The 20-year-old artist carries the legacy of soca in her blood, but she's also pushing the genre forward in a way few else have
NAILAH BLACKMAN as part of GLOW J’OUVERT at Shinol Club House (2050 Ellesmere), Friday (August 3), 10 pm. $40. eventbrite.com.
On the song Sokah, Nailah Blackman recites “ping pang pong pang poom” like a child trying to mouth the sounds coming from her grandfather’s steel pan. And since Nailah’s grandfather is Garfield Blackman – aka the founder of soca, Ras Shorty I – those pan sounds reverberate far beyond cute.
Blackman is soca royalty, but she’s not just rehashing her ancestors. She pays tribute to her family’s musical roots while also distinguishing herself as the most exciting new voice to come out of the genre in recent years.
“I brand myself as a soca artist but I’m a world artist,” says Blackman. With songs from O’Lawd Oye to Dame Lorraine, she mixes it up with Afrobeat, folk, calypso, swing, EDM, dancehall and Rihanna-grade pop. She only has a handful of tracks since breaking out over a year ago on the Kes song Workout, but already it feels like she’s taking her native genre on a globe-trotting adventure.
Her musical blending is the essence of soca, which her grandfather actually dubbed “Sokah,” hyphenating “soul of calypso” (with the “kah” repping the first letter in the Hindi alphabet) and creating a beat that united Trinidad’s Afro and Indo influences.
“What he intended was for soca to be a genre like any other,” says Blackman. “Like reggae or pop, genres that live on beyond a season, beyond a time period, beyond a festival.”
Blackman is expressing her frustration that the music got away from her grandfather’s intent when it became all about carnival. Songs are written to play at the annual festivities in Trinidad, competing for career-making prizes like Road March or Soca Monarch.
“Soca was intertwined with carnival to the point where people didn’t want to sing soca that was not about carnival,” says Blackman, on the phone at a studio in Trinidad. I’m interrupting her while she’s writing a song for – wait for it – Carnival!
Blackman recognizes the irony and is quick to point out that she and her longtime producer Anson Soverall are trying to figure out how to help carnival music evolve how to make festive music, but take it beyond the “jump up,” “wine down,” “on the road” lyrics that people identify as the markers of soca.
If you played a drinking game, taking a shot for every time “carnival” or “the road” is uttered in soca, you’d be flat on your ass after three songs. Unless you’re only listening to Blackman’s music, where she has yet to use any of those words.
For the record, Blackman loves carnival music, as do I. But, as I regularly tell friends, I listen to it on a limited time basis, usually around Toronto’s Carnival time, because there’s only so much happy-happy-jump-joy I can take. Nailah flies into a laughing fit when I recount this.
“It really is happy-happy-jump-joy!”
“Nothing is wrong with that,” she goes on, “but it comes a time where it needs to become real. People feel different ways at different times. Soca should be the type of music where you can feel sad and listen to it. You don’t have to force yourself to be like, (shrieking) ‘THIS IS THE BEST TIME OF MY LIIIIIIFE!’”
The rigor mortis in soca is partly the reason why the same people have dominated the genre for twenty to thirty years, and perhaps also why the genre still hasn’t transcended far beyond the Caribbean and its diaspora. Blackman points out that new artists often come up, but since the Trini industry and audience typically expect the same old thing, they deliver just that and get buried.
“We have the original thing right here,” says Blackman, mimicking the indifference towards all the wannabe Machels and Bunjis. “We don’t need you.”
That’s the reason why Kes, who discovered Blackman playing her guitar in a recording studio, advised the young artist early on to not let the industry dictate her music. “Don’t let those chunes runaway from you na,” says Blackman, reciting Kes’s wisdom.
Blackman, along with Voice before her, is among the chosen few who are shaking things up. And as hard as the soca industry is on new artists, it’s exponentially harder on women. Female artists are few and far between. Rarer still are artists like Destra, who as Blackman points out, has the “God-given talent” to sustain in the industry for decades.
“The culture is very sexualized,” says Blackman, elaborating that women are expected to sell sex appeal as a gimmick, which wears thin quickly. “It’s a male-dominated industry. And men want to make sure that you’re not at the top.”
Blackman goes on to explain top-down behaviour from producers to promoters to radio DJs (whom she compares to the mafia), all preying on talent.
“For female artists, they’ll be like ‘I’m not playing your song until you run something,’” says Blackman, using a Trini colloquialism for trading sex for opportunity. “‘If you want to get on this show with these other big acts, you’re gonna have to run something.’”
What Blackman describes isn’t that surprising since the Harvey Weinstein allegations opened the floodgates to women speaking out about sexual harassment in entertainment industries and the workplace. What did surprise me, but perhaps shouldn’t have, is Blackman’s response when I mention all the conversations around #MeToo.
“Me too? What’s me too?”
After I explain it, and Blackman vaguely recalls hearing a bit about something going on in Hollywood, she tells me these conversations are definitely not happening in the Caribbean.
“This is something that happens everywhere in the world in different ways,” she says. “It needs to be spoken about.”
She goes on to explain how she managed to escape the predatory behaviour and succeed in spite of it. It’s all about the Blackman name.
“People had a more open ear to what I have to say.”
Acknowledging her privilege and lamenting how many other talents are lost without it, Blackman points out that even she had to pound the pavement for a long time before breaking it big.
“When I first started doing this, we did shows for five hundred dollars,” Blackman recalls. “Five hundred TT dollars. That’s less than one hundred Canadian dollars. And I did that for over 46 shows. That wasn’t even paying for gas. That wasn’t even paying for my clothes. That was money out of my pocket.”
And now that she struck like an earthquake in soca, she plans on continuing to wave that flag while making the music crossover, a goal that is not all that lofty but has been perpetually out of reach for her grandfather’s genre.
“We don’t want to walk up to somebody, and they be like ‘oh what do you do’ and I’m like ‘oh I sing soca music’ and they’re like,” – she puts on her white voice – “‘oh, what’s that?’”
“I want those conversations to end.”
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