On Tour’s decision opens  important debate on calypso
Alvin ‘Zion-I’ Dennie
June 6, 2023
On Tour’s decision opens important debate on calypso

The decision by the On Tour calypso tent to distance itself from the 2023 offering of one of its members is warranted.

In a most unusual move, the calypso tent has not only distanced itself from Alvin ‘Zion-I’ Dennie’s composition ‘Raperman’, it has gone even further by kicking the veteran calypsonian out of the tent.

One of the most interesting aspects of the action of the tent is that successive governments have been accused, and rightfully so, of silencing calypsonians. But here we have a calypso that is considered so unlawful and outrageous by calypsonians themselves that the On Tour tent chose to eject its member.

It is totally within the ambit of responsibility of tent leaders to set and enforce a set of standards with which its members must comply, and secondly, a calypso tent clearly has responsibility for determining which songs are acceptable within that tent.

In this case, we are not sure that the On Tour tent had much choice. Zion-I is well known for his hard hitting calypsos, but this year, he clearly crossed the line. The decision by tent leaders to give Zion-I his marching orders is as much an act of self-preservation as it is the tent’s way of disciplining him.

With the ‘Zion-I’ controversy have come discussions on freedom of expression and the important role calypsonians play in documenting the history of the nation, voicing the concerns of the people, highlighting achievements, pointing out societal wrongs and of course, taking jabs at our leaders when it is perceived that they have gone astray.

But the calypsonian’s right to sing social commentary does not give him / her the right to defame anyone. One characteristic of a master of the art of calypso is the effective use of innuendo and double entendre to deliver the most stinging blows without exposure to the possibility of having to answer a defamation lawsuit.

The leadership of the On Tour tent has opened an important debate on how calypsoes should be crafted, and no one is better suited to have that debate than the calypsonians themselves. The evolution of the art form in St Vincent and the Grenadines requires the constant interrogation of the craft by the artistes and On Tour’s decision in relation to Zion-I is part of that process.

Decades ago, De Man Age sang the song “Dey go ban it”, and CDC officials turned down the microphone when Lord Have Mercy sang ‘State of Emergency’. Those songs fell fully within the tradition of social commentary and should never have been penalized by the government of the day. But by their action, the leadership of the On Tour tent has indicated that Zion-I’s calypso stands clearly outside of that tradition. In this they are correct.