This project explores and analyzes Caribbean music as a form of cultural rhetoric. It begins by defining both rhetoric and cultural rhetoric. Next, it continues by describing Caribbean rhetoric and its exigencies. Then it applies these exigencies to Caribbean music and analyzes a Caribbean musician’s work as a case study. Last is the conclusion, which claims that Caribbean rhetors define themselves according to their exigencies, and thereby ensuring the triumph of the exigency over the objective of the rhetors.
Introduction: On Cultural Rhetoric
Rhetoric is the use of symbolic expression to shape perceived realities. Rhetoric is used for the purpose of addressing a particular issue, technically referred to as an exigency or a rhetorical situation. The aim of rhetoric is to use symbolic expression to mobilize human energies in order to solve a particular (usually social) problem or fulfill an exigency. Rhetoric is present in every form and instance of communication, as well as in any expression or affirmation of identity. Identity is, after all, a perceived reality, and can therefore be shaped by rhetoric.
That said, every culture has a unique style of rhetoric, or a unique style of channeling symbolic expression and shaping perceived realities. A fundamental focus of cultural rhetoric is on the identity of the culture. Indeed, Kevin Browne explains, “one of the objectives of rhetoric seen from a cultural perspective is to preserve and solidify the prevailing aspects of identity among members of a particular social group” (Browne 2). One could argue that this is because the exigency of almost every culture is a confusion over its identity, or even the absence of an identity altogether. Every culture undergoes an identity crisis at least once in its history, and for some cultures, being in a permanent state of identity crisis is a key aspect of its identity. Consequently, cultural rhetoric often takes the form of creating or affirming a culture’s identity even as this identity evolves.
Another central aspect of cultural rhetoric is the way in which identity is portrayed, or the methods used to shape a culture’s identity. This is because the methods and the message are inseparable. In fact, the message is often embedded within the methods. In Dr. Browne’s words, cultural rhetoric strives “to gain a deeper, more robust self-conscious understanding of effective discourse practices among members of that group and, in so doing, achieve the sort of praxis that can equip the members of that group for the life they imagine” (Browne 2). Therefore, rhetoric, and particularly cultural rhetoric, is more than just symbolic expression. It is also a means of fulfilling the needs of a group. A musician doesn’t write and perform a song merely because he or she thinks it will sound nice. A musician also writes and performs a song because doing so can inspire a shift in social consciousness that can resolve underlying social issues—issues that manifest themselves in the need for a musician to engage in the symbolic expression of songwriting.
Caribbean Rhetoric, or the cultural rhetoric of the Caribbean, is geared towards fulfilling the exigency of the confusion of the identity of a culture. Much of this confusion or uncertainty is due to the ambiguity of the meaning of the word “Caribbean.” The Caribbean is a geographical region found in the Caribbean Sea between North America and South America, and between Central America in the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. The Caribbean countries, of which there are 28, are located on the many islands scattered across the Caribbean Sea (except for Guyana and Suriname, which are on the South American continent). The division of the Caribbean label among 28 different countries is the source of ambiguity over the authentic Caribbean identity. Consequently, one of the exigencies of Caribbean rhetoric is defining the Caribbean identity, or what it means to be Caribbean.
While all cultural identities “evolve,” because nothing is static and everything is fluid, and while a culture’s identity is often not clearly defined, cultural identities also “revolve” around certain central themes, and this is certainly true of the Caribbean cultural identity. The central themes that unite the diverse experiences of the Caribbean are:
- A history of oppression under colonialism and slavery;
- Ethnic/racial heterogeneity;
- Ambiguous identity;
- Chronic poverty and third-worldism;
- Political instability;
- Perceptions of being seen as illegitimate by other countries;
- The desire to oppose authority;
- And defense through self-affirmation.
So while the Caribbean cultural identity constantly changes as the world changes, these underlying themes serve as the foundation of Caribbean identity.
All of these themes also constitute the Caribbean rhetorical situation, but the source of its exigencies are its history of oppression, which today only exists in the consciousness of the Caribbean peoples. For this reason, Caribbean rhetoric, in order to successfully address this situation, must include more than just counter-dominance. As Dr. Browne explains, “because Caribbean rhetoric functions in response to historical situations, and because Caribbean history includes a history of oppression, there is a great tendency to characterize Caribbean culture solely in terms of resistance, which leads to a comparison based in oversimplified contrasts” (Browne 29). By extension, a rebel does not rebel for the sake of rebelling. A rebel defies authority to achieve a greater state of freedom and justice. In the same vein, Caribbean rhetoric is only successful if it offers a perceived reality other than constant resistance to oppression—it must also offer a path to liberation from the past and a just future. However, the rooting of Caribbean identity within the idea of opposition to the status quo keeps it in a permanent state of resistance, or rebellion for the sake of rebelling, thereby obstructing its path to a more just future liberation from its history.
The first line of the first page of the book, Reggae and Caribbean Music, by Dave Thompson, states, “There is no such thing as Caribbean music” (Thompson vii). Thompson goes on the justify this claim, reasoning that due to the Caribbean’s geographic ambiguity, the division of the countries by bodies of water, and the cultural division of the countries between former Hispanic, French, and British colonies, Caribbean music is actually a combination of musical styles that originated elsewhere, or were greatly influenced by styles that originated elsewhere.
However, in my opinion, these same reasons can be used to claim that there is no such thing as the Caribbean in general, let alone Caribbean music. In reality, musical styles are never original. Musical styles, like cultural identity, are constantly evolving and draw influence from other sources. What makes music Caribbean music, then, is that it addresses the rhetorical situations and exigencies relevant to Caribbean society. Whether Caribbean music successfully addresses the rhetorical situations relevant to Caribbean society, however, is another matter. And as I will now explain, Caribbean music fails in this endeavor.
The music of the Caribbean band called “Exuma” is an example of Caribbean rhetoric because it addresses the Caribbean’s exigencies, particularly the exigencies of its history of oppression, its need to defy authority, the ambiguity of its identity, its heterogeneity, its perceptions of illegitimacy, and its defense through self-affirmation. The band was created in New York City in the 1960s, but the man who started and led the band was a Bahamian musician named Tony McKay. The band consisted of seven members, all with origins to the Caribbean.
Exuma’s music is unabashedly unclassifiable, just like the Caribbean itself. Exuma is a mix of many different styles of music, including carnival, junkanoo, calypso, ballad, freak folk, reggae, R&B, soul, and African folk, among others. The band’s success was frontloaded in its career, having gained most of its notoriety with its first two or three albums. After this, its record sales notably declined.
However, Tony McKay had considerable influence on Caribbean culture. A Bahamian professor named Alfred M. Sears once said of Tony McKay:
“A Bahamian visionary, humanistic philosopher, and people’s poet, Exuma gives expression to the beauty and power of the cultural life of the Bahamas—the people’s every day experiences, folklore, myths, stories, junkanoo, rake and scrape, pain, joy, struggle, and survival. His life and art reflect the wonderful heritage and personality of Bahamians, drawing on the roots of Africa and the branches of the Amerindians, Europeans, and Americans.”
As further evidence of his cultural influence, Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain gave him the British Empire Medal for his contributions to Bahamian culture in 1978.
One of Exuma’s hit songs, “The Obeah Man,” is a great example of a Caribbean rhetor’s attempt to successfully address some of the Caribbean’s rhetorical situations. It also demonstrates Exuma’s unconventional style of music. The word “Obeah” embodies the folk religions of the African diasporas in the Caribbean brought over by the African slaves. It is often associated with sorcery or malign magic. An “Obeah Man,” by extension, is a sort of medicine man with supernatural powers and knowledge who belongs outside of mainstream society. An Obeah Man is a rebel at heart.
The song is not only unconventional and subversive—Exuma also defines himself as inherently controversial, or rebellious by birth, as evidenced by the first, second, and third stanzas:
I came down on a lighting bolt,
Nine months in my Mama’s belly
When I was born the midwife
Screamed and shouted
I had fire and brimstone
Coming out of my mouth
I’m Exuma, I’m the Obeah Man
Exuma was my name when I lived in the stars
Exuma was a planet that once lit Mars,
I’ve got the voice of many in my throat
The teeth of a frog and the tail of a goat
Exuma does not care what others think—he is who he is and he does what he does without shame. The authority of manmade laws and the authority of the laws of nature mean nothing to him.
The sound of the music itself reflects this sentiment. The song breaks all the rules of songwriting and cannot be placed within a single genre of music. It defies the status quo of music. Indeed, the sound itself is as otherworldly as the musician claims to be. This is very much reminiscent of the Caribbean itself—a place and a culture that is difficult to restrict to a single geographic location or an ethnic or cultural category. The song, like the Caribbean, is inherently unconventional and in opposition to authority.
However, Exuma offers no hope for another reality. He addresses the Caribbean rhetorical situations and he legitimizes himself as authentically Caribbean, but he in no way stimulates a change in the consciousness of the audience. The song merely defends his identity—the Caribbean identity—through the affirmation of its subversive traits. There is no call for a mobilization in the shift of human consciousness to solve a rhetorical situation. Exuma, the Obeah Man, merely defines himself by his rhetorical situations.
Exuma’s song “The Obeah Man” is a microcosm for the Caribbean identity and Caribbean rhetoric. In the process of affirming its questionable identity in spite of foreign perceptions that it is illegitimate, the Caribbean through its rhetoric is defines itself as contrary to the status quo. But defining its identity in this way diminishes the Caribbean’s ability to successfully address its rhetorical situations, thereby making it a rebel for the sake of being a rebel. Caribbean rhetoric effectively unites its identity with its exigencies.
To conclude, Caribbean music is constantly evolving in order to address the rhetorical situations in which Caribbean identity is entangled. A successful response to a rhetorical situation is the use of symbolic expression to mobilize human energies to solve a specific problem, particularly by catalyzing a shift in social consciousness. Caribbean music is a manifestation of Caribbean rhetoric. Therefore, as the various genres of Caribbean music evolve by building off of the genres that came before it and by combining multiple influences, Caribbean music also revolves around the central themes of Caribbean rhetoric in the process of finding a solution to the Caribbean rhetorical situation.
However, because Caribbean rhetoric is inherently revolutionary, it and all of its manifestations, and particularly music, cannot successfully address the Caribbean rhetorical situation because its existence, and even its success, is contingent upon an ever-present rhetorical situation. Caribbean musicians face the prospect of becoming irrelevant if their work does fulfill the exigency, so in response, they define themselves by their connections to the Caribbean rhetorical situations. What is a doctor without disease? In this way, Caribbean rhetoric in general and Caribbean music in specific is designed to fail.
- Browne, Kevin A. Tropic Tendencies: Rhetoric, Popular Culture, and the Anglophone Caribbean. University of Pittsburgh Press. 2013.
- Thompson, Dave. Reggae and Caribbean Music. Backbeat Books. 2002.