me to be a calypsonian. I like helping people. Having gone into the competition and winning the first year, having the support behind me, people were excited about how I would come back, how I would continue to produce these songs, and the pressure was and still is extremely high; and my life was never the same. You are now in the public’s eye, the public’s domain; it’s a lot of pressure.
What is your memory of your first Crop Over?
: The first Crop Over will always be etched in my memory –– having gone into it and winning the first time. But there was a Crop Over in 1998. I remember going into that Crop Over as virtually an underdog. The newspapers on the day were choosing their top three and my only placing, as I can remember, was as a dark horse. No other person had me in their top three. It really fuelled my enthusiasm to go out there and do well. I won that competition by 40 points. That was a memorable Crop Over for me. Having won that competition, it sparked a high level of excitement for me.
What is your worst memory of Crop Over?
: My worst memory for Crop Over would be in 1985 when I had my mishap onstage. In the middle of my song . . . I forgot my lyrics. That was really tough, especially because of fans being disappointed. But it made me stronger and I was able to bounce back.
How do you handle the pressure that comes from the industry?
When expectations are high, it puts you in a position where you are constantly under scrutiny and over the years that has taken its toll on me. I have lost my hair. When I started, I had hair and you know the whole feeling of wanting to do well and wanting to excel is a tremendous amount of pressure; but I am committed to what I am doing. I have a strong love for the art form. My wanting to do well and wanting to represent the ones who I consider to be in the low socioeconomic bracket especially help to drive my enthusiasm for wanting to represent them.
I have always said the calypso stage is my parliament. There is where I represent the people. Being a representative of the masses, mirror of the society, people’s newspaper, the storyteller, I feel within myself going on stage getting the opportunity I need to use that platform to really represent. That in itself is a tremendous pressure.
When did you write your first social commentary?
I wrote my first social commentary in 1979. I wrote a song called 13 Pounds Of Ham . . . . It was funny; it was a humorous calypso but a social commentary in every sense of the word; and I won the competition that year.
Where do you get the inspiration from to write?
My ears are close to the ground. I am very cognizant of my surroundings. I listen to people and I am very much a part of society. I am in no way detached from what is going on. I read a lot. When I decide to write a song, it is not me on stage. I write my songs from being amongst the people. I feel all their pain, all their concerns. I am aware so I write my songs based on that –– from the other things that are happening in society that are creating a concern not only for the wider cross section of people but generally. Things that I personally may have an issue with I tend to comment.
I believe the calypso stage is a wonderful opportunity for me to say the things that I want to say, because I don’t get a chance to speak in parliament; so I use the calypso stage as my platform.
Did you ever imagine that you would have won ten crowns?
very year I used to perform, I would say you know this is my last. I never saw myself winning ten crowns. Victory for me came when I conceptualized a song, wrote and recorded it and sang it for the people and they responded to it and felt as if it was them singing. That is victory for me. I have actually succeeded in being their mouthpiece. So my victory sometimes comes long before I go into a calypso final. I don’t believe that seven people can determine the power of a song.
Have you ever been criticized for things you put in your songs, and how have you dealt with it?
I have been ridiculed. Some people take some things in the wrong way from which it is meant, but that is understood. Everyone is not going to accept what you are saying; but for the most part I try not to say things in a way that would cause pain for people, because at the end of the day people have families and people around them that can be hurt by certain things. I am very careful about the things I say, but I need to comment on the issue.
Sometimes it may rub people the wrong way and they would feel a way about it, but at the end of the day, the story has to be told. Musically I have changed a whole lot. I was extremely reserved on stage. I still am, but I am a lot more open and a lot more comfortable with expressing myself.
Will you ever return to the Pic-O-De-Crop competition?
: At this point in time I’m not going to say never. It’s always a wrong thing to say never. But I can safely say I have no intentions of going back in the Pic-O-De-Crop competition. I think there comes a time in everyone’s career or life when they must know when to move on from something and look to other things; try to create other areas of development.
I believe that the competition has its place for those who want to be in competition; they can remain, but if you’re looking to develop musically and if you are looking to present your music to a wider market, it is very important that you don’t allow yourself to be boxed in in that area. A lot of people in Barbados were beginning to view me just as a social commentator and as someone they want to see in competition, when in truth and in fact the world is there at our doorstep and for us to conquer. There just comes a time when you have to do something different.
Did you always want to do the party type music?
:Yes in a way I always love to see people respond to music when they dance which is why over the year I try to put some strong social commentary in the party type songs so while people are dancing they hear a message as well. I always wanted not to allow myself to be boxed in. So this is why i provided that balance of having the party songs as well. Not many people are going to invite you out of Barbados to sing social Commentary. If you are going to be going outside of Barbados to perform they want to hear the party songs and that is just a reality. In order to go outside and perform in order to make money to produce the other songs i had to make some party songs as well.
If you had to choose between the party music and social commentary, which would you?
: At this point in time, I would say the sweet soca song is a far more marketable song. At this point in time I believe that is the avenue I would want to take in order to promote and be a part of the drive to promote soca music.
How does your family accept your music?
g my songs in the house for my children to let them hear. I am reined in quite a bit because of my upbringing. My mum was a Christian and I was brought up in the church. Every time I compose a song I think about how my mother would take it. And that would live with me as long as I live. I would think about how she would view the song, if she would be satisfied with what I said all that helps to shape my music. My children also must be comfortable with what I put in a song because I see them as part of who I am. I don’t want to do anything that they would be uncomfortable with.
How did the loss of your mother affect this Crop Over?
: It has affected Crop Over in a major way. My mother never wanted me to be involved in Crop Over. She always said I should be singing for the Lord. Up until I was 19 or so I was in church every Sunday. She always wanted me to remain apart of the church. Maybe her last effort was sending a message to me at this time. She knew that it would disrupt my Crop Over. My Crop Over went a little off balance. It is difficult to take on the exciting part of the music and deal with the loss. I am very much in limbo; sometimes I go numb. It has definitely not been as exciting as I would have wanted, but I am going to pull through. The love that I have for my mother will always be there.
Do you have a favourite social commentary and party song?
: Yes I have favourite song. My favourite song is one called Black Man. It is difficult for me to overlook the impact that Ragga Ragga has created. There is a response to this song I would never forget. I performed in 1994 around Mother’s Day and every single person in Madison Square Garden was on their feet. It is hard to explain the feeling I get when I hear this song.
Do you have a favourite song for Crop Over other than your own?
There are several songs out there and I try not to highlight a specific song because they are people who take things very personally. But I think this is a good year for sweet soca songs. I think it is a good thing that is happening because this is the type of songs that will take our soca music far.
What are you looking forward to most for the rest of Crop Over?
: I would really like to be on the road moving from band to band on Kadooment Day. I would really enjoy that. I am hoping that we can continue to have a festival that is free of violence. It is okay to have a drink, but I am not one to encourage someone to overdrink and make a fool of themselves. The lewd and crude is not necessary. We can dance, we can wine, we can express ourselves; but it doesn’t have to go to the level where we disgrace ourselves.
Do you think the future of Crop Over is in good hands?
: Yes. But I want to say that not as many youngsters are sticking to social commentaries as much as they are staying with the party. We have to look at how we present social commentary; so it can be palatable to the young people, that they would want to get involved in it. Young people get involved in music that excites them. It is okay to talk about tradition, but we should never fight against change; it is constant. Let the young people strut their stuff and let their creative juices flow.