In her most recent set of antics, as they can only be described, Lilly Singh posted a clip on Instagram that she dedicated to the “sisters around the world.” Singh said that she wrote the lyrics, accompanied to the beat of Ding Dong’s famously celebrated song “Bad Man Forward Bad Man Pull Up,“ because she didn’t feel his original version catered to women and wanted to “switch it up.”
Our issue here is not a remix of a well-known song, it is first her lack of acknowledgement that a female version made by Bambi already exists called “Bad Gal Pull Up.” Secondly, it is that in situations like this we, Indo Caribbeans, are forced into watching our culture be turned into a spectacle as an outsider artist makes yet another homage that does not derive from the society it belongs to.
Singh’s recent video that co-opted patois, dancehall, and soca-influenced rhythm, was accompanied by a call to action to identify “bad gyals” in her comment section, triggered a justified reaction from the Caribbean community. West Indian heritage is built by multiple racial and ethnic traditions, which include West Indians of African descent. Dancehall is cultivated by the Afro-Caribbean community and made popular in Jamaica.
While the Jamaican Afro-Caribbean community has undoubtedly cultivated what dancehall is today, the music has transcended race and is shared and celebrated by Indo and Afro-Caribbeans alike. As descendants of East Indian indentureship, Indo-Caribbean people are among the many ethnic groups that have developed West Indian culture into what it is today—a complex cultural anomaly, which is highly valued by its community and now coveted by trend-seeking influencers.
While many Indo Caribbeans were appalled, offended, and honestly exhausted, others within the community celebrated her video. Those who did not have concerns about Singh’s behavior arguably helped to enable sentiments of anti-blackness in their approval of her imitation of patois in the video, while also supporting the narrative that those from outside the Afro-Caribbean identity get to determine whether or not dancehall is empowering. Singh not only took it upon herself to determine what is empowering and what isn’t through a culture that does not belong to her, but she also neglected to empower actual Caribbean voices.
This tone-deaf behavior began most notably with the release of another video featuring Singh, where she shared what she believed to be Canadian or Toronto slang on Vanity Fair. Among her list were words and phrases like waste, yute, ting, ahlie, mandem, dun kno, sweetermans, and how you bare face suh? While she does credit Jamaican patois at some point, her remarks in the video depict slang terms that are uniquely used by the Caribbean population versus Toronto as a whole. To add insult to injury, she quoted Drake using these terms, a rapper who is known for wearing the Caribbean identity for relatability.
Her proximity to Indo-Caribbeanness, whether through the color of her skin or her upbringing in a saturated Caribbean area in Canada—which isn’t a valid reason either—was her convenient channel to accessing elements of black culture that coolie people share by being West Indian and that she does not share by being East Indian. This trend transcends beyond Singh’s platform.
South Asians continuously appropriate West Indian culture, music, dancing, and dialect for what can only be explained as a desperate attempt to access black culture. The use of the Indo-Caribbean identity affords them a channel to access not only black culture but also Afro-Caribbean culture and West Indian culture—which are distinct in their own rites and are not mutually inclusive in the broader West Indian identity.
So while Singh felt free to enjoy the music, culture, food, peoples, and dialect of West Indians, she failed to acknowledge that the Indo-Caribbean diaspora was never afforded the same. As carriers of intergenerational trauma, whose history is rife with division, we can no longer stand silent as we’re once again left out of our own narrative while another culture yet again profits off of what we’ve worked so hard as a people to build. And truthfully, when it comes to a 31-year-old woman who should know better by now: We cyah hav dat.
There is a belief that Singh appropriates Caribbean culture in the way she does because she has been invited into it, most famously, by Machel Montano. The soca legend and iconic Caribbean creative could have done this under the guise of “Soca to Di World,” but his doing so negates the fact that much of the Caribbean identity and belonging is still being cultivated, and that which has already been created has not yet been afforded the platforms it deserves to be correctly recognized. By not allowing ourselves to develop an understanding of who we are as people before inviting others in, leads to a breeding ground of ready-to-steal content like that displayed by Singh.
Singh has also been called out many times for her faux-inclusive behavior. The truth is that Singh feels empowered, not because she has done the work to recognize our complex community and culture, but because the similarities between West and East Indian cultures were strong enough to aid her desperate journey towards liberating herself from her own culture while being weak enough that she could conveniently dip into the West Indian world without backlash from the communities she was stealing from. We should be happy right? Wrong.
We should never get comfortable with the idea that South Asians can take from us what we have created with our bare hands. Our culture and history is just as much the oil in our waist, the echoes of a steelpan, the dialect of languages and people who shared a history of slavery as it is our traumatic history of servitude, our journey towards healing from colonialism, and our cultivation and creation of hybridity as a method of survival.
For Singh to feel entitled to rebrand our culture under the pretense of empowerment is laughable, and sickening. Singh is not West Indian, and no amount of performative and shallow activism will justify her behavior.
Appreciation is allyship, appropriation is entitlement. Singh has crossed the line one too many times for it to be the former.
The problematic nature of her video isn’t just in her gyrating hips or her animated facial expressions and hand movements. It isn’t just in the way she employs the accent or justifies it with the weak excuse of being TO born and raised, it’s in the lack of accountability she takes for her behavior and disregard of responsibility to the communities she steals from for content.
In the academic article, “The Politics of Brown Mutuality: Reflections on Lilly Singh, Cultural Appropriation and Queer Amnesia” written by Ryan Persadie, Darrell G Backsh, and Aruna Boodram, investigates how these lines between what is Indian and Indo-Caribbean are constantly blurred. When it comes to Singh they said that just because she was born and raised in the Greater Toronto area does not mean she is automatically granted permission to create content rooted in our identity. Furthermore, they bring up the elephant in the room when it comes to identity politics.
Indo-Caribbean people face a strange existence—sometimes othered by South Asians and sometimes othered by our own Caribbean counterparts—leaving us in an uneasy middle ground. For Afro-Caribbean people, Singh’s hijacking of a popular dancehall song is plain out eye-rolling with her imitated vernacular and selective participation.
For Indo-Caribbean people, it is yet another reminder that we belong nowhere and nothing belongs to us. This is an innate feeling of trauma that is brought up every time we’re forced to fight against systematic issues in the corporate world, fight against family dynamics that are affected by this reality, and are now uprooted when once again we see South Asians being given a pass to celebrate the parts of our identity that make us unique in the diaspora, and parts we even have a hard time feeling welcome to own in our shared culture.
This battle is an exhausting one especially when people like Singh have the capacity to use her platform to elevate people that are doing valuable work for the Caribbean community or even Caribbean vocal artists versus believing that this is a space she can walk into and claim. The cycle of being on the outskirts of identity is continuously perpetrated and pushed in our faces. Rinse, lather, repeat.
We have to spend so much time investigating our history and archiving important facts before they are lost, in modern times. While we also work toward healing the innate trauma that comes from our Afro-Caribbean family enduring slavery or our Indo-Caribbean family enduring indentured servitude or our native family losing their land to the colonizer and ultimately us taking over a place that belonged to them—and in that same breath we are asked to combat the trauma of having basic enjoyment in our culture taken from us and exploited for engagement.
True allyship and appreciation would require Singh to use her platform to uplift and mobilize the incredible voices the Caribbean already has. On the ground dancehall artists like @officaldydy, @preethevibes, @alicaharley, and @iamchrismartin are just a few artists she could have tapped to create a better-informed piece of content that celebrates the voices of our community.
We know what it is like to be stolen from, that generational trauma courses through our veins. We won’t apologize for being protective of what deserves to be acknowledged and celebrated—by us, on our terms, with our people and faces at the forefront.
“How could the British bring the Indians without the cows?”That’s one of the jokes you’re very likely to hear at comedian Priya Guyadeen’s show. In fact, the 53-year-old just wrapped up a set of shows with her troupe: Cougar Comedy Collective. The Guyanese-born comic spearheads the group of mostly women of “a certain age,” as she puts it.
She says the group was formed in 2021 but she started dishing out jokes back in 2020 during the pandemic, over Zoom. She was always labeled the “funny one” in her family and decided to take her jokes to a virtual open mic, hosted by her friend, where she says failure was less daunting.
Cut to 2023, and the comic was able to take her show on the road. Guyadeen and her fellow performers recently hit the East coast for a set of shows called “Cougars on the Loose!” The shows even featured two male comics.
Guyadeen’s comedy routines touch on her Indo Guyanese background, highlighting stereotypes and a clash of cultures. In one of her jokes, she tells her audience that her Guyanese mom is bad with names when she introduces her white boyfriend, Randy, and he gets called Ramesh.
Out in the Bay Area — where she spends her days now — she tries to connect the sparsely Caribbean population to her jokes.
That includes talking about the 1978 Jonestown Massacre which had ties to San Francisco and ended in Guyana. She uses this as a reference point — trying to connect her audience to her background with historical context. She says this does come with its challenges, though.
The single mom also practices clean jokes. Once she finishes up her daily routine with her eight-year-old son and day job as a project manager for a biotechnology company, she tries to find time to write her material.
It’s a balancing act. I’m like the day job-Priya for a few hours or for a chunk of time. And then I’ve got to put on my comedian hat and do that for a period of time because with comedy, I’m not just performing. I’m also producing, managing the shows, booking talent, seeking venues.
Though it’s not easy, she says she’s learning through it all — the business side of comedy and discipline.
Guyadeen, who’s lived in Brazil and Canada, says her young son really contributes to her comedy. A lot of her material focuses on jokes for parents, and single parents like herself, because she feels:
[We live] in a society that doesn’t really create a support system for single parents.
Her nonprofit, Cougar Comedy Collective, was born out of all the great reception she received. She noticed a “niche market” of women in their 50s who loved to get dressed up and come out to the shows to hear jokes that related to their own lives that aren’t typically touched on. These were jokes about menopause, aging and being an empty nester. Guyadeen says her nonprofit,
…bring[s] talent together in our age group to celebrate this time of life; celebrate this particular juncture in a person’s life.
As Guyadeen continues her comedic journey, she says she hopes she’ll be a role model for other Caribbean women to follow their dreams despite their age. She also hopes to see more Caribbean people carving out their space in the entertainment industry.
Featured Image of Priya Guyadeen taken by Elisa Cicinelli Photography
I first started writing it for submission to a competition with the Borough Press. I wasn’t sure what story I wanted to write because I felt obligated to write certain stories or write in a certain style. I pretty much got fed up and started questioning myself. When I put pen to paper and got serious, the story that came out was a story of grief not necessarily specific to my life. I knew I wanted it to be about a family going through grief for decades, and how grief can arrest and impact the family structure.
When you first started writing, which part of the story came out?
It was the very first chapter. The first three chapters of the book came naturally. What you read in the book is untouched from the first draft that I submitted. I knew it was about a family that was going through grief. I knew I wanted it to take place between Trinidad and Toronto because I was born and raised in Trinidad and lived in Toronto. I wanted that sort of cross-generational mixture of family in the book as well – to see how each generation dealt with grief.
Did you always want to be a writer?
I don’t think I knew. It’s just one of those things that you think is impossible, so there’s no point dreaming about it. But when I was a young girl in Trinidad, I imagined myself carrying a leather briefcase and I don’t know why, but I knew I was going somewhere important, and I had something important to do. I always loved writing, but the truth is people get in the way and they dissuade you. It’s all around you – that the arts is not a viable career and if you pursue it, you have a 95% chance of failure. But after working 10 office jobs in three years, I’m like, ‘I’m not happy,’ so this is actually the failure. I knew I needed change.
How do you navigate the space of being told that art is not a viable career, especially in the Indo Caribbean community?
Those challenges were around me all the time. It wasn’t even my family, but it even comes from friends and acquaintances. When you’re young, being an artist is hard, and you’re told there’s no point in doing it. I listened to people who said that, and got office jobs and did what everyone else was doing because apparently, that was the way to be happy. Five years passed by and I realized I wasn’t happy and I should have never listened to those people. I started writing. I started doing something that made me happy and treated it as a serious craft. I did not treat it as a hobby, but as something that was going to pave my path. I really worked in a tunneled vision. So I never told anybody what I was doing – I didn’t want to be dissuaded. I had to be my own champion. I know that doesn’t sound healthy, but back in 2012, I didn’t know about community.
Cassandra, the main character is a writer, like yourself. How much of Cassandra’s story is your story?
My family is very supportive of my writing and it took some time for them to get there. Like many families, they kind of saw it as a hobby. Once they saw that I got published, they took it more seriously. Now, they are supportive of my writing and I think in the book, Cassandra’s family is not that supportive. They just weren’t interested in her writing, which is why she didn’t talk about it. It is a little bit reflective of my own experience.
It wasn’t based on a true story. That is something I get asked often – a lot of people say ‘she’s Trinidad and you’re Trinidadian.’ The places I wrote about are from my memory, but the plot itself is fiction. I wanted to challenge myself to write something truly fictional. I grew up in a household of strong Trinidadian women. I wanted to write about strong Trinidadian women, the roles they play, their histories and their backgrounds. The characters aren’t necessarily based on anyone particular in my life. Overall, it was a joy to imagine and write it because each one of these characters are very different from the other.
The novel has nine major female characters and at most three major male characters. Why did you want to tell a female-driven story?
I grew up in a family of predominantly women, and most of my Caribbean friends also grew up in families of predominantly women. They really are, in my experience, our caretakers. For me, my family and my friends, our mothers are our worlds – we love and admire them. Family is their priority; raising their children is their priority. I wanted to write about Trinidadian women because I wanted to tell each of their stories. I want more Indo Caribbean and Caribbean women in fiction. I think anything that I write will always be about Caribbean women. I want to contribute to that field of literature. I have such enormous respect for them; all the sacrifices that they’ve gone through to bring their kids to new countries – some of them single moms. There’s nothing else I really want to write about, to be honest.
One of the other things I noticed was keen attention to the setting. How many of these precise details came from your own life, if any of them?
For Trinidad, a lot of it is based on my memory of the island and my home there. But I did have to turn to my family for specific details that I thought I may have imagined. Because I grew up mostly in Toronto. I was insecure about writing about Trinidad, so I went back to my mom and my family, who lived there for over 40 years. In terms of the house in Toronto, some of that is from my experience and some from imagination. I’ve written and talked about this book before, “The Poetics of Space” by Gaston Bachelard, which examines the psychology of houses. I tried to construct a house that would accommodate the psychology of the characters. If the house seems very detailed, it’s because I made it so, to accommodate certain secrets and people’s personalities.
Why explore the psychology of a house?
It’s not an original thought, but I think the way space is organized around us, or the way we organize ourselves in a space dictates physical behavior. If you’re in a wide open space and you don’t know anyone, that can seem intimidating. If you’re in a closed space, that can also seem intimidating. I tried to organize the space to give each character privacy from the other, but then once they were in a common room, it really changed the dynamics of their interactions.
What makes a family?
I think people who have been through challenges with you for years make a family. That’s not even a blood thing – I have friends that are like family because we’ve been through things together over decades. It’s people you’ve experienced highs and lows with, but managed to stick with throughout the years. But ‘family’ can also be people who you haven’t talked to for years, who you’ve had a fragmented relationship with. For those sorts of relationships, it can be an unhealthy loyalty or a wondering of what could have been.
The book doesn’t have a happily-ever-after ending. Why?
Not ending the story in a neat little package was very important to me. I think there’s a certain expectation in storytelling by readers that a story needs a conclusion. And, to me, this is not what actually happens in the real world. The reasons people read a book are different – some people are reading for escapism, others are to better understand cultures and other people – so it depends on the reader and what they’re looking for. In literary fiction, readers are more open to an inconclusive ending because literary fiction can take things to a darker, more serious place than other genres. If I wrapped up the story with a nice little bow, it would be untrue to what this family has gone through. I wanted to show how unsolved issues can pan out. I didn’t want to take the story from a sad beginning to a happy ending. Not all stories end happily.
What do you want readers to take away from “Wild Fires?”
I set out to write a story that had a universal theme. I wanted to feature a somewhat normal story with Caribbean characters. It wasn’t centered around race or indentureship because a lot of the Indo Caribbean literature that I’ve read has been – and rightly so. That’s where I learned about our history and our stories. But that was not a story that I wanted to tell first because it was not the story that was closest to my heart. When I started writing, I realized the story was really about grief. I wanted to show Caribbean women and Indo Trinidadian women, in a universal light. We are a result of these histories yet go through normal things like grief, secrets and family dysfunction.
Following the publication of “Wild Fires,” Jai is pursuing her Master’s at Oxford University as a Kellogg’s Scholar. While attending school, she’s looking to write a short story about Caribbean joy to contrast the dark themes of her debut novel and portray Caribbean women in unrepresented ways.
“Wild Fires” is available in Canada and the UK and will be available in the U.S. in Spring 2023.
It is officially that time of year—the holiday season. There’s nothing like Christmas and New Year’s in the West Indies. Between the pepperpot in Guyana and the palm trees decorated in lights in Trinidad, the home food, warm weather and laid-back ambiance makes us wish we could escape the cold and head back to the Caribbean. Most of us, however, cannot “take holiday” and find ourselves hungry for fresh dhal puri and doubles. But, thanks to these Indo-Caribbean food bloggers, we can bring the motherland to our kitchens.
From Diwali mithai specialties to curry chicken, Matthew is creating a name for himself as a young Guyanese food blogger. He makes a great effort to incorporate Hindu holidays and traditions on his Instagram account, in conjunction with the customary foods and sweets associated with these religious events. However, his expertise does not end there, with new and alternative recipes for classic dishes such as curry chicken and bhara, Matthew takes center stage sharing both traditional Guyanese dishes as well as specific religious dishes made for festivals. His most popular YouTube video, with 1.4 million views, features his grandmother and focuses on the best tips to make the softest Guyanese paratha roti. In addition, his YouTube account is home to many videos offering guidance to Indo Caribbean cooking. Find recipes at @mattews.guyanese.cooking
Natasha Laggan of Trini Cooking with Natasha is wildly popular throughout the Caribbean and the U.S. With humble beginnings, Natasha credits her love of food to her family’s business. She speaks of the nostalgia home food provides her as she reminisces memories of her grandmother’s cooking and helping her mother make sandwiches early in the morning. Featured by Forbes, Natasha grew her Facebook following quickly throughout the pandemic by posting old YouTube videos. Today, she has more than 1 million followers on Facebook and over 200K followers on YouTube. She uses her passion for cooking and Trinidadian culture to bring easy-to-follow recipes to viewers. Her following has now reached the West Indian diaspora globally as she has also become a brand ambassador to two well-known food companies. Follow the food expert @trinicookingwithnatasha.
With over 100K followers on YouTube, Ria is quite the expert when it comes to making roti. Her dhal puri, sada roti and paratha roti tutorials have over 1M views! However, her expertise does not stop there. Of the 180 YouTube tutorials, her recipes vary from curry to other Trinidadian favorites like macaroni pie and pigtail soup. Just scrolling through her YouTube page makes your mouth water. From doubles to classic Trinidad bakes like pound cake and sweet bread, she provides precision and anecdotal commentary while guiding you through the familiarity of home food. Check out Ria’s page at @cookingwithria.
Known as Chef Devan, Devan Rajkumar embraces his Guyanese Canadian heritage by creating recipes combining flavors of both the East and West Indies. His love of food has allowed him to expand his role to judge in a popular Canadian cooking show: Food Network Canada’s Fire Masters. His cooking often blends the flavors of multiple cultures but also creates the classic recipes of his motherland. With a multitude of interests, Chef Dev uses his social media platform to connect with followers by sharing various aspects of his life that go beyond cooking. His most recent YouTube video provides a trailer for an upcoming video “Tastes Guyana” which shows him exploring Guyana from the inside, specifically deep parts of the inner country. To learn more about Chef Devan follow @chefdevan.
Reshmi is the chef behind the growing blog, Taste of Trinbago. A Trinidadian native who now resides in Texas, she uses her love of food and Trinidadian culture to share hacks, tips and easy recipes with West Indians throughout the globe. She finds a way to simplify traditional West Indian meals, that we once watched our elders make with curiosity. From holiday specialties like black cake to Diwali delicacies, Reshmi has brought vegetarian and non-veg recipes to followers in an extremely accessible way. She even posts recipe cards on her IG highlights for followers who may need written instructions. Her IG profile is a mix of various West Indian foods while also sharing bits of her life and even her secrets to baby food. Follow her @tasteoftrinbago.
These are just five Indo Caribbean food bloggers sharing their secrets to easy cooking. The once very daunting recipes and food instructions our parents gave have been simplified by most of these bloggers through video, voice over and modernized recipes. We no longer have to estimate a “dash, pinch or tuk” of any masala. We are just days away from Christmas and this is the perfect time to find the best-suited recipe to make that paratha for Santa.