I share a trainer twice a week with some really great people. The company makes up for many things that occur during each hour long session: the fact of having to work out, the sweating, the involuntary and unlady-like noises I start making about forty minutes in, and the truly bad music that gyms must be contractually obligated to play. Our newest trainer is new to us, and newly a trainer. He’s good. I (and I think we) like him, but he uses a playlist of music that is just poor. In our last session, one of our group members, a gentleman who I would say is the least likely among the five of us to be bothered enough by the music to ask to change it, did just that. The truly objectionable playlist features things like Ke$ha’s “Timber,” (the dollar sign instead of an actual s tells you all you really need to know about the creativity of this one). It also features Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty,” which despite having what I think is a solid beat that if I don’t listen to the words I can get down to, actually offends me. The voice of the woman at the beginning and the end of the song offends me, because to my ear the woman’s voice sounds like a stereotypical or caricatured version of an Asian woman. It also offends me because I think the lyrics are stupid. So stupid that Jason Derulo has to think very little about the intelligence of his audience (those who listen voluntarily and those who are captive like we are). Otherwise he would not offer so much trite rubbish masquerading as music.
Linger with me on this stupid song a bit before we get to the stupid song that is central to this week’s post. At the beginning of “Talk Dirty” the woman says, “Jason” like “Day-son” and giggles. At the end she says “Wha? I don’ unnastan” and giggles again. If I start talking about the infantilizing of women and female sexuality here I won’t get to where I want to go, but know that I see it and have put it in the corner for now in the interest of getting to other matters. The lyrics sketch out the truly unimaginative metaphor of Derulo as the international flight that the woman in the song will get on – “first class seat on [his] lap, girl. Riding comfortable.” It doesn’t matter that she don’ unnastan; according to Jason, he’s “been around the world/ don’t speak the language, but [her] booty don’ need explaining.” So, that’s that. But listen, I take no issue with provocative music laced with sexual innuendo. I’m a Kanye fan. Take this bit from “Niggaz in Paris”:
She said, “Ye, can we get married at the mall”
I said, “Look, you need to crawl ‘fore you ball
Come and meet me in the bathroom stall
And show me why you deserve to have it all.”
Derulo could learn something from Kanye about subtlety in explicit lyrics. What I take issue with then is what I see as a lyrical laziness, something I think is present in too much contemporary R&B. I draw the comparison to rap here, R&B’s more explicit sibling, to show that even over in that game lyricism, even with things considered by some as lewd or vulgar, is a thing that can be carefully and entertainingly finessed. This lack of creativity where sexual innuendo is concerned is why I’m disappointed by that one bare line in SchoolBoy Q’s “Studio.” You know the one. I’m shy this week and don’t feel like giving it to you, so listen to it. The line is too bare and obvious, with zero lyricism. Lyricists like Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino, and Kanye have, I guess, spoiled me.
But Jason Derulo’s unimaginative song with its tired metaphors and equally tired stereotypical presumptions about Asian (or perhaps just non-American) women is not why I brought up my workout group and our trainer’s playlist. Another song on the playlist, “Shake Señora” (2011) by Pitbull, featuring Sean Paul, T-Pain, and Ludacris, inspired one of my workout partners to write a Facebook status update about why it is just a bad song. In the post the song was described as worse than “We Built This City.” I knew “Shake Señora” was a crappy song, but didn’t know exactly what made it on par or worse with “We Built This City.” As typically happens when I realize can’t quite put my finger on a thing, I started to think about why it was bad, about what elements made it so.
This process gained some momentum when my partner, who is not in our workout group and had not had to hear that awful song twice a week for maybe two months, commented that this incarnation of “Shake Señora” wasn’t a bad song. Thinking perhaps it was the issue of cultural appropriation that made the song objectionable, he asked why is it worse than Major Lazer’s “Watch Out Fi Dis (Bumaye)”? “Because it is!” I shot back with incredulity that he of all people would even ask such a question. Of course this is one of those challenges that he likes to slip by me, waiting for me to unsuspectingly take the bait, hook line and sinker. It’s like that time he said doubtfully, “pie making might be too hard for you.” Three years later we pie make like a BAWS over here. As a Jamaican with no prior history or experience with pie, I sure showed his doubtful ass. Right? Never mind. As always, he plants a thing under my skin that bugs me until I figure it out. It started to really bother me that I didn’t quite know how to explain what exactly made the Pitbull track bad, and the Major Lazer one good. After all, weren’t they both appropriating cultural forms born within marginalized communities in the Caribbean (Pitbull calypso and Major Lazer dancehall), making them all glossy and mainstreamy for an American pop market? Yes and no, but to explain why “Watch Out Fi Dis” is better was a thing that took a little work. Here is a version of that work.
Now, which Jamaican – or hearing person for that matter – does not cringe a little when Sean Paul makes those rapid fire percussion noises that aren’t even words at the start of “Shake Señora”? Worst yet, am I the only one who hears the underpants gnomes’ song from South Park every time T-Pain’s voices something on the track? Why Ludacris even agreed to put his name on this mess is a mystery to me. No, scratch that. Derivative drivel sells like hot cakes in today’s market. Like Jay-Z says, he’s not just a business man, he’s a “business, man.” But this newest iteration of an old ass song is bad for two big reasons. First, its rhyming structure is on par with a nursery rhyme penned by six year olds. I mean, there are actual nursery rhymes up in there. No offence to the poetic children out there, because trust and believe little Timmy and Suzie could work better rhymes than this mess. Here is the opening verse:
Mr. Worldwide I pop up and greet her
p p p peter p p punkin eater
With no religion, make them believers
I always hit two, call me Jeter
Sean Paul, Pain, Pitbull, and Luda
Is this a one-off verse? Perhaps. Maybe Luda gives us something better on his verse? Like he does on “Gossip Folks?” You know, kinda like how Nikki shut all the shit down on “Monster” or Pharell on “Move That Dope?” Nope. The rest of it pretty much just as shitty, and bilingually so as well:
Hey mamacita, tu es muy bonita
Hotter than lava, shake it like two maracas
Bend down and touch your toes
Then hop inside this custom rolls
Two shots of tequila, manos pa’ arriba
¡Qué lástima! The second reason that makes the song bad, meanwhile, has everything to do with this over a half-century old ditty. The song has history. More than that, it has no less that four other versions since the 1940s that each give us more lyrically from one singer than from all four performers on the Pitbull track combined. The historical baggage of the cultural appropriation of calypso that comes along with the song, moreover, makes it not only lyrically poor, but also politically problematic. Here’s what I mean by that last part. A brief history: the song was originally composed and performed by Lord Kitchener in 1946. His version, “Jump in the Line,” won the Carnival Road March that year. The Road March is usually won by the most popular carnival song of the season in Trinidad; it’s the song that makes yu jump up from the very first bar of music. That it won tells you “Jump In The Line” was hot for crowds of dancing people from jump. In 1955, Lord Invader, another Trinidadian, sampled the song for his version “Labor Day (Jump in the Line).” If you listen to this one, it was tailored for the Labor Day Carnival in New York City. It isn’t until Lord Flea, a Jamaican, sampled the song in 1957, though, that the “shake señora” was added. The presence of a Jamaican in the mix is interesting in part because in some ways one would hope that Sean Paul would live up to his countryman’s illustrious contribution to the immortality of this song. No such luck. This was also a time when the Jamaican music industry was taking fledgling strides into an American market. Trinidadian calypso was already a hit genre so why not sample calypsos? Finally, there is Harry Belafonte’s version, which takes up the shake señora and relays it on for Pitbull et al. When you listen to it, Belafonte’s version sounds like the one most liberally borrowed from for the 2011 iteration.
Before we get back to 2011, though, I should note that the New York Labor Day carnival incarnation is interesting, because we want to think about what happens to a cultural object when it migrates out of its original context into another—or, put another way, is imported into a foreign culture. What accounts for the move? What happens to a song when it goes elsewhere? One thing that might explain Lord Invaders’ New York version of 1955 is the American occupation of Trinidad. Fact: Trinidad was occupied by the US during World War II under the bases for destroyers agreement between America and Britain. The US military set up shop in the geographically strategic then-British colonial territory in 1941 and the base closed for military operations in 1967, five years *after* the country gained independence in 1962. TNT and the US have a seriously imbricated mid twentieth century history. As many many scholars have noted, the calypso made, performed and enjoyed since the time the first Trinidadians were displaced to build the American base is a historical record in its own right of what it meant to be resident on a small Caribbean island on the cusp of independence from Britain, but simultaneously occupied by America.
Another Lord Invader song, “Rum and Coca Cola” (1943), for example, has nothing to do with any of that Cuba libre rubbish Bacardi tries to sell you. Instead it is about how women in Trinidad preferred the company of American soldiers – “both mother and daughter working for the Yankee dollar.” Returning to the sexual innuendo business, when you listen to calypso from the 1940s, you can hear clearly why Jason Derulo and others are so much less interesting in this area. If you listened but missed it, “Rum and Coca Cola” is a song about the how prostitution thrived in Trinidad because of the presence of American servicemen who required, well, servicing. But here is the fun part that helps me to think about why the 2011 incarnation of the age-old calypso, “Jump In The Line” is just bad.
You might be more familiar with the Andrews Sisters version of “Rum and Coca Cola,” and if you listened to Lord Invader’s you will hear that the ladies’ version is quite literally gutted of all of the song’s original social commentary – it is a song about travelling to Trinidad as tourist. What’s worse, however, this popular song also offers a lesson in who gets credit for the lyrics on any of these early calypsos when they are released in the US. Songs that are steeped in social commentary and that reflect a contemporary geopolitical moment in Trinidad are popularized in the US through cover versions and sampling which renders them entirely bereft of their original political content. When The Anderson Sisters’ “Rum and Cocoa Cola” was released in the US in 1946, it was copywritten with lyrical credit to Morey Amsterdam. Amsterdam was an American television actor and comedian, who is best known for his role as Buddy Sorrel on The Dick Van Dyke Show. The song was a hit in Trinidad when he visited the country to perform as part of a U.S.O show in 1943. Amsterdam claims in court documents that he never heard the song when there. Sure. Uh huh. The story of Lord Invader/Lionel Belasco eventually getting financial credit for his song is fascinating and frustrating – there was a lawsuit, Belasco won royalties but not publishing rights. Look it up. Here’s my point, though: the history of calypsos and American remakes is fraught with unequal and exploitative neocolonial relations.
When I began to think about “Shake Señora’s” twenty first century incarnation, the “Rum and Coca Cola” saga immediately came to mind. Both songs are an appropriation of a cultural product that strips the original of a definitive part of its substance – be it lyrical, political, or both – and ultimately presents an infantile product, with zero lyrical complexity, for the sole purpose of profitable popular consumption. For me, what’s worse is that there are two artists on this track with native connections to the Caribbean who I would like to think could/would do better. Poor, Pitbull *and* Sean Paul. Just poor.
Finally, then, this brings me to why it’s not just a matter of cultural appropriation—why “Watch Out Fi Dis,” though also an embodiment of problematic cultural appropriation, is better. Diplo under the guise of Major Lazer goes in for none of that watered down shit. First, his song is a good track because it works to stay true to the raw verve of the Jamaican dancehall. It accomplishes this with the inclusion of a dancehall artist, Busy Signal, who speaks actual words. This 2013 track is also superior to “Shake Señora” because of what and how it samples. The main horn-based rhythm line of “Watch Out Fi Dis” is built on 10 seconds (ten seconds!) of a salsa track by Willie Colón & Rubén Blades titled “Maria Lionza” from 1978. What makes this sample brilliant is that it builds an almost four minute song out of ten seconds of music from a track in another genre of music entirely—one channeled, moreover, through the baile funk that Diplo also spent a lot of time immersed in in Brazil. “Watch Out Fi Dis” does this in a way that shows how danceability and hype need not translate to inane lyricism or compromise on the localization of a particular sound. The song might not be Jamaican by birth, but it gets a Jamaican sound right like few others who were not born on The Rock can (Gentleman, I see you baby). It does so, we might note, by recognizing that much Jamaican music is built on well-chosen samples from other forms of music. Diplo’s song is not only better than “Shake Señora” it is superior.
Here’s the thing, though. Diplo doesn’t always get this part right in his various Jamaican inspired projects. One place he gets it quite wrong is the VH1 series he hosts called SoundClash, which I decided not to watch on principle. If you know me, and what I watch on television, you know this kind of principled discrimination is rarer than it probably should be. I may eventually watch, but my Jamaican musical snobbery knows the premise doesn’t play close enough to the original tune of its title. A sound clash is a competition of sound. As the word clash suggests, it has combative facets. In the context of the dancehall, two DJs (the equivalent of the MC in rap/hip hop) duel lyrically, or two competing sound systems duel over who can play the best music. The best clashes are when DJs or sound system selectas arrange songs together to insult his/her competitor. The equivalent in rap are battles (like in Eight Mile). So, when Diplo, as a producer who gained mainstream popularity by liberally incorporating a Jamaican sound, borrows something else – sound clash – the potential purist watcher is surprised by the fact that it is stripped of the competitive dimension. According to the description, the show takes the form of an “event, where bands perform classic jams, current hits, and on-the-spot, unreleased collaborations.” Badman nuh play collaboration inna sound clash. Diplo move wrong deh so.
Thus, where “Watch Out Fi Dis” sticks close enough to the grain, SoundClash removes a pivotal concept and practice from Jamaican dancehall culture and drains it of all of its aggressive virtuosity. Without that, to me, it becomes rubbish. The dancehall purist in me is not entertained by that. Here’s where this becomes more than bad music at the gym that you riff on, though. Hopefully, you stuck around for the moral: not all cultural appropriation is bad. There is a way to do it. Pitbull, though, hasn’t got a clue.