In 1985, Adonijah performed his now-classic song Woman, which lamented the negative treatment meted out to women in calypso. He criticized fellow calypsonians who often portrayed women as sex objects. As far back as the 1950s, calypso often casted females con artists or other unsavoury characters.
Sadly, they never heeded Ado’s call, and many songs, especially the more uptempo ones, are still sexist and misogynistic in nature. Now, this bias has extended to female performers in the genre, who have grown tremendously in terms of quantity and quality over the last three and a half decades.
Trinidadian soca artiste and songwriter Nadia Batson has complained that shows held during Carnival seasons across our region and elsewhere have tended to push female performers into the background.
In her words: “I’ve done many shows, especially this year after Carnival, where I was the only female on the cast. We have so many fantastic female soca artists, and a lot of times it irks me because you would look at a flyer and see one, possibly two women, but you would see six guys.”
The issue Nadia has chosen to highlight has its genesis in our traditional view of calypso in general, where it was considered a genre fit for the lowest classes in society. It could never be played on a Sunday and “no lady with class” would be seen associating herself with it.
It might have manifested itself when the first group of women entered the field in the 1970s in Trinidad like Barbados-born Singing Francine and Calypso Rose, and later on, Singing Sandra. Denyse Plummer, another Trinidadian performer, incurred even more wrath because she was considered Caucasian! Yet, the quality of their music could never be denied and some of their work is considered classic today.
In Barbados, during the 1980s there were one or two women in the calypso arena, but they hardly ever made it past the preliminary stages at Pic-O-De-Crop. Lady Ann was the first woman to reach the finals in 1986 and placed fifth.
The game changed with Rita Forrester’s victory in 1988. But Barbadians did not react very favourably to her win, in some respects because she beat the crowd favourite (now Minister of the Creative Economy, Culture and Sports) John King.
Rita was a relative newcomer, and not only that, she was a woman who originally hailed from Guyana. She was subjected to vile gossip about how she achieved her victory, and people actually cheered when she placed last in 1989 when she came back to defend her title.
Despite that, Rita’s victory inspired more women to get involved in kaiso. By 1989, there was at least one woman in every tent and two women placed second and fourth in the competition that year, namely Miss B (Margaret Bovell) and Marcee (Marcia Welch).
Over the years, Lady Ann, Nikki V, the late Carolyn Tassa Forde, TC, Kathy Lewis, and in more recent times, Chrystal Cummins-Beckles Holder, Enobong, Sammi Jane, Donella, and others have done well in the field, but after the backlash the National Cultural Foundation received in the wake of Rita’s 1988 victory, it took nearly thirty years before a woman took the top prize at Pic-O-De-Crop again when Aziza Clarke won the title in 2016.
When it comes to the more uptempo soca, the genre owes a significant debt of gratitude to Alison Hinds, who truly revolutionised the game when she took centre stage in 1996 with Ragamuffin. She brought an element of sex appeal to the female calypsonian, in that she wore outfits that were considered revealing and her gyrations on stage, while no worse than her male contemporaries, were frowned upon because the ‘old school moral majority’ among us believed that “young ladies should not behave in that manner’.
These naysayers did not stop Alison Hinds from winning titles and gaining recognition across the Caribbean diaspora, as lots of young women performers gravitated towards party music and followed her example in attire and stage presentations. Many have come and gone, but Alison is still considered the Soca Queen of the Caribbean.
Nadia Batson, who is also involved in vocal production, artist development and heads her own all-female band, Sass, said: “We are killing it and we have to make sure we have more female representation.
“At the end of the day, we have women who are not coming into the business because they are thinking it is too difficult to break through.”
One thing she did not disclose, particularly since recent revelations in the field of sports and in the corporate world, was whether the women who appear on these calypso shows are paid the same amount of money to perform as the men on the card.
In 2004, the late Roy Byer and Merle Niles decided to harness the talent of the many women involved in kaiso by organising the Stardust Kaiso Revue, a tent of an all-female cast including the backing band. This experiment only lasted a couple of years, but it was a bold step in the right direction.
Given the many talented women in the field now, maybe it is time for another enterprising promoter to put on a show with an all-female cast of calypsonians on a regular basis and gauge the public’s response. Even if it does not succeed financially at the outset, it should not be a one-off.
As Adonijah said: “it’s time to give the woman her due” in calypso.