Coming from Moruga with ten pound of collie
In a jeep, meh two eye bloody
Just get ah golden grade, if you smell he, yow
Cut and go through dem road block, we nuh studyhow…
And if you want it compress, we have it by de block
You want it seedless, pile and stock
We have it by the ounce and by the pound and by the truck
We have it by de CEPEP and de URP wuk
And all the vex police vex, cyah stop we crop
The people want the grade from the mountaintop
So me put on me rubber boots
Ah couple pounds me go chop
Supply the block, dat’s meh wuk…
– “Coming from Moruga”, by Prophet Benjamin, reggae singer, Trinidad
In The Middle Passage, written when he returned to the Caribbean from England, briefly, on a sponsored tour of newly independent Trinidad, VS Naipaul dismissed us, his own people, as noisy and “half-made”; we had created nothing and would create nothing – except the infernal steel-pan.
Fifty years later, on an island barely 1864 square miles (Tobago is all of 116 square miles), with just 1.3 million people on it, we have added to the racket of the pan. Thirty five (yes, 35) radio stations blasting soca, reggae, dancehall, hip hop, rap, R&B, gospel, Indian classical and chutney music; 700,000 vehicles; and the alarmingly regular wail of police sirens. Also, depending where you live, sporadic gunshots.
Another youth got killed by the police yesterday. Robbery. Just got the news from Chow, the Rasta fella living up the road – it’s someone I know. The tall, good-looking guy who lived opposite Luxury City, the Chinese restaurant. He was mixed with the same ratio of African and Indian blood as my brother. He had a veggie and fruit stall; used to hustle weed too. Avalon and three other fellas – one a fireman – posed as health inspectors to get into the home of a rich businessman in Cunupia, then pulled guns on the man and his family. One of the guns was an Uzi.
Four hundred murders last year. Four hundred the year before that. Most of the victims are young black men. Most came from homes where a single mother was trying to raise them by working at KFC or cutting grass for the state; Daddy in jail, dead, unemployed, in the States or just can’t be bothered.
For black boys from ‘hotspots’ along the notorious East-West Corridor of north Trinidad, the drug block is the only business that will hire them. Trinidad is a narco-state; don’t let the oil and gas dollars fool you – that’s just the legit economy. Weed is the currency of the underground economy and it’s expensive like hell here. So illegal and expensive, it’s worth killing a man for. In the concrete jungle of housing projects like Maloney Gardens and Beetham Estate, role models look and sound like Dr Dre, Jay-Z, Kanye, Kartel and Gully Bop – “My God dem no bad like we!”
I’m watching Derron Sandy, lead workshop facilitator on the Courts Bocas Speak Out Schools Tour, perform his poem “I am so ugly”. The camera pans around the hall of the prestigious Port of Spain high school. “I am so ugly, Lil Wayne see me and run!” Sandy intones and the schoolgirls roar with laughter. Except for one just in front the camera – a chubby girl. I watch her closely as Sandy continues. When all the others laugh at his lines, as he describes how ugly he thinks he is, she keeps perfectly still. She is not laughing. “Even though it’s funny and everyone laughs,” Sandy points out, “it’s also serious and addresses the issue of self-esteem. And teenagers’ self-esteem is so fragile… after the performances, students – boys and girls – would come up to me and say, ‘People used to call me ugly’ or people still calling them ugly.”
“I’m so ugly” strikes a chord with a distressingly high number of students at the 55 schools that the 2 Cents poets toured last year.
In five short years, the 2 Cents Movement has evolved from a debating society at the University of the Southern Caribbean into an NGO run like a Forbes 500 company. Founded by Jean-Claude Cournand, 2 Cents is the catalyst for a huge surge of spoken word talent that has been hitting the airwaves, open mic events and social media. Cournand and his crew have collaborated with the national literary festival to host the annual Verses Bocas Poetry Slam, which went down so well in 2013 that hundreds had to be turned away at last year’s finals at the Central Bank auditorium. They have been part of the popular radio series called The Free Speech Project which is broadcast Monday to Thursday, four times a day, on three stations and has inspired many other poets. Most importantly, 2 Cents is taking spoken word to students of secondary schools across Trinidad and Tobago in an annual tour sponsored by Courts, the furniture chain.
“The day we were supposed to visit Success Laventille, it got cancelled,” Sandy recalled. “That was just after a student got shot and killed outside the school.”
When 2 Cents finally did their spoken word showcase at Success Laventille, students were still deeply affected by the boy’s murder and wanted to talk about it. “Some knew he had been in lil thing, eh, but the killing was still a shock,” Sandy said. “So I asked them why they thought he would do something wrong even if he knew the consequences, and some of the answers they gave were desperation and low self-esteem.”
Twenty-seven-year-old Sandy was grew up in Maloney Gardens and still lives there. He quit his job teaching English Language and Literature at a high school to do the Speak Out school tour.
Now in its third year, the tour has had such an impact on students that schools have asked them to come back and speak on specific topics. This year, the 2 Cents team’s set of poems focuses on issues that students are grappling with, like bullying, masculinity, bad behaviour in the classroom and self-respect. “We start off with the Intro poem, which tells them what spoken word is all about, what it is and what it can do,” explained Sandy. “The idea is to get them writing and performing, being conscious of issues. It’s one avenue to say how they feel about certain things; one avenue for getting them to say what they have to say.”
And they have so many things to say. Sandy says the tour, which runs from Monday to Thursday during the school year, is an intense experience. “I would tell any performance poet to do the tour because it really stretches you. I learned more on the school tour than I did in my six years performing before it.”
On weekends Sandy runs workshops geared to take students through the process of writing spoken word poetry. He teaches the history of the oral traditions in the region; literary devices and how to use them; performance; and editing. Many went on to take part in the national Intercol school slam. This year, two out of the top three in the slam came from 2 Cents’ workshops. The first prize is a trip to attend the International Youth Poetry Slam in the US.
In some of the workshops, students would write about a character who was being molested or abused. At first, Sandy and the poets didn’t know what to do. “Are we qualified to be doing this?” Luckily, one of the 2 Cents crew is a social worker, and she gave them guidance on how to deal with situations like these. They would restrict their questions to the character, asking the student how the character feels and how they could empower themselves to change their situation.
“That’s what this is all about,” says Sandy, “showing them that they have the power and talent to change their own lives, and contribute their two cents to society.”
A top-ranking all-boys school on the East-West Corridor, Trinity East, asked 2 Cents to set up a spoken Word poetry club and the weekly pilot programme began last term. Can 2 Cents and spoken Word make a difference in this crazy, chaotic place that Trinidad has become?
Right now, a general election is due and everybody seems jumpy and vex. The Babylon boys, rogue cops and soldiers, appear even more trigger-happy than usual. Three Mondays ago, a few police officers decided to stage roadblocks on all the major roads in Trinidad and Tobago. Gridlock for the whole day – the entire country locked down. They showed what the police can do. But of course there is no evidence that the lockdown had anything to do with negotiations for higher wages.
Any day now the Prime Minister is going to announce the date for the elections. September the latest, the political pundits say. But the nigger and coolie talk has already started – on Facebook, the radio… allegations from both sides; of corruption; of billions spent needlessly on mega-projects; suspicious contracts and sweet deals; which party worse; who tief more. And the bodies keep piling up at the morgues.
2 Cents has begun a very important conversation with the next generation about their own lived realities and out of these conversations we are beginning to hear a new sound emerging above the incessant babble of Jamaican and American music on the radio and cable TV. Young Trinidadian and Tobagonian voices are expressing their feelings, opinions and ideas – confidently, in their own accents, and to the beat of their own drum.
Rather I could take advantage of the fact
That I have several advantages because I am black
I am an over-comer,
Seen the worst sides of struggling, ex-slave, current warrior
And no one could handle all the kids like my empress at home
And no one can make her happier, like our superior testosterone
Dreadlocks, bald head or cane-rows
Let us reverse dread blocks to ball parks and main roads
And advantage the University before the GATE* close
And take the opportunities when we are this close
So disclose all your barebackedness and put on some clothes.
Address your problems
You can solve them
You are black, but that is not equivalent to unwell.
Thus this becomes a bare back
Poem to bear blacks poem
A rare return from the rear
to the front poem.
Black mobility is our daily revolution.
– ‘Bareback Black Poem’ by Derron Sandy, 2 Cents poet
Nazma Muller is a Trinidadian journalist who has also lived in Jamaica and the UK. A contributor to Caribbean Beat magazine for the last 20 years, she spends her spare time advocating for the legalisation of ganja in the Caribbean.