We were treated to a foray of events in 2016, but nothing compares to the silent powerhouse that remains within us today: Caribbean culture.
What makes the presence of West Indian flavor in modern culture so sweet is that America didn’t see it coming. In the decades after the Haitian Revolution and the forced segregation between natives of Panama, Jamaica and Barbados towards the latter of the 19th century, a large group of West Indians known as the Windrush Generation made their way to Britain and the United States in the late 1940s. The Migration Policy Institue shows it later led to the birth of over 100,000 West Indian people in the UK by 1961 and 675,00 in America. It increased over the years, with Caribbean natives making up nine percent of the nation’s 42.4 million immigrants in 2014. Two of the most popular spaces in the U.S.—New York and Florida—are where second to fourth generation islanders have resided, by making a name for themselves in all spectrums of the sought after “American Dream.” For those who live in the aforementioned trendy cities, the presence of restaurants and hubs resting in between the life of the suburbians and urban communities provide those lacking insight a peek into an irrefutable spirited culture.
From patios to infectious riddims, the culture played a bigger part in pop this year. Soon after Diplo shared his love for dancehall sounds with Justin Bieber for his major hit “Where Are U Now” in 2015, the singles that have come after (“Sorry,” “Cold Water”) have been labeled as “tropical-house,” an argumentative slap in the face to its soca roots. The singles lit up the charts as well as Rihanna’s “Work,” from her underrated Anti album.
On the track co-produced by Jamaican native Boi-1da, Rih blends patois with unsettling revelations about the former apple of her eye. An instant slam with the cool kids of the world, middle America was introduced to a culture they only thought Bob Marley, Sean Paul, and for historians, Harry Belafonte represented. Drake, RiRi’s frequent collaborator, made sure to do the same on his huge project, Views, with tracks like “One Dance” featuring Nigerian act Wizkid and British dance star Kyla Reid, and “Controlla.” But it’s not all about the pop acts. Popcaan got a warm welcome to the masses and proudly channeled his machismo vibe over Wiz Khalifa at this year’s Red Bull Culture Clash.
What makes the takeover so tempting is that through the power of music, the unenlightened feel welcomed into Caribbean culture since there’s less incentive to dissect. By automatically thinking it’s all about drowning in positive vibes and good food, its other parallels like religion and economic factors are widely ignored. “Dancehall is a culture that everyone wants to be a part of,” Beenie Man told Billboard in May. “Nobody wants to be part of a culture with no meaning in it. Right now, everybody tries to kick it with the dancehall. It’s our music. And it’s not going nowhere. We make dancehall so we can feel good about ourselves. When everybody starts singing ‘daggering, daggering, back it up, back it up,’ [it’s clear] we set the trend. We’re not here to change it.”
Producers like Ricky Reed are also using their power to introduce the sound through pop stars like Meghan Trainor. “Since I was seven, my Trinidadian uncle came into our family—he married my aunt—and I’ve been listening to Caribbean music,” he said to Billboard in March. “I love Soca, this amazing genre that’s calypso and Caribbean influenced. It makes you feel good, and it’s not on the radio as much over here as I want it to be. So I want to bring a bit over…. I’m trying to show all the genres that Meghan Trainor can do as a songwriter.”
Now that the influence has been famously rewarded, the only thing that remains is whether soca and dancehall artists will receive the same praise. OMI’s reggae-soul 2008 single “Cheerleader” was only welcomed to aux cords seven years later after it was whitewashed to fit last year’s dance-house fascination.
Veterans like Beenie Man, Sean Paul and Ziggy Marley have proven to have pull over American audiences still. The “King of the Dancehall” is currently working on new music, while Paul and Marley scored Grammy nominations in the pop and reggae categories. Alkaline is steady building up his audience with the release of New Level Unlocked and Carnival favorites like Ricardo Drue and GBN Nutron are paying homage to soca with a blend of percussion, guitars and house sounds.
There’s also The Institute of Caribbean Studies (ICS), a nonpartisan group that pays respect to the contributions of Caribbean Americans. This year, soca legend Machel Montano was honored for his efforts in the culture. He joined Trinidadian Jazz Trumpeter Etienne Charles and R&B singer Ryan Leslie at the White House in June (yes, the White House) to discuss the impact that Caribbean culture has had in America within economic sustainability. “We came across here to make a better life, “ he said. “I’ve been trying to let this be understood that through music, we can move people and move people to have a purposeful life. I believe true music can get to know each other better.”
Currently, Montano is helping to spread another factor of Caribbean music in America: Carnival. As a board head for the Hollywood Carnival initiate, Montano is hoping soca will continue to inspire the nation. So far, it’s taken over Labor Day celebrations in the main cities like Miami, Atlanta and New York. Young black millennials are also doing an excellent job by traveling to islands like Barbados and Antigua to take part in the celebration. Toronto has taken on Caribana and England has continued the celebration through the Notting Hill Carnival. At its core, the movement won over Summer ‘16 and virtually the entire year. Time will only tell what is yet to come.