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A Voice in the Wilderness

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
Posted: January 22, 2004

It has become fair game to attack Cro Cro and his calypso, "Face Reality." Few of us have taken time out to examine the nature of the calypso and what it tries to say. Without even hearing it, many argue that there is no redeeming feature in the calypso. Instead, Cro Cro's critics suggest: "It is cruelly absurd for a calypsonian, particularly one as experienced as Cro Cro to make a joke of a matter so serious...The firm message must sent to Cro Cro that encouraging lawlessness will not be tolerated, and we call on the Police to deal with what we hope is an aberration, although with the potential to be a very dangerous one at that." (Newsday, January 21, 2004).

The Express saw matters in a similar light. It noted: "Even now, at what is the beginning of a new season, we are willing to wager that when an assessment of the seasonal offerings is taken at season's end it ["Face Reality"] will be seen that the vast majority of calypsonians have a more realistic view of this heinous crime [kidnapping] with Cro Cro's being, not for the first time, a desperate attention-seeking voice in the calypso wilderness. This is not to say that in the hot, inebriated bullring of this tent he will not have an applauding constituency. Outside in the wider market place, however, after the attention caused by the alarmed reaction, it will quickly sink into the anonymous ignominy it so rightly deserves." (Jan. 21) As one of Cro Cro's applauding constituents, I think that "Facing Reality" deserves as thoughtful response as Dr. Eric Williams afforded Black Stalin's "Caribbean Man" when many people condemned that calypso. One wonders why Prince's homophobic "Kidnappers Cure" has not received any scrutiny.

Calypsoes are meant to be sung rather than read. The best-written verse may not necessarily produce a good calypso and a good tune with unimaginative words may not produce a good calypso. The oral toolkit of the calypsonian is primary. His connection with ordinary folks is essential as he seeks to gain immediate accessibility to their sensibility and their logic. The gestures that accompany his lyrics and the nuances of language that he employs are important aspect in the construction of his work. In other words, a written version of "Face Reality" cannot capture the nuances of "bam bam bam bam bam" or the "boom, boom, boom, boom, boom" that intersperse the lines of his verse nor the pulsing rhythm of the work. It follows, therefore, that "Face Reality" cannot be reduced to the simplistic catch line: "kidnap them." This line must be understood within the larger context of the calypso. That is why the calypso, as any poetic performance, possesses a structure. First, the calypso establishes its moral position by affirming what can be called Old Testament justice. It says:

Remember the Master say
--bam, bam, bam, bam, bam,--
If you do wrong you have to pay
--boom, boom, boom, boom, boom,--
So dey tief out de treasury
--boom, boom, boom, boom, boom,--
And dey living hoity-toity-
--boom, boom, boom, boom, boom,--
Dey dress with jacket and tie
Dey tief and living a lie
Dey better pay back
All de wrong ting dey do,
Or bandit coming for you.

Against this background, it offers an indictment against those who have transgressed:

So all dem Carlos, dem jefe sefe, dem who tief
And dem who doh pray
Ah begging mi bandit friend
Kidnap dem.
And all who have coke in water tank
Drug money in foreign bank
Doh mind how de plea and beg
Kidnap dem.
All who money ho-to-to
All who know dey rip off Tidco
All dem who brother is hen
Kidnap dem.

The chorus suggests that all who have ripped off the society and participated in illegal deeds should be deal with. Formal justice demands that a Court of Law deal with. The ordinary person knows that most of these offenders will remain free or walk free when they are tried. The street demands a more exacting form of justice, the lex talionis or the law of just revenge, that Maxwell Phillip, our first novelist, called for in Emmanuel Appadocca. When Cro Cro proclaims, "kidnap dem," he speaks out of a deep Trinbagonian literary tradition.

Such a proclamation horrifies many white-collar criminals. How could he ask that those who have stolen from our treasury; those who laundered money; those who bring cocaine into the country; those who are turning our children into "pusher men" be subjected to such instant justice?

In this sense, the call to kidnap the transgressors is meant to be used in a metaphorical/theological sense in the same way that Kirk Meighoo calls out society "a half made society" or how Kelvin Baldeosingh calls Prime Minister Manning a dunce. Each of these appellations is meant to dramatize features of the society or the Prime Minister that some persons find undesirable. As far as I know, no one has called for the imprisonment of Meighoo or Baldeosingh. Cro Cro is suggesting that there is a form of punishment, which, although, it may not be carried out physically must produce the necessary coercive force to dissuade those who continue in their evil ways.

On October 9, 2003, at Debe High School, Basdeo Panday called on the members of his community to make the country ungovernable for Manning and the PNM. He noted that only "Indian people are being kidnapped because they have money. Kidnapping is a racial thing because the people of Goodwood Park and Westmornings have money and they are not kidnapped." One is not sure if Panday meant that the people of Goodwood Park and Westmorings should be kidnapped too or whether Africans were the perpetrators of kidnapping. He certainly was not suggesting that the kidnappers of Indians and whites were Indians and whites. No one asked him to take his evidence of wrongdoing to the police as he urged fellow citizens to do in the past and as Newsday Cro Cro to do.

I am sure a case can be made that Cro Cro's calypso gives positive reinforcement to potential kidnappers and bandits to attack people because they have money rather than because they are Indians or Europeans. But Cro Cro is saying that those who commit evil should not live with the comfort of knowing that they will not pay for their deeds on this earth. That is why Cro Cro is so insistent when he says: "The people who don't like it [my calypso] are the people who have raisin in the sun. All who tief eh go like de song. But this song will tell them to stop tiefing and give back de poor people dey money... You either pay in the court of justice of justice or the court of God. All these fellars who thought that they could tief without having to pay will have to pay back now."

One may not like this message. However, Cro Cro's call is centered on the imperative demands for metanoia or conversion to God. In Christian theology, metanoia means repentance and conversion in the sense of making a right-about turn. In the Christian faith it entails radical self-criticism. Edward Schillebeeckx notes: "Neglect of this prophetic summons incurs the threat of God's annihilating judgment. This view of things became universal in later Old Testament works." Cro Cro is insistent: those who transgress the law must face the consequences of their evil ways.

This is not to say that there are no shortcomings in Cro Cro's calypso. Because he approaches his song from the point of view of those who have been denied justice he tends to preach to the converted rather than those who he wishes to convert. In his urgency to get over his message, he asserts rather than reflect. His stridency prevents him from putting forward his argument with the ingenuity that one would have liked. Although his poetry may not inspire the nation to reflect on itself, it certain calls on its citizens to continue its quest to see that justice is done.

The newspapers editors and business leaders should ponder Cro Cro's distinction between "dey" and "we." He is speaking from a side of a divide that they do not wish to acknowledge. They may drown him out with the barrage of bad publicity, call for his arrest, or boycott the "bull-ring" in which he performs, but we cannot get away from his message. His might well be a voice in the wilderness, trying to say that the small man must receive justice. This is the central function of the artist: to make us see where we cannot see; to make us hear even when we choose not to listen.

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