Before Bajan superstar Rihanna — the Right Excellent Robyn Rihanna Fenty, “if you nasty”! — starred in the Super Bowl Half Time Show in February to an audience of millions, Trinidadian Nicki Minaj boldly rapped with Madonna in the 2012 edition of that show. (Both Rihanna and Nicki, incidentally, have graced the cover of Caribbean Beat.)
Across the region, there was pride and passion for Caribbean talent on a world stage. But the continued paucity of editorial space in mainstream metropolitan media highlighting the strength of that Caribbean connection harkens back to another time decades earlier. Then, children in the West Indian diaspora were experimenting with music that would create new pathways for global entertainment.
According to the accepted timeline, 50 years ago in the summer of 1973, a Jamaican DJ who had immigrated to the United States almost seven years earlier played at his sister’s block party in the Bronx — birthing hip-hop. DJ Kool Herc (Clive Campbell) was not yet 20 years old.
In 2003, Caribbean Beat gave notice of hip-hop’s Caribbean musical roots. With their DJs toasting and chatting on the microphone over ska and dub rhythms, the impact of 1950s and 60s Jamaican sound systems on the development of the rap music that emerged during those 1970s Bronx summer parties has since been codified by musicologists.
Herc’s Caribbean-American peers developed and grew the genre into the main music export of the US. A roll-call of those founding fathers includes Grandmaster Flash (Barbados-born, Brooklyn-raised), KRS-One (Barbadian father, American mother, Brooklyn-born), and Afrika Bambaataa (Jamaican and Barbadian parents, Bronx-raised), among others.
In a new century, Caribbean-American artists have embraced hip-hop and its variations. Riding on the shoulders of pioneering female rapper Foxy Brown (Trinidadian parents, Brooklyn-born), Nicki Minaj and Cardi B (Dominican Republican father, Trinidadian mother, Manhattan-born) have taken the role of the female MC in the genre to superstar status.
Their influence can be found in rising stars like Young Devyn, who represents a modern incarnation of hip-hop — Brooklyn drill — and who’s proudly “waving her Trini flag, [as] she fuses soca, hip-hop, and R&B.”
Hip-hop’s evolution was global. Across the pond in the United Kingdom, grime and jungle music had their genesis among children of West Indians there, post-Windrush. And on both sides of the Atlantic, a new generation of artists born in Caribbean households were influenced by the music and spirit of an island milieu — food, family, festivities — but has gone “beyond the confines of cultural heritage”.
Today, the music industry looks to social media to discover talent, and to tap into the purchasing power of the influential Gen Z. A pair of Los Angeles-based, self-described Trinidadian-Americans — Bryce Drew and TRISHES — are stepping dauntlessly into the popular independent singer-songwriter market online to chart the impact of dual heritage on a modern music career in the US.
Bryce Drew Davidson (Trinidadian mother, American father) was born and raised in Miami before moving to Nashville, Tennessee — first for a degree from Belmont University, then to launch her music career — then out west to LA. Trinidadian heritage is an important part of her identity as an artist.
“I was raised on the storytelling of calypso music,” she tells Caribbean Beat. “In my lyrics and songwriting, I feel that the conversational storytelling nature stems from this. Trinidadian music is based around connection, and that is at the core of what I do … There is a common thread between the central themes of balance, hope, and love in music from the Caribbean and the messages found in my songs. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.”
Trinidad memories of dancing to the music of Kes and David Rudder at her grandparents’ home linger.
Since partnering with multi-Grammy winning producer Greg Wells a few years ago, Bryce’s deeply personal and confessional songs have taken on a decidedly pop sensibility that she admits is just a first step towards a more all-encompassing cultural embrace.
“Although it may not be noticeable to the average listener, to me the influence of Caribbean music is in everything I do,” she explains. “It’s deeply rooted in who am and I absolutely would love to lean more into my heritage of Caribbean music in the future.”
TRISHES, meanwhile, is the alter ego of Trish Hosein, whose album The Id was reviewed in Caribbean Beat in 2021. She is the child of an immigrant Trinidadian computer genius who relocated with his family to the US when she was about seven years old.
This Berklee College of Music graduate challenges the confines of art and constructs of self by using live looping, visual art and spoken word, and defines her music as “conceptual experimental pop”.
Her undeniably original songwriting, fleshed out by hip-hop beats and pop hooks, examines human struggle to invite listeners on a journey of self-inquiry.
She also recognises her place in the world. On her career in the crowded California indie-pop market, she notes: “I think it’s just hard being heard. It’s the act of being blindfolded and taking an axe to a tree. Sometimes it can feel like nothing is happening because the tree hasn’t fallen, even when you’re only one swing away.”
Unlike many of her peers, she makes a living from her creative endeavours and has never had a “day job”. She is looking to work with some Trinidadian artists doing more traditional Caribbean styles on a project, whether that be new music or remixes.
Her migration from a Trinidad childhood to an American adulthood has afforded her a unique view on privilege, on ethnicity, and on race.
“I think it’s also the reason my [TRISHES] project focuses on seemingly contradicting aspects of self,” she says. “I think a lot of that probably comes from being of two places in a way that I had to decide whether I belonged to neither or both. And I decided I belonged to both.”
Searching for and accepting a new identity is the continuing exercise of these music artists with a heritage spanning regions. Mirroring the hip-hop genesis half a century ago in the US, Caribbean-British youth are driving a new kind of renaissance in music — what The Guardian (UK) called “a new and thrilling jazz movement … born out of fresh experimentalism [that] is reaching far younger, more diverse audiences and doesn’t care for snootiness.”
Nubya Garcia (Trinidadian father, Guyanese mother), Theon Cross (Jamaican father, St Lucian mother), and Moses Boyd (Dominican and Jamaican grandparents) are among its leaders since the 2010s.
There is an old Caribbean witticism: “If a dog has puppies in an oven, do you call it bread?” This question mirrors one asked by sociologists that ponder nationality and identity: what does it mean to be Caribbean if you are not born there, but your parents are?
Garcia emphasised a few years ago that, “I am Caribbean and I play jazz.” However, she would never use the term “Caribbean jazz” to describe her brand of music, which freely pulls from the sounds of the African and Caribbean diasporas — calypso, dub, Afrobeat.
“I did not grow up in the Caribbean,” she explains. “I honestly don’t have a first-hand knowledge of what that is. I don’t really know enough about what Caribbean jazz is to call myself part of that.”
Caribbean people hold on to heritage as a badge of honour. A metropolitan experience shaped by connections to that heritage has proved to be a powerful force, expanding the Caribbean footprint on new music globally.
The migrations of colonial Caribbean folk to “Mother England” from the late 1940s — a metaphorical movement from the periphery to the centre — sparked a culture shift in the UK that continues today. In America, Caribbean immigrants’ heritage has in turns transformed the musical landscape and subtly added new twists to the canon of popular music there.
The creation of new music legacies by Caribbean musicians across the diaspora is happening right before our eyes — and their stories are still to be told.
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