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  • Ragga Soca Burning the Moral Compass:An Analysis of "Hellfire" Lyrics in the Music of Bunji Garlin
  • Meagan Sylvester (bio)

Ragga soca, a music indigenous to the twin island Caribbean nation Trinidad and Tobago, incorporates the freestyle aesthetics of hip-hop lyricists, the political critique and social commentary of calypso, the "chant down Babylon" demeanor and stagecraft of reggae and dancehall performers, and the spontaneous delivery of "biting" lyrics popular among Trinidadian extempo artists, another subgenre of calyspo. Typically, it can be loosely described as a fusion of soca and indigenous Jamaican musical forms, namely Jamaican dancehall and, to a lesser extent, reggae beats and soca rhythms. From my knowledge of the music industry in Trinidad, having been a member of several music networks during the years 2006-16, I posit that Bunji Garlin, who began his public career in 1999, is the singular most successful and widely known ragga soca artist performing the genre today. Bunji Garlin's ragga soca "fire" songs produced between 2004 and 2011 make use of the "fire bun dem" theme. In these, we see Garlin's direct use of biblical verses drawn from Revelation 21:8 (which describes how hellfire will be meted out to unrepentant wrongdoers). Further, his lyrics seek to adress the punishment to be delivered to those individuals involved in profane acts against society. In 2012, I began a project to review and analyze the lyrics of his songs in an attempt to chart to what extent his ragga soca lyrics have retained any of the political and social commentary "bite" and "sting" of its progenitor, [End Page 87] calypso. My methodology entailed undertaking a qualitative approach to data collection that encompassed a combination of observation, participant observation, personal interviews, and focus groups. Throughout my data collection, I extracted information from ragga soca artists, music producers, radio announcers, music event promoters, and fans of Bunji Garlin. All members of my sample population have been affiliated with Bunji Garlin as part of the music fraternity of Trinidad, having either engaged him an as artist to promote his work or been a part of his following. My research for this study, undertaken from 2013-15, led me to speak to members of music organizations such the Trinbago Unified Calypsonians Organisation, the Copyright Association of Trinidad and Tobago, the Trinidad and Tobago Coalition of Service Industries, and the Artists' Coalition of Trinidad and Tobago. I was able to glean from these interviews that the Carnival season has always brought with it a love—almost a craving—for calypso, extempo, and soca music in all its derivative forms.

Background to the Genres—Calypso and Ragga Soca

The roots of ragga soca lie in calypso. Ragga soca is a branch out of the soca tree, and soca music is a branch out of the calypso tree. Given that, there are obvious and subtle synergies between ragga soca and its musical predecessor, calypso. While both musical genres are interconnected in several ways, it must be noted that Bunji Garlin's role as a ragga soca music performer ought not to suggest that he was a calypsonian prior to becoming a ragga soca artiste. Instead, these two musical genres should be viewed as part of the trajectory of music produced out of Trinidad, which is reflective of the history and culture of the island's diversity. My analysis aims to identify the extent to which Bunji's fire lyrics address social and economic imbalances in society brought about by policies of the successive political regimes, the growing disquiet among today's youth as they fall prey to delusions of "bling" grandeur, and the decline of moral compass as social crimes are perpetuated in even larger numbers against fellow citizens.

Trinidad and Tobago's demographic makeup reveals a blend of several races and ethnicities: East Indian, 35.4 percent; African, 34.2 percent; mixed other, 15.3 percent; mixed African/East Indian, 7.7 percent; other, 1.3 percent; and unspecified, 6.2 percent (Index Mundi, 2015). Plural societies like Trinidad that have a historical and colonial past face inextricably intertwined issues surrounding decolonization and its continuing postcolonial realities. These issues are expressed in Trinidad and Tobago's music...


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