Censorship and the calypso
Arts on Sunday
By Al Creighton
February 1, 2004
There's no such thing as 'only literature.'
Every line commits you.
(Edward Baugh, Truth and Consequences)
Tear him for his bad verses.
(Shakespeare, Julius Caesar)
We are the music makers
We are the dreamers of dreams
We are the movers and shakers
Of the world forever it seems.
One man with a dream at leisure
Can go out and conquer a crown
And three with a new song's measure
Can trample an empire down.
Censorship of calypsos becomes a topical issue in Guyana, Trinidad and Barbados from time to time, and on each occasion it generates the same kind of resistance and controversy. The calypso is a very public art form and therefore it can demonstrate the influence of art and the responsibility of the artist. Literature can bring down governments, build empires; a calypsonian can stir up public opinion or come under public fire for his bad verses. Both those in authority and those who are governed have a tendency to (mistakenly) regard poetry as 'only literature' without practical value. Yet, without knowing it, they recognize art as the mover and shaker of the world.
It is for this very reason that censorship exists. It is almost as old as literature itself, and in the Caribbean it is as old as the calypso, which has a history of wars against censorship. Many very interesting factors emerge. Every act of censorship confirms, if not reinforces, the real power of art in the public domain. Ironically, throughout history, censorship has been responsible for the creation of many new forms of art. Censorship is not tolerated by the public and the authorities never win. Although censorship has usually been associated with dictatorships, following Plato, democracies have accepted it as an unquestioned part of social control and have depended on it to help maintain order.
Because of its origins in slavery, its turbulent development in the depressed urban environments of the late nineteenth century, the calypso is regarded as a primarily working class art form. Its social commentary elements and its function over the years have given it the role of vox populi, and frequently brought it in conflict with colonial authority. Authority's response was censorship, and there were notorious cases in Port-of-Spain during the heat of the 1930s. That period is regarded as a Golden Age for the calypso in Trinidad, and it was then that the Theatres and Dance Halls Ordinance gave legal teeth to censorship of the calypso.
In contemporary times, formal censorship tends to be avoided, but in Barbados, Trinidad and Guyana there have been a long series of occasional controversies. The subject became topical most recently when the Guyana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC) pulled the song I Will Resign by reigning Calypso King, the Mighty VJ, from the airwaves on January 21. As expected, a storm threatened, but before the dense cumulonimbus clouds could gather, it was all cleared up by January 23 when the brief ban was lifted.
It had something to do with the fact that all entrants in the Mashramani contest have to have their lyrics cleared by the committee before they are accepted into competition. The committee and the Ministry of Culture, however, disassociated themselves from the ban, protesting that they had no problems with the lyrics. That was a relief because there will always be a big problem if politicians or any agent of the state such as a Ministry have to approve calypso lyrics. One would hope that the Minister of Culture has been heeding the repeated advice that she should stay as far as she can from censorship of plays at the Cultural Centre and of Mashramani calypsos.
She cannot win. The I Will Resign incident turned out to be a virtual false alarm and there really was no ban, but GBC has not escaped from it unscathed. Neither will the Minister or the state if any of their agents impose censorship. There was an occasion in 1997 when The Mighty Rebel's The President Lie was withdrawn from the airwaves. At that time the President was critically ill, and GBC and the Rebel came to an amicable agreement that a temporary suppression of the song was the sensitive thing to do. But generally, government ministers and their agents should not be the ones to vet calypsos or plays. At any rate, a ban makes martyrs out of indifferent compositions, and is the quickest way of making them popular.
During the 2003 Crop-Over in Barbados the Pic of the Crop Calypso competition had its share of controversy over censorship. In Barbados there is a strict requirement for all calypso lyrics to be vetted by the National Cultural Foundation (NCF) before they can be performed in the national semi-finals and the finals. Colin Spencer, one of the more popular contenders, was picked for the semis, but was late in handing in his lyrics. In any case, when they were received, they were deemed unsuitable because of libellous and politically offensive material. There was not enough time for him to submit a substitute entry and he was debarred from the competition, which caused a storm. Many queried the decision, arguing that Spencer had been singing the same song in the tents without any restraints. The NCF explained that they had no control over what happened in the tents, but they were responsible for the semi-finals, and once the song was performed there, they could be sued for the publication of libel.
There were, however, further political involvements. The Mighty Gabby, who was previously a supporter of the opposition DLP, recently joined the ruling political party, the BLP. A long-standing picon calypso war had been going on between Gabby on one side and Spencer and Kid Site on the other. This became increasingly acrimonious until Gabby shocked the audience by performing new lines added to one of his songs in which he attacked Kid Site in a very personal and insensitive manner. Some 36 years ago, Kid Site's mother had been murdered by his father, and Gabby exhumed the incident in his calypso. There was an overwhelming feeling among the audience that the song should have been censored. Gabby pleaded extreme provocation, but eventually apologized.
Then, on the day before the semi-finals, the government announced that they had honoured Gabby by appointing him a Cultural Ambassador. On the night itself, therefore, when Colin Spencer's exclusion because of his anti-government calypso was announced,
several members of the audience put the whole saga in a political context, and booed the pro-government Gabby when he appeared, prompting him to withdraw from the contest. He gave as his reason, that his new position as an ambassador representing all the artists, made it difficult for him to compete.
In Trinidad, the most recent controversy surrounds the song by Cro Cro, in which he says that corrupt politicians and businessmen should be kidnapped and made to repatriate money stashed away in foreign bank accounts. Given the crime situation in Trinidad, which involves several serious cases of kidnapping, there is a cry for the censoring of this calypso because it may be regarded as inciting persons to commit crimes. But no official action has been taken against it.
Neither was there any official action against Sugar Alloes a few years ago, when one of his songs, The Lady is a Tramp contained lyrics deemed offensive because they referred to the wife of then Prime Minister Panday in very unflattering fashion. A voice from the government said public funds should not be used to pay Alloes to sing the calypso in a national show in which the Prime Minister was a member of the audience. There were other previous controversies, such as the one involving Little Black Boy, a winning calypso by Stalin, considered racially dangerous. It analysed the plight of black boys who turn to crime, seeming in parts, to implicate other racial groups in the Trinidad society.
The Art Of Censorship
Last week I cited a number of cases of censorship affecting the calypso in Guyana, Barbados and Trinidad. There were only rare incidents of official censorship when calypsos were actually banned by the state in recent contemporary times. The interesting point is that although the general population will protest such official action, most of the cases cited were cases of censorship by the people. In these instances where there was no action by the authorities, the public was demanding censorship whenever they felt that a calypso could have negative effects or that it breached social codes or norms of decency or posed a threat to some aspect of social order.
Even in most of those cases the state has been reluctant or slow to take official action against calypsonians. This might well be because they recognize another power. Calypsonians do not only exercise the power of literature, but they are stronger because they are empowered by the people. There have been occasions when politicians would have liked to ban songs, but they are aware of both the power and the consequences. Such instances have occurred in Trinidad and Barbados where the art of the calypso is much stronger than it is in Guyana and much more likely to affect social thinking. They are not as powerful in Guyana because of quality, and because of more limited publication and circulation, but the principles are the same.
Official censorship, even in worthy cases, is always problematic and not always so clear-cut (see Stabroek News Editorial, January 23, 04 for a very good analysis). And it is always resisted by the public. The great irony is that members of the same public that defend the free speech of the artist call for censorship whenever any song offends them. To go further, they accept censorship as a necessary part of normal life. While they loudly protest a Government ban on any work of art, they support film censorship in the cinema and on television; they support a radio ban on whatever they consider indecent. The same Barbadians who chastised the authorities for the exclusion of Colin Spencer's calypso were calling for censorship of Gabby's lyrics which offended their sense of decency.
Censorship, then, is now entrenched in the society, and it is almost as old as literature. Greek philosopher Plato is held up as the patriarch of literary censorship. He wrote in The Republic that youths being trained to take leadership roles in the society should not be allowed to read poetry. The poets did not always conform to the Platonic ideals of religion and human behaviour and their writings were therefore dangerous because of their power to influence impressionable minds.
But Plato's dictates were theoretical, since his ideal republic did not really exist, but democratic societies have followed him ever since in less direct ways. What has been quite real and direct, however, has been the long history of the use of censorship by dictatorships and religious extremists who have used it to suppress and control in ways that could make Plato regret his theories. Put very simply, that is why people are now so distrustful of state censorship, which they will always see as politically motivated.
Another interesting irony arising from political censorship is that history has declared it counterproductive. That is because a number of new literary forms came into being because of political censorship. Although the ancient Greeks prided themselves on the democratic nature of their states, they practised political censorship. Socrates and his drink of hemlock can testify to that. But so can the dramatists.
Greek comedy is noted for its use of political and social satire in which it commented critically on the state and public affairs. The characters were often modelled on real personalities in the society, including powerful politicians. But they had to be fictitious because the playwrights dared not identify them blatantly. The actors wore masks, with each mask representing a particular character. It was often in the masks that resemblance was created and personalities could be recognized, but this was dangerous for the dramatist. They then resorted to departures into fantasy, and created choruses of animals such as The Wasps and The Frogs, who could speak and make comments. Here the artist was safe because, after all, his play was removed from immediate reality. Aristophanes was famous for this kind of play.
Out of this distant background one of the exciting forms of literature emerged against the autocracies of the Middle Ages. Writers were in real danger; heads could roll for a piece of art that criticized a king. New forms of allegory developed with writers using art to disguise dissent. But it did not stop there, the art of allegory became so interesting to writers that they experimented with different ways of using it even when there was no real threat from an absolute despot.
This resulted in works such as Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, a fantasy for children said to be an ingeniously hidden story for critical adults. (The problem with Carroll is that he was so ingenious that his sub-text meaning remains very well hidden.) That apart, the allegorical model produced masterpieces like Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Naipaul's The Sufferage of Elvira and Mimic Men, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley.
The infamous McCarthy era in the USA with its vicious anti-communist witch hunts and prohibitions against communism was responsible for one of the most intriguing dramas of modern American literature. Arthur Miller's play The Crucible is a spellbinding visit to the cruel witch-hunts of Salem in the American past in order to cover a compelling comment on the campaign against communists and suspected communists in the American present. In his bid to escape the censors, Miller produced a memorable theatrical work.
Devices against censorship also produced art forms among the enslaved Africans in the Caribbean. They were already given to satire and lampoon, but they soon learnt to disguise subversive material in artistic production. The kamboulay/canboulay performance, like a number of other dances, hid a subversive act under what appeared to be fun and frolic.
Other forms in this art of disguise takes us back to where we started: the art of the calypso. One of the most enduring skills in the calypso is the craft of double entendre. This translates into "hearing double" or "double understanding." Words and expressions are deliberately and cleverly used in the lyrics to convey a double-meaning. The device started as a way of avoiding censorship because of the politics, sexuality or other irreverence contained in the compositions. Double entendre still remains one of the greatest arts of calypso composition, and it owes its existence to political censorship.