“Boy, don’t touch me.” It’s not a lyric you expect to come across in the latest party jam, but those are the first words sung by Calypso Rose in “Leave Me Alone,” the song that has become an unlikely hit in the lead-up to Trinidad and Tobago’s annual Carnival.
As the Washington Post details, the song is finding success in a year when the country’s women’s rights activists have been working to call attention to the misogyny and male aggression that has traditionally accompanied the pre-Lent festival. In addition to street harassment and body-shaming, last year’s Carnival saw the still-unsolved killing of a female musician visiting from Japan—as well as outrageous victim-blaming after the fact by Port-of-Spain’s mayor.
Activists are working to improve the country’s misogynistic elements on several fronts. As they push for domestic violence prevention, they’re also promoting radical ideas like the concept that revealing outfits, which are par for the course at Carnival, don’t constitute an invitation for harassment. “You’re there, you’re in the party and somebody trying to control your bamsee,” as one Trinidadian activist told the Post of men’s unwanted efforts to grind, or “wine,” as it’s known colloquially, with her.
“Leave Me Alone” is the only-you-control-your-bamsee anthem that Carnival needs right now. At 76, Calypso Rose, its singer, is a calypso music pioneer who exemplifies the carefree, self-determined attitude the song professes. In the video, she dances around a record store joyfully, singing lyrics like, “I don’t want nobody/ To come and stop me” and “Let me party! Let me party!,” getting the message across that dancing needn’t involve holding off aggressive hordes of men. Though it’s unfortunate that it needs saying at all, that this is conveyed through such a catchy tune is certainly a plus.
Music and dance is central to the celebration of Carnival, so releasing a party song with a positive message represents a smart act of infiltration; a feminist song that also makes people say whatever the Trinidadian equivalent of “that’s my jam!” is the best kind of Trojan horse. The more typical music of Carnival hints at how deeply embedded sexism is in the country’s culture: The Post article cites the “objectification of women’s bodies in popular soca songs” and “well-worn” themes of rum, partying, “and the allure of a woman’s gyrating body, preferably backed into a man’s grasp.” “Leave Me Alone” is also a rebuke to a century of casually sexist pop music across the world. Anyone who’s unfamiliar with soca music need look no further than the current charts or the radio, where the local pop station probably has five songs with sexist undertones—or just tones—currently in rotation. If you’ve ever been listening to music and thought, wait, did he just say … , you already know what it sounds like when a sexist culture trickles down into the music you’re hearing.
In addition to Calypso Rose’s jubilant dancing and soca star Machel Montano rapping on the beach, the video for “Leave Me Alone” features a B-plot about a woman who sneaks out of the house, and away from her male partner, to enjoy the Carnival festivities on her own. (It’s like something out of a Dixie Chicks song.) She collects beads; she meets someone dressed up as the Incredible Hulk; a big smile is plastered on her face throughout. There’s a strange moment toward the end of the video, though, when the man catches and confronts the woman, after calling her repeatedly and asking the police to help him find her, basically seeming as much like an abusive partner as one can in the span of a short music video. What’s he going to do? Is he going to punish her? He doesn’t; he softens, and the two enjoy the parade together. But the bizarreness of this plot—imagine, a woman has to sneak off just to enjoy a holiday away from the eyes of her prying man!—convinced me that when even feminist anthems proceed from such an assumption, Trinidadian activists have a hard road ahead of them.