For a few weeks of the year, you can get a slice of Trinidad in Jamaica. Through the annual Jamaica Carnival, an event that replicates Carnival in Trinidad while still integrating aspects of Jamaican culture, soca heads, carnival chasers and feterans from around the world make their way to the island in April for unlimited bouts of wining, jabbing and revelry. For a night Sabina Park, in the nation’s capital, Kingston, was host to the Carnival Thursday festivities, an amalgamation of soca, dancehall and a generous open bar. TRIBE: Ignite, a travelling party borne of Trinidadian mas camp TRIBE – the group of people who design and create theme-based costumes for Carnival – had arranged a Caribbean music lover’s dream lineup that included Kes the Band, Machel Montano, Ding Dong, Alison Hinds and Nailah Blackman. She came out in bold, red blazer, with electrifyingly contagious energy, performing hits from the current soca season, one of them being ‘Baila Mami’.
Though Blackman has years of experience as an artist, and given that fact that she’s (literally) soca royalty, her foray into the limelight was by way of a collaborative single for 2017 Carnival, "Workout," which was made in part with lead singer Kees Dieffenthaller of Kes the Band. In 2016, Dieffenthaller saw the artist performing her single "Cigarettes" on YouTube (the video has since been deleted) and they both created "Workout" to be entered into last year’s International Soca Monarch: Trinidad’s annual, highly competitive music showcase where winners receive a cash prize, the title of best soca record, bragging rights and a high probability of a successful music career. Though the record moved on to the finals, it did not win, but afforded the artist an immense amount of exposure and opportunities. Blackman, who was only 19 at the time, had gone through a major shift in a short amount of time, having worked with various producers when she was 15, meeting her current manager/producer, Anson Soverall, at 17, and then performing during Trinidad Carnival alongside a soca behemoth like Kes two years later. “It was only late 2016 when I was like, ‘I really wanna do sokah’ and that was when ‘Workout’ was born the following year for carnival. Everything changed cause...I used to perform a lot in wine bars and in very intimate settings in Trinidad,” she shares with me. For Blackman, it’s beyond just doing soca. It’s about coming to terms with a destiny she feels compelled to fulfill.
The Blackman name is well-known in soca circles: Calypsonian powerhouse Abbi Blackman, who is Nailah’s mother, soca artist Marge Blackman, is Nailah’s aunt and producer Isaac Blackman, Nailah’s uncle, are just few names on a long list of heavy-hitters that she shares a bloodline with. It’s all in the family for the Blackmans, and that’s evident in the music they produce with and amongst one another. For example, the artist explains that her aunt teamed up with consecutive three-time International Soca Monarch winner, Aaron “Voice” St. Louis, to create "Full of Vibe," which was produced by her uncle. The family works collaboratively and their dynamic shines through by way of how lovingly she speaks about the relationship she has with her mom. “She’d always want to write my song before I wrote my own songs. She would make my outfits, write my [music], teach me my performance and [was] basically my life coach in general”, she laughs. “There are so many moments. I just don’t know where to choose from but she was just so involved in everything that I did music-wise”.
Nailah sees her mom’s history as an artist as inspiring. At just 14 years old, Abbi Blackman won the National Calypso Queen contest with her record "Young and Moving On," except no one knew she was that young. She eagerly snuck into the contest by telling organisers she was much older but had a desire to showcase her talent. That she did and has had a successful music career since. Nailah chuckles while sharing, as this is one of her favourite memories of her mother.
On the day that we speak, she's landed in Tampa Bay to perform at the city’s Carnival and had flown from New York where she performed on a cruise alongside fellow T & T artist, Patrice Roberts. Tampa will be a brief stop before she makes her way back into the Caribbean and then to California to perform at Hollywood Carnival and to continue the rest of her tour. It’s been non-stop for the artist, especially with the success of ‘Workout’, but she has a larger goal in mind, and it’s one that’s informed by her late grandfather, Calypsonian legend and father of soca/sokah, Garfield “Lord Shorty” Blackman, affectionately known as Ras Shorty I.
Blackman shares her family history with me. Historically, Trinidad and Tobago’s primary demographics have been comprised of Afro and Indo-folk. Her grandfather, who was the son of an Afro-Barbadian and Indo-African woman, grew up in Lengua Village, a town in southern Trinidad populated by many Indo-Trinidadians, who were descendants of the country’s indentured labourers. Her grandfather had always been involved in music and Blackman shares, “He had been thinking about sokah music from before he even knew that it was sokah music, for so long.” Though he felt connected to his Afro and Indo roots, he still felt isolated because of the huge racial divide in the country and in his immediate predominantly Indo community. In addition, Jamaican reggae music as well as soul and R&B from the U.S began to popularise among the country’s young people. While he was successful with Calypso, he felt like there was still a better way of engaging and empowering Trinbago’s youth and thought music would be a good way to draw on sounds from the two cultural groups. Nailah’s tone changes, likely adopting the same frustrations her grandfather took on, as she shares the visions he had for the genre. Explaining her grandfather’s desire for unity, she says, “He wanted to make a music that was completely Trinidad and he called it ‘sokah’ because it is the soul of calypso, and the ‘-kah’ represented ‘divine’ in Hindi. K-A-H, that’s how it was spelled. So he called it sokah: S-O-K-A-H. ” An interview with Lord Shorty in 1997 also mentions the etymology of the word, ‘-kah’, being the first letter of the Indian alpha
Nailah states he made music for about nine years until he came out with his 1974 album, Endless Vibrations. This body of work is considered a canon in soca music, with Shorty’s fusion of calypso and Indian music and traditional instruments. “That was when he first launched sokah as a sound, as a genre and he explained the breakdown of everything in that album.” She sings a line from the single that shares the same name of the album, “ Change the musical structure make the soca sweeter jouvert morning...he was basically telling everybody to get on this new thing. This is the new calypso.”
Of course this was met with some resistance, however when another artist, Lord Kitchener came out with his 1976 hit, "Sugar Bum Bum," there was a shift. According to Blackman, once Kitchener started to do it, everyone did as well. There has been much tensions regarding the origins of the genre and many folks discredit the work of Lord Shorty but in a 1979 interview in Carnival Magazine, he is quoted saying, “I came up with the name [sokah]. I invented [sokah]. And I never spelt it s-o-c-a. It was s-o-k-a-h to reflect the East Indian influence.” Nailah shares that in an interview, a music journalist misspelled the word as s-o-c-a, which is how it is contemporarily referred to as. An additional explanation indicated that its etymology is from the s-o of the word ‘soul’ and the ‘c-a’ of the word ‘calypso’, from the understanding that “soca is the soul of calypso.”
With a much more demure mood, Blackman mentions, “Everybody started claiming that it was them who had did it and he just got so disheartened by it that he was like, 'You know what? Who God bless, no man curse,' and he just moved away from it all and changed his life.” Lord Shorty had a textured life in his youth, to say the least, but in the late 70s looked towards religion as a means for change. In addition to everything that had been going on in his music world, his best friend and frequent collaborator, Maestro, had died in a car crash. To heal, Lord Shorty moved to the remote hills of Piparo with his wife Claudette and 14 children, changed his name to Ras Shorty I and began to make more spiritual music – blending soca and gospel to create the genre Jamoo – until he died at age 58 in 2000 from bone cancer.
Nailah dotes on the aspirations of her grandfather saying, “When people carried on doing sokah, yeah, he was proud. He wanted them to do it [but] he didn’t like the way it was being done...they made it all about Carnival and all about wine and jam and he just felt like it was more than that. It had more substance and it was supposed to be international and it wasn’t. It stayed in the Caribbean circuit for a long time...he always felt like sokah music is an international music.”
Perhaps Nailah has the opportunity to carry the mantle of her family and grandfather. She was recently nominated in BET’s Viewer’s Choice: Best New International Act category, and though she did not win, she is excited about the possibilities of a much broader reach having this newly-found exposure. As she works alongside her manager, Anson, they have a global goal in mind that allows soca to be seen and heard beyond the Caribbean region and its far reaching diaspora. She states, “Anson and I, our goal when doing sokah was to make it known as an actual genre, as an international sound of music.”
As for her legacy, she sees herself as a cultural ambassador and takes responsibility as a role model to youth very seriously, especially through her efforts via Lah Lah Land. She’s worked on collaborating with other Caribbean artists, like her “Baddish” record with dancehall princess, Shenseea, in their and her newest record, an Anson-produced remix of her "Dangerous Boy" track, featuring reggae superstar, Tarrus Riley. Directed by Wade Roden, the colourful video follows the two artists in a around abandoned buildings until they end up at a night party.
Caribbean music has a tendency to flourish in its region and select regions abroad and for brief moments, make itself known in mainstream culture. I believe Nailah wants to change that. Soca is still a young genre and its potential for growth has no limits. Before we leave, she says something that resonates with me, “Once you kill a dream, you kill potential.” In every way, Nailah is a dreamer who had no desire to stay within what’s familiar. For her, allowing soca to be a mainstay is not just part of her responsibility as an artist, it is her fate.
Watch the premiere of "Dangerous Boy (Remix)," featuring Tarrus Riley on TIDAL; the first video available for both members and non-members.