How Listening To Soca Taught Me To Be Free

We’re ending the year with personal essays from The FADER staff. Today, Rawiya Kameir on how she learned to let go thanks to Trinidad’s biggest hits.

December 23, 2015

A couple of days into 2015, I was wedged between two of my best friends in the backseat of a station wagon, gripping their hands as a drunk stranger sped us through a dark, winding road in small-town Jamaica. I don’t often think about how we came to be in that fucked-up situation. Instead, the memory I’ve gone back to all year is of something that happened in my head during that drive: between flashbacks to a similar trauma and silent incantations of Quranic verses, I vowed to have fun in 2015, to let myself live. You know in the movies how people make pacts with the heavens, like, If you let me survive this harrowing situation, I promise to be a better person? That’s what I did, except I figured a cooperative God would want more cheer than morality from me, for me to dance during the daytime and be playful with strangers where I once would have hugged the wall and stared off into the distance.

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I wanted all the clichés: uninhibited, unselfconscious dance like no one’s watching, sing like no one’s listening-type fun. It felt necessary because there is always someone watching, always someone listening—ready to bait out your whereabouts on SnapChat or spread a video of your limp nae nae on Twitter. I thought a lot about that in 2014, as I spent more time than ever watching and listening to other people, and coming to terms with the fact that other people were watching and listening to me. But if I was after a sense of self removed from the internet last year, it was the will to live like an Instagram inspirational quote I sought this time around.

A few weeks after getting home from Jamaica, I walked around dead-of-winter Toronto listening to mixes by Trini DJs like Private Ryan and Dr. Jay de Soca Prince, finding warmth in Kes’ airy “Fallin” and Patrice Roberts’ self-affirming “Ah Feeling Mehself.” When Roberts bigs herself up while getting ready for a night out—Hey you in the mirror, I like you! she proclaims—I feel hot, too. I’ve always loosely followed soca; it’s hard not to in Toronto, a city that counts a large and culturally influential Trinidadian community among its population. But there’s a high demand that the genre places on listeners and partygoers. Because it’s designed for wining and wukking, often with a partner, you have to dance, you have to truly DGAF to properly enjoy it. Years ago, at parties where soca sets ran longer than four or five songs, I’d become too aware of my body, too paranoid that it was doing the wrong thing.

And then on a Monday in February, I found myself in the middle of thousands of strangers on the hot asphalt of Port of Spain, butt facing the sun, chippin' nonstop to the same dozen or so soca songs for hours. This was the moment I had been practicing for while blasting those mixes all through January, the moment I was secretly praying about when I chose fun. And it happened: nearly naked, fueled by Puncheon lollies and that vague backseat pact with God, I had the best time of my life at my first ever carnival, in part because of one song in particular. Destra’s “Lucy,” a perfect anthem for a former wallflower, was among the season’s most ubiquitous hits. I grew up as ah real good girl, always home doh go nowhere/ Ah soon as I was introduce tuh Carnival, deh say I loose/ All down on de ground, wukkin’, wukkin' up meh bottom/ And it draggin’, draggin' all over town and deh say I Lucy, Destra narrates, announcing her bacchanal transformation with throaty vocals and a billowing riddim.

A few days later, during the traditional post-carnival cooldown on Trinidad’s sister island Tobago, we favored the season’s more downtempo hits. We played Olatunji’s “Ola,” Benjai’s “Phenomenal,” and Ricardo Drue’s “Vagabond” out of a tiny, waterlogged Jambox until it was time to get on a jet and go back to the cold.

Over the months that followed, a lot changed for me. I moved to New York and started working at The FADER, my first staff job in a couple of years. As I carved out a new life for myself, somewhere between my office, my apartment, and the darkest corners of Kinfolk, the fun and the soca still came in bursts. There was a monthly palance hosted by a friend and an endless summer of cars blasting Machel Montano down Fulton. There was also a newly appropriate song to vicariously disappear into during my daily commute: Fadda Fox’s “Ducking,” an aspirational anthem for anyone stuck at work, daydreaming about limin’ and fêtein’. So goes the hook: Who does go to work on a Thursday?/ Or even a Friday?/ When it have a party!/ I still put on my work clothes but I thirsty/ To wine on dis shorty. Same.

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How Listening To Soca Taught Me To Be Free