Defending our noble art form
By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
February 13, 2023
Businessman Inshan Ishmael plans to take Cro Cro (Weston Rawlins) to court over what he says are Cro Cro's "highly defamatory lyrics about him" in his (Rawlins') 2023 calypso, "Another Sat is Outside Again". He says that he never listens to Cro Cro's calypsoes because they always denigrate the East Indian community. This time, he is really offended.
He says that after listening to "Another Sat is Outside Again", he forwarded the calypso to his attorneys, Richard Jagessar and Anand Ramlogan. "They have found reason for defamation, so they are proceeding, and by the end of this week or early next week, he [Rawlins] should get a pre-action protocol letter from us." (Express, February 9).
I have great respect for Ramlogan's legal acumen. If he says, "There is no grey matter there; [that] there is straightforward defamation," there must be some validity to Inshan's claims. However, we should be careful how we travel down that road.
The calypso represents the literary dimension of traditional Yoruba culture from whence came much of Trinidad's culture. Carnival reflects aspects of the Gelede, one of the most important multidimensional art forms of the Yoruba-speaking people of Dahomey and Western Yoruba, while the calypso itself is derived from Yoruba oral literature and culture.
The calypso is analogous to the Gelede song-poems. It falls within the verbal arts and includes aspects of poetry, satire and musical composition. The song-poems are satirical in content, critique the actions of those in authority, and ridicule undesirable social behaviour among members of the community.
Like the calypsonian, the song-poets "behave as spokesmen for the general public, vis-à-vis policies pursued by persons in authority. Equally, they hold themselves as custodians of society's cultural values and accordingly pose as critics of factors and forces threatening existing standards." (AI Aswaju, Efe Poetry as a Source of Western Yoruba History.)
I have seldom heard of Afro-Trinbagonians taking calypsonians to court for exercising their cultural and social responsibility. When Dr Eric Williams disliked the contents of a calypso, particularly those that were sung against him, he said, "Let the jackasses bray."
Recently, Lady Gypsy (Lynette Steele) sang about her desire to build a political cemetery in which to place PNM politicians. She called them "trash" and said unkind things about the highest officials of the land: Keith Rowley, Prime Minister; Paula-Mae Weekes, outgoing President; Fitzgerald Hinds, Minister of National Security, and lesser officials such as Faris Al-Rawi, Shamfa Cudjoe, and Camille Robinson-Regis whose barber, she suggested "does trim she with a weed-whacker".
Lady Gypsy's unkindest comment was for Colm Imbert. With every bit of double entendre, she declared she would "bury he in the back of my cemetery, turn him upside down, he face ah can't see / Look for the strongest grave digger to bury he / and put a good fork on he". No one lost the double entendre contained in these words.
None of the offended officials threatened to sue Lady Gypsy. They understand the playfulness and nuances of the form and saw Lady Gypsy's calypso as a necessary corrective to their behaviour.
Ironically, Ishan's defamation charge comes just when Gordon Rohlehr, an important literary scholar who sketched out the importance of the calypso arts, was buried. Rohlehr argued that the calypso contained important aspects of what he called a "Caribbean aesthetic", a space in which the philosophical, cultural and sociological signposts of our civilisation are embedded.
If the calypso represents one of the highest forms of our literary arts, one must examine its stylistic features, how well the song-poet presents common concerns to his/her audience; and whether he/she does so in an unfamiliar, strange, or unique manner so that the listener gains a new perspective of the subject under discussion.
When Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses in 1989, the Muslim community was offended because they believed he slandered Allah, their one and only God. Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa condemning Rushdie to death for his alleged blasphemy. Rushdie went into hiding for over 30 years to save his life. In August 2022, he was attacked while giving a lecture in New York. He was stabbed in one of his eyes and one of his hands. Today, he is blind in one eye and cannot even type with his injured hand.
Writers, poets and calypsonians, by the very nature of their work, irritate and provoke members of their society. However, they must be able to do their work with the certainty that they are not subject to physical violence or monetary threats to prevent them from doing so.
Defamation, which covers slander and libel, deals with any civil wrong that has the effect of bringing another person into disrepute, thereby lowering his esteem in the eyes of the public. Slander has to with cultural productions such as songs, utterances and political speeches. In this sense, calypsonians sometimes traverse a fine line between accepted criticism and slander.
One attorney informed me that such slander has nothing to do with tradition, even calypsonians may enjoy what he calls "a greater margin of appreciation". Whatever the margin, nothing should be done to prevent them practising their craft and calling out the shortcomings of their contemporaries.
Inshan told the Express that "Cro Cro better save up some of his CEPEP money", so that he can save himself from the destruction that awaits him. As far as I know, there is nothing dishonourable in working for CEPEP (Community-based Environmental Protection and Enhancement Programme). Cro Cro, however, was acting in the noblest tradition of the calypso arts when he said: "Tell him [Ishmael] to come with it [his defamation charge]. He's disrespectful. I have enough court clothes. I am ready."
Someone must always be prepared to defend the art form.
—Prof Cudjoe's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe.
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