Since June, masqueraders from all over the world have been heading to Barbados for Crop Over. The two-month celebration rooted in the island's colonial history has been observed—going back to 1687—to recognize the end of the annual sugar cane harvest. Like other Caribbean carnivals—Trinidad's Carnival and Bahamas' Junkanoo—it serves to replicate the pre-Independence festivities that were done when slaves were finished with annual agricultural work or given time off. Though it stopped in the 40s due to a decline in sugar production, it was revived in the early 70s by the Barbados Tourist Board and some local stakeholders. Most people associate Crop Over with Grand Kadooment but the Crop Over calendar has other elements like the competitions. One of the highly anticipated competitions is the 'Bashment Soca' monarch, a newly added segment to the calendar and one with particular importance.
Bashment Soca is a strain of Soca indigenous to Barbados but draws influence from Jamaica's dancehall. The genre's roots extend back thirty-five years and have mainly been popularized on the island. But even after leaving a substantial impression, especially amongst youth, it was only added to the calendar last year. Despite gravitation towards the genre, it hasn't been able to reach the level of success that its fans believe it should. This is mainly because particular segments of Barbadian society—typically those who hold conservative views—have deemed bashment soca as deviant because it falls outside of what is considered appropriate, respectable behavior.
Dr. Walcott, professor at Barbados Community College and the University of the West Indies' Cave Hill Campus, pinpoints the first Bashment Soca record to Lil Rick's "Hard Wine" and says the potentiality of it being a crossover genre can be seen with the success of Marzville and Unruly Empire's "Bang Bing." A combination of homemade tracks made by artists and later posted to YouTube, DJ clashes in parking lots and youth's affinity with the genre garnered it interest and attention. Like Jamaica's dancehall, the opinions on Bashment Soca are extremely polarized. While dancehall has been condemned for its promotion of, amongst other things, hypersexuality, so too has Bashment Soca. When added, many people thought the competition didn't have a place amidst the country's largest celebration of nationhood. A Barbados Nationnews Letter to the Editor stated, "In truth, it is an obnoxious aberration with no moral compass…The introduction of Bashment Soca introduces abandonment of traditional and meaningful lyrics."
The addition of it to the Crop Over calendar—which is a government sanctioned and sponsored event—is good but it's not really a part of the calendar. Walcott, cites an economic incentive to the monarch being unofficially added. "Crop Over is run by a government organization, or a quasi-government organization called the National Culture Foundation (NCF), who is responsible for maintaining the major events within the Crop Over calendar… They organize the big events but this basement soca competition happens outside of that… there's a private entity, private promotional company that does it." And so, last year, the event was facilitated by the NCF, presented by 4D Entertainment and powered by Yello (Yellowpages) Barbados. Though officials, like Minister of Culture Hon. Stephen A. Lashley, are embracing the competition, albeit reluctantly, they are too are aware of the economic advantage that the competition brings. He mentioned that the Ministry "welcomed the involvement of the private sector," which is somewhat of a positive outlook towards changing the negative attitudes surrounding the genre and, perhaps, mobilization towards government sanctioned and sponsored inclusion.
As it continues to gain visibility, it's clear that the genre is en route to being exposed to a much larger audience. One of the people who have taken on this task is DJ Puffy. In a packed outdoor venue in Santiago, Chile, DJ Puffy won a panel of judges over with his set during the 2016 Red Bull Thre3style World Finals. His winning mix was an amalgamation of Top 40 records infused with some sonic notes from his native Barbados. Puffy is set to spin at signature Crop Over events but after spending time touring outside Barbados, he shares that he enjoys introducing his audiences to Bashment Soca for the first time by dotting his sets with the notable Bajan sound.
"It's an infectio[us], energetic, extremely driving-type of music. The drive behind it is definitely influenced by older reggae and older dancehall," says Puffy in an interview with Noisey. "The baselines are influenced by old dub riddims from the 80s and 90s. They're kind of recreated in a fast or more uptempo form." And he's right. According to Walcott what separates bashment soca from other strains of soca is its tempo. "It's between 120-135 bPm and it's sung in Barbadian dialect," he shares. "There's little harmonic movement, it's more two cords. In terms of the harmonies, it's very simple and direct." Another noted feature is that the lyrical content is very much instructional and women-focused. Though many of the popular artists within the genre are men, Lady Essence's music is an absolute stand out.
Not long ago, she teamed up with Ramses and entered with 'Blows'. The record's video was criticized for its dance moves but that hasn't deterred the artist from entering this year. "I had lots of fun last year," she shares with Noisey. "The song had its controversy but the controversy worked good for the song. It encouraged me to push forward by myself this year so that's just what I'm doing." Usually performing alongside Mole, she is entering the competition as a solo artist with her single "Fluffy Gal Anthem." In it, she takes on body shaming and body positivity. The visual opens up with a skit expressing her opinions on the matter. "I know a lot of [people], even children, that have a little stigma in their minds about little fat children. That is why I used it in that scene where she wanted to play but because has size [is not slimmer], they were like, 'No you can't play with us'… My fluffiness ain't stopping me. Because you have size doesn't mean that you should give up on certain things".
On the future of the genre, Lady Essence hopes that her artistry will afford her more touring opportunities and has a few tips for upcoming artists: "Just make sure you got a good craft and it's not only about [having a] good sound. You gotta have a package. You gotta [have] an image, a performance. You gotta be an entertainer. You can have a great sound but to go on a stage, it takes a lot to work a crowd." Walcott, pleased about its inclusion, worries about how the $50,000 cash prize will disincentivize artists to think creatively. "The competition is going to stifle [its future] because what people are starting to do is falling into the realm of, 'What can win?' as opposed to, 'What do I want to say with this music?'," he explains.
Outside of Lady Essence, the second annual Yello Bashment Soca final contestants include Coopa Dan and Rhea's "Bare Trouble," Hardware's "Popdown," Marzville's "Gas It Up," Snap Brandy's "Get Ova," Stabby's "Wukkist," Scrilla's "Wood," and the reigning monarch Stiffy who will be entering with "Tip and Ben Ova." They'll take the stage and be part of the legacy for Bashment Soca artists of the future. As the competition commences, the conversations around the genre are changing, which means that fans can happily 'up di ting.'
Sharine Taylor is a writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter.